Our first exploration of 2013 took me and Prof. Gary Sigley to Xishuangbanna, where we planned  a companion expedition to last year’s trek north from Menghai, the western head of the Tea Horse Trail. This time our starting point was the eastern trailhead: Yiwu

Yiwu these days is a small town in the throes of knocking itself down and redeveloping as a modern hub of international tea trade. Pictured above is one of only a couple of old houses still standing on the former main street, which itself is now a mish-mash of old stone paving and new concrete. Yiwu is often listed among the “6 Great Tea Mountains” of Yunnan: it’s not really a mountain, but rather one of the focal points of a mountainous zone in which tea trees have grown for many centuries, at least.  The other “Tea Mountains” lie to its north and northwest, while there are further, non-famous, ancient tea groves to the northeast and, possibly, over the border in Laos. The latter must have been there in the past; whether any have survived the deforestation of recent years, I don’t know. Yiwu certainly became an important center of the tea business in the Qing Dynasty, when Han merchants and farmers from the town of Shiping, especially, began to move there to exploit tea resources that had traditionally been the province of indigenous peoples. As it lies on the southern edge of the “Tea Mountains” area, it makes sense to regard it as a “starting point” for the Tea Trail, at least that part of the trail leading north into the Chinese heartlands. Gary and I aimed to trek from here through the tea groves and as far along the line of the former pack trail as we could.

I can find no monograph that gives an intelligible account of tea’s history and role in this region, and so much of what follows is based on whatever half-baked, semi-remembered knowledge we could glean from the locals, plus some fragmentary information from obliquely related studies.

The sign board pictured above can also be seen hanging over the door to the house in the first picture. Roughly translated, the four characters mean: “Divine Tribute to the Heavenly Kingdom” and were bestowed upon the Che family by Emperor Guangxu (reigned 1874-1908) in recognition of the family’s role in supplying “tribute tea” to the imperial household. By the time of the Qing Dynasty the Tea Mountains were already well known to the tea drinkers of China, although they lay outside the formal structure of the Chinese administration: Xishuangbanna was a Tai Lue state arguably established in 1180, which by the 18th century was regarded by the Qing as a frontier part of China, yet administered via the agency of local chieftains. In 1729, Qing officials established Pu’er Prefecture to the north of Xishuangbanna and also created an administrative office for tea, by which merchants could be managed and taxed and through which the imperial household could assure itself of the finest leaves in the form of tribute. The Tea Mountains were officially taken from Xishuangbanna and placed under the purvey of Pu’er. Han migration into the area seems to have begun shortly afterwards. By the time of Emperor Daoguang (1820-50), not only had Han settlers established themselves alongside the original inhabitants as tea farmers, they had also opened shops and factories to process the tea.

Mr. Che said he was the 5th generation of his family, which hailed from Shiping, to do tea business in Yiwu. The famous four-character sign was bestowed upon the first Che in Yiwu. The versions of that sign pictured here are not originals; that is in the hands of another member of Mr. Che’s family who no longer lives in Yiwu. Like everyone in this area, Mr. Che’s first move was to invite us to drink his tea. He is pictured pouring a brew made from autumn 2012 leaves.

Che said business was halted by the Anti-Japanese War, after which the local enterprises did not recover. Instead, the local tea was all taken to Pu’er. Local enterprises only re-started with the creation of cooperatives in 1998. He reckoned Tibetans had come with caravans all the way to Yiwu in the old days, though most trade actually did not travel north: instead it went south to reach ports more easily and thus be taken to markets in Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Another local tea man, the 7th generation of a Shiping/Yiwu family, took us to see the “official” start of the Tea Horse Trail, a rather half-hearted attempt at tourism promotion in the part of town where traders would rest and water their mules while haggling over tea prices.

Following this history lesson, which proceeded with much lamenting of the current state of the town – its old houses knocked down, the former stone-paved roads ripped up and replaced by concrete and new stone – we visited our guide’s tea enterprise. We could see plenty of new plantations around Yiwu, which our host scorned and said were responsible for diminishing the overall quality of Yiwu tea. He insisted he used only leaves from real “ancient” trees and took great care to ensure the high standards of his product, which was certainly very expensive: 800 yuan a kilo for spring tea. The ladies pictured above were part of a team in the courtyard laboriously working through the semi-processed leaves to remove undesirable content.

Inside the factory, we had to don head and foot protectors to guard against contaminating the tea, which was being steamed and then pressed into the classic qizibing shape: the gentleman balancing to Gary’s left is standing on a 25-kilo press to give a bit of extra oomph to the process. Two qizibing out of every batch are sent to the relevant government lab for quality testing – at a cost of 1,800 yuan per qizibing.

The tea in its final form, ready to be placed into a heated room to dry, after which it is stored in a well-aired, dry environment. I asked both the boss of this enterprise and Mr. Che what they thought of Yiwu tea’s aging process: they agreed that after around eight years it would start to acquire some “ripe” characteristics, becoming smoother, earthier and losing astringency – if it was kept well, i.e. stored in a dry, well-ventilated place. Neither thought that the temperature of storage mattered. That doesn’t make sense to me: the “ripening” which lends these teas much of their cachet and increased value over time is the result of an enzyme reaction, which surely must be affected by ambient temperatures? Chemists please feel free to weigh in…

Yiwu’s importance to the Chinese imperial tea trade is further testified by the old stone-paved road that leads north from the town. This is what Gary and I had come to follow, in so far as we could. I believe this was constructed in the 25th year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1845). The road connected Yiwu with the main south-north pack road, joining that artery at Simao, from where it was an easy trail to the main tea market at Pu’er. The fact that there are, apparently, no such paved roads leading south or east from Yiwu to Laos and Burma also suggests the road was strictly a Chinese imperial project, a means of binding the frontier to the heartlands and controlling internal trade. We hiked out of Yiwu early in the morning, fortified by a breakfast of migan 米干 rice noodles and carrying what turned out to be particularly splendid mushroom and cabbage baozi, bought from a lady’s stall just outside the standing town market. The stretch of old road pictured above was located about a kilometer east of town, running for about 500 yards before it disappeared into the undergrowth. It had been destroyed closer to town by new developments, and as it descended towards the village of Huangtian it had clearly been torn up to make way for corn fields.

All that was left in Huangtian was this, the only remaining bridge on the old road that we found on this journey. It is called Wugong 无功 Bridge and there are just a few yards of stone-paved trail either side of it.

We spent the morning turning this way and that on the mountain above Huangtian. During our six-day trek, we got lost so many times that I felt a burgeoning sense of bafflement that people had ever managed to find their way to this place, let alone at a time when these mountains were covered in virgin forest. By lunchtime we had progressed only to the top of the ridge and were very grateful for our baozi. By a process of elimination, we eventually happened upon the right trail, which took us through some wonderful groves of old tea trees. In one we met a man named Zheng, after whose family the ridge itself had been named: Zhengjialing 郑家岭. Mr. Zheng was tidying up the grove in anticipation of the spring harvest. He said he was the 10th generation of a Shiping family who had come to farm tea, which would put them near the beginning of the Han migration to this area. By family tradition, the tea trees had been there when they arrived. No doubt they had planted more and they are obviously continuing to do so – there were young tea trees growing on recently cleared land further down the trail, and much younger plants were growing in the shadow of the old ones on the mountain’s steep slopes. This was a feature of the landscape and one of the things that made hiking it so difficult – the slopes where the tea trees grew were in places so steep that you could only imagine the farmers use ropes to abseil down to the harvest.

After we emerged briefly onto a modern road, a sign directed us to this “1,000-year-old Tea Tree”, now protected by a high wire fence.

It’s hard to compare the tea trees of this area as to size and possible age, as all but a very few have been pruned back into bushes to a) increase productivity and b) make it easier to pick the leaves. You have to look at the base to get a sense of how big and old they really are. This is a rare exception. Further down the road, a villager told us that this tree used to have a sibling, which was dug up and transported to the county town, Mengla, where  it was replanted. The tree pictured above is growing at about 1,300 meters above sea level;  Mengla is between 600 and 700 meters above sea level. The ancient tree promptly died in its new location.

This was a lovely area and a perfect time to hike through it, the tea groves punctuated by fresh cherry blossom, the temperature comfortable at around 25 degrees.

After several hours more than we bargained for, Gary and I arrived in the village of Mahei, which was busy with a wedding party. This is low season for agricultural work and thus high-season for important social events. Weddings were taking place in almost every village on every day of our journey. One notable feature of the Mahei wedding was the large number of expensive cars parked on the village’s dirt roads. The village itself has several fancy new homes, one of which is pictured above showing an interesting range of cultural cross-pollination. The roof is in the modern Dai-style – Mengla County is a Dai Autonomous County – but the house belonged to a Han family. Indeed, as far as we could tell Mahei was entirely Han, descended once again from Shiping migrants. We soon found a friendly tea farmer to give us bed for the night, then found another who invited us in the sample his wares and admire his new house, on which he claimed to have spent 1 million yuan. On the table in his tea room were brochures for a new model Hyundai car, whose salesmen had also plastered up an advertising poster near the entrance to the village. Such is the wealth generated by the ancient tea trees, of which Mahei is privileged to have a considerable number.

While we drank tea from the last crop of 2012, our host recalled the modern history of the Mahei tea groves. There were no tall trees left, he said, as starting from the  mid-1970s “experts” had encouraged pruning to raise productivity. At that time, the leaves were worth no more than a few yuan per kilo and the forests were under the collective ownership/management of the village committee. The market for leaves from Yiwu’s ancient tea trees only reappeared in the 1990s, after a Taiwanese group visited the area in search of the “Pu’er tea” that had been enjoyed in Taiwan and Hong Kong prior to the Communist revolution. I’m sure it wasn’t as simple as all that, but the group’s visit was part of something that sparked a revival of interest in these “authentic” teas produced in an area argued by some plant geneticists to be the origin of tea itself. In the late 1990s, the forests were decollectivized and each family acquired land with old tea trees on it – just at the time the boom in Pu’er tea prices and consequent crazed investment bubble was about to really get going.

Now as the most valuable tea trees are the oldest, which have taken hundreds of years to acquire the cachet of age, there was an immediate and unresolvable squeeze on supply – unresolvable, that is, unless you plant lots of new tea and pass it off as the genuine article. After all, it comes from the right place, right? To help these backward farmers take advantage of this newly profitable cash crop, more government-supplied experts arrived bearing seeds and seedlings of the common plantation tea, which can be closely planted for higher yields but also demands more sunlight, fertilizer and weedkiller. Those latter two items were strictly rejected by seekers of the ancient Yiwu Pu’er (we’ll get into the reasons for the “Pu’er” name on another occasion), but while the market boomed there was a temporary suspension of judgment: as long as it was labled Pu’er, that was good enough. Some villages went so far as to uproot their old trees and plant the more productive new variety. Once the bubble burst, however, those with plantation tea were left with a fairly worthless crop; those lucky enough to have resisted the blandishments to upgrade were left with an even rarer and more valuable resource. Such are the villagers of Mahei: although they might have pruned their trees and thereby diminished their value somewhat, they still claim to get close to 1,000 yuan a kilo for their best tea, and 450 yuan even for the so-so autumn harvest (if he had tall trees, said our host, he could get 1,200 yuan a kilo).

Our next stop was the Yao village of Dingjiazhai, which we reached via a path that preserved a few sections of the old paving. This was to be the last we saw of the stone road for a couple of days: below Dingjiazhai it vanishes into rubber plantations. In the upper part of this village we took a rest and were immediately served tea by a young gentleman with big plans. Less than a decade ago these Yao people were barely more than subsistence farmers; thanks to decollectivization, they have now got their hands on some of the most valuable tea trees in the region. Our young host claimed these were deep in the forest and had not been pruned. To prove his point, be produced his mobile phone and showed us a picture of a truly massive tea tree. The best spring leaves from this grove could fetch 2,000 yuan a kilo, he said – and tea farmers in other villages generally backed up this valuation.

The people now identified as Yao are mostly concentrated in Guangxi Province.  Those I asked in Dingjiazhai could only say they have been there many generations, and that they thought they had come from Guangxi. Our young host in the upper village said the population has originally been Hui Muslim. Whether the Hui had left of their own volition or been displaced by force, he couldn’t say. One gentleman, who invited us into his home for lunch and, of course, more tea, said they had come after “King Pangu” rebelled against the Chinese. That’s an interesting combination of folk memory and myth. As far as I can make out, “King Pangu” sounds like a reference to the Yao’s mythic ancestor (Panhu in Chinese), something like a parallel to the Han Chinese “Yellow Emperor”. Yet the reference to a rebellion may well be authentic. For the Chinese Empire, Yao rebellions were quite a common occurrence. Chinese officials despaired of incorporating the Yao into their civilizing imperial project -  Stevan Harrell quotes a description by a 19th century Chinese historian: “The Yao are stupid and violent by nature and they do not have any intercourse with the Chinese. The Chinese take advantage of their stupidity by wresting things from them by force, by stealing from them, and by raiding and insulting them… The Yao accumulate malice and hatred and then rebel, and events have ever followed this course.” A rebellion in Guangxi in 1831 may have been the reason for the migration of the people whose ancestors now inhabit Dingjiazhai. A British map of Yunnan from 1906 shows a Yao area not far east of Yiwu, whose people perhaps came as part of the same migration. Then again, Hui communities in Xishuangbanna were most likely displaced by the violent anti-Hui campaigns that followed the end of the Panthay Rebellion in 1873, so perhaps the Dingjiazhai Yao moved in after that to take advantage of the freshly available space. One would think something that recent would form part of the popular memory, though. Anyway, an interesting question for any anthropologists/ethnologists out there…

Once down in the valley, we had to cross the Mozhe River to continue heading along the line of the old Tea Road. This was an especially perturbing bridge, with particularly thin planks and a propensity to sway in the most alarming fashion. Even locals crossed it one at a time.

Beyond the Mozhe River we soon entered an area inhabited by Yi people, who were also busy with weddings – too busy initially to help us by supplying the guides they insisted we would need to find our way. After two days of hiking up and down increasingly dubious trails, which my knees are still complaining about, we conceded that they were right and retreated to the village of Beiyinshan, where a three-day wedding party was in full swing. The pair pictured above aren’t the bride and groom, by the way, but a local tea entrepreneur and his daughter. These Yi had also lost touch with their roots, knowing only that they had come at some point from Sichuan. Although they spoke a form of Yi, they had uncritically adopted the official Yi identity and knew of no other word to describe themselves  – whereas all Sichuan Yi peoples I have come across have another term for themselves in their own language. They had no knowledge at all of any clan/caste system, whereas for most Yi in Sichuan this is part and parcel of their heritage. They had some superficial markers of ethnic identity used in the wedding ceremony and celebration: traditional dress worn by the young girls and some older men, plus a single tune played on a three-piped lusheng while a circular dance proceeded around a table at the center of the feast. Otherwise the ceremony looked much like others I had seen in Han villages. Yet they were insistent on their Yi identity, which appeared in their minds to be distinct and personally significant.

The popular highlight of the ceremony came with the arrival of the bride at her husband-to-be’s home. Here the procession was blocked by relatives of the groom, who refused to allow entry. A good-natured scrum followed, ending with the bride’s party forcing entry. Interesting symbolism, eh?

Yet another tea merchant hosted us in Beiyinshan. Here he looks rather scornfully on the product delivered by a local farmer. The leaves had been exposed to too much moisture, so he said. I don’t know if he bought them in the end. Beiyinshan used to be much further up the valley, practically at the watershed between two river systems and very close to a village called Mansong. The two villages basically formed a single extended community, as witnessed by the large number of people from Mansong who attended the wedding above. Mansong had also been relocated, but in its case it had moved down the valley on the other side of the mountain, and so the two villages were now many miles apart. What they still had in common, however, was access to tea trees that belonged to the Mansong terroir. And despite the claims of the Yao of Dingjiazhai, it is actually the Mansong tea that is most valued in this region. Mansong, so the locals said, was the true “tribute tea”. The Mansong tea groves were managed by officials dispatched by the imperial household, which considered Mansong tea the finest of all. Such is its cachet today that a kilo of true Mansong spring tea might sell for 5,000 yuan a kilo, even more if the seller were unscrupulous or the buyer desperate enough. There is so little made that it’s truly a seller’s market.

Above is our camp from the night before the wedding. The pass over the range and the ancient Mansong tea groves are on the mountain in the background. It was an interesting and informative campsite, nonetheless. The shack down below was inhabited by the former village head of Beiyinshan and his wife. Today they look after chickens and rubber trees: under the village head’s guidance, Beiyinshan had sold 1,000 mu (about 600 hectares) of land to a Sichuan “boss” who had ordered the forest cleared and rubber trees planted. Everything you can see on the near side of the valley is young rubber plantation, still 6-7 years away from productivity. The elevation is around 1,200 meters. Rubber is generally considered best grown below 700 meters, but that hasn’t stopped farmers in Xishuangbanna. We measured the limit of the rubber line on this journey at 1,300 meters. It has taken over huge swathes of land, sometimes above even the tea groves. Over and again the old trail would vanish where the land had been torn up to make way for rubber. While tea has made a very few villagers wealthy, rubber has brought undreamed of riches to a far wider number of people. Farmers who own their own land and rubber trees can make incomes that would delight a Beijing mother-in-law. Even migrant farmers who do no more than look after the trees can make 1,000 yuan a month, far above average rural income (around 600 yuan a month in 2011, according to my just-concluded slapdash Google search).

All around our camp were these discarded packets. All around every rubber plantation, indeed, we could see packets like these. They contained glyphosate in various concentrations: from 30% as above to 76.7%. You probably know glyphosate under its Monsanto brand name of Roundup. It’s a systemic weedkiller, whose environmental impact is a matter of considerable debate.

Researchers concerned about glyphosate’s overall impact could do worse than come to study in Xishuangbanna. This is the spring just by our campsite, full of discarded glyphosate packets. The water from here runs directly into the river that feeds Beiyinshan and all the tea groves below it. It was not the only spring we saw so polluted. In every village, every tea farmer parroted the mantra of environmental protection, total absence of fertilizers and herbicides. The rubber plantations stand side-by-side with the tea groves and are farmed by the same people.

Looking over the rubber terraces I recalled reading a book called “Mao’s War against Nature” soon after I first came to China. Its account of the early years of rubber growing in Xishuangbanna made a great impression on me. The author, Judith Shapiro, quotes Zhou Enlai on a 1961 visit to the region, when he allegedly said” “If we destroy the forest, [Xishuangbanna] will become desert. Our Communist Party of China will become criminals in history, and future generations will curse us.” Rubber plantations had first begun under military supervision in the early 1950s; under the slogan “Everything must Yield to Rubber” 一切为橡胶让路 Cultural Revolution-era migrants, both voluntary and involuntary, set to clearing virgin forest and planting rubber trees, casing streams to dry up and devastating ecosystems. It sounded terrible. Damn that crazy Chairman Mao.

I looked up as many rubber statistics as I could find for Xishuangbanna. In 1953, there were 4,000 mu planted with rubber; by 1983, seven years after Mao’s death, there were 753,000 mu. The most recent figure, dating from 2009, was something over 6 million.

Back in Beiyinshan, we consoled ourselves with a 2004 brew from Manzhuang, another of the “6 Tea Mountains”, which lies not far northwest of Beiyinshan. This was alleged to be worth 2,000 yuan for a qizibing. After eight years, the natural process of fermentation had given it something of the quality of a “ripe” Pu’er, but I can’t say anyone could persuade me to part with 2,000 yuan for such a product.

Accompanied at last by a guide, we discovered that we had gone the wrong way only a couple of hundred yards out of Beiyinshan. Although the stone road had given way to rubber and new tea plantations, part of it was just visible poking out of the terrace pictured above. The new trail was navigable by motorcycle for the first hour or so, but as we climbed towards Wangzi Shan, where local legend says a bad king was buried, the way became narrower and less perceptible. I can honestly say we never would have found it by ourselves. Ultimately we reached the ridge line and the point where formerly a stone waymarker identified the pass. The stone vanished some time ago and nobody seemed to know where it went. From there we followed the ghost of a trail to where Mansong Temple once stood. Our guide said that his parents had once used this temple, but that is was destroyed sometime after the Revolution, probably in the late-1950s. Another small trail led to the abandoned village of Old Mansong, and the guide also pointed downhill to where he said the village well had been located. It was a terribly inconvenient place to live. Even to get water meant a hike down and back up. I can only imagine that the ancestors of Mansong had fled from something terrible and chose this as a hiding place. I can hardly think of a more remote, inhospitable location for a village.

Then again, come the Qing era their village also lay bang on the highway from the tea mountains to Simao, and their tea trees turned out to be the most desirable in Yunnan. Perhaps they migrated after this time and chose this location precisely because of its accessibility and proximity to work and trade. According to a history of Pu’er Prefecture drawn up during the Daoguang era, Mansong tea was decreed to be the emperor’s property as tribute in 1735, when an office was created in Yibang to oversee the collection and transportation of the tea. The volume of tribute tea was set at 100 dan, or 5 tonnes according to my online dan converter. The pass over the ridge and into the Mansong tea groves is known as Chenggan 撑肝 Pass, apparently referring to the strict control exercised over the imperial domain and the harsh penalties for anyone found to transgress (Chenggan suggests disembowelment).

“New” Mansong was about an hour’s hike down from the pass. Here we drank tea with the young village head and a couple of visiting tea men from Kunming, whose job seemed to consist of driving around the tea mountains and imposing on the farmers (a bit like us, really), while checking they weren’t using any naughty fertilizers or herbicides. Initially we shared the famous Mansong tea in the gongfu style, with one of the Kunming men doing the steeping and serving. Frankly, I found this tea totally lacking in character and interest and much preferred the brew pictured above, which the village head presented to us while we tucked into the excellent lunch kindly prepared by his fiancee. This, said the village head, was how the locals and especially the older villagers liked to take their tea: old leaves rather than fresh growth, roughly processed and simply steeped in a big enamel pot. This was very satisfying and, I thought, a rebuke to the fussy tea traders in the tasting room.

The following day we returned to Chenggan Pass to attempt what the people of Beiyinshan, including our guide to Mansong, had said was impossible: to follow the old road to Yibang. We had a second and a third opinion that suggested it could be done, so armed with Yi guides from Mansong and a large machete we headed into the forest.

Mr. Luo scored a triumph soon after lunch, leading us onto this wonderful section of old road. As a teenager, he said, he often walked this way to market in Yibang. Later he walked it to visit his girlfriend. He reckoned no one had used this trail for more than 20 years. As the trail vanished into the woods and Mr. Luo himself became hopelessly lost, I became inclined to believe him. Another companion, a worker from the project that has taken over the former imperial gardens to restore them to production, muttered that Luo had “spent too much time looking at the girl and not enough looking at the road”. We began on old road, but soon we were on the shadows of former trails, and finally we were on no trail at all. We took our bearings from the sun and hacked our own path across the steep-sided gullys, finally emerging into a secluded tea grove, from which a trail of sorts led down to the river and a true road. It had taken us nine hours to get through the forest and we were grateful to emerge still in daylight.

There was just time to get up to Yibang before dark. I found this rather a magical place. The paving on its main street, indeed its only street, dates back to imperial times, but the buildings are all post-1949. We were told that Yibang had formerly been the seat of the county administration, but that it had been attacked and burned down three times by by rebellions of Yao, Miao and Jinuo protesting against the taxes imposed by the Yibang officials. Eventually the officials gave up rebuilding Yibang and moved the administration to Yiwu and then to Mengla, where it sits today. As far as I can gather from what information is available online, those local tales are a bit confused. Yibang was the seat of the administration for the “6 Tea Mountains” area from 1570 to the end of the Guangxu period (1908). When the Qing moved to assert greater control over the area and decreed Mansong tea the official tribute tea, the 6 Tea Mountains were officially hived off from Xishuangbanna and placed within the realm of the new Pu’er Prefecture. Although the system of appointing local headmen to rule by proxy was supposed thereby to be superseded in the Tea Mountains area, in practice a man by the name of Cao became chief in Yibang and his family remained chiefs until the Communist revolution. The locals we met mentioned Cao as the local headman and said the family was now in Kunming. After the political center moved away from Yibang to Yiwu, the traders soon followed, such that by the early Republican period Yiwu had become the heart of the tea industry in the 6 Mountains district. Yibang’s tea industry fell further into the doldrums in 1937, when local farmers rebelled against official impositions, cut down trees, burned others and fled. Yibang was definitively put to the torch in 1942, when a rebellion very like the one described above did break out, uniting various local peoples in opposition to taxes and military conscription.

Yibang is also listed in the “Six Great Tea Mountains” and in the fading light we could see some of the many old tea trees that have been preserved around the village, as well as the remains of the yamen wall at the north end. Only a handful of families still live here and only the oldest can recall a time when the main street was lined with tea shops and there were tea enterprises all around. The people here reckoned Yibang was really a far greater center of tea production and trade than Yiwu. Other than the road itself and the yamen wall, all that seems to have been preserved from former times is a fine stone lion and two stelae referring to the tea trade and the rules governing it: one dating from the Daoguang period and one still older, dating from the reign of Qianlong (1735-96).

Walking north out of Yibang, it was possible to follow the old road to Simao for a little longer before it once again narrowed and began to fade into the undergrowth and gathering darkness.

It’s remarkable to imagine this place as it once was: the center of a thriving trade, located on a major highway, supplying famous goods to the imperial household three thousand kilometers away in Beijing. By some accounts up to 90,000 people lived and worked around Yibang, though I suspect that figure is vastly inflated – perhaps it includes the number of traders, porters and caravaneers passing through every year. I found one mention of “7-8 brothels” formerly located there. Today there are no more than a few dozen people and the road is surely in a worse state than it was in 1845. We rode a jeep out of there in the dark, 20 kilometers along a rough track cut from the mountain, which took more than an hour to negotiate. At the end of that we arrived in the modern seat of local government, Xiangming Xiang, and my heart gave an unexpected leap at the sudden sight of bright lights along Xiangming’s main street. The lure of the city. I hadn’t felt that in years.