An ancient legacy of tea trading is reinvented for the 21st century – Matt Chitwood
Deep in the mountains of southwestern China, where tea was likely first discovered, a trail begins. Over the course of a thousand years, it has been carved step-by-step through some of the world’s most diverse and rugged terrain, traversing the lush tropical forests of what is now Yunnan province – a botanist’s playground – and up into the Himalayas, through treacherous river gorges and snowy mountain passes. The carving was done by mabang, trade caravans comprised of humans, horses, mules and yaks that carried daily necessities such as salt, sugar and medicines as well as luxuries like textiles and cigarettes. But most important, they carried tea.
Compressed for easier transport, it was a vital source of nutrition for those living in the harsh climate of the Tibetan plateau. For tea-producing regions, it was a critical means of obtaining Tibetan warhorses that would help distant dynasties administer their borderlands. For both regions, it was the centerpiece of social interaction. Tea begat trust and trust begat trade: the virtuous cycle which built the route we know today as the Ancient Tea Horse Road. In fact, it was more a network of trails than a single road. Its branches diverged and converged, even extending down to Southeast Asia and west to Nepal and India. It remained a lifeline across the region well into the mid-20th century until the advent of motor vehicles led to its disuse and disrepair.