Tea Hiker on the Ancient Tea Horse Road

Wenzhuo Liu

Jeff Fuchs, who has lived in Shangri La, Yunnan for ten years, has 17 years of experience in recording and exploring trade routes in the Himalayas and visiting trade participants. He always takes tea and teapots when traveling. His photographic documentary book <Ancient Tea Horse Road> has recorded that he and his team walked along the ancient tea horse road on the Yunnan Tibet line. Based on his book, the documentary of the same name made by Canadian director Andrew Gregg won the documentary award. Jeff has organized and participated in more than 30 Himalayan expeditions, and he has won many Explorer awards such as recently as one of the “100 greatest explorers in Canada” by the Royal Geographical Society of Canada.

”A portrait with one the old trader/muleteers, Dawa, who has since passed away. If there was one face and personality for me that represented the spirit of the Tea Horse Road, it was that of Dawa who lived in northwestern Yunnan province near the famed ‘Sho La’ Pass.“

The West knows little about the history of the ancient tea horse road. Jeff is the first documented westerner to walk through this folk international trade channel originated from the tea horse exchange market in the southwest frontier of ancient China in the Tang and Song dynasties. Jeff is very interested in the unknown businessmen and mules on this route. He wants to find out why these people choose this wandering and dangerous life at great risk. Jeff said that thanks to the guidance of the local villagers, otherwise he and his team could not complete the crossing. Even if the team members themselves master multiple languages, due to the complexity of regional nationalities and the diversity of local languages, they must communicate with local people even if they use gestures when necessary. The team got lost several times, even for two weeks. When reading Jeff’s book, I was amazed that the team handled things calmly. Jeff was also very satisfied with the peaceful psychological state during the journey.

”The sacred ‘Genyen Mountain (6562 metres)’ in western Sichuan lies along a portion of the Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road. Such a portion of the route lied along the nomadic corridors where tea, silk, horses and medicines were traded.“

”A part of our team along a portion of the Tea Horse Road as a blizzard begins to hit.“

“A portion of a small feeder route that links to the greater Yunnan ’Tea Horse Road’. It was along such smaller paths that villages and remote communities could access the main trunk of the trade route. This portion was in the very northwest of Yunnan province high above the Yangtze River.”
The ancient tea horse road passes through different countries and ethnic regions. Of course, there are also various methods of drinking and eating tea. Jeff mentioned in his book that each village has different methods of cooking tea, and each specific taste can not be copied. For example, butter tea in Tibet, Nepali spiced milk tea in Nepal, fried rice crisp milk tea in Bhutan, mixed spice milk tea- Masala Chai in India, etc. Add butter tea, milk residue and sugar to the fried highland barley flour and stir them evenly. Jeff will pinch out Zanba, a traditional Tibetan snack, and then rub it into small balls to carry with him for easy consumption. Zanba, which is rich in nutrition and high in calories, is very suitable for hunger and cold protection on foot.

“Nomads prepare a last tea before moving their home, which includes tents, yak, dogs, and all possessions. For many Tibetans, tea (called ‘ja’) was the great panacea and tonic – both for the body and as a luxury without equal. ”

“During the expedition our tea preparation was remarkably simple. When we set up camp, fire was started immediately for tea.”

In the documentary of the same name, the audience can understand the trade route itself. Western audiences are amazed at the existence of this mysterious trade route, which is 200 years earlier than the well-known silk road. Tell the audience the story of the people behind the leaves from the origin, growth environment, production and processing and cultural significance of Pu’er. The Western tea industry should not only focus on the form and aesthetics of tea, nor should it only focus on the appearance or smell of tea. Jeff hopes to introduce them to some little-known tea history, realize the added value of risky trade and transportation to tea, and provide some informal ways of tea service, production and enjoyment.

“A Bulang woman with freshly harvested tea leaves begins preparation for making ’sour tea’.”

“One of the alternative ‘recipes’ or uses of tea is the fermented version of tea leaves used by the Bulang people of southern Yunnan. Fresh tea leaves are boiled and buried within a bamboo cylinder in soil. The leaves are left for months or even years and then dug up and eaten in ceremonies and celebrations, where it is mixed with rice. This ‘dish’ is known as ‘Am Mem’ in the local language.”

Jeff has used mainstream media such as documentaries, literary works and TV programs, and we media such as blogs, podcasts and Youtube. He believes that all these help to promote the dissemination of tea as a beverage and cultural heritage. More important than media forms is the consistency and integrity of information transmission. As the co-founder and purchaser of Jalam tea, Jeff plans to expand the procurement scope of Pu’er tea in the future and sell it to collectors in small quantities to meet people’s growing interest in Pu’er tea. Jeff, who is now the director of outdoor programs at the non-profit Akahiao Nature Institute on the big island of Hawaii, is committed to immersing young people in the “Outdoors” while insisting on providing Tea Time for all project participants twice a day.

“A Bulang elder walks through his family’s ancient tea tree forests near Lao Ma Er in the Bulang Mountains of southern Yunnan province. Teas from such old trees, if made well, can command huge amounts of money during the coveted Spring harvests.”

“I’m allowed to prepare tea for my hosts in Ba Ma, Nannuo Mountain….not sure of the result but always a treat to serve others, their own tea.”

2 thoughts on “Tea Hiker on the Ancient Tea Horse Road

    • Thank you for your message. Jeff made a good demonstration. I hope more people will pay attention to tea culture from many aspects

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