For thousands of years, only humans and horses treaded the mountains of Southwest China as they followed an ancient pathway through the Chinese hinterlands and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Along the unpaved and rugged pathway that was formed, commodities like tea, salt and sugar flowed into Tibet. Meanwhile, horses, cows, furs, musk and other local products made their way to the outside world. The road was called the tea-horse ancient road, and it stretched across more than 4,000 kilometers, mainly through Southwest China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The ancient commercial passage first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It also experienced the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties - or a period of more than 1,200 years. The road promoted exchanges in culture and religion, and saw ethnic migration that closely resembled what was experienced on the well-known Silk Road.
Along the ancient road lived more than 20 minorities. Concentrations of beautiful and mysterious natural landscapes and traditional cultures developed in various sites, including Dali old city, Lijiang old city, Shangrila, Yarlung Zangbo River Grand Canyon, Potala Palace. The road features temples, rock paintings, post houses, ancient bridges and plank roads. It is also home to many national minorities and their dances and folk customs.
Two major routes
Roughly speak- ing, there were two main routes:
Route One: Begins in Ya’an in Sichuan Province to Qamdo via Luding, Kangd- ing, Litang and Batang before mer- ging with Route One into Lhasa.
Route Two: Begins in Xishuangbanna and Simao, home of Pu’er tea (via Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian, Benzilan and Deqeng) in Yunnan Province to Zugong, Bamda, Rewoqe, Zayu or Qamdo, Lholung, Benba, Jiali, Gongbogyangda, Lhasa, Gyangze and Yadong in Tibet, before continuing into Myanmar, Nepal and India.
Tens of thousands of traveling horses and yaks created a definite pathway with their hooves on the once-indiscernible road. Today, although even such traces of the ancient road are fading away, its cultural and historic values remain.
The Eternal Road
No matter what is happening in the world, three types of things in the tea-horse ancient road will continue to exist: the beautiful and rustic nature scene, inviolable religion and simple Tibetan people.
This ancient road features the imposing scenery and a soul-stirring quiet. Some- times, things seem static and the sur- rounding mountains stand silent. There is a kind of beauty in the desolation that may easily lead people to believe they are experienced a prehistoric place when they visit.
The distant mountains reveal strong and exquisite ridges while rain and snow melt together, rushing down from the mountains and rapidly gathering before flowing into innumerable rivers.
If the mountains could form a skeleton of Tibet, the resulting rivers and streams might form their vessels, which pour vigor and vitality into the plateau.
Besides mountain and rivers, there are also many peculiar stones, incomparably marvelous clouds, as well as unusual light illuminating the sky as one travels the road.
Walking the tea-horse ancient road might allow one to see reverent pilgrims heading to holy city Lhasa. They walk slowly along the rugged road, some of them even crawling, butting heads as they move toward their sacred destination. Their arms and legs fester - foreheads dripping blood - but with eyes still full of light, granted comfort from their beliefs.
When you walk the road of Tibet in a cloudless dawn or under the glow of a sunset, the sights can stir the senses and seem an awakening experience.
Caravans on the Way
From ancient times, mabang (caravans) have been the main vehicles used for transportation.
Year after year, thousands of cara- vans traveled the rough road while the hoof beats and the sounds of clear bells broke the tranquility of the canyon. The road opened a vital pathway for economics and trade with the outside world.
In World War II, the tea-horse ancient road became the only transportation line for the southwest of China. Caravans trans- ported large quantities of international as- sistance from India, which greatly supported China’s Sino-Japanese War.
After the accomplishment of the Dian- Zang Highway and the Chengdu-Lhasa Highway, automobiles replaced the cara- vans, and the tea-horse ancient road be- came a part of history. But in the outlying mountainous area of Yunnan Province, caravans remain the main source of trans- portation today.
The tea-horse ancient road - from ancient times through its present history - contributes greatly to the national spirit of the Chinese people. It represents continuity as an eternal monument in the history of China.
Culture Treaded by Feet
The tea- horse ancient road is hard and dange- rous, yet the natural land- scape along it stimulates people’s un- derlying courage, strength and endurance while helping to provide meaning to life.
In addition, Tibetan Buddhism has provided widespread doctrine on the tea-horse ancient road, further promoting economic dialogue, cultural exchanges, along with unity and friendship between the nationalities of Naxi, Bai, Tibetan and other ethnic groups.
Some reverent artists have drawn and carved massive images of Buddha, Bodhisattva, eminent monks, God animals, conch, and other heavenly bodies on rocks along the roadside. These have increased a kind of sacred dignity for the ancient roadway.
With thousands of years of history behind it, the tea-horse ancient road - like a big corridor connecting various nationa- lities - has developed the local economy, stimulated the commodity markets in co- mmunities, and promoted the develop- ment of border trade as well. It has pro- moted agriculture and the raising of animals while at the same time providing a source of enjoyment for local art, religion, culture, and ideologies. It has helped many in the nation obtain unprecedented prosperity and development.
Important Towns along the Tea- horse Ancient Road
Pu’er: hometown of Pu’er tea with a long history.
Xiaguan (Dali): a main processing and collection center for tea.
Jianchuan: bazaar on the tea and horse ancient road.
Shaxi Sideng: the only surviving bazaar.
Lijiang: the most famous distribution center on the road.
Deqin: The last road station within the boundaries of Yunnan.
路线二：从西双版纳和普洱茶的思茅出发，途经云南大理、丽江、中甸、奔子栏和德钦，然后到达西藏Zugong，Bamda，Rewoqe，Zayu or Qamdo，Lholung，Benba，Jiali, Gong- bogyangda，拉萨，Gyangze 和Yadong，之后到达缅甸、尼泊尔和印度。