Lured to the silk road of the south, Nick Boulos travels the ancient Trade route that spans southwest China, Tibet, Bhutan and Burma, in search of the finest brews going…

The pale green tea tumbled slowly from the spout of the chipped teapot. Working methodically, Xiaoyun Huang poured cup after cup, stirring each gently and brushing away the excess leaves. ‘The taste changes with each serving,’ she said. ‘Pu-erh tea is like red wine. The older, the better.’ Stacked high on the surrounding shelves of this small teahouse in the heart of Lijiang were hundreds of varieties – some more than 20 years old that sell for upwards of US$1,600 a box.

Tea has been big business in this corner of southwest China for centuries. It started during the Tang Dynasty when – according to local lore – Princess Wénchéng married a Tibetan king and began married life with a supply of tea. As its popularity grew, trade flourished along the 2,000km stretch that separates the tea-producing province of Yunnan from Tibet – a route that soon became known as the Tea Horse Road.

Charming Lijiang was founded on tea. Amid the Old Town’s streams and willow trees stood the main square. Red paper lanterns hung from the rafters of temples. In days gone by, this space was a lively market and rest area for those travelling along the Tea Horse Road. Horses grazed on grass strewn across the cobbled ground. But this patch of the People’s Republic is about much more than tea. The surrounding mountains and valleys blend exceptional natural beauty with intriguing customs and ancient legends.

Beyond the impressive Tiger Leaping Gorge – which slices through the murky and frothing Jinsha River and is named after a big cat that supposedly escaped hunters by jumping across the chasm – is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Baisha. Home to the Naxi people, one of the few remaining to still use a pictorial alphabet, Baisha offers a glimpse of a culture that is struggling for survival. ‘Nobody will speak our language in 100 years,’ said restaurateur Lee Bowie, mournfully.

As is customary in the Naxi community, the women were hard at work while the men practiced calligraphy and played cards. ‘The men do the important jobs. We plan the buildings, but the women build them,’ joked Lee, looking over his shoulder to make sure his wife was out of earshot. Down the road, sat under the shade of a leafy cherry tree, was a group of old Naxi ladies enjoying a break from harvesting the fields. They chatted and laughed over an intense game not dissimilar to dominoes, all the while sipping from tiny cups of the finest green tea in the land. And what else would you expect?

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