Legend has it that, around 640 AD, an ancient mountain passageway brought a beautiful Tang Dynasty princess to marry a powerful Tibetan king. To reach her husband, Princess Wénchéng crossed this windswept, snow-capped landscape almost one and a half thousand miles from the low, verdant valleys of southern China, climbing to the Buddhist city of Lhasa, high on the Tibetan Plateau. An epic romance, by any account, but this love affair is believed by some to have altered the course of history, thanks to something she carried with her: tea leaves. To quench the Tibetan royalty’s new thirst for tea, Chinese traders from Yunnan and Sichuan zigzagged their way beyond the Himalayas, through these mysterious mountains’ narrow switchbacks, over treacherous, sky-high passes. Their route extended from Tibet into India and Nepal, linking Imperial China to the kingdoms of South Asia.
Arriving by mule and yak, when Song Dynasty traders arrived in Lhasa they swapped their precious Chinese teas from the plantations of Xishuangbanna, Yiwu and Pu’er in exchange for Tibetan horses, they gave this remote, storied passage its enduring name: the Tea Horse Road. Within two hundred years, China was trading millions of pounds of tea for tens of thousands of Tibetan horses a year. But the Emperor proved no match for the marauding tribes from the northern frontier. The Tibetan steeds could save the Song Dynasty; it fell to Kublai Khan in 1279. Yet this did little to diminish the death-defying tea-for-horses trade. Throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, tea was swapped for silver, gold and the rare traditional Chinese medicinal plants that thrived on the Tibetan Plateau. To this day, a cup of Chinese tea represents centuries of sustenance for Tibetan herders, nomads and traders across this legendary landscape.
Adventurous travellers have traced these paths under the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain for more than a millennium. Eight centuries of history are still visible in the Old Town of Lijiang, a Unesco World Heritage Site of delicate timber dwellings with elegant wing-tipped roofs, where elaborately carved stone bridges negotiate notable waterways. This one-time gathering point for merchant caravans is among China’s best-preserved historic towns, celebrated as a rare urban scene that combines different cultural traditions. The native Dongba culture of the indigenous Naxi people has been unmistakably preserved, and Lijiang warmly invites visitors to wander its cobblestone streets, past houses festooned with red-silk lanterns.