13 Places to visit on the Tea & Horse Road in Yunnan

The origins of the ‘Tea and Horse Road’

The story of the Tea and Horse Road started in the 11th century in the central plains of China, when the borders of the Song empire (960-1279) were threatened by barbarian invasions. Back in those days, good quality horses were crucial to warfare and control over territory. The Song emperors were compelled to deal with Tibetan tribes of Amdo (current Qinghai 青海 province) who supplied the Chinese with good quality horses.

This is how, motivated by warfare, the tea for horse trade started. All the Tibetan horses and all the tea in China, however, did not save the Song dynasty against the Mongol who swept through Asia.

In China, the Mongol founded the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and anchored Yunnan into the Chinese imperial realm.

The Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) is a “cultural concept developed by academics in the 1990s” (Huang Yinwu Reading Time in Shaxi: 2011). In Yunnan, trade routes linking the sites of tea production (Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) – where the famous Pu’er tea 普洱茶 originates) to Tibet (which had become the first importer of Chinese tea) and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia pre-date the Mongol invasions and the incorporation of the province into the Chinese Empire.

With the Ming (1368 – 1644) dynasty, hundred of thousands of Han migrants ventured and settled in Yunnan. During the last year of the reign of the first Ming emperor Hongwu 洪武, in 1398, the tea for horse trade is reported in Yongning 永宁, north of Lijiang on the Yunnan-Sichuan border where offices for the exchange of tea and horses (茶马司) were set up.

Tea trade would not have existed without the horse caravans. This network of trade routes that we know as Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) connected people from different ethnic groups, has contributed to the spreading of ideas and helped shape a new economic landscape in Yunnan during the Ming and Qing era.

About the list below

All towns and villages I mentioned in this list benefited somehow from the Tea Horse trade route. They thrived until the early 1950s when the Communist forbade trade. During the Mao era, these villages declined and lost their importance as trading centre. In the 1990s, with the development of foreign and domestic tourism some have become must-see travel destinations, others remain impoverished villages.

Horse caravans carried tea leaves produced near Lushi (鲁史), a village nested in the Wuliang Mountain (无量山), to Xiaguan (the city on the south shores of the Erhai Lake 洱海 near the ancient town of Dali 大理) where they were transformed into Tuo Tea (沱茶), a Pu’er-like dome-shaped of post-fermented tea.

Two factors contributes to making Lushi a well-preserved village on the old Tea and Horse Road. Located in a remote and impoverished mountainous region of Yunnan, most locals do not have the financial means to knock down their old house and rebuild with contemporary construction materials. This means they do not have the money to maintain and preserve the wood and adobe houses which line the slab-stones streets polished by the passages of horse caravans.

When I visited in April 2014, a few buildings on the main streets and elsewhere had been ‘renovated’ (翻新) and a museum dedicated to the place of Lushi on the Tea and Horse Road was under construction. In spite of these transformations, it felt to me that time stopped and that the village is stuck in the 1960s (without the political campaigns of that era).

I mentioned the ancient town of Weishan 巍山 several times in this blog and I encourage anyone who is traveling in Dali 大理 to go and visit this little town. The historical street that runs from the Gongchen tower gate (拱辰楼) to the Xinggong Tower (星拱楼) had not been entangled with China’s contemporaneity.

Featuring Ming – Qing era courtyards and adobe houses slowly crumbling away, Weishan 巍山 is a live architectural museum, a window on China’s past and into the daily life of locals. Last time I visited, in May 2014, Weishan was a sprawling town which historical core had not succumbed to mass-tourism (yet). However, it seemed that a few stores had started selling trinkets (the same we find anywhere in travel destinations in China).

The renovation of the Dengjue temple (等觉寺), which features ivory-white twin pagodas, was complete and workers were still busy around the Confucius temple (文庙). A few plastic billboards hiding a construction site were selling commercial space into a small open-air mall.

The days of the “Weishan Untouched by time” may soon be over. Yet, this town remains a destination of choice if you want to escape the crowds of Dali and Lijiang.

Located between Weishan and Xiaguan, Donglianhua (东莲花), is a Muslim (or Hui 回 in Chinese). Here, the Tea Horse trade route takes its multi-ethnic dimension.

In Yunnan, different ethnic groups were involved at different levels of the tea trade. In Xishuangbanna, uphill tribes like the Hani were cultivating tea bushes. They sold the tea leaves to lowland Dai middle-men who sold them to Han merchants. The Han transformed the tea into bricks in the town of Pu’er (普洱).

Hui Muslims and Tibetans were the two dominant ethnic groups involved in the transportation of the tea bricks and other goods on the trade route (although there was a fair amount of Han – Chinese).

Donglianhua (东莲花) is known as the ‘village of the caravan leaders’. A handful of local families benefited from the trade and built opulent courtyard mansions and one of them hosts a Tea and Horse Road Museum worth seeing after a visit to the Chinese-style mosque and a stroll in the streets lined with adobe buildings.

In Yunnanyi (云南驿), I was looking to visit the ancient trading post on the Tea and Horse Road. When I arrived in this sleepy off-the-beaten path village east of Dali (大理), I discovered a multi-layered history.

Yunnanyi was situated on the east – west corridor of the Tea and Horse trade routes network of trade routes. It linked Lushi (鲁史), Weishan (巍山) and south Yunnan to Kunming (昆明) where tea bricks were heading north to the emperor court in Beijing.

I had loosely talked about the Native Chieftainship System (土司制度) established by the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty to gain indirect control over the southwest ethnic borderland. With this system, used by the following Ming and Qing dynasties, ethnic rulers were awarded military and civilian titles by the imperial court. In return, they helped protect the Chinese empire against invasions from the south and regularly paid tribute to the emperor in Beijing. The best qualities of Pu’er were thus sent to the capital from the remote corners of Xishuangbanna and Yunnanyi was on this imperial route.

Even after horse caravans stopped in the 1950s under the new Communist rule, Yunnanyi briefly retained its importance in this part of the world. Indeed, during WWII, Yunnanyi was an important stop on the Burma Road (滇缅公路) which helped convey much needed supplies to Chinese forces in their counter-attack against Japan. When the road was closed in 1942, a landing strip, the US forces built a landing strip just south of the village and supplies reached Yunnan by air from British India.

There are two small museums in Yunnanyi. One dedicated to the Tea and Horse Road is located inside and the other to the Burma Road and the Hump.

I already wrote a post which focused on Xizhou 喜州 and the beautiful Bai architecture of its vast courtyards. We owe these courtyards to a dozen of local families who were involved and benefited from the trade fuelled by the Tea and Horse Road.

According to local history there were three groups of Xizhou families who where called the ‘Xizhou Entrepreneurial Band’ (喜州商帮) : the ‘four great families’ (四大家), ‘eight middle families’ (八中家) and ‘twelve small families’ (十二小家).

During the heyday of the Tea and Horse Road from the Ming dynasty to the Republican Era, these families dealt primarily in tea. They bought tea leaves from the Shunning area (顺宁) i.e. Lushi 鲁史,which were processed into Tuocha (沱茶) in Xiaguan 下关. High-quality tea was transported to Chengdu in Sichuan and lower-grade tea was called ‘barbarians tea bricks’ (蛮庄饼子) which were transported to Lijiang 丽江, Weixi 维西, Deqin 德钦 (formerly called Atunze ) and Tibet.

Raw silk bought from Sichuan was brought back along the trade routes, transformed in the region, sold in Yunnan and exported to Burma and India. In Burma and India, the silk was sold for money or exchange for cotton which was brought back for the Yunnan market.

Beside tea and raw silk, the ‘Xizhou Entrepreneurial Band’ also dealt in satin, musk, leather, gold, silver, medicinal herbs and foreign textiles (let’s not forget that, at some point in history, British and French were at the end of these trade routes in India and Indochina).

Xizhou families built themselves a mutli-national import-export industry and the courtyard houses they left behind are their legacies. Today, some of Xizhou courtyard are either home to several local households, transformed into museums (free or not) and one was carefully renovated and transformed into a boutique-hotel : the Linden Center.

In Yangbi 漾濞, a sprawling small town just 45 minutes by bus west of Xiaguan 下关, you will have to look for Renmin Street (仁民街), literally the ‘Benevolent People’ street to find traces of the Tea and Horse Road.

This historical street nestled on the banks of the Yangbi River (漾濞江) has not recovered from the demise of the tea horse trade in the region. There was not much to see except a few impressive courtyard gates and the cobble-stone street. At the end of Renmin Street, I found Yangbi’s most prominent vestige of the old Tea and Horse Road : the Yunlong suspended bridge (云龙吊桥), built during the Ming dynasty.

It reminded me of Tea and Horse Road Museum in Yunnanyi (云南驿) where I saw an altar dedicated to the gods of roads (路神), mountains (山神) and bridges (桥神). I had travelled to several ancient trading post on the Tea Horse Road and I had forgotten that the trails linking these places is now lost somewhere in the countryside, far from the highways and roads that run through Yunnan.

This bridge, that Xu Xiake 徐霞客 the famous Ming-era explorer who reached Mount Qianshi 千狮山 near Shaxi 沙溪, allowed caravans to head west towards Baoshan 保山, Heshun 和顺 and north into Shaxi 沙溪, Jianchuan 剑川, Lijiang 丽江.

Although the bridge is worth seeing, you’ll have to be a Tea & Horse road nerd to come to Yangbi.

From the Dali – Xiaguan, there were two roads going up north : one along the Erhai Lake (洱海) via Xizhou 喜州 - Jianchuan 剑川 to Lijiang 丽江, the other was passing through Yangbi 漾濞 and entered the Shaxi 沙溪 valley.

The villages in the valley had always benefited from the fertile land and before the different goods transported along the Tea and Horse Road reach Shaxi, salt was the main products carried by the horse caravans.

Therefore, the main village of Shaxi valley, Sideng, was a striving commercial centre before tea, silks, and medicinal herbs reached the market square in front of the old theatre (寺登古戏台) which is now the region’s most iconic building. Most tourists do not realise that the Xingjiao temple (兴教寺), was built in front of the theatre so that the Buddhas could enjoy the performances in the same time as the locals and muleteers who stopped in the village for the night and stayed at in the Ouyang courtyard.

Here are two signs of the influence of the Tea and Horse Road in Shaxi. First, the name of two lanes in the historical core were named North and South ‘Guzong’ (古宗) which refers to the Tibetans in Bai language. The second influence comes from the spread of Confucianism : the slab-stones were laid for people of high social position while commoners could only walk on the two sides of the streets paved with cobbles.

Before 2003 when the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project began, the village, its theater and gates were crumbling away. The restoration project gave the region a new life oriented towards tourism.

Everyone has hear or visited the UNESCO-listed ancient town of Lijiang 丽江. It seems that it’s now a consensus among travellers (foreign and domestic) that the development of ‘mass-tourism with Chinese characteristics’ has spoiled the laid-back atmosphere that existed 10 – 15 years ago.

Peter Goullart, a Russian merchant born during the last quarter of the 19th century and who lived in Lijiang during the late 1920s – early 1930s gives vivid descriptions of the horse caravans that reached the town and the goods they brought.

“Tibetan caravans were pouring in the goods from Calcutta, both for local consumption and for re-export to Kunming, at a prodigious rate. Best makes of British and American cigarettes were available and all kinds of textiles. Even new Singer sewing machines could be bought. Of course, the prices were very high as the caravan is the most expensive mode of transport in the world (…)

Tibean boots and saddle-bags were made by the thousand; in fact, the really fine Tibetan boots were not produced in Tibet but exported there from Lijiang (…) By its huge trade through Tibet (…) Lijiang became very prosperous and new building began to spring up overnight everywhere”

Baoshan Stone Town is also an important town of the Ancient Tea Horse Caravan.

In 2001, when I reached Zhongdian on a cold April day. The old town was a cluster of decaying Tibetan houses that was eventually levelled down to give way to the a new Lijiang-looking ‘old’ town for tourists who came to look for Shangri-la, the new name of Zhongdian, in reference to the ‘heaven on earth’ in James Hilton novel … and also to boost tourism.

Most of the new ancient town was destroyed by a fire in January 2013, but one of the main attraction of Zhongdian is the monastery of Songzanlin (松赞林) or Ganden Sumtselin.

Back in the heydays of the Tea and Horse Road, large monasteries like Sumtselin also functioned as warehouses and logistic centers for tea and other goods traded on the Tea Horse Road. Tibetan monasteries were thus more than just monasteries and had a crucial role in the tea trade. Let’s forget about this romantic ideas of smiling monks in saffron robes chanting sutras.

High-ranking lamas and Tibetan aristocracy controlled the monopoly on tea for the entire Tibetan territory. Tibetan monasteries needed huge quantities of tea because ritual tea was offered to images and statues of Buddha four times a day. Monasteries also had to give tea to all monks after the daily meditation ceremony.

Dubbed the ‘Little Potala’, this Tibetan Monastery is one of the largest in southwest China. Your travel guide may tell you that it was bombed by the People’s Army of Liberation when Communists had set off to ‘liberate’, or ‘invade’, the Himalayan Kingdom in 1951. What we see now is a re-built monastery.

The ancient village of Heshun 和顺 near the town of Tengchong 腾冲 is more often associated with the Jade Road than the Tea and Horse Raod. However, frequent unrest on the Sino-Tibetan border, specially in the Kham 康 area (the Kham 康 is a macro-region including western Sichuan, northern Yunnan and eastern Tibet) and the Panthay Rebellion from 1856 to 1873 during which a Muslim Sultanate with Dali as capital was established, interrupted the trade routes in central and northern Yunnan.

Since Tibet was the first importer of tea, alternative routes emerged. In this corner of west Yunnan, trade routes linked Heshun to Yangon in Burma where tea was loaded on boat to Calcutta and then transported across the Himalayas. It shows how much Tibetans were addicted to tea.

Heshun 和顺 is the only place in this list where visitors have to pay a 80 RMB entrance fee to visit. Even though it’s pretty remote and far from the backpacker’s trail of Dali – Lijiang – Zhongdian, the town can be jam-packed with domestic tourists.

Three hours by bus west of the Dali – Xiaguan area, horse caravans transporting goods on the Tea and Horse Road once went through Qinglong street 青龙街, a historical street in the village of Banqiao 板桥, a rural suburb of Baoshan 保山.

After spending some time looking for the Qinglong street 青龙街 – literally the ‘Blue-green Dragon Street’ – the concrete pavement gave way to a cobble-stone street. Like in the streets of Shaxi, Lushi and other trading post on the Tea and Horse Road, slab-stone had been laid in the middle. People with a higher rank in society walked on the slab-stones, in the middle, and the commoners on the cobbles, on each side. An influence of Confucianism.

Above the gate (in the middle in the picture above) built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing, the two characters 魁阁 (kuige) indicate the location of an altar dedicated to Kuixing (魁星), the deity of good fortune in examination revered by scholars and wanna-be officials who wanted success in the imperial examination. Another sign of the influence of Confucianism brought by the trading of goods along the Tea and Horse Road (those who were taking the imperial examination had to master the writing of Confucius and the Chinese Classics). In Shaxi, the altar to Kuixing is hidden in the tower behind the performance stage and there are many more two-storied pavilions (that’s what ge 阁 mean) dedicated to Kuixing in the valley.

At first, I had to admit that except a few temples, ancestral and the Kuixing Pavilion, there was not much to see in Banqiao. The place was deserted and locals looked at me in disbelief. Yet, the Qinglong historical street put in perspective the other places I visited along the Tea and Horse Road. Banqiao and its history, like many other historical places and rural area in China, had been forgotten by development.

In Banqiao 板桥, I asked an old man in his tuk-tuk if there were any other places linked to the old Tea and Horse Road. He had a thick Yunnanese accent, but managed to negotiate the fare to my next destination of Jinji 金鸡 – literally, the ‘Golden Rooster’.

The ancient theatre of Jinji (金鸡古戏台) was built during the Ming dynasty and dominated a market square (usually known as ‘sifang jie‘ 四方街 in Chinese) which took shape during the Han and Jin dynasties, almost 2000 years ago. At least that was the inlaid stone stele said. Jinji was a nod in this old network of trade routes that linked Yunnan to the rest of China and the world.

Getting around

Your journey across these villages will probably start in the provincial capital of Kunming 昆明 with a bus (or flight) to Dali 大理 and from Dali / Xiaguan 下关area.
Read my Kunming bus stations and schedule guide as well as my guide to Dali / Xiaguan transportation hub which, along with my tips about bus tickets and bus rides in rural China, are essential read for bus travel in Yunnan.

If you are not traveling on a budget, go to Kunming Changshui Airport and jump on a plane to Shangrila, Lijiang, Dali, Baoshan, or Tengchong and continue by bus.