The huge profits to be made from Pu’erh tea – and from the sturdy Tibetan horses traded back to China – encouraged the building of the Tea Horse Road. Here, a caravan moves through a man-made cut in a steep mountain section in Nujiang Prefecture, Yunnan.

Yunnan – Long Read

The road to Shangri-La is full of temptation

Photo by Ludwig M Brinckmann

Yunnan – Long Read

The road to Shangri-La is full of temptation

Hello Yunnan, where those going to Shangri-La do not always get there, especially if the temptations along the way include the miraculous Pu-erh tea. Coming from the oldest tea trees on the planet, this “green gold” was once transported for thousands of miles into the Himalayas, where men clung to ancient narrow paths under back-breaking loads.

Jeff Fuchs
Jeff Fuchs Explorer

A series of specters reach through a thick blue mist above throwing everything within sight into soft focus. The sounds of the forest are muted in the dense humid air. Sweat pours out of me. Bamboo groves bend in unison and green pervades all. Beside me the fleet-of-foot Li-do creeps in and out of view. He is a gentle guide who usually lets me take in things on my own but he suddenly stops and smiles, pointing at the forest ahead. “They are there,” he says.

We are in a Pulang stronghold, an indigenous area crammed into the southwestern wedge of Yunnan province up against Burma and Laos. The Pulang have long clung to their silent mountain abodes, which is perhaps what has kept their remarkable relationship with tea from the world outside. I am now standing in one of our planet’s primordial sources of this Asian green treasure. The “they” that Lido speaks of are ancient tea trees that bend and rise high above. Lido’s face comes close and he speaks softly, as if not wanting to disturb what lies before us.

“Our trees,” he sighs. We go closer and I start to make out details. Understated, the trunks appear muscular and craggy, the leaves dripping and enormous. Nothing hints at their value, nor of the incredible journeys their dried leaves have made into the remote and daunting Himalayas, thousands of kilometers northwest of us. I once heard a Tibetan trader voice his imaginings of these lands – which he had never visited – as a “magic green inferno”. His notion was correct.

A thin ribbon links these 500-year-old trees to that Tibetan’s home, along which the handlers and muleteers – and their mules – change often. Only the tea remains constant. As the altitude and terrain changes, so too do the cultures and languages, requiring local specialists. Few of the mighty mountain porters ever make it down here, and even the cold winds that come down off the Himalayas are a distant memory in this green inferno.

A white-knuckle ride in a jeep.

Yunnan is a land of swaying banana groves and the sweet-sour smells of fields of pineapple. I arrived from the scent-laden capital of Jinghong after a white-knuckle ride in a jeep. Drought has obliterated much of the agriculture and searing heat has cracked the earth and sent dust into every crevice. My face is coated in a fine red sheen of dust when we reach the slightly cooler Pulang Mountains. With no wind, the air sits heavy and a heat haze amplifies the fertile landscape, reminding me it borders Burma and Southeast Asia, to which many of the region’s people are closely linked culturally.

It was from this sub-tropical land of heat and mist, amid Li-do’s ancestor’s forests and others like it, that tea made its way along one of the great and largely unsung journeys of the planet onto the Tibetan plateau. No vegetables grow in the high mountains, so tea became an essential source of vitamins in the high-calorie Tibetan diet of yak butter, beef, and lamb. The ancient Dai, Pulang, Wa, Hani, and Lahu peoples packed the leaves into molds and bamboo husks, secured in tree bark, then fastened them aboard mules, horses and humans. From here tea was whisked off into the distant kingdoms of the fierce Tibetan clans and beyond. It was a journey that would pass through more than a dozen cultures and twice as many dialects, each with their own versions of tea preparation. The route, which in time gained the name of ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’, is legendary to those who travelled and benefited from it. The most precious cargo, carried along it for 1,300 years and increasing in value with every step on the road, was the bitter tea that becoming lovingly known to the Tibetans as ja kabo.

“The health of these trees and the health of the people have always been linked,” says our guide. After paying my respects in this sacred grove, we walk back to Li-do’s town in the Pulang Mountains. The Pulang (also known as Pu) and Dai people are tea’s original cultivators and producers, in time passing their precious skills onto the Hani, Lahu and Wa. Their commitment to the tea trees carries far beyond economics. Within these forest walls and within these humid enclaves there has always been an animistic edge to beliefs and for many the ancient trees are a living, breathing part of the culture itself. The tea-green that is the dominant color of the region is a background to their bright tribal costumes. The local Dai, adorn themselves in the carefully immaculate tones of orange, yellow, and blue, woven with gold brocade, while the Hani flash with pieces of silver and gaudy pink embroidery.

It is a remedy for everything

My comrade on this little tea-junkie jaunt is known simply as Xiao Di (little brother) and his nose for tea is nothing short of remarkable. A short bundle of energy, he has bright eyes and a perpetually shirtless paunch that he is constantly massaging. His two broad little feet remain unconstrained by shoes. He is, like myself, unable to resist tea for more than an hour and this mutual dependence bonds us as addictions do the world over. The entire region around us – and Yunnan generally – is known for its mouth-churning addiction to bitter and sour flavors and chilli peppers in everything. Xiao Di is an extreme example, saying: “If I am not in a sweat and panting after it, the meal has no meaning.”

Sitting within the simple surroundings of Li-do’s home, we sip some of the precious local tea. Here, it is a remedy for everything from fevers to blood sugar disorders. Green and potent, tasting of the very land, it is known as Pu’erh to the outside world, some say in homage to the ‘Pu’ people. Despite its mythic nature, it is served with an informal elegance that would seem foreign to the world of tea ceremonies. “Real teas don’t need a fuss,” says Xiao Di. “There is nothing to hide with ceremony.” Li-do squats above a fire, grabs a handful of dry leaves and drops them into a huge bubbling pot. Less than a minute later, without a first rinse, a sniffing cup or any ritual, I am holding a stained tin cup with a lemon-yellow liquid steaming in it.

Xiao Di points out a slight oil stain on the surface of the tea, one that is only visible from a slight angle. “See the oil, see the oil”? A good tea, he says, will have this distinguishing sheen where mass-produced teas won’t. Finally the words “nee um’la” – “drink tea” – are said. I tip the liquid into my mouth and bitterness rips through it in a surge that almost burns. “If a tea isn’t bitter, it isn’t a tea,” say the locals – and tea, before it became cha, in Mandarin was simply called tu, meaning bitter herb. This initial harshess is followed by a second phase that seems dedicated to convincing the tongue that the bitterness was a misunderstanding.

In the wonderful Chinese lexicon that relates to all things consumable, there are two descriptors that deal specifically with tastes. Ko gan and wei gan eloquently explain how a flavor hits the mouth and throat, respectively. The ko gan is the first impressions and tastes that hit the tongue’s sensitive spots. In this case the bitterness runs rampant, somehow finishing off with an almost fragrant departure into the throat. That departure constitutes in large part the wei gan, the finish.

Only the transport has changed

“It is the deep root systems of the old trees which draw up the taste out of the earth,” says Xiao Di. This astringent taste is a quality highly sought all along the Tea Horse Road where Pu’erh has been sold in a multitude of molded shapes and forms for centuries. Only the transport has changed, when flatulent mules gave way to chugging trucks in the mid-1950s. As I sip my tea, another conversation comes to my mind; one that took place at 5,000meters high in the Himalayas.

“If one had tea, one had power!” The words rumble out of the sun-scarred face beside me as I sit in a small hut shuddering under the brunt of the howling wind outside. Here, in the land of snow, the forces of nature are unforgiving but homes are intimate and warm. A worn wooden bowl of steaming butter tea is set in front of me, and in turn my three traveling companions are also served the frothy yellow concoction. Its pungent aroma permeates the air to mix with smoke in a Himalayan version of a narcotic.

I am in the village of Lhat’sè, east of Lhasa, desolate in the cold under black peaks and permanent snows but once a stop along the 1,300-year-old Tea Horse Road. An elder named Neema is speaking. He is “close to 90”, but no one here recorded birth-dates when he was born. Although fragile with age and illness, he is eager to transmit something of the great trade route.

“From which direction have you come?” he asks. I tell him we have walked from the east over the notorious Sho’la Pass, which turned back two of our team. Neema nods and talks about its “two faces.” Indeed, during our own crossing, we spent a full day struggling through a raging blizzard with zero visibility and two-meter drifts of snow. We came close to losing the lives of an expedition member and two mules. Passes and their risks line the length of the Tea Horse Road to such an extent that locals say there are “valleys of bones” along it. In his time, Neema traveled the better part of 40,000 kilometers on caravans between market towns.

“His time” spanned more than 80 years of working as a muleteer along this “road through the sky”. For 13 centuries there was no more coveted or valued commodity than the tea his hulking grandson has prepared for us. My partners and I have been trekking for more than a month on a quest to trace the entire 5,000-kilometer route and meeting Neema is the equivalent of meeting one of the route’s royalty.

Hands of stone were needed

The word for muleteer in Tibetan leaves no doubt as to the physical attributes required for the job of transporting the “great gift”, as tea was called locally. La’do in Tibetan is made up of two words: la, meaning hand, and do, meaning stone. Hands of stone were needed to carry goods across the top of the world. “The job of transporting tea and other goods was not for the weak,” says Neema simply.

He speaks of the value of his cargo from trades he remembers as ‘recently’ as 60 years ago: 120kg of tea for a horse of superb quality – or 50kg of tea for a horse with a pulse and little more. Until the 1940s, tea was a more coveted currency than cash. Copper, medicine, resin, incense, and wool were also precious, but nothing came close to the ‘sacred three’: tea, horse, and salt.

Bidding us farewell, he warns of the Shar Gong La Pass ahead. “Stay high on the snow ridge… and take double amounts of tea.” On a wall hang the bridles, crinkled leather satchels and stirrups covered in soot from the fire that are the remnants of his trading days. He and his kind referred to the Tea Horse Road as the “Eternal Road”. Nothing less than an eternal road would suffice for the eternal leaf.

Back in Pulang Mountains, leaving our host’s small hut in a delicious state of tea high, Xiao Di and I are loose-limbed and sweat-ravaged. A watery sun has reappeared briefly to burn up the mists and offer up an entirely new landscape of tea. Everywhere in the tiny village, rooftops, porches, streets and steps are covered in woven bamboo trays with tea leaves in various forms of dehydration. Informal bamboo green houses sitting high are protected by domes of plastic wrap.

In towns like this throughout southwestern Yunnan, tea is both an economic and social necessity. From this silent tea-infested forest, I head west to one of the world’s most famous tea towns, a place where the locals call the leaf “green gold”.

Powerful, and prohibitively expensive

Lao Banzhang is a stronghold of the Hani people and gives its name to possibly the most venerated tea in all of Yunnan and, some say, the world. To even say the words within earshot of tea experts is to enter a fellowship. Raw Pu’erhs from this mountain bastion sold outside are rare, powerful, and prohibitively expensive. Its value is due to unchanged harvesting methods, simple production and the primordial tea trees which run riot. The old ways here are both valued and valuable.

A forest dripping with last night’s rain surrounds the town and enormous tea trees crane their necks in a kind of meditation. Xiao Di and I wake with the deranged looks of people suffering from the local condition known as “tea hangover”: successive days of too much tea, too often. Heads are heavy, and mouths are raw

Here, the Hani people swoon over their ancient tea trees. Much like in Pulang, the tea is bitter by most standards but has floral hints, subtleties that catch the tongue and – in the words of one local buyer – “transport one into the very soil.” Our host, Lin, a headman of the town, is lean and handsome in a way that many of the indigenous men are. Glowing, tawny eyes and a pair of monumental cheekbones sit above an almost vulpine mouth. His manner is neat and his movements spare, but in him I sense a man in unity and understanding with his environment. Here, there is one industry, one resource and one stimulus: tea.

A fire cracks on the floor of the ‘kitchen’ and our host’s soft voice has barely issued the polite command “laba dow” to drink tea before I hit the tea cups with the need of the desperate. Xiao Di has already taken tea and sits in a twitchy kind of contentment. Here tea is taken before, during and after meals. Tea-time is all the time.

Local people pickle tea leaves, eat them chopped with chillis or as a garnish on food, or apply them as compresses for fevers and skin ailments. There is no poetic language in their names – they are simply known by the town from which they come. Its timeless longevity is the only accolade needed.

Where the tea awaits us

Later, Lin leads Xiao Di and me through the forests as the day’s heat increases. After almost an hour of silent travel, he looks back, pointing to a sloping ridge of dark green. Massive tea trees, almost 1,000 years old, crawl up to the sky. He carefully studies the leaves, the branches, and the soil as he gently walks around the wide base of a trunk. “This isn’t a product, this is everything. Every village on this mountain depends on tea,” he says. His eyes drill home the point. Xiao Di is silent for the first time in days.

This tea, says Lin, will be sold to a few select buyers and roughly five percent will be consumed by the village. In all, maybe two dozen jin (1 jin = 0.5kg) will be harvested in any one year from the oldest of the trees. It is so valuable that the tea from the oldest trees is often ‘pre-sold’ in advance of the harvest.

We stand there in a kind of comfortable silence, taking in the sight of this natural wonder. Then Lin looks at me with his eyes shining and says the words I have been waiting to hear: “Laba dow!” Xiao Di smiles, his feet already heading back to where the tea awaits us.

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