The Silk Road connecting the cultures of the East and West is probably one of the most well-known and significant trade routes in all of history. Tucked in the verdant landscape of southwestern China, however, is a lesser-known route that parallels the Silk Road in cultural and historical importance. This other ancient route spans a not unimpressive 2,350 kilometers, traversing some of the most diverse and mutable terrains in the world. For thousands of years, travelers have been lured across its snow-capped mountains, precipitous canyons and lively streaming rivers to discover some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of China.
As its name suggests, the Chamadao, literally translated as 'Tea Horse Road' or 'Tea Horse Path', was a central trade route for exchanging Tibetan horses and Chinese tea. The corridor came to play a crucial role in the communication and exchange between the cultures of present-day Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, with the route passing through, among a number of important posts, the volcanic ranges of Tengchong, the colourful culture and dwellings of the Khamba people in Changdu, the breathtaking gorges of Lijiang, through Tibet as far as Burma and India.
The tea/horse trade was formalized by the Tubo regime and Tang Dynasty court (618-907), but archaeological evidence suggests that ample migration and communication may have existed among ethnic groups from these parts even up to five thousand years ago. In fact, it is through the close communication of Tibetans with the Chinese imperial court and southwestern minority groups that the thirst for tea developed in Tibet. First introduced to nobles, the delicacy very quickly became a staple part of the Tibetan meat-heavy diet, and the trade between the two began to blossom as the Chinese military possessed a dire need for strong horses to supply their forces.
As seen in the map above, the Tea Horse Road had two main routes stemming from different major points of tea production (Pu'er in Yunnan and Ya'an in Sichuan) which converged before continuing through the mountains into Tibet. These routes existed for over a century until World War II, when trade was blockaded and the modern era replaced caravan travel with modern roads and railways.
Today, although the Tea Horse Road is no longer used as a trade route, we can still see the evidences of many years of cultural exchange and prosperity. Visitors will find the regions of the Tea Horse Road to be incredibly rich, diverse and full of natural beauty. Whether through experiencing the delicacy of aged Pu'er tea, browsing the handcrafted wares of Dali or elephant watching from the trees in Xishuangbanna, one will discover the exotic and ripe fruits of southern China through along the ancient Tea Horse Road.