Traveling along the Tea Horse Road in Yunnan

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In Yunnan, girls wear flowers in all four seasons. And toes are exposed all year round.

 

These are two of the famous Eighteen Oddities of Yunnan Province. Located in southwestern China at an average altitude of 1,900 meters above sea level, Yunnan has a mild climate with pleasant weather all year round. The province’s capital Kunming is thus often dubbed the City of Eternal Spring.

 

After three weeks of scorching hot temperatures along the Ancient Silk Road in Northern China, we were happy to land in Kunming, where we were welcomed by a fresh breeze. The conditions seemed perfect to discover the remaining parts of our trip along the ancient trade routes of China: this time, we would focus on the Tea Horse Road.

 

For over a thousand years, the Tea Horse Road connected the tea-growing regions of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China with the tea-consuming areas of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India via Myanmar (Burma).

 

Men Laden With Tea, Sichuan Sheng, China 1908 Ernest H. Wilson RESTORED

 

Imagine thousands of horses and people trotting with heavy loads through winding mountain paths and deadly passes. Some tea porters carried loads that weighed up to 60kg or 90kg, which was more than their own body weight. The more they carried, the more they were paid. Depending on the trail and the weather, it took the caravans about 6 months to make a one-way journey. And in exchange for 60kg of Chinese tea, they would only receive one single Tibetan horse!

 

When Scott, our personal tour guide from China Highlights offered us a cup of Pu’er Tea upon our arrival at the hotel in Kunming, we took very little sips as if the tea we were drinking were still carried by these ancient tea porters… Tea has suddenly turned into a luxurious product.

 

After a good night’s sleep, we started our journey along the Tea Horse Road by capturing a panoramic view of Kunming City in Xishan Forest Park located in the Western Hills. Despite the mild temperatures, we started to sweat after climbing up hundreds of stairs and winding paths. The higher we hiked, the more crowded it got. Here and there, we made a stop. Either to address a prayer to a Buddhist or Taoist deity in a cave-temple, or to marvel at a pagoda standing proudly on a steep cliff. When we finally reached the Dragon Gate, where misty clouds met with the hazy green waters of the Dianchi Lake, we felt like entering a Chinese watercolor painting. The view was simply marvelous!

 

 

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Another scenic area of the city is the Stone Forest (Shilin), located about 90km southeast of Kunming. For thousands of years, Shilin was inhabited by the ancestors of the present Yi ethnic minority. Today, it has become a 400 square-kilometers geological park, but you can still encounter many Sani people, a branch of the Yi ethnic minority.

 

Upon our arrival, we were afraid that Shilin is some sort of an amusement park… First, we walked into a huge tourist information complex full of Chinese tourists. Then we had to line up to get into an electric shuttle bus to head to yet another entrance gate.

 

Our guide Scott must have noticed that we felt uncomfortable with all the crowds. So,he took us to a side path, next to a man-made lake. There were less and less people, and soon the three of us were all alone among wonderfully shaped karst stones. Some rocks look like a turtle, a lion, a cat, a dinosaur or even a birthday cake. Strolling amidst lush sceneries while listening to the bees humming around us was truly relaxing.

 

 

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We arrived on top of a hill with a small pagoda. From afar we could see a huge area full of limestone pillars standing erect like a forest. Scott explained that the area is called Stone Forest because of these stone pillars which look like petrified trees.

 

Legend has it that a beautiful local girl from the Sani people, called Ashima, was born in this Stone Forest. She fell in love with a boy named Ahei. One day, Ashima’s landlord kidnapped her and forced her to marry him. Heartbroken, she could do nothing and soon turned into a stone in the forest, which now still bears her name. The Ashima Rock is thus considered as the protector of the Sani people.

 

As we strolled through the Stone Forest, we saw a few Sani people dressed in colorful traditional costumes, playing music, singing and dancing.

 

The Sani and other Yi people are just one of the many ethnic minorities we saw in Yunnan. In fact, this province is known to have the highest number of ethnic groups. Among the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China, 25 of them reside in Yunnan. When we left Kunming for Dali, a few Bai people boarded the train. Aaron, our local guide in Dali, was very proud to be married to a Bai girl.

 

On our way to the hotel, he explained to us that Dali Old Town is now the seat of the Bai Autonomous Prefecture. And it used to be the capital of the Bai’s kingdom between the 8th and the 14th century. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing left of that period, since the city was razed and burnt down during the invasion of Kublai Khan in 1253.

 

 

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The architecture and the urban planning that we can see in Dali Old Town today date back to the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century. With its colorful Chinese roofs in front of blue-green mountains in the background, Dali Old Town is certainly a charming city. But it has become a very popular destination for both Chinese tourists and international backpackers during the last two decades. And except for the numerous teahouses and teashops, we didn’t see anything in Dali Old Town that shows how important this city was along the ancient Tea Horse Road.

 

We were thus glad to leave this crowded city on the following day. And to stop in Xizhou, a small village located 20km north of Dali Old Town. After passing through the main gate of the village, we strolled through empty streets and along typical Bai houses. Under the eaves of many houses’ entrances, there’s often a statue of a phoenix dominating a small dragon.

 

In Chinese culture, dragons represent men and phoenixes women. At first, we thought that these statues were meant to show how a mother/phoenix protects her son/dragon. But no… our interpretation was wrong. Our guide Aaron explained that the Bai people traditionally practice matriarchy: Bai women are the breadwinners for their families, whereas Bai men stay home to raise children. And the matriarchal culture can even be seen in Bai’s architecture. The large statue of a phoenix thus represents a Bai woman, head of the home, who dominates her husband, a smaller statue of a dragon.

 

 

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Fascinated by the Bai people’s culture, we were even more surprised when we arrived at the daily market of Xizhou. Having travelled to Asia several times, we’ve noticed that there are two types of local markets in Asia: the “famous” ones for tourists, and the ones for “real” locals. The one in Xizhou is obviously the latter type of local market. It was dirty, it smelled, and it was loud. People spat on the floor. Fishes moved in little buckets fighting for their last breath. Chicken were plucked and killed in front of our eyes. And flies feasted on raw meat. But that’s how local Asian markets really are…

 

And next to all the food, some locals were also selling all kinds of objects made of paper. There were shoes, clothes, watches, miniature houses, gold, money… Suddenly, I realized that it was the Ghost Month in Asia (the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar). During this month, the ghosts of the ancestors return to Earth to “visit” their families. So, people make food sacrifices to worship their ancestors, burn incenses, but also make-believe paper money, new garments, or even houses, iPads, and TVs, so that their ancestors can keep enjoying the same lifestyle in their afterlife!

 

The Ghost Month is celebrated in China, as well as in India, Japan and in most south-eastern Asian countries, as well as by many Asian people living in western countries. My parents celebrate it too, and as a kid I used to help them fold fake gold paper money into gold bars to be burnt for our ancestors.

 

 

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To know more about the Bai people’s culture, our guide Aaron took us to visit a traditional Bai family’s home, where they also produce tie-dye clothes and fabrics. In fact, the southwestern area of Yunnan Province is one of the best-known places in nowadays China for the tie-dyeing process. It’s a method of producing patterns in textiles that consists of tying a fabric before dyeing it. Most of the workers who excel in this craft are women from the Bai ethnic minority. Some regional factories employ thousands of workers and export 80% of their products to Japan, the UK and the USA. But in this small family business that we visited, there were only 5 people, all family members.

 

An elderly Bai woman – the grandmother of the family – was sitting on a tiny wooden stool and stitching a fabric. She kept smiling at us while Aaron showed another piece of cloth that’s already been totally stitched. This linen cloth, he explained, will be dipped in a huge bucket of indigo blue color. The part that’s been stitched together will stay white, whereas the rest of the cloth will be dyed in blue. The interesting part is that this Bai family even grows indigo plants in their own courtyard.

 

The tie-dye garments they made were hanging here and there to be dried, and also to be sold. The family let us look around and was very friendly, although we didn’t buy anything.

 

 

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Our next stop was a village called Shaxi, which turns out to be one of our favorite places in Yunnan. It took us more than two hours to get there, since we had to drive through winding mountainous roads. Located halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi is one of the best-preserved horse caravan towns on the ancient Tea Horse Road.

 

Carefully restored by a Swiss team, the buildings around Sideng Square look perfectly authentic and quaint. And the narrow cobblestone streets, as well as the little boulder bridges that connect the village and the picturesque pastures over Hehui river are probably the most romantic spots we’ve seen during our trip in China. And the best part is that except for a few backpackers, we were almost alone in Shaxi. Being able to explore such a charming old village quietly without hustle was really a memorable experience. The only thing we regret is not being able to spend a few nights in Shaxi. The main reason was because we had already booked our hotel in Shuhe, another important stop along the Tea Horse Road, not far away from the touristy Lijiang. And it was too late to make any changes.

 

 

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Now a Unesco World Heritage site, Shuhe is also a beautiful town. It’s in fact such a rapturous town that it attracts many soon-to-be-married couples who choose Shuhe as the location for their wedding shooting. We actually had a blast watching many couples “perform” under the instructions of their sweaty photographer. And we couldn’t resist filming one couple that had to “run happily ever after” over twenty times, since every time some tourists or locals walked past them.

 

Shuhe is also home to the Naxi (or Nakhi), another ethnic minority in Yunnan. On our second day, we accidentally left the main cobbled streets and went through an ornate gate, only to find ourselves in a Naxi village inside Shuhe Old Town. The houses were all made with stone from the mountain, dark timber and carved wood. We crossed multiple bridges spanning over narrow canals and took a rest in one of the many colorful pagodas. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Shuhe’s main square, the silence in this Naxi village was almost deafening!

 

 

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When we told our friends and family that Shangri-La was the last destination of our trip in China, most of them thought we were talking about a Shangri-La hotel. Well, no… Shangri-La is also a place, both fictional and real.

 

In 1933, the British author James Hilton wrote about a mystical and harmonious land topped by a Tibetan monastery and surrounded by the Kunlun Mountains in his novel “Lost Horizon”. This fictional place isolated from the world was called Shangri-La, and the monks who lived there were almost immortal.

 

In 2001, a city along the Ancient Tea Horse Road in the Diqin Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La. Formerly known as Zhongdian to the Chinese or Gyanthang to the Tibetans, Shangri-La is also called Xianggelila in Chinese. When we drove into this town located at 3200 meters altitude, on top of which stands an impressive Buddhist temple surrounded by mountains, we understood why they call it the Lost Horizon.

 

 

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We were very lucky to have Tenzin as our local guide in Shangri-La. With his 20 years of experience, he’s actually a travel adviser and teaches junior tour guides, and normally doesn’t go out to “guide” anymore. But due to the high season, no tour guide was available for us in town. So Tenzin was appointed as our local guide. Since he’s a Tibetan Buddhist who grew up in Shangri-La / Deqin, we learned so much about Tibetan culture and Buddhist religion thanks to his insightful apprehension of ancient and nowadays Buddhism. Especially when we visited the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, located about 5km north of Shangri-La City.

 

Established under the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1679, the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan Province, and is often referred to as “The Little Potala”. 2000 monks used to live in this monastery. But, unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution in China caused a lot of damage. Many monks were killed, others fled and emigrated to bordering countries, and the monastery was heavily destroyed in the 1960s and 70s. The reconstruction started in 1983, but today it accommodates only 600 monks.

 

 

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After visiting the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Tenzin proposed to visit one of his friends’ home – a traditional Tibetan house – although this wasn’t on our program. He actually just wanted to show us the architecture of a traditional Tibetan house, which often consists of two storeys. The first floor is reserved for animals, and the family lives on the second floor. That way the animals’ heat can keep the rooms upstairs warm.

 

When we arrived, we were welcomed by his friend’s daughter, who offered us butter tea, dee yoghurt and different types of cakes. While Tenzin was on the phone to arrange our flights of the following day, we sat down to sip some butter tea. The lady kept pouring more in our cups. But, unfortunately, other than saying thank you and it tastes very good, we didn’t talk much. Because of some problems with our upcoming flights, we were a bit stressed and our mind was elsewhere.

 

 

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Now thinking back, I feel bad for not trying to make a conversation with the lady who warmly welcomed us in her home. She was so friendly and nice, but all we did was sitting on her couch and drinking tea and smiling at her. When we left her house and said goodbye, something was telling me that we all knew that we will never meet again in this life. And a part of me was sad that our trip along the Ancient Tea Horse Road in Yunnan ended that way.

 

But I guess Gustave Flaubert was right to say: “It is always sad to leave a place to which one knows one will never return. Such are the melancholies du voyage: perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.”

 

 

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Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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20 Responses

  1. Renuka Walter
    | Reply

    China is so incredibly beautiful, and so unique! Love the traditional attire of these women, and these cute heritage towns! Thanks for inspiring!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      China is a huge country and has very diverse landscapes. We loved visiting the old towns very much, but one has to know that China is also full of huge and polluted metropolises.

  2. Lena
    | Reply

    Wow, hearing about the hard journey of the tea porters really makes you think about how we take these luxuries for granted. I can’t imagine having to trek with 60 or 90 kg of tea for months on end – especially to only receive a horse after all that work! (I’m sure the horse meant a lot more to them than I know.)
    I love the thought of looking for shapes in the karst stones the way we usually do with clouds – sounds fun and imaginative!
    I’ve never heard of the Ghost Month – how interesting! I love the idea of ghost ancestors getting to keep up with modern day luxuries like TVs and iPads! That must especially be interesting for you to see as an adult, given that you practiced this with your parents as a child.
    Your whole trip sounds like a great adventure! I will be revisiting this post for inspiration when we finally visit China 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We were also shocked when we learned that the tea porters only got one horse in exchange of so many kilos of tea! But apparently, Tibetan horses are (were?) very good, rare and expensive. Let us know when you plan to visit China, so we can send you some tips and infos! 🙂

  3. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions
    | Reply

    Yunnan was the place I first went to in China back in 2010. In fact, I spent time in Kunming, Dali, and Shangri-La, just like you guys! My memories are already a bit fuzzy though, so it was really interesting to read about your experiences in this mild and mountainous province. I also had never heard of the Tea Horse Road before, so thanks for sharing that little bit of history!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh how cool! How did you like your trip to Yunnan back in 2010? We’ve been told that Shangri-La has changed a lot since then, so you might want to go back someday. 😉

  4. nancywill2017
    | Reply

    After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I feel like you have put pictures on all the places I imagined when reading the book. Someday I will visit this region of China.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      I read one of Lisa See’s books a few years ago, and really loved it. Now that I know that The Tea Girl of Humminbird Lane is a story that partly takes place in Yunnan, I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for sharing!

  5. melody pittman
    | Reply

    I’ve read many of your blog posts and this was my VERY favorite! What a compelling story, full of emotion and so much information. I had never given any thought to how the tea was moved back in those days and after seeing your pictures (those steep cliffs!) and reading about the route, no wonder it was so expensive! I also know I do not have the stomach to visit a market in this part of the world so I will save myself the grief and just see it through blogger pictures. What a fascinating culture and country. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks a lot, Melody! I’m glad you liked this post. 🙂 And yes, the roads (or rather paths) that the tea porters took were very dangerous. As for the local markets, I don’t even want to tell you how it smelled like.. haha! Although, the ones we saw in Laos when we visited a few years ago were even more impressive!

  6. Yukti
    | Reply

    I have read stories about Yunnan and even some Yunnani medicine too, but never knew that it is such a beautiful place. On my visit to China, I spent many hours on Kunming airport but never knew about Tea Horse road and even on airport because of language problem nobody could explained it. Oh it was a miss for me. But I would surely visit this beautiful place because I have seen that cities or towns along the Ancient Silk Road are always worth visiting.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh no! Such a pity that you were at Kunming airport but didn’t go out to explore the city! Well, next time make sure to spend a few days visiting around and definitely travel along the Tea Horse Road too!

  7. aniajames
    | Reply

    When I was a child, Yunnan was the main type of tea which was in shops in Poland. I never realized that this place is so beautiful. Buildings are stunning and the Stone Forest looks extraordinary

  8. Danik
    | Reply

    Love the facades on some of the buildings in Yunnan and would love to check out the Stone Forest. Again, another place for my Chinese bucket list. I never heard of butter tea before, how did that taste to you?

  9. Christine
    | Reply

    I had never heard of the Tea Horse Road before, it looks and sounds like a great place to visit, especially Stone Forest. Being there during Ghost Month must have been so cool. I can imagine that breeze must have felt amazing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, Yunnan is a verw interesting province, and definitely a great place to explore when visiting China. 😉

  10. Wasn’t aware of this place before your post, very informative! The Stone Forest sounds like a great experience to have while visiting there and endless amounts of photo opportunities!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh yes, you could spend a whole day in the Stone Forest taking photos! 🙂

  11. pappasw
    | Reply

    Wow the Stone Forest sounds amazing, it is great that your guide Scott was able to find a route that took you away from the crowds. I am an arborist and a Stone Forest sounds fascinating, even though it is rock and not trees. What was your favorite part of the trip?

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      All the things we did and see during our trip in China were fascinating and there were several highlights, so it’s kinda hard to choose one “favorite” part. But getting to know more about Tibetan culture and religion in Shangri-La was definitely one of the most amazing experiences we had in Yunnan Province!

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