The Tea & Horse Caravan Trail

For more than 1,000 years, this trading route connected west and southwest China with India via Tibet and Burma. Goods, people and ideas flowed both ways, starting in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and reaching a climax during the Second World War, just a few years before the trail's demise in the 1950s. It rivaled the Silk Road in terms of its historical importance to China's communications with the outside world. Its dizzying river valleys and towering mountains made this the toughest, most dangerous caravan route in the world.


The modern name of the "Tea & Horse Caravan Trail", taken from the Chinese 茶马古道 describes more than a single, well-defined route from A to B. It embraces a complex network of trails, all of which served to move trade across this vast region. But not only traders used these paths. In the seventh century AD, Tibetan troops marched along them to take control of areas of northwest Yunnan Province now known as Shangri-la and Lijiang. Buddhist monks headed west to study and collect sacred texts; many centuries later, Christian missionaries followed these treacherous routes into the most remote corners of China. In the 1930s, the revolutionary Red Army fled this way on its Long March. During the Second World War, when Japanese occupation had blocked other supply lines, vast caravans brought supplies into China from India via Lhasa. Bandits preyed on travelers throughout this history. In some places, they still do.


By the time of the Tang Dynasty, tea was already becoming an important part of Tibetan life. As it could not be grown anywhere in the Tibetan lands, tea had to be imported from agricultural areas of Yunnan and Sichuan. As demand grew, the Chinese imperial court took an interest - especially as the Tibetans had something the empire wanted in return for tea: warhorses. The Song Dynasty lacked good horses for its mounted troops, which it needed to repel threats from nomadic people to the north and west. Strong and fast, Tibetan horses were greatly prized. In 1074, the Song central government established a Tea and Horse Office to oversee the trade. During the period of the Northern Song (960-1127), up to 20,000 horses per year were exchanged for tea.


Not only tea and horses passed along this route. Salt was another vital commodity carried into Tibet and beyond, while clothes, jewelry and other fine goods came back from Lhasa, which was once a great trading capital. Routes led from Lhasa to Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. As dynasties came and went in China, the Tea & Horse Trail continued to flourish. In 1661, at the Dalai Lama's request, the Qing court set up a large market for tea and horses in Yongsheng, close to Lijiang in northwest Yunnan. That same year, it has been estimated that 1.5 million kilograms of Yunnan tea were transported into Tibet. Although the Chinese imperial court stopped buying Tibetan horses in 1735, trade in tea and other goods continued to prosper.


The last hurrah of the Tea & Horse Caravan Trail came during World War 2, when the coastal cities of China and Burma were occupied by the Japanese army. While the Flying Tigers flew their celebrated supply missions over the Himalayas, an enormous, parallel effort went overland via the ancient trading route. An exiled Russian, who lived in Lijiang at the time, described the wartime trade:


"Everything was indented [sic], contracted or bought outright that could be conveniently carried by yak or mule. Sewing machines, textiles, cases of the best cigarettes, both British and American, whiskies and gins of famous brands, dyes and chemicals, kerosene oil in tins, toilet and canned goods and a thousand and one varieties of small articles started flowing in an unending stream by trail and truck to Kalimpong, to be hastily repacked and dispatched by caravan to Lhasa. There the flood of merchandise was crammed into the halls and courtyards of the palaces and lamaseries and turned over to an army of sorters and professional packers. The least fragile goods were set aside for the northern route to Tachienlu [Kangding], to be transported by yaks; other articles were packed for delivery at Likiang [Lijiang], especially the liquors and cigarettes which were worth their weight in gold in Kunming, crowded with thirsty American and British troops..."


The Russian, whose name was Peter Goullart, wrote that this caravan traffic had "demonstrated to the world very convincingly that, should all modern means of communication and transportation be destroyed by some atomic cataclysm, the humble horse, man's oldest friend, is ever ready to forge again a link between scattered peoples and nations." [Forgotten Kingdom, Peter Goullart, 1955]