The Ancient Tea Horse Road

The Tea Horse Road now generally referred to as the Ancient Tea Horse Road was a network of caravan paths winding through the mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou in Southwest China. It is also sometimes referred to as the Southern Silk Road. The route extended to Bengal in South Asia.

The route earned the name Tea-Horse Road because of the common trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea, a practice dating back at least to the Song dynasty. From the 6th century to the 20th century, people in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces traveled by foot and horseback with pack horses to exchange tea for horses with people in Tibet — and thus the pathway was called the Tea Horse Road.

The Sichuan–Tibet Tea Horse Road

The complete length of the Sichuan–Tibet road was over 4,000 kilometers, with a history of 1,300 years.

The Sichuan–Tibet Tea Horse Road stretched from Ya’an in Sichuan to Lhasa via Luding, Kangding, Batang, and Chamdo in Tibet, and extended to Nepal, Burma, and India.

In the Tang and Song (960–1279) dynasties, the Qinghai–Tibet Highway became a major alternative for transporting tea to Tibet from Sichuan and other more eastern areas, taking the less-steep long way round through Chengdu, Xi’an (then Chang’an) and the Silk Road.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Sichuan–Tibet Tea Horse Road was officially recognized, and this helped the commercial towns and cities along the road to expand, and promoted commerce between inland areas and Tibet.

The Yunnan–Tibet Tea Horse Road

The Yunnan–Tibet Tea Horse Road was similarly formed in the late 6th century. It began from Simao (a major tea-producing area) and led to Lhasa, crossing Pu’er in Xishuangbanna, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La, and continuing to Nepal, Burma, and India. It was thus the critical trade route connecting Yunnan to Southern Asia.

For more than a thousand years, the Tea Horse Road — a thoroughfare of commerce between China and Tibet – was one of the harshest trails in Asia. The ancient passageway stretched almost 2,250km across the tea-growing region of China’s Sichuan Province to Lhasa, the 365m-high capital of Tibet. Beginning in the 10th Century, Chinese porters and pack animals inched up switchbacks to cross Tibet’s Zar Gama Pass (pictured) to trade Chinese tea for Tibetan horses. Today, most of the original Tea Horse Road is gone and what is left of the old route is now travelled by car or truck.