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.

The California Native’s Fall/Winter 2008 Newsletter is now Available

The Fall/Winter 2008 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:

CALIFORNIA NATIVES FOLLOW THE TEA HORSE ROADA centuries-old monastery overlooks the town of Shangra-La, along the ancient Tea-Horse Road on The California Native China Tours
“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 related stories of her grandfather who drove horses along the historical Tea Horse Road. The tea horse road, leading from Jing Hong, China, to Llhasa in Tibet, has been a major trade route for almost 5000 years.

THE BOWMEN FROM BHUTANIn Bhutan, the national sport is archery and you can visit this Himalayan Kingdom on The California Native Bhutan Tours
Dancing about and shouting sexual insults at the opposing team, Bhutanese sports fans enjoy their favorite pastime, which is, of all things, archery!

A new book, published by National Geographic, features The California Native’s tours through Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

Throughout Mexico, in churches, roadside shrines, restaurants,  and automobile decals, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a sacred icon for both Catholic faith and nationalism.

TELL THEM TO “GO TO XIBALBA”The artifact of a Mayan diety warns us of the Mayan 'Place of Fear' on The California Native Yucatan Tours
It is the darkest place in Mayan lore, the underworld, the Place of Fear. It is ruled by the spirits of disease and death. And archaeologists believe that it actually existed in a series of underground chambers and passages.

“The day was overpoweringly hot, and the lake looked clear and blue; I hurried down the cindery slope, and choked with dust, eagerly tasted the water—but, to my sorrow, I found it salt as brine.” So wrote Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle. Sixty-five years later, in 1904, eleven soldiers disappeared in the unforgiving landscape of Albermarle (Isabella) Island, the largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago.

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.