South China Morning Post, Feb 27, 2011





Sitting on a colourful rug close to the fire as a light snow falls outside, 80-year-old Denyoun Tsering is warming to his topic. Stopping occasionally to take a sip of rich yak butter tea from an elegant silver-trimmed wooden bowl, he enthralls his small audience with tales of bandit encounters, bitter storms, landslides, exhausting mountain passes and other dangers along the route known variously as the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, the Southern Silk Road and the Eternal Road.

'What I'm telling you sounds like a story but it was very hard work,' says the former muleteer, whose bushy black eyebrows contrast starkly with his white beard. 'It's hard to express how difficult it was.'

Tsering plied the route between his home town of Zhongdian, in northwest Yunnan province, now known as Shangri-La, and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The round-trip trek took six months. Each time he crossed the Yangtze River he had to put his horses and mules on a raft and pull it across the water using a rope tied to the banks. When he reached the Lancang (Mekong), the animals had to be put in slings and carried across the river by a steel cable.

THE TEA TRAIL DATES back some 1,300 years. The Yunnan stretch runs from subtropical Xishuangbanna, at the southern tip of the pro- vince, where people were drinking tea 3,000 years ago, to the caravan towns further north and on to Zhongdian, which is surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The full 5,000-kilometre route, which runs into India and Nepal, was broken down into legs, each covered by a different merchant, known as a muleteer, who travelled with horses or mules, whichever was best suited to the terrain.

Travel company WildChina - in co-operation with Jeff Fuchs, author of The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers - is taking tea tourists in the muleteers' footsteps. The journey to Zhongdian from Jinghong, capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, takes a week by air, bus and on foot. Not so long ago, it could have taken up to two months.

Jinghong is the traditional starting point. It is home to the Dai, Bulang and Wa tribes, all of whom were tea farmers, although it was the local Hani who perfected harvesting and production.

The Tianlong Tea Shop, about an hour's drive from Jinghong, is owned by Yang Zhibiao, an aficionado and Bai minority member from Dali, an old walled town a few hours north of the provincial capital, Kunming. Yang explains that there are three kinds of puer tea: shengcha - made from dried green leaves that are brewed into a bitter yellow beverage; shoucha - aged tea leaves that have fermented naturally, usually over 15 years; and cooked puer, an inferior product in which the healthy properties of the leaves have been lost. An expensive puer fetches 1,300 yuan (HK$1,540) a kilogram while less pricey varieties can be bought for just 140 yuan.

Yang opens a 400-gram round brick of lao ban zhang puer tea, breaks off an eight-gram piece and puts it in a pot. The first two infusions are thrown away; the third and fourth steepings are the best. Yang says he can get 15 brews from these leaves. He suggests we smell our cups after emptying them, to enjoy the lingering aroma. Yang then prepares a pot of purple leaf tea, the darker leaves of which produce a stronger and sweeter drink.

Nongyang village, home to the Bulang people, is said to date back 2,700 years. The Bulang grow two kinds of puer; on trees and on bushes. Their speciality is zhutongcha or bamboo tube tea.

The bumpy dirt road to the village is lined with tea bushes, the colourful clothing of pickers peppering the dark green canopy.

Squatting in front of an open fire in her home in Nongyang, a woman dressed in a striped sarong worn over a pair of jeans, boils fresh tea leaves in a large pot for five minutes. Then, using a stick, she tightly packs the wet leaves into a piece of bamboo tube, occasionally turning it over to drain the water. Red earth is then packed into both ends of the tube. Next, the operation moves to a field, where the woman uses a hoe to dig a hole in which to bury the tube. She digs up another one, which was buried about a year ago.

The Bulang don't drink tea made from the leaves but rather they eat them stir-fried with garlic, oil and salt, and served with rice.

Outside the Hani village of Banpo, in a farmhouse in the middle of a forest of tea trees, some of which are more than 1,000 years old, a farmer is preparing tea for us in a novel way. He bends over the fire, roasting leaves, which brings the flavour to the surface. He then immerses the leaves in water heated in a bamboo tube, which gives the tea - served in small bamboo bowls - a smoky taste.

About 40 villagers gather for a communal dinner, everyone sitting on tiny stools around low tables. Constant toasting punctuates the meal but the beverage of choice is a local mijiu, or rice wine.

The next morning we fly to Dali, centre of the Nanzhao kingdom in the ninth century and once a major stopping-off point along the trail. The Dali kingdom, which succeeded the Nanzhao, was in turn defeated by the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan in the mid-13th century. It was here that Mongolian soldiers learned to make brick tea, which they consumed mixed with sour yogurt.

Fuchs, a 42-year-old Canadian, says the Bai minority who live here have long been respected as shrewd businessmen and good middlemen, working as negotiators between Tibetans, Muslims and Chinese and the southern tea traders. He adds that the Bai are now also producing a wonderful puer.

Dali has been overrun by tourists, with small inns and souvenir shops much in evidence, but a 45-minute drive away, in Xizhou, is the more tranquil Linden Centre, the former home of a wealthy tea merchant, which has been restored and turned into a hotel.

From here, it's a four-hour bus ride to Shaxi, one of the few remaining way stations along the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail. It's in an area known for beautiful courtyard houses and high, arched stone bridges. In 2002, the non-profit World Monuments Fund added the town to its list of endangered sites. Tucked away in a wide and flat valley, Shaxi was largely forgotten after the caravans stopped coming in the late 1950s, when roads obviated the need for horse and mule transport.

The World Monuments Fund and a Swiss-Chinese team carried out a major renovation of the town and its square several years ago but tourism never took off, perhaps to the benefit of its culture and historical landmarks, which are well preserved.

Sideng Square is paved with red sandstone slabs and marked by an old open-air theatre, an old merchant guest house and the Xingjiao temple. A small museum with exhibits on the tea trade, salt - which was mined in the area - and Buddhism has been set up behind the stage, showing old mule baskets, saddles, rusted brass bells and wooden Buddhas. Older residents recall the caravans, sometimes made up of as many as 120 colourfully decorated horses and mules, winding their way through the valley, the clanging of bells and chimes around the animals' necks announcing their arrival. The caravans would enter the gate on the south side of the village and proceed down North Tibet Alley, the cobblestone street that leads to the square.

Our group spends the night in the 150-year- old Laomadian Lodge, bedding down in the same rooms where tea merchants and horsemen once slept. Fortunately, comfortable canopied beds with thick mattresses have replaced the large wooden boxes on which the merchants lay, to protect their possessions. The hotel has hexagonal windows on the second floor, through which the horsemen kept an eye on their steeds in the yard below.

The people who passed through the town left their mark in its mixed styles of architecture. An opera stage, a merchant inn and a temple reflect the way entertainment, commerce and religion merged along the trail.

The Xingjiao temple, of the Bai esoteric sect of Buddhism, was built in 1412 and survived the Cultural Revolution by serving as a headquarters for the People's Liberation Army. On the wall of the main hall, a fresco, titled Sakyamuni Descends to Hell, portrays the deity as a female, a rare depiction that is perhaps due to the respect the Bai people have for women. The frescoes, which have been partially restored by European experts, date back to 1417.

'As traders stopped at outposts along the way, they brought with them not only commercial goods but also customs and habits of other ethnic groups,' says Zhang Mei, founder of WildChina. 'The result was a diverse exchange of ideas and beliefs between the Han, Tibetan, Thai, Indian and Bai.

'Growing up in Dali, tea and stories about the ancient route were deeply rooted in our daily life. Tea ceremonies were norms of life.'

She says she grew up assuming everyone in the world knew about this ancient path. However, when she started WildChina 11 years ago, she says she realised the trail was actually little known, even to other mainlanders.

'The tea-horse road was more of a grand trade route that spanned from southwest China, the tea heartland, through the Himalayas, on to Lhasa, and continuing down into India and Nepal, and by extension to the Middle East,' says Fuchs, adding the only parts still in use in Yunnan are those in villages that still do not have paved roads.

'The Dai, Hani, Naxi, Han, Yi, Tibetan and Bai tribes all contributed in some way to the production, transportation and ultimate consumption of tea,' he says. 'Though their serving styles might differ, they were identical in their dependence on this crop that would dictate trade and social demands for centuries.

'I would love to see portions of the route kept as they are, with their old cobbled stones, their faint pathways that wisp up into the heights and ancient tea forests kept bare of human machines and enhancements,' says Fuchs. 'I think when people are able to see the physical route, it provides a hint at the historical dimension that this great route played' and can ultimately help to preserve it.

Ouyang Shangxian worked briefly on the trail. His classic Shaxi courtyard house is indicative of the wealth that people in the tea trade once enjoyed. At 70, Ouyang's memory is fading and he struggles to remember details.

'Tibetans would sell Chinese herbs and yak hair on the square,' he says. 'And they used the money to buy salt, which they took back to Tibet.'

Holding his father's wooden horse saddle, Ouyang recalls muleteers staying at his home. 'Most people who stayed here were friends and paid no money.'

Ouyang says his grandfather and father were also muleteers. It was a profession that took his father's life, in 1947.

'My father went to Weishan, where he was killed by Bai and Han because he carried a lot of money,' he says.

From Shaxi, we drive eight hours to Shangri-La, where caravans turned west for the dangerous 1,600-kilometre journey to Lhasa.

The town's square was once busy with traders hawking brass, copper, gold, precious stones and cloth. Today, their descendants deal in cheap trinkets and souvenirs.

Uttara Sarkar Crees, a Bengali and long-term Zhongdian resident, runs the Tara Gallery and Cafe, a popular eatery that was once owned by one of the four big caravan trading families in the town. She has recently renovated a second house, which was formerly an inn catering to tea traders. As she walks around the house, she points to the yard, where horses were kept, and the large wooden slats that provided security from robbers.

'This street has a history, because it was along the old caravan route,' Crees says. 'If you go all the way to Lhasa, there are really no more old towns left.'

Back in Tsering's home, in Zhongdian, where our journey ends, the former muleteer continues his tales from the trail. He talks about the Shola Pass, in far north Yunnan on the route between Shangri-La and Lhasa, with reverence.

'The mountains are very high here and it took one full day to pass through Shola,' he says. 'But once over the mountain it was very hot - it was called the Valley of Heat. We walked for three days to Tsa Gochatang without wood or water. It was 4,000 metres high and very hard work.'

The caravans would then cross grasslands on their way to Kushupo. There, the weather was warm and there was plenty of water and wood to build fires. Caravan members would slaughter yaks for food and rest for one day.

'We would have a big party,' he says grinning.

Things got difficult from there. Fortunately, this was a nomad area, where butter and cheese, staples of the Tibetan diet, were readily available. After crossing three exhausting peaks, the travellers were then faced with three further, even more difficult, mountains, ending with the feared 5,000-metre-high Trola ('crying pillar') Pass.

'We would camp at the foot of the mountain and, when we slept, we imagined it was a pillar of the sky,' Tsering says. 'Nowadays, when I see an electric pole in the small hills, I think about the vistas of Trola. When I told the lados [muleteers] that we would have to pass through here, some of them would cry.'

Asked if he ever cried, the proud Tibetan looks offended.

'I'm a man, I never cried!' he says. But then corrects himself: 'If I cried, it would be in the flatlands, where there was no wood or water, but not at Trola.'

Tsering says the trip to Lhasa, carrying tea, soya beans and noodles, took 65 days while the return, with a lighter load of cloth and religious items, took only 45. The caravans would usually leave Zhongdian in May and return in October or November.

Between bites of corn mantou (steamed Chinese bread), Tsering says he made his first trip as a lado at the age of 19.

'In one group we had 21 people,' he says, 'including some young men who wanted to be monks in Lhasa.

'Those areas were full of bandits - they were everywhere. Even when you were sleeping, they would take your bedding right from under you. When you woke up and counted your animals, you'd find yourself short one or two.

'It was especially bad in the grasslands. The grass was high and they'd put a rope around the animal's neck and pull it away. We would take turns being on watch with a torch and a campfire,' he says, pinching some snuff between his fingers from a small can kept in his pocket. 'But even then, we'd still lose some. 'Even in Lhasa I would sleep with a gun under my pillow.'

Sonem Gelek, a local tour guide visiting Tsering, says: 'The big Tibetan trading companies each had their own private armies' to ward off bandits. He explains that lados means 'hands of stone' in Tibetan.

Tsering's last caravan trip was in 1957, when this area became an autonomous prefecture, eight years after the communists came to power. He says some wealthy tea merchants sold their horses and escaped to India while others were killed in the political upheaval.

'The rich men who did not co-operate with the [communists] became robbers, going from place to place,' he says. 'I became a merchant.'

Lunch finished, Tsering, who can no longer walk, is helped up and into his Tibetan best for photographs - a long jacket of bright silk and animal skin, and a traditional hat, with turned- up, fur earflaps. He sits at the door of his house, staring into the daylight that's shining on his weathered face.

He seems far away, possibly lost in thought about his days along the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Trail.