The Tea Horse Road, in its journey from the tea mountains in the south to Tibet in the north, passes through a dozen officially recognised minority nationalities.
Borderlands have always had a special appeal. They are places on the edge, far from the mainsprings of civilisation with secret pockets and possibilities for exploration. Yunnan fits this very well, with mountain ranges and deep valleys creating isolated worlds, particularly to the west, where the outliers of the Himalayas running north-south create a rugged topography. Populating these valleys and mountains that until the new era of roads and flights were difficult to reach was a chain of tribal societies, and even today Yunnan as a whole has 25 officially recognised minority nationalities, and they still make up more than a third of the population. The Tea Horse Road, in its journey from the tea mountains in the south to Tibet in the north, passes through half of these.
In the far south, along the border with Myanmar and Laos, is a pattern of hill-tribes, including the Bulang, Akha (Aini in Chinese), Lahu and Wa, among them the first growers of tea and who still tend some of the most highly regarded Puer tea mountains. The lowland plains around these mountains are home to the Dai, while further north, on the way to Dali, are Yi groups, and a scattering of Hui Muslim villages, descendants of Kublai Khan’s 13th century invading army. Around Dali, the dominant ethnic group is the Bai, as far north almost to Lijiang, where the Naxi replace them. North again and climbing, up onto the high plain of Shangri-La, Tibetan communities take over, and dominate the route all the way to Lhasa.