Book Review: TEA HORSE ROAD: China’s Ancient Trade Route to Tibet

TEA HORSE ROAD: China’s Ancient Trade Route to Tibet

by Selena Ahmed and Michael Freeman, River Books Press (2011)

340 pages, 276 photographs,

“The Tea Horse Road is a narrative of politics, economy, culture and health. It is about ascending empire, a desire for the exotic and a more humble quest for energy, well-being and livelihood.”

So begins the tale of this book. As the title of this book suggests the topic is about an extensive network of physical pathways and small local routes that came to be collectively known as the Tea Horse Road. For centuries, this road carried tea out of the forests of Yunnan Province, China to the faraway lands of Tibet, Nepal, India and Burma.

Astonishing in its feat and staggering in its abundance of perils and danger, the importance of the Tea Horse Road was so great that a former trade route–the Southwest Silk Road (Xi’nan Sichouzhilu)-connecting China with neighboring countries (and carrying such goods as silk, jade, wool, furs, tobacco, salt, and silver from east to west and back again) was renamed the Tea Horse Road (Chama Dao) after tea became the most sought after commodity traveling along the route.

Beginning in the 7th C the Tea Horse Road transported tea up over the Himalaya by caravans of men and mules. This road served this essential duty until the mid-20th C when paved, motorized highways made the transport of tea faster and easier and rendered the perilous old routes obsolete.

This book is imposing in size (340 pages) and considerably heavy. At first glance it appears as though it might be just another pretty coffee table picture book. Indeed, wonderful black and white photographs appear throughout and offer stark contrast to vivid color images of the rugged landscape and hearty people who live in this area of China and Tibet.

But readers who sit and linger with this book will find that it contains riches. Well-written, concise text effectively introduces us to this colorful part of the world and the importance that both the Tea Horse Road and the tea have to the people who have populated this region for generations.

Yunnan Province has a wealth of natural resources, a grand history, unique cultures, and one of China’s most treasured teas. For me, what sets this book apart from other books that I have read on the topic of The Tea Horse Road is the author’s use of the present to help us understand the past. In the spirit of the meandering local side paths of the Tea Horse Road that brought traders and tea to small pockets of local populations, the author, too, brings us along divergent paths and into the lives and cultures of people in Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Burma and India who were and still are affected by the Tea Horse Road.

I like the layout of the book and the chapter designations. The story moves from place to place, adding this and that bit of relevant information, rather than just following a historical timeline. And I am especially pleased to see the full-sized map positioned in the early pages of the book that clearly illustrates the routes of the Tea Horse Road. I think that maps are essential, and I like editors and publishers who understand how helpful maps are to readers.

Selena Ahmed, co-author with photographer Michael Freeman, is an ethnobotonist (someone who studies human-environment interactions and how plants are managed and used in different cultures ) who has conducted research in Yunnan for years. Her particular interest is in the villages of Yunnan and the tea production systems in place there.

As such, she understands that the Tea Horse Road did not exist in isolation from its surroundings and that it’s location was not happenstance, but that it developed because of many factors particular to Yunnan. By taking a long and wide look at the history and culture of this place, she breathes life into her narrative by discussing much more than just the history of the tea road itself.

For instance, we learn about the tea that traveled over the Tea Horse Road –what we call pu-erh today. Since earliest recorded time, tea has been made in Southwest China with leaf plucked from large leaf varieties of tea trees. From those early days until now, tea has evolved from a crude, simple food to a medicine, to a tonic, and ultimately to a pleasurable beverage. How the tea was back then and how the tea is today is a story too long for this review ( please read the book! ). But let me suffice to say that the tea underwent profound changes brought about by dramatic weather as the tea moved along its journey over the Tea Horse Road, and those changes most certainly influenced how the tea was processed after that fact became known.

Readers learn the story of pu-erh, and why its importance to the people of this region continues today. The best pu-erh is still made using traditional processes and by following certain criteria in leaf plucking and tea manufacture, and storage of the tea after production.

Yunnan’s teas (yes, there are green and black teas, too, in addition to pu-erh) are unique because of many variables: terroir (place) of the region: climate, geography, soil conditions, humidity and rain patterns, etc , and also because the Mekong River has played a pivotal role in keeping this area vital. Over time, many cultural groups have navigated along this waterway mingling tea seeds and tea culture with them as they traveled from the old homelands to new ones in both upland and lowland areas.

Many of these ethnic groups (Akha, Dai, Hani, Jinuo, and others ) trace their roots to ancestors who have lived in these forests over centuries. The 12 Tea Producing Mountains (a reference to the most famous tea growing mountains where many of these ethnic groups live) still maintain old-growth tea tree forests (multi-generational descendants of long-ago wild-growing, indigenous tea trees). This is in contract to the large tea factories and cultivated tea gardens (once operated by the Chinese government in the 20th century but are now privately owned) that are located low down the mountains near the cities.

photograph by Selena Ahmed

For some of these people and their villages, the old tea trees are their patrimony and their children’s inheritance. These trees are a link to their ancestors who took care of the tea trees and made distinctive tea of their own cultural preference from these large-sized tea leaves. This region claims the oldest association between man and the Camellia sinensis tea bush–ancestors of these ethnic groups grew and nurtured ancient tea trees, and consumed tea before China existed as a unified state.

The biodiversity in Yunnan’s tea forests stands in opposition to the intensive mono-cultural practices of modern tea farming. The message here is that much can be learned from the tea farmers in the old growth tea forests, and that intensive tea growing practices, in its haste to bring more product to market faster, can lead to the destruction of land, genetically diverse plants and in some cases, cultural practices.

The authors introduce us to some of the mountain and hill-dwelling ethnic people that populate this region; compelling photographs bring us into their lives and we feel that we are experiencing a small measure of their culture and the hardships they face living in these stunning but remote places. These are the faces of many of the people who make these incredible teas by following traditional, learned practices.

In addition to the story of the tea, the Tea Horse Road is the story of the men (muleteers) and their mules that traveled long and perilous journeys from Yunnan and Sichuan over dangerous roads in hostile weather conditions with their precious cargoes of tea bound for  Tibet, Nepal, and later, India and Burma. It took many months for the caravans to make a round-trip journey, laden with goods for Tibet one way and goods bounds for China on the return journey.

As the author writes: “the task was strenuous and the terrain unforgiving.”  The stories of these perilous journeys defy belief, yet some of these men are still alive to tell their stories. Michael Freedman’s photographs of some of the few men still alive from those days and the terrain over which that they traveled give proof to wary disbelievers.

By the end of this book, we have been treated to a story with many intertwined and nuanced layers, and that has elements worthy of an epic novel: an astonishing commodity, stunning and dramatic geographic locations, rugged people and traditional ways of life and cultures that survive today.

I have traveled in Yunnan Province learning about tea, and I am still in awe of everything about this province. From the link between the tea and the tea plants; the plants to the environment and the environment to the ways of the people; and the people to their culture, religions and their tea drinking habits, I can honestly say that there is no other tea place in China quite like it. Reading this book and luxuriating in the photographs brought me back to tea producing villages in Yunnan Province that I have visited. I am re-inspired to return, and to learn even more about this epic chapter of tea culture.

Ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed studied tea and culture in the mountains of Yunnan for 4 years for her doctoral study at The New York Botanical Garden and City University of New York. Selena is currently a National Institutes of Health TEACRS (Training in Education and Critical Research Skills) post-doctoral fellow at the Antioxidants Research Lab at the Jean Meyer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Her research seeks to understand the role of phytochemicals from plant foods in promoting health and reducing risk of chronic disease.

Award-winning photographer and author Michael Freeman has made a specialty of documentary reportage on Asia over the last 3 decades, for the Smithsonian Magazine, Time-Life, the Sunday Times Magazine, and GEO, among many others. He has produced more than 30 books on Asian subjects as diverse as the ancient Cambodian temple complex at Angkor Wat, other sacred places, contemporary Chinese design, and ethnic minorities. He lives in London.