Touring the Tea Horse Road

California Natives in Dali, China.
California Native's Lee and Ellen Klein in the ancient city of Dali in China's Yunnan Province. Dali was an important stop along the Tea Horse Road.

“My grandfather dipped his silver bracelet into the water, to make sure it was not poisoned,” related Chen Dong Mei, her eyes sparkling as she told us stories of her grandfather who drove horses along the historical Tea Horse Road. Mei was our guide in Lijiang, an ancient city in China’s western frontier province of Yunnan. It is in this area that the Tea Horse Road began, thirteen centuries ago.

Driving the horses and mules from Yunnan, China, through the high mountain passes of the centuries-old trail to Tibet was a dangerous occupation. Bandits were a constant threat and it is said that they would poison the streams where the drivers obtained water for their campsites. The silver in the bracelets, which the ethnic Naxi people still wear, would change color when exposed to the poison.

Tea was introduced into Tibet during the Tang dynasty, and a trade developed where the Chinese bartered tea for Tibetan war horses. The Chinese stopped buying horses from Tibet in 1735, but the trade in tea continued to grow.

The road starts near the tropical city of Jing Hong, where the famous Pu’er tea is grown. It then passes through Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (in 2001 renamed Shangri-La, in the hope that the name will attract more tourists), and onward to Lhasa in Tibet.

A second route begins in Sichuan province, the site of Yacha tea production, and leads up through some of the most treacherous passes in the world to Lhasa. From Tibet, branch trade routes led south into Myanmar (Burma), Nepal and India.

Even before the Tang dynasty, in the 7th century, the trail was a major route for migration and cultural communication, and ancient tombs along the way have been determined to be almost 5000 years old.

The Tea and Horse Road again became a critical transportation link during World War II, when Japan blocked highways from China and Burma to India. More than 25,000 horses and mules were used to haul everything from sewing machines and canned goods to whiskey and cigarettes over the ancient trails.

Today, the Tea Horse Road is a special route for many indigenous people in the region, which includes the greatest number of ethnic groups in China. Naxi, Dai, Bai, and Thai all have mountains in the region which are sacred to their various religions.

California Native’s tours of Yunan Province follow much of this ancient route.

Back to the Classics for the Naxi Orchestra

The “Ancient Musicians” of the Naxi (pronounced “Na-shee”) Orchestra are tuning up as Xuan Ke takes his place at the podium. He is younger than many of the musicians, being only in his seventy-seventh year. The standing-room only crowd gives him a thunderous applause. He addresses them in three languages: English, Mandarin, and Naxi—the ethnic dialect of the area. He has been ill, he tells them, so tonight he will conduct only the first part of the concert, then an apprentice will take over. He introduces the musicians, describes their instruments, and acquaints the audience with the history of the ancient music. Then the concert begins.

 'Ancient Musicians' of China's Naxi Orchestra
In Lijiang, China, the “Ancient Musicians” of the Naxi Orchestra again play the traditional music, banned during the Cultural Revolution.

The concert hall is unheated and cold, but the music is warm, beautiful and haunting. We are seated in one of the front rows of the hall, a beautiful building in the old town of Lijiang, located in a picturesque valley in China’s Yunnan province. Though it is January, there are plenty of tourists, most of whom are Chinese.

The Naxi Orchestra is made up of 20-24 members, many in their 80’s and 90’s, dressed in bright traditional costumes. Tonight, because of the cold, we catch glimpses of jeans and warm Western clothing beneath their silk brocaded Chinese gowns. They are playing traditional Chinese stringed instruments like the guzheng, guqin and erhu, accompanied by the dizi—the Chinese bamboo flute. Although they play some traditional Han music (Han are China’s largest ethnic group accounting for 90% of the country’s population), they specialize in dongjing, a type of Taoist temple music that has been lost elsewhere in China. The melodies evoke waterfalls, birdsong, and other sounds from nature.

Xuan Ke, the venerable Conductor, popular in China and worldwide, has a shock of dark hair and dark skin. Born in 1930, the musicologist and former village school teacher first learned about music from American Pentecostal missionaries. At the urging of his merchant father, he studied Western music at the Kunming Academy. He became passionate about exploring the instrumental music, chants and folk songs of the remote mountain villages in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Naxi Orchestra conductor Xuan Ke addresses the audience in the city of Lijiang, China.
Naxi Orchestra conductor Xuan Ke addresses the audience in the city of Lijiang, China.

After Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s victory in 1949, Xuan Ke became a conductor in Kunming. When the Red Army entered the city, his orchestra played Schubert’s Marche Militaire. In 1958, when Mao decided that artists and intellectuals could be a threat to him, Xuan Ke, who played western music and was fluent in English, was sent for “re-education” to a forced labor camp. He spent the next twenty years working in a tin mine. There he endured constant work and was tortured. Once the guards strung him to the roof beams by his hands, his arms extended in the manner of an orchestra conductor—or the curcified Christ. He still bears the scars and disfigurement on his hands and wrists. Many of the musicians in the orchestra suffered as well, but a good number were able to save their precious antique instruments from the Red Army by embedding them in walls or burying them in the ground.

After his release, Xuan Ke taught English and at the same time put his orchestra back together. Many of his friends had died, but some remained and the orchestra today is made up of white-bearded veterans and the young apprentices to whom they are imparting their unique knowledge of the ancient music. The orchestra has performed in more than twenty countries. At home, it plays every evening and the room is always packed.

After an earthquake struck Lijiang in 1996, the old town survived almost intact but the new town suffered a large amount of damage. It was then decided that all future building should be done in the same manner as the old town. In 1997, Lijiang, the only ancient Chinese city constructed without walls, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The California Native invites you to visit this fascinating area of China and attend a performance of the Naxi Orchestra.

The California Native’s Summer/Fall Newsletter is Now Available

The Summer/Fall 2009 edition of The California Native Newsletter is now in the mail. The newsletter, published by The California Native since 1984, has more than 10,000 readers (not counting those who download from the web). If you are not already a subscriber to this free newsletter you can signup now.

This issues feature stories include:

Lee Klein prepares to fly over the Nazca Lines on The California Native Peru ToursREVISITING PERU’S NAZCA LINES

The desert markings, believed to have been made thousands of years ago, made little impression on occasional travelers who viewed them from ground level, but when they were spotted by aircraft in the 1930’s they caught the world’s attention. They have since been surveyed, mapped and studied. Only two questions remain—who made them, and why?

Rafting is one of the many options for guests on The California Native Costa Rica ToursRAPID TRANSIT: COSTA RICA STYLE

Costa Rica has long been a favorite destination for both the beginner and the experienced river runner. With ample annual rainfall, mountainous landscapes, and plenty of road-to-river access, the country prides itself on being a whitewater paradise.


Packing a pearl-handled revolver, a riding crop and three lovers, the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet disembarked on the Island of Floreana, in 1932, and declared herself “Empress of the Galapagos.”

The cathedral is a favorite hiking destination for guests on The California Native China ToursCOPPER CANYON’S LOST TREASURES

In 1880, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the last territorial governor of the District of Columbia, packed up his family and, in the remote village of Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, developed one of the richest silver mining operations in the world.


Naxi ladies strolling home after work can be seen on The California Native China ToursBecause the Olympics were hosted in Beijing, chances are that you learned more about China in 2008 than at any previous time. On the other end of the country, far from bustling Beijing is Yunnan Province—home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in China.

The newsletter also includes schedules, prices and descriptions of California Native’s tours to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Peru, the Galapagos, Patagonia, Costa Rica, Yucatan and Chiapas, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, Bhutan, Yunnan, China, and Ireland.

Images of the World: The Children

This is the second in our series of Images of the World taken over the course of the last twenty-five years since the founding of The California Native.

In Mexico’s Copper Canyon, a Tarahumara girl carries her baby sister on her back. In Mexico's Copper Canyon, a Tarahumara girl carries her baby sister on her back.
In Chilean Patagonia youngsters demonstrate traditional dances. In Chilean Patagonia youngsters demonstate traditional dances.
In a remote Laotian village, near the Mekong River, villagers wear traditonal clothing. A young student in a remote Laotian village wears traditonal clothing.
Young monks eating their once-a-day meal in a monastery in Myanmar (Burma). Young monks eating at monastery in Myanmar (Burma)
Boys from a small Laotian village have fun swimming in a tributary of the Mekong River. Boys swimming in tributary of Mekong River.
A mother selling produce in a market stall keeps her baby safe in a cardboard box, in China’s Yunan Province. Lady with baby in a cardboard box in Yunan, China.
In Laos, a boy carries his little brother while his friend balances a ball. In Laos, a boy carries his little brother while his friend balances a ball.
Three young boys, in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, pose for us on their way home from school. In Bhutan, three young boys on their way to school.

There’s Much More to China than Beijing

2008 will likely be remembered as the year that put China on the map.  Of course, China has always been a very large and extremely populated presence on any map.  However, government rule throughout the decades has kept the exotic culture of China shrouded in mystery and, in many ways, closed to the outside world.

With the close of the Olympics in the host city of Beijing, chances are that you have learned more about China in the past few months than at any time before. Beijing pulled out all the stops to show itself as a modern city. Much of the pageantry surrounding the Olympics served to highlight the new face of China. Nothing compares with the Olympics when looked at as a stage that helps bring the world together. While Beijing remains a hot spot for travel, the rest of China is as vast and diverse as the sports represented in the Olympics.Naxi Ladies Stroll Home on The California Native Yunan China Tours

On the other end of the country, far from bustling Beijing is Yunnan Province—home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in China. The California Native gives the following advice to those traveling to China:

China is a large country with a long history and diverse culture. In the last two decades, great changes and modernization have taken place there, but traditions in most areas still remain as before. It is appreciated when you respect the traditions, culture, local customs and taboos, especially if your tour involves more remote ethnic areas such as Yunnan Province and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities.

Be friendly and sincere, polite and patient. Since China’s opening to the outside world nearly three decades ago, though they have become happier, more open-minded, and prosperous, Chinese people are inherently shy and modest. They rarely display emotion and feeling in public, and find plain speaking unnerving.

China warmly welcomes overseas visitors, and authorities are working in earnest to improve facilities and enhance the quality of service, but China is still a developing country. So, be flexible, show good will, and a readiness to understand, and enjoy your experience in this fascinating country.

English Takes a Turn on China Tours

English is pretty much the international language and it takes many shapes around the world. In China, it takes turns that are sometimes hard for a native English speaker to follow.

Following are photos of signs that we have taken along our California Native tours of Yunan Province in China.

Although they don’t follow our idea of English, we are sure that the persons who made the signs speak English much better than we speak Chinese.

From a hotel in Dali:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign in Chinese Hotel
From a hotel in Beijing:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign in Chinese Hotel in Beijing
On a street corner in Lijiang:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign on Street Corner in Lijiang
Sign leading to a temple at the top of a hill in Lijiang:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign at Temple
Sign at Leaping Tiger Gorge:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign at Tiger Leaping Gorge
Sign at Wild Elephant Preserve in Jing Hong:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign at Wild Elephant Preserve in Jing Hong
This sign was intended to warn visitors of slippery salt on the trail:
Strange English Signs along The California Native Yunan China Tours - Sign at Wild Elephant Preserve in Jing Hong Warning of Salty Trail

Traveling through China, especially in the more off the beaten path areas, is always fascinating. And rarely visited Yunan Province, spanning an area from the tropics to the Himalayan highlands, is home to more ethnic groups than any other province in China.