Yunnan is only beginning to plug into regional and global supply chains and logistics networks, but for centuries it was at the heart of one of the world's largest and most important trade networks: The Ancient Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道).
Often referred to as the South Silk Road, the route differs from its more famous northern cousin in that rather than connecting the West and the East, it was located entirely in Asia, serving as a conduit for the exchange of commodities and ideas from the kingdoms of China, India, Tibet, Burma and Southeast Asia.
The route was more than 2,000 kilometers long, connecting sweltering lowland jungle with treacherous mountain passes more than 3,000 meters above sea level. For the people and mules that plied the route, survival was a constant concern.
The Ancient Tea and Horse Road's significance is well-known throughout Asia, but relatively few Westerners know much about it. Explorer, photographer and author Jeff Fuchs may be the first Westerner to travel the entire length of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road, an experience which he documented in his book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers.
The Canada native is preparing to lead tours of the Yunnan and Tibet sections of the route this coming December and March for high-end travel company WildChina. We recently spoke with Fuchs about the route and the world-changing drink behind it:
GoKunming: What put you on the path toward a life of exploration?
Jeff Fuchs: Early on in my life there were two constants: one was books about places and the other was being outdoors. Along with a spell spent living in Switzerland as a child and often being in the mountains, these constants seem to frame my world into necessities.
I'm not the first to say it but exploration of a geography is in itself an exploration of the self. Wandering and delving into the mountains in particular for me is about as close to that feeling of alive as I have felt and once you get that taste or feeling, you need more. When you encounter cultures living in these mountains it adds an incredible dimension into a landscape, giving it blood and life. These hidden treasures seem to bring everything into a sharper focus.
GK: Why did you initially take interest in the Ancient Tea and Horse Road?
Fuchs: A combined passion for the mountains and tea came together when an old friend living in Yunnan explained the significance of the route. For 13 uninterrupted centuries the route - and by extension entire economies - flowed providing tea, salt and medicines to some of the most remote landscapes on Earth. And yet for all of its significance, so little of it had been explored or documented. It seemed a route that had quietly supplied some of the most isolated cultures on the planet with little trinkets and treats from far away worlds.
Another enormous draw was the fact that it was one of the most daunting and arduous journeys on the globe, taking in thousands of kilometers, dozens of cultures and most of it through ominous Himalayas. To a large degree the history and legends of the Tea Horse Road are entirely of Asia and this almost-mystery drew me in almost immediately.
GK: What were some of the most memorable or surprising experiences you had during your travels on the route?
Fuchs: While I've spent much of my days in mountains around the world, the geographies that lie within the Himalayas absolutely silence the mind with their power and silence and as much as I expect these vistas, they never fail to halt me in my tracks and surprise and infuse the mind.
An incident that will remain with me for the rest of my life is one that almost took the life of one of our members. Crossing a snow pass above 5,000 meters with heavy packs on our backs, one of our team - only two meters ahead of me on the route - in an attempt to pivot and turn, slipped and started a ferocious, streaking descent of almost a kilometer to what seemed an unavoidable plunge into an abyss. Somehow, he managed to halt himself before an inevitable death. The feeling of being totally useless when they need you most is something that you feel in your very bones.
Many of the elders that spoke with us, be they Hani or Wa, Han or Tibetan, all spoke of how the route bonded peoples and linked and united both cultures and products. This repeated view of the route took me by surprise a bit: how important this 'link' from the misty sub-tropic tea forests of southern Yunnan to the mighty Himalayan spires was and how locals viewed it as something binding.
GK: Did you find that there were still some common denominators shared by people living on different parts of the route? If so, what were they?
Fuchs: Without a doubt, one of the common threads throughout the whole five thousand kilometers was tea's great importance along the route to all cultures for over a millennium. There is a great Himalayan quote about tea's precious nature that sums up - for me at least - its necessity: "If a cup of tea isn't offered, a friendship isn't offered". It was the great commodity and social bonder and to some degree still is. I'm not sure we have an equivalent in the West - one single consumable that both bonds and tells a story.
Many of the remote communities also shared a great appreciation of the route and its caretakers and traders as without it and them, many desolate regions and inhabitants would have no access to goods, information or outsiders at all. Amongst the remote communities there seems a shared struggle with the elements and so there is perhaps a greater understanding and appreciation of the efforts required to travel and survive the route.
GK: What did you learn about yourself while traveling the route?
Fuchs: For myself, I realized how fully addicted to tea and its plethora of benefits I really was. Another full realization was that my own need for the mountains stems from their abilities to soothe the body and mind and make very tangible what is and what isn't important in the grand scheme of life. What matters is usually right there before you and if you're not 'there' in the present it might be your last day. When you're on the road living out of a pack for eight months following an ancient trade route looking at the bleached bones that are still there from caravans that didn't make it, it makes an immediate impression on how life for most is about the simple necessities of life.
When you look at the very physical efforts required to transport goods and usher them to other geographies in the mountains it makes you understand whey there is so much appreciation for even the smallest items.
GK: What can be done to preserve the route and promote its history?
Fuchs: I would love to see portions of the route kept as they are, with their old cobbled stones, their faint pathways that wisp up into the heights and ancient tea forests kept bare of human machines and 'enhancements'. I think when people are able to see the physical route it provides a hint at the historical dimension that this great route played. In a strange kind of irony, it is sometimes in bringing and introducing a place in a 'soft' way to people that that very place can then be protected and appreciated. I've always believed that people need to experience something physically in order to understand its essential qualities.
For me, the elders who actually traveled the routes - but who are dying off - should be spoken to and have their narratives and anecdotal tales taken down, for their perceptions and observations are those of people who have lived and given blood, and in many cases, lives, along the route. Sometimes the views of academics and historians lack a certain vividness, a certain human dimension, that gives life and blood to a story or time.
GK: How would you characterize the importance of tea to this part of Asia?
Fuchs: It seems that many have lost touch with tea's role in history and of its role as a panacea of sorts. I always think back to how many ritualistic tea ceremonies I've attended in and around Asia and my mind seems to dwell most on those tea sessions where simplicity ruled and the experience was about a great tea and bringing people together. Some tea rituals seem to lose sight of the fact that a great tea is one that tastes great as opposed to being a certain vintage, and that one of tea's great uses besides the wonderful bitter 'kick' in the mouth is its ability to bring people together.
One of tea's great aspects, that I hope is not lost, is that one can simply pull up a chair in a tea shop an gulp an afternoon away with some conversation - this is still the way in many parts of Asia. Whether tea is purchased or not isn't the point, it is to share.
GK: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Fuchs: Later this year I am speaking at the 1st Annual North American Tea Conference in Canada about the origins of tea and the Tea Horse Road, and doing a tea lecture series as well.
For the rest of the year preparing for another major expedition and beginning a series of tours along the Yunnan-Tibet portion of Tea Horse Road for WildChina...and when I find a little extra time I'll be slurping down some good green pu'er to keep the addiction sated.
Images: Jeff Fuchs