The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last Himalayan Muleteers
by Jeff Fuchs
Viking Canada, 2008
I read this book in one day on a long flight – no, I should say I inhaled this book because I enjoyed it so much. Indeed, the irony was not lost on me that here I was in various airports, flying about in streamline aircraft while reading about one of oldest and most dangerous Muleteer and Mule tea trading routes in southern China.
I have been to Yunnan, to some of the tea mountains described in this book. But certainly, very few people, other than the men who made their living plying tea and other trade goods back and forth across the Himalaya to Tibet over this hazardous, unforgiving narrow road of rock and stone, have ventured where this author went.
Jeff Fuchs has done a remarkable job of bringing the reader into the region, the mountains, the remote wind-swept villages and the meager homes of some of the last living Muleteers to record their words and experiences. These are the places that can give even seasoned travelers nightmares.
He weaves a well-constructed story that includes details relevant to a deeper understanding of the history of this place and the lives of those once involved in the Tea Horse Road: some Chinese history, some Chinese tea history, and much about the importance of the Pu-erh tea itself as a trade commodity between Yunnan and Tibet.
As the story unfolded, I realized that this is the kind of story that amazes and educates us about the lives of people in far-off places. I particularly liked and appreciated that he spend quite a bit of time interviewing the old men who were former Muleteers, and that he chronicles how important the tea was then, and still is now, to those who live in remote Himalaya mountain villages.
There is a thread of melancholy, saddness, tenderness and pride at a life well lived that comes through some of the different voices that appear in the book. As a reader, I gained an understand and great respect for those who willingly embraced this rugged, unforgiving lifestyle and why they did it.
How strange it must be for them to see all of their sacrifices and the Tea Horse Route itself disappear as paved roads replace the need for brave men and sturdy mules to carry goods back and forth.
I particularly like a sentence that appears on page 29. The author begins a new paragraph with the words: ” Tea in the mountain villages had never been taken for granted partly because of the long journeys required to bring it there.”
This level of humble appreciation for a simple leaf is much of what this book is about, and what makes this story so powerful.
And this, in the words of one old man who said: ” Tea has marked the earth throughout the Tea Horse Road. It is something exotic to us here, but its role is simple: it is friendship, a food and a bond. If it isn’t offered to someone, that person isn’t welcome.”
Welcome…isn’t that what tea is all about ?
Anyone interested in Chinese tea and tea history must read this book. It is but one ( albeit it a very impressive one ) chapter in an amazing story of tea that was played out somewhere, at some time, in the long and colorful history of tea.