A thousand years ago, people in southern Yunnan kept their pu’erh tea to themselves. But eventually, traders realized it had real value in markets to the east, west and especially over the mountains into Tibet.
So they started packing up their leaves for the long journey across the top of the world to Lhasa.
That route came to be known as the Tea Horse Road and it was the highway for the tea trade until the 1950s when the Chinese moved into Tibet and closed it down. Tea enthusiast and author Jeff Fuchs retraces the journey in The Tea Explorer .
It starts in Menghai, a bustling little town that has evolved into a city full of hundreds of tea shops — ground zero for the pu’erh tea industry.
It’s also where much of the tea from farmers comes in for processing.
“The journey that tea took is probably one of the most physically daunting journeys that the world has known,” says Fuchs.
For over a thousand years, the 5,000-kilometre journey along the Tea Horse Road took months and wound along dirt paths over the Himalayas. Tea, along with other luxuries like salt and gems were all carried on the backs of mules.
The road went over the Sho’La Pass, the gateway to Tibet, a 4,800-metre summit that could be deadly. Over the centuries many died here during snowstorms or by falling off the trail.
Along the way the tea leaves would ferment while they stayed packed into their bamboo shipping containers.
When the leaves were finally released, the taste and smell would be earthier, more pungent. To the Tibetans, pu’erh tea had a different flavour than what the people were drinking back down in the valleys of Yunnan.
To add nourishment, the Tibetans churned the tea with salt and yak-butter, making it more of a meal.
“The tea that the locals drink should be looked at as a fuel. It’s more of a full-on meal,” says Fuchs.
Cunga, an old trader from Lomanthang worked on the road since he was 14 and carried hundreds of kilograms of tea, 40-50 thousand kilometres over his lifetime over steep mountain passes.
When Tibet was taken over by China, the tea road was shut down. The trade highway through the Himalayas came to a halt, the economic conditions of the people declined — and so did the quality of the tea they drank.
The journey itself is an important part of Asian history, one that Jeff Fuchs has spent over a decade documenting. “Tea’s journey is one of the reasons why it is the second-most consumed fluid on the planet. These were epic journeys to get tea to every single valley in the Himalayas.”