My Tea Horse Road Journey with Jeff Fuchs
Yunnan: from the tea mountains of Xishuangbanna to the snow-capped peaks of Shangri-La Dai minority The day started with a comprehensive brief of what the region has to offer, how the caravans used to commence their journey. The gathering is informal, relaxed and fueled by fermented and unfermented Pu’er tea. Tea means money in the area, even though is only the third main component of the regional economy (first is tobacco then vegetables). It is interesting to see how people with different jobs, interests, age and origin are attracted by the same journey. The local guide is a young and friendly Chinese man called Michael, he speaks fluent English and has a great sense of humor, which helps the group to relax and get comfortable as they start the journey. After the brief, we move to GanlanBa, a lush area nearby Jinghong where numerous banana plantations can be seen along the way as well as pineapple and the famous ‘rubber trees’. Along the way, the guide decides to stop by a local small village to show us how they brew corn whiskey and guess who starts drinking at 11am? This seems to do the trick as the group relaxes after few shots of freshly brewed whiskey. The local people brew corn, rice and wheat for their own use; they hardly sell it. Given the remoteness of the area, the Dai people tend to be self-sufficient. Don’t expect much Mandarin (putonghua) around here, the Dai’s language resembles the same tones and sounds of Thai and I learn that this village is actually they ONLY Christian village of the area. After a sip of whiskey comes another surprise, the guide suddenly decides to get everybody on a boat to cross the Mekong River instead of proceeding by bus and what a ride! This gives Jeff the chance to explain how the crossing of the river was a crucial and dangerous part of the journey for any caravan. The mules were hanged and flipped across the river on a rope, crossing sometimes would mean loosing the precious cargo and in few cases even the animals. Nowadays, the area has basically no bridges and all the crossing are made with rusty ferries. It is also nice to know that fishing plays a major role in the area and that the Mekong River is home to more than 100 different species of fish. Lunch at a local Dai restaurant is simple and tasty, the guide is careful on choosing food that showcases the local specialties but also meet the taste buds of the group. The afternoon follows with a visit to a local temple where the local Dai villagers still come around to pray and do their spiritual services. For the young Dai monks this is sort of a compulsory process, almost a privilege rather than a form of education, the only way for them to learn how to read and write in Dai. They can then decide, after few years, whether to stay or to choose what they call ‘their second life’ which basically means to go about their way, marry and have children. Great scenery and not-so-great roads and travel on a minibus is not comfortable. The locals often drive quite dangerously and take over cars during bends both on motorbikes or trucks. Safety must be taken in serious consideration when traveling in Xishuangbanna as most of the roads are carved through the mountains and to do not have side railings. Despite the uncomfortable minibus trip, the scenery is mesmerizing, lush and verdant. Last but not least is a short stop along the way back to peak into a rubber-making shack. Here is where locals come to deliver their daily grasp of liquid rubber, a white poison which used to be sold at more than 300RMB/Kg and is now sold at only 6.5RMB. Nevertheless, the locals keep nurturing this ancient tradition and ‘rubber trees’ can be seen everywhere with their marks on the trunk. Off to the tea mountains We drive out Jinghong through fog and traffic, early morning this city has no charm and feels dusty and grey. We stop along the road to visit a local market, small, unpretentious and so authentic. Here the local people sell their worms, tea and fruits. Yes, worms in particular are of great value and often treated with a sort of spirituality. Either boiled or fried, the locals eat them with or without pickles. They are believed to be a cleanser and a sort of detox for the body. Tea is also presented in different shapes and qualities, dusty but simply packaged is not worth a fortune but surely worth a sip, as the man tells me. We drive towards Menghai, the cradle of Pu’er tea. Both the route to Tibet and the less known one toward Burma used to start from here. Menghai is now growing fast, too fast says Jeff and shows itself as a city made of grey buildings and large roads. Here we meet Madam Mei, a tough local business woman. She is shy but very straightforward. Her tea is glorious, meaningful and many of us do not spare money on some good tea cakes. It feels like we are just getting on and off the bus along this journey just like the caravans were getting on and off their mules so we decide to stop by a Bulang village and meet a local family to witness a different interpretation of tea, the ‘sour’ one. The Bulang minority is friendly and warm, based on a matriarchal system. The laobanya (matriarch) is there to proudly show off her skills. The sour tea is made of soft-boiled tealeaves, pushed in a bamboo stick and sealed with bamboo leaves and clay. The stick is then buried under the ground and only used on special occasions such us weddings or births. Do you drink it? No, you eat it. Laobanya finds a stick buried 5 months earlier in her courtyard and opens it in front of us to show us what the fermentation has done to the tea. Surprisingly it looks just like the one we just buried! It is perfectly humid and has developed a sour and pungent taste, smelling like rotten eggs. The sour tea leaves are eaten with rice, a tradition often shared with their burmanese neighbors. We set off for a gentle sunset stroll around the tea plantations, chatting with local Bulang ladies trying to get the best shot of their legendary smiles. The mist is covering almost everything and the red soil beneath our feet is slippery. But the tealeaves are wet and shining, the air is thin and the smell of tea flowers is strong and sweet at the same time. Tea trees grow next to bamboo, pines and any other kind of vegetation, there is no specific tea tree forest made only by tea trees and there are no borders. The villagers know exactly which tree belongs to them without a specific mark or signal. Despite the hard mattress on the floor and the rooster at 5am, we all get to sleep few hours before getting up and witness one of the most important tea moments – the frying. To fry tealeaves is an art that even most of the biggest tea companies in Yunnan still consider sacred. The friers are often sent to the villages to supervise or in many cases to conduct the frying themselves. Too much would burn the tea and too less would ruin its humidity and flavor. Each fry lasts no more than 10 minutes, it is done all day long for limited portions of tealeaves each time. After bidding farewell to our Aini host, we drive to the airport and fly to Dali, where we briefly visit the crowded Ancient Town and treated to western lunch, the only one during the trip. Dali is our gateway to the smaller and much cozier Shaxi Ancient Town, a strategic point for the caravans on the way to Lhasa. Shaxi and its valley were often the favorite point for the muleteers to restore the caravans and get supplies. The Tibetans used to push themselves to Dali and Shaxi to trade tea and goods, but they wouldn’t dare the heat of the South. It is said that the size of a caravan was often judged by the size of the bell carried by the first mule, the bigger the bell the bigger the caravan. On the mountain passes of the Tibetan plateau, the muleteers would listen to the bells to judge whether to proceed or to wait base on the sound of the bell. As we leave behind us the Bulang and Aini minorities, our teamakers, we now meet the Dai minority, known as the brokers of the Tea Horse Road. The Bai, together with the Naxi, were the middlemen along the trail. The business between Xishuangbanna and Tibet would pass through their capable hands and entire caravans would gain goods and protection before heading north. The traders Shaxi is small, feels intimate and has a direct involvement with the Ancient Tea Horse Road. From the main square (Sifang Square) you are able to see the crossing points of the ancient routes, but it is a particular house that captures our attention. It is the house of one of the last living traders, Master Ouyang. Ouyang is 74 years old and his house used to be the rest point of the mulateers and their horses during the golden days of the route. He shows us where and how the muleteers where accommodated and opens the doors of a special room dedicated to the ancestors and is no surprise that we all end up having a cup of tea. The trades were considered the natural educational process for many of this region and even further north. Many traders were able to speak several languages without have ever studied any. Languages, information, gossips where often the second most wanted element beside tea and salt along the route. On the tea mountains, the Bulang minority used to create tea-resting stations with the only purpose to collect gossips! The house of Ouyang clearly shows the status he acquired during the years, unfortunately many houses like this stopped having any income when the Tea Horse Road officially ended. The valley where Shaxi is located is in the middle between the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese plateau, often subjected to light earthquakes. None of the buildings here are built in respect to this factor. The route was not only crossed by people selling tea and salt, but most importantly, was a vital aspect for many of the people of Yunnan, Tibet and Sichuan. It was a way to convey cultures, to mix DNAs and to create social opportunities for many remote areas which were included in the route. Trading was a dangerous job but bandits, constantly moving along the route to attack the caravans, had to keep their guard up as well. The Horse Road gave life to new kind of professions such as the ‘traders’ protectors’, the bandits’ hunters. Nature Early morning hours are wet, humid and local people still clean the cobblestones narrow streets with their hand-made brooms. Some of us are drinking tea, some coffee. Today we drive to the Ancient Town of Lijiang. We make the first stop at the Shizhong Hills Grottoes, a place which for some obscure reasons was protected by the government during the march of the Red Army. The grottoes are moderately remote, just 100 meters away from the main gate, 15 minutes drive from Shaxi. The statues are in bad shape and local maintenance does not seem to care. The visit is in fact quite short and we then start a gentle trek downhill on the Shibao Hills. Breathtaking views and a incredible smell of pine trees accompany the trek while we descend. Few trails can be seen along the trek, and even if they were not exactly part of the tea horse road, they still show how villages use to trade goods with each others. Pilgrims and traders used ‘meditation stations’ to rest and do breathing exercises. These stations are now great viewpoints and are scattered along the trail. Yoga, or meditation, was also part of the Tea Horse Road, traders and pilgrims as well as monks, used to practice breathing exercises, which would then benefit the blood oxygenation, before reaching higher altitudes. The trail is part of an ancient pilgrimage route used by the villagers around the valley, the pilgrims, often newly wed couples or lovers, would complete the pilgrimage twice a year to pray for fertility and health in marriage at the grottoes. After a stunning sun-kissed trek, we slowly find our way back to the minibus and drive to Lijiang for a quick overnight stay in Shuhe Ancient Town. To the mountains We start with an early morning walk through the almost-empty narrow lanes of Lijiang Ancient Town and a quick visit to Zhongyi Market before departing towards Shangri-La, a scenic 4-hours drive among stunning gorges and valleys. Few viewpoints still offer a very distinctive view of the ancient trails of the Tea Horse Road carved into the mountains, but yes, to stop there you are forced to buy something from the local little shops. After a late arrival, we all rest and get used to the now higher altitude. Shangri-La, formerly known as Zhongdian in Chinese or Gyalthang in Tibetan is located 3200mt above the sea level and we all start to feel dizzy or sleepy. The group is quiet, the dinner is based on few local dishes and we all retire for an early night. I get up early to catch the sunrise over what is considered one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Yunnan, Songzanlin. Stunning views seem to be a daily treat the moment we stepped in Shangri-La. The mist is slowly raising and it appears as smoky layers around the hills surrounding the valley, the monastery is few steps away from us and we all walk silently among the fields on a very old trail to the back gate of the giant building. Many of the monks at the time of the Tea Horse Road were said to be not only spiritual guides but also emissaries of the government. They were assigned to station at certain monasteries to keep an eye on things, trades and people. The best way to understand the spiritual identity of the place is to first visit smaller temples on the right side of the monastery. Less people, less noise. Monasteries played a major role during the Tea Horse Road; they were strategic places for different caravans and also functioned as sort of hotels. Tea and salts were weighted and priced carefully by monks as well as several other goods. Monks were often traveling with the caravans, somehow ensuring safety. An afternoon stroll on the hills surrounding the valley gives us the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the last section of the Himalayas. Grey peaks against an incredible blue sky. Vegetation is also another important element which can be explored along the Tea Horse Road. Flowers, pines and many more plants are being replanted and the hills are being revived as we speak by the local government. A visit to what remains of the Ancient Town of Shangri-La after the major fire which happened last January, takes us to a private home where the laobanya distills barley whiskey. It is fascinating to see how ancient tools are still effective resulting in a smooth, delicious golden whiskey which I never though I would like. Places like this are slowly disappearing, after the fire many of them were never rebuilt. Needless to say, the Tea Horse Road was not just about tea. Dinner is a total revelation. We meet the very first foreigner who was allowed to live permanently in Shangri-La and we are treated to a feast based on a incredible fusion of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan flavors. If the first day in Shangri-La left us tired but extremely delighted with what we saw throughout the day, today we wake up with another great plan: a walk through the grasslands. Most of the villages are now charging entry fees at the entrance of many dirt roads, leading to the grasslands. These fees, being totally illegal but hard to avoid if you drive in, can somehow be skipped if you walk in. And what a walk! We stroll through the many wooden structures which are used to dry barley, spotting horses, pigs and cows grazing around. We decide to reach the top of a hill to have a better view of the vast area and with a simple trek we shortly find ourselves speechless while looking at what the valley really is and wondering what it was for the ancient caravans. Traders and muleteers used to congregate here and receive a official blessings before starting their journey to Lhasa. The rare black-neck cranes, also use this valley as a seasonal point of aggregation. Today, to our most incredulous eyes, we spotted a group of cranes and silently watched them at a distance. We continue our walk to the sacred Nakpa Lake. According to the Tibetan culture all the lakes are sacred, source of water and life. Blue sky and scattered clouds reflect on motionless waters. It is quite a spiritual experience to gaze at the horizon and follow the clouds slow movement towards the mountains. It makes you feel tiny.The lake has a paved road, which circumnavigates its extensions for aprox 44 kilometers, nice for a day trip on a bike. Before heading back to a Tibetan house for dinner, we stop at Nixi village to meet the artisans who are still producing the famous Nixi black pottery. Tonight is our last, but Jeff and the charismatic Sonam prepared a touching little giveaway for us, a Hatha – the white scarf which Tibetans lay on the shoulders of people as a symbol of gratitude, respect, protection. The white scarf symbolizes the purity of one’s heart. We are all almost in tears and retire to our rooms in silent but with loud and vivid memories of the last few days. The Tea Horse Road was not just about tea, it was about people and cultures. In the past, it brought together people with different goals, rankings and education. Today, it brought together a group of people with different characters and spirits. Yet it gave them all what they were after, and much more.