Come with us on the tea-horse-road

First page of the guidebook 古茶马道 Gŭchàmădào, “The tea-horse-road”

The tea-horse-road beneath the Himalayas, on which tea was carried for five thousand years from southern Yunnan to the north, the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and gorgeous nomadic horses to the south, to the courts of the Tang Empire, the Nanzhao Kingdom, and the local landlords, only stopped for a moment in 1949, with the Maoist takeover. Nowadays it starts again, today only for gourmets yet, but surrounded by a growing interest. The small towns along the road, like Sleeping Beauties for seventy years, still look like after the passing of the last tea transport to the north, of the last herd to the south. To this journey we invite our readers in this November, when the weather is the most optimal in the subtropical Yunnan, and we can best travel across the central part of the former route, which is the richest in historical monuments.

From Europe we will arrive with a couple of transfers, in about one day, to Dali, Yunnan’s second center, the capital of the two-million-strong Bai people (proposed to the World Heritage List). The beautiful traditional old town lays on the shore of Lake Erhai, surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas. The ancient Bai people were among the most important merchants of the tea-horse-road, so after visiting Dali, we will spend the second day in Xizhou (the “zhen” endings on the map mean “walled old town”), the best-preserved old Bai merchant town a few miles to the north along the shore. The trade of the entire Chinese Silk Road was in the hands of the Muslim Hui diaspora, and we will also visit their mosques and excellent small restaurants. Our hotel in Dali – just to enhance diversity – will be in Yahveh Hotel, operated by Chinese Catholics from Beijing in the former monastery of the still functioning Catholic church, built hundreds of years ago by Catholic monks in traditional Chinese style.

From Dali we go through the foothills of the Himalayas, along breathtaking mountain roads, to Nuodeng, an important branch of the tea-horse-road, still in Bai territory. The salt needed to provide for the large number of horses was mined here, in Nuodeng, which was thus a kind of free royal town, similar to the Transylvanian salt mine town of Szék. In the 1400s the beautiful small town was melted by the Ming Dynasty into the empire, and then, having lost its significance, it stopped in time, preserving its former richness, its temples, its shops, its airy aristocratic houses, one of which will be our hotel for two nights. From there we visit the surrounding ancient small trading towns, like Baofeng, and the stunning mountain range.

From Nuodeng we come back on long, winding mountain roads, through passes, along river valleys and next to thousand-year-old bridges to the main line of the tea-horse-road, to Shaxi, the best preserved merchant town of the old caravan route (proposed to the World Heritage List), the center of the Yi people. We walk around the city, visit the medieval monastery and the Qing-era theater, and make an excursion to the 8th-century Shibao Monastery in the nearby mountains, the royal sanctuary of the former Nanzhao kingdom, the historical core of today’s Yunnan, which, until the 1300s, was a country in a par with China and Tibet.

From Shaxi we go over to the headquarters of the once powerful Naxi people, to Lijiang, “China’s Venice”, a thousand-year-old town permeated by three main rivers and many side-branches (World Heritage Site). This town, the richest one in historical monuments on our route, is completely bilingual: everything is written both in Chinese and in the Naxi people’s own thousand-year-old hieroglyphic script, which was also declared a World Heritage Treasure in 2005. From here we go to visit the old Naxi merchant town of Baisha, or one of the deepest canyons of the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge along the upper reach of Yangtse (part of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site), where we do a whole-day excursion. Not by walking which is only for experienced tourists (22 kilometers, up 1000 down 800 meters), but by bus, nevertheless going up to important viewpoints. On the last stop of the road we sleep in a particularly nice guesthouse. The next day we return to Dali, and from there to the airport, heading either home, or, if you want to venture a bit more in China, to the site of your new adventure.

So many people are interested in this road, that we must organize it twice, both times with about 18 participants. The first one is more or less complete, but in case of cancellation there may still be places in it, and the second is still open. The dates of the from Dali to Dali ten-day-plus-two-half-day tour are 4 to 15 November, and then 15 to 26 November, to which you should add one day travel there and one back, thus two weeks altogether. I can also give suggestions to those who, after the trip, want to further venture in China. The flight ticket from Europe to Dali on the above route is about 670 euro, and the participation fee 1000 euro, which includes accommodation with breakfast, domestic travel by rented bus or off-road vehicles (or on some tracks with public transport), and the guide. As for accommodation, it is important to draw attention to the fact that, as tourism is still in its infancy in many parts of this region (in some villages, in fact, I was the first foreigner they have ever met), thus comfort is also not always what we are accustomed to in Europe. For example, in Nuodeng they already have European bathroom and WC, but only three ones for eighteen persons in the whole hotel. Nevertheless, this hotel is the former home of a 14th-century aristocrat, preserved as it was, with the utmost convenience. If you are interested, write until 25 August, Friday, at the usual

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