Unknown by the western world until the 20th century, Tibet has always been the synonym of mystery. When you visit silk road economic belt countries, You will immediately be amazed by its pure heavenly natural beauty, and be overwhelmed by its holiness of religious atmosphere. It is a journey that purifies your soul, and a discovery of outstanding culture and nature. From the impressive Buddhism ceremonies in the monasteries to the breathtaking sacred mountains of the Himalayas, Tibet, the roof of the world, will give every of its visitors a memory never fades away.
The symbol of Tibet is the majestic Potala Palace perched on top of Marpo Ri Hill in the center of the city of Lhasa. It is the must-go of most visitors to Tibet. The Potala Palace is the religious and political center of Tibet and the former residence of the Dalai Lama. It is the most sacred place in Tibetans’ heart. Although place like Lhasa is definitely somewhere that tourists can not miss, this article is going tell you something about Tibet that is absolutely magnificent but out of the spot lights.
Among the snowy mountains and deep gorges between Tibet and Yunnan, there are some mysterious footpaths winding through the mountainsides, some are even carved into cliff face crossing one of the most dangerous terrain and uninhabitable area in the world. These footpaths have been called the ancient Tea-Horse Road. Hardly to be called a road it starts from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in Southwest China, runs along the eastern foothills and deep canyons of several major rivers, than heads into Tibet spanning the two highest plateaus of China (i.e. the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau), and finally reaches India, south of the Himalayas. But why have these ancient footpaths been called the Tea-Horse Road, who discovered this ancient route into Tibet, and what is the role it plays in the history?
It can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Tibetan people liked drinking Pu-erh tea (i.e. post-fermented tea compressed in thick rectangular blocks, flat squares, discuses or other shapes) because they ate high calories food such as butter, Tsamba, beef, and lamb but consumed very little vegetables. Pu-erh tea not only helped them to digest the heavy food but also offered their Vitamin need. Tibetans did not drink the Pu-erh directly but mixed the tea with the yak butter creating a salty and rich tea which is still common today. However the environmental situation of Tibet did not allow for the growing of the tea. Luckily, the neighboring Yunnan was an ideal land for growing tea, and they made Pu-erh tea in great quality. Those who could manage to transfer the tea from Yunnan into Tibet were going to make good money. On the other hand, Chinese army needed strong warhorses desperately, comparatively Tibetans had a strong mounted army and they also had access to Middle Asia, where possessed the best military horses in the world.
However, it was almost a mission impossible to exchange goods between Tibet and Yunnan, because any possible land connection between the two regions was almost cut off by the harsh terrain. The natural border between Tibetan plateau and Yunnan is formed of endless snowy mountains and deep gorges with steep cliffs which is tough for any land animals to cross the area. Finally the irresistible temptation of making huge profit had given the merchants enough courage to make their way through cleverly however dangerously.
If the mountains could not be climbed they went around them on the mountainsides. By following the rivers they could take advantage of the narrow river banks under the cliffs. In continuous and collective efforts in many years, the trading link was established. Through this route, Yunnan merchants traded Pu-erh tea for strong military horses from Tibetan, and resold these horses to the rest of China. On the other hand, Tibetan merchants also made good money by selling the tea to India and middle Asia. This is why this trading route has been called the Tea-Horse Road.
Therefore, the ancient Tea-Horse Road plays a similar role as the Silk Road, and is a significant part of the international trade in the history. Besides a road of wealth, it was also a road of cultural exchange that created a cultural bond between Tibetans and Chinese in the history, and facilitated the spread of Buddhism in China. Even today, when people are trekking on this ancient route into Tibet, they can still sense the spirit, the courage, and the wisdom devoted to this road, and marvel at this great legacy of our ancient ancestors.