Tea Horse Road

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Map of the Tea-Horse route

Whilst there are many intersections and somewhat of a delta of outlets at the ends, the traditional tea horse road has two routes. They both have their origin in the South of Yunnan province in the South-West of China; a place called Pu Er (poo are). This place is famous all over China for the locally grown tea and now more so because of the ever growing fame of the tea horse road.

From the origin of PuEr, the tea horse road runs north to the border town of Batang and then turns to the East and the West. The Eastern tea horse route goes to the unofficial border town of Kangding, where the Han Chinese and the Tibetan people connect. The Western tea horse route moves to the direction of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, and onto north India.

Tea horse trade

The Pu Er tea is compressed into a hard shape and is named ‘brick tea’. This brick tea was sold to the Tibetans, which is an important ingredient in their diet staple of yak butter tea. Tibetans would sell horses to the Chinese in exchange and many other items were also traded such as musk, sugar, cows and furs. Apart from this formal trade, the tea horse road also caused a lot of informal exchange.

Tea horse road transports culture

Like the Silk Road, the tea horse road unintentionally brought about another type of trade. This was the exchange of culture, religion and ethnic migration. The tea horse road passes through some of the most ethnically and culturally diverse areas of China. The ethnic minorities along the tea horse road include the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Tibetan and many more. Marriages motivated by economics and convenience were arranged and culture was thus inadvertently exchanged.

Tea horse road significance to World War II

Perhaps the tea horse road’s busiest time was during World War II. The forces in China that were fighting against the Japanese were cut off from their supplies after Myanmar (Burma) fell to Japan. During this time the tea horse road experienced a significant increase in traffic and the trade route was hot with the hoofs of over 8 000 horses that traversed its paths during ‘Operation China’ as Yang Fuquan refers to it.

The value of the tea horse road

Unfortunately due to development, the tea horse road has nearly completely disappeared. What is most unfortunate is that very few people even know about the cultural and historical value that it brought and that still remains. Many people around the world, in China and Tibet don’t even know about the tea horse road’s existence.

Does the tea horse road still exist?

Development has unfortunately disintegrated the value of regional ethnic cultural exchange, but has surreptitiously brought international cultural exchange through the increase of tourism and travel to Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan in China. Perhaps the tea horse road has not disappeared at all, but has just evolved into a much more sophisticated and impacting exchange of cultural value.