Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tea, Horses, Tourism & Trade


The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers
by Jeff Fuchs (2008. Viking, Canada)

Tea and Tourism: Tourists, Traditions and Transformations
Lee Joliffe ED. (2007. Channel View Publications, Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto)

Tian Zhuangzhuang, director. (BDI Films/Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) / Kuming Datongdao Film and TV/Beijing Time United Culture Developing Co.)

In every age there are celebrated corridors that clearly define the distance between “here” and “there”, while others connect “past” and “present”. One never knows where one is enroute unless there’s a reason to start, a reason to stop, or a path is crossed, intentionally or otherwise.

It was along such a route, the Internet, that I found Canadian photojournalist Jeff Fuchs. On one level of reality, he was virtually no farther than three clicks away from my home in Los Angeles California, at http://www.planetranger.com/vandor, where he was blogging with a fifth grade class in Ottawa Canada. In another, he was trekking deep in the Himalayas somewhere on the Chamagudao, (茶马古道), the Tea Horse Road, an ancient network connecting China to India via Tibet and Nepal.

The Tea Horse Road – the “Southern ‘Silk’ Route” -- is actually a two-branched thoroughfare with manifold tributaries some 2,350 kilometers in all. Its main branches – Yunnan to Lhasa and the other beginning in Sichuan – had been a major commercial trade route from the 7th century until 1950s, established by the Chinese who coveted sturdy Tibetan “war” horses for employment in their military exploits. In exchange Tibetans coveted tea, especially Pu’er, the “tribute” tea, which they enjoyed as beverage and for its medicinal purposes. Along the way other local commodities – salt, sugar and wild-crafted substances such as medicinal mushrooms, caterpillar casings (supposed to be an aphrodisiac) were actively traded.

In its Song Dynasty (960 – 1127 CE) heyday, Tea Horse Road trading posts saw up to 2,000 people a day carrying upwards of 7,500 tons of goods[1]. Unlike in Mongolia, where the “roads” themselves are nomadic, the venerable paths are well worn into the rocks as well as the current memories of myriad tribal peoples who have inhabited for generations the lands along the way.

No Westerners had personally participated in the movement of tea across 78 peaks, two of the world's highest plateaus and crossing the mighty Mekong (Lancang), Salween (NuJiang) and Jinsha (Yangzi) rivers that tracked through lush valleys. An experienced mountaineer in the Himalayas where he enjoyed collecting “mangled yak turd pies of tea” like others collect fine wine, Fuchs wanted to be the first Westerner to traverse the route’s entirety, formally only accomplished by legendary muleteers known as lados.

Fuchs explains that, unlike Marco Polo’s accounts of his trek along the Silk Route, this story heretofore has been entirely of Asian recollections. The trek, which began in from his base in Shangri-la in 2002, took seven months traveling by foot, horse, mules, automobile and even via airplane, the latter to facilitate quick transition between legs of the route.

He purposefully crafted his route out of sequence, by starting in the Tibetan regions, and thereby came “to appreciate the deeper effects of tea and its relationships with the isolated peoples of the mountains ... I had a first-hand taste of how little tea’s influence has diminished. I was able to see how crucial tea was to so many, and gain an understanding of the reasons for its valued longevity in lands far removed from the green leaf’s birthplace.” Thereby, Fuchs’ effort honors those whose lives depended upon the road by making his journey an end in itself.

His plans were outlined in the blog:

So much conflicting information on where the actual Yunnan Tea Horse Road is. There are many old caravan routes, postal routes, immigrant corridors, but only ONE Tea Horse Route ... some scholars have clarified where the exact route lies.

This project is dependant upon scholars, elders, legend, diligence and patience in no particular order, and up until now all has worked out.

From here [the Shangri-la base] we head deeper south to near the Laos/Yunnan border regions where the heart of the tea growing region exists. Traditionally Dai people grew and produced Puer tea for the purpose of transportation further north and into Tibet.

Later we head to Sichuan for the second major tributary of the Tea Horse Route, the aptly named "Sichuan Tibet Tea Horse Route". Here they transported Ya'an tea into Tibet although from what we've been told, Tibetans loved the Puer from Yunnan far more than the "shallow" flavoured Ya'an from (yes you guessed it) Ya'an.

The last and final segment will be a half jeep / half trek from Lhasa to Nepal and into northern India where we will meet with some of the oldest traders left in Kalimpong.

All is well and I suppose tea has taken over from the mountains as our guardian.

His generous online postings prompted real-time queries from his young correspondents in Canada: Does yak milk tastes gross? Why is juniper oil good for a safe trip? What is the caterpillar fungus used for? How was the frostbite cured? How did the people in the small villages respond to your technology (computer)? The blog compliments his recently published adventure-travel book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers.

The book goes into details on who and why Fuchs chose his trekking partners from among the tenacious Kham peoples – Eastern Tibetans – the most experienced mountaineers who could contribute local languages, had a range of trading and other social skills, and would provide good natured company while enduring life-threatening conditions, such as frostbite, bandits, snow-blindness and hunger.

Picking up local guides along the way proved helpful as the team needed to rely on the hospitality of small villages along the way as had the caravans for centuries before them. He relates how truly “civilized” life revolves around sharing of tea with a stranger, even in the underdeveloped, remote places of human existence. At every opportunity, the offering of tea was a universal sign of support for their effort. Fuchs kept a stash of Pu’er in his pocket during the most remote legs of the journey. Breaking off a piece from the brick and adding a bit of hot water immediately demonstrated the sincerity of his intentions.

Whenever possible he sought out meetings with the few venerable remnant tsompos, caravansary leaders, who were pleased to recount stories of their past and to offer routings and cautions about the locations and conditions of the paths. Some legs of the journey were local shortcuts hardly ever used anymore, other were completely covered by chest deep snow.

These men, the least of their breed, would be away from their families on the trail for months at a time in charge of schlepping their employer’s precious cargo with promises of payment backed by nothing more than gentlemen’s agreements. Their tales of competition for right-of-way along the single lane paths cut deep into the mountain bedrock or of “highway” robbers who would stop at nothing to claim a bit of cargo, are among the last first-hand accounts of a lifestyle long gone.

What information about the horses is lacking in The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers, it more than makes up for in discussion about tea. Fuchs’ knowledge of camellia sinensis is extensive and technical, yet his writing provides even the neophyte tea drinker a close understanding of how tea is grown / harvested and the manifold ways it is processed, transported and its relative value among other commodities. His stops in processing plants and ultimately tea shops give the reader a full understanding of what happens to the leaf from the plant to palate. Fuchs' wonderful photographs are unfortunately few in number and poorly reproduced in black / white and color in the book.

[A wonderful visual companion is Delamu[2], (Tibetan for “Peaceful Angel”) a documentary film by Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang.  It is very short on dialogue, and long on self-narrated cameo portraits by some of the people who live in the villages en route and gorgeous scenery along the Nijiang River Valley. It shows the love that the lados had for their mules (the film title is the name of one of the four-legged family members), the treacherous pathways and the need for extraordinary cooperation to make the route productive for all.]

As the ultimate tea tourist, Fuchs is sensitive about how tea has sustained cultures and the people in along the “Road”. Yang Fuquan, writing in the 2004 Newsletter of the Silk Road Foundation, concurs, noting “the road also served as a significant corridor for migration as well as a channel for cultural communication among the ethnic groups in western China ... beyond this it was a bridge for international cultural and economic exchange between China and India.”[3]

What’s next for the Tea Horse Road? According to “New Highways Revitalize Ancient Tea Horse Roads”[4], an online article by Jason Rush for the Asian Development Bank, “A new highway is connecting isolated rural communities with modern commercial corridors, and fostering new economic links that carry with them the potential to bring the people along the highway a new level of prosperity.”

In a way, nothing is new, more cyclical. In a distant echo of news from the first caravans, he recalls that in Man Mai village, “nestled in the Xishuangbanna region of the PRC’s Yunnan province, 19-year-old Ha Ge and his family own a field of ancient tea trees whose roots date back more than a thousand years. The tea from the trees is a highly valued commodity in PRC, and the family is seeing firsthand how expanded access to broader markets can change lives. Ha Ge and his community now can tap into regional markets willing to pay a premium price for Pu’er tea, bettering their lives in the process.”

The future also holds great prospects of tea tourism, hopefully sustainable tourism. While most adventure travel in China remains focused on the “exotic ethnic” peoples rather than tea, several English language tour operator are including a reference to the venerable route on their web sites. Dayan in Lijang, a noted tea site, has undergone such transformation and attracted domestic tourists; although its popularity is not due to its prominence in the tea trade.

While it is often compared to the northern “Silk Route”, which has been attracting international tourism, what is unique about the Tea Horse Route is that it is still very much, however barely, living history. Any effort to conserve should also sustain, if not improve, the people who live along its way and the earth which provides their nourishment.

In Tea and Tourism: Tourists, Traditions and Transformations, editor Lee Jolliffe not only presents articles that link the histories tea producing and consuming cultures (Fujian Province, Hangzhou, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Assam, in the first case, and the UK, Canada and the rest of China in the second), his colleagues look into the contemporary issues of how the resurgence of popularity of tea has given remote, underdeveloped regions a reason to considering investment in developing necessary infrastructure to establish a lucrative, tea-centric tourism-based enterprise.

In addition to promoting the route’s romantic exotic peoples, there’s money to be made welcoming eco-tourists to stalk wild tea bushes, visit plantations, gardens, processing facilities, markets and auctions. Other visitors – from the tea hobbyist to Asiaphiles -- can enjoy festivals and seminars, visit historic and artisan sites, such as pottery studios and enjoy cafes, buy souvenirs, stay in guest houses, etc.

Contributor Paul Leung Kin Han suggests that improvement of the roadway and development of tourism infrastructure might also mitigate rural poverty, especially at the small-scale village industry level, “facilitate natural environment preservation and cultural asset conservation” not just in China, but in every one of the 57 countries where tea is produced as a commodity. Tea tourism in China is developing among domestic as well as inbound visitors from abroad. A friend from Yunnan tells me that Taiwanese entrepreneurs are already building restaurants, cafes and hotels in the tea garden region.

Tea and Tourism contributor Hillary Du Cross suggests that the geographic complex of route and people and commodity might be added to world heritage lists as a “linear cultural landscape” or an asset of high national significance.

She also cautions that for the Chinese government to realize the value of the Tea Horse Road’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage assets of the route, national and international significance has to be documented.

In addition to anecdotal information, such as oral history and photographs gathered by Fuchs and his photojournalist comrades, extensive, accurate, detailed facts must be and researched and analyzed, whether for a town, a tea making process, a personality or the route itself, before any claims can be staked and governmental investments secured.

Fuchs’ book will not necessarily promote a run on Chinese embassy visa offices by tea-tipplers or even those with impeccable taste buds. It’s an account of a technical accomplishment, more of use to someone who has a topo map rather than one from the rental car company. However, in addressing the challenges to documenting if not also improving the lives of the current generation of folks who live along the Tea Horse Road today, time is of the essence. The World Monument Fund has listed the Sideng Market in the Shazi Valley (between Dali and Lijang) on the list of the 100 most endangered World Monuments, as the “last intact ‘caravanserai-like’ stopover in China.” Fuchs’ first-hand impressions may be among the last.

The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels with the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers by Jeff Fuchs

As we slipped down a Simaon tea alley in the tropical heat, a stern teahouse hostess invited us into her shop with a forcible hospitality more common to Tibetans than the Chinese or minority tribes. The alley consisted of neat rows of nearly identical teahouses that opened onto a walkway. We were in the realm of tea purism; such alleys were visited by addicts rather than by tourists. The shop we now found ourselves in was a small tidy room with a tea table that took up a good quarter of the space. The room smelled of dried tea, and every bit of space was occupied by bags of tea, stacks of dry tea cakes, a shelf of vintage tea, loose leaf tea, bricks of tea, and poorly printed photographs of tea fields. While most teahouse owners engaged themselves with card games or television, this woman appeared to have deemed herself responsible for educating the two foreigners in the ways of Puer, and it was her intensity that drew us in.

In the Simao Prefecture, tea was not only enjoyed by revered, used in ceremonies and purchased not by the gram but by the kilogram. Here there was a ritualistic aspect to tea, in both its preparation and its consumption, whereas in the Tibetan regions it was a basic ingredient of life, one that nourished and warmed. But we were far from the rough ways of Tibetan tea etiquette. I tried to imagine a tall, raw-boned Khampa encased in a chupa – a long wool coat – and pleated hair sitting next to us, with these delicate ornaments and discussions of tea-drinking etiquette. Although his meaning of tea might differ, its importance and value would be the same. ...

Simao had been a centre of tea cultivation for thousands of years, and Simao’s tea had been making its way to Tibet for more than thirteen hundred years. Even in china, tea purists referred to the area as the home of tea. Simao’s climate and altitude is perfect for growing that oddly named and most unusual of teas, Puer. Tea, its production, its culture and particularly its consumption were all of the utmost importance in Simao. First consumed as a medicine and as a food, tea was originally referred to as tu, meaning bitter herb, before becoming known from the eighth century onward as cha – tea. It has always been integral to the lives and diets of Yunnan’s ancient Tibeto-Burman lives. (p. 150-1)

Ya’an, the beginning of the Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road ... had once been the home to horse markets and the dreaded ax officials. Whereas the deep south of Yunnan had been largely in the hands of the ethnic minorities, Ya’an has always been a Chinese stronghold. Simao and Puer in  Yunnan were the southern-most points visited by lados; Ya’an was the most easterly. ...

Teas from Ya’an were readily available in Lhasa, sold in their recognizable long woven bamboo containers, though the tea themselves were completely different in shape, colour and type from the Yunnan Puers. They had long been imbibed not only in Tibet but in all the frontier regions for as long as the caravans had been carrying tea. We were in the land that became the largest producer of teas for  Tibet, home to the “Celestial” green tea of Mengshan and of the famous bian cha, the frontier / borderland tea. It was also an area where the local governments held a monopoly on the export of tea, controlling the completely the production and trade of the green.  ...

The porters carried much of the tea, piled high on their backs, treading along the mountain paths that led from the tea towns around Ya’an to the main markets of Kangding (Dartsendo to Tibetans). Many died tumbling off cliffs, tied to their tea. Merciless treks in bamboo sandals, carrying hundred-kilogram loads of tea for weeks on end – the porters’ stories were the stuff of legends. And like the lados, there were fewer and fewer porters still living. (p.184, 185)

[1] http://www.chinaexpat.com/article/2007/04/11/history/ancient-tea-horse-road.html
[2] A BDI Films/Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK)/Kuming Datongdao Film and TV/Beijing Time United Culture Developing Co. presentation of a BDI/Beijing Time United Culture Developing Co. production. Produced by Takahiro Hamano, Yang Zhao. Executive producers, Lui Zhao, Hao Li, Toyohiko Harada. Co-executive producer, Nobuo Isobe. Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang.
 [3] Fuquan, Yang, “The ‘Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road,’ the ‘Silk Road’ of southwest China” http//www.silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/2004vol2lnum1/tea.htm
[4] http://www.adb.org/Media/Articles/2008/12430-mekong-roads-developments/ Also on that site is the fast action video, Closing the Gap: Highway 3 Kunming to Bangkok http://mms.adb.org/Media/Video/GMS/gms-route3.wmv/, and slide show, Revitalizing the Tea Horse Road http://www.adb.org/Documents/Photos/GMS/Tea-Horse-Road, both worth watching.