The Horse Caravans

The Horse Caravans

In the twelve centuries that the Tea Horse Road existed, little changed in the way tea was carried from the southern tea mountains to Lhasa. Horse caravans ran in stages, beginning in the town of Puer (now called Simao), which was the collecting point. The caravans varied in size, but could have as many as 50 to 100 ponies and mules, tended by up to 20 muleteers. The leader was known picturesquely as the Ma Guo Tou, meaning ’Head of Horses and [cooking] Pots’, and his second-in-command Er Guo Tou (‘Number Two Head of Pots’), while further north, in Tibetan territory, muleteers were known as lado, meaning ‘Hand of Stone’. According to 19th century accounts, the caravans started early each day, rested two or three hours during the middle of the day before continuing, and could cover about 30 kilometres in around eight hours. The standard load was a dozen packs each containing seven round cakes, known as bing, and weighed a little over 50 kilos.  A certain amount of tradition attended these caravans, and the lead horses were quite colourfully decorated and often carried the team’s flag. Russian-born Peter Goulart, who made the journey several times in the 1940s to reach Lijiang, described the morning departure of a caravan: “To the sounding of the gong, the leading horse, gaily bedecked in red ribbons, pompoms and small mirrors on its forehead, was led out….and, having looked back to see that everything was ready, started walking down the road at a brisk pace. At once he was followed by the assistant leader, less gaudily decorated, but also full of authority. Immediately the whole caravan sprang after them.”