I have begun to use my tea time, both morning and afternoon, to read. The choice of book this week was Jeff Fuchs’ The Ancient Tea Horse Road, a book I thought fitting in the month of the Tibetan New Year. What also appealed was the fact that Fuchs loves stories of the mountains, tea and people.
Fuchs has spent long years in the southern parts of China, heeding the call of the mountains. It was on one such journey that his friend, Dakpa, pointing to a “faint line leading down the length of the valley…not much more than a wisp of dust …”, told him it was an ancient route for horses and tea. It had not been in use since the 1960s.
Forgotten trails lay where once muleteers, or lados, walked with caravans laden with goods. In 2006, when Fuchs set out with his small group of Tibetans, including Dakpa, he became the first Westerner on the trail. This book is an account of that journey, of 5,000km over eight months, a journey as much into the past as the present.
The Tea Horse Road is a 1,300-year-old trade route that connected Tibet with both China and India. Tea came to Tibet when a famous king married a Chinese princess and she brought it as part of her dowry. It became a staple, and began to be imported from China. It would be sent in a compressed brick form and was so valuable that it served as currency for a very long time. Indeed, some of the lados were paid in tea bricks when goods were sold. As Fuchs writes, a good horse could be bought with 120kg of tea.
For Fuchs and his group, the trek was a chance to record the stories of old muleteers. The Tea Horse Road is not a single trail; it has offshoots. Fuchs broke his journey into two parts. One, along a route that began at Yunnan, and into Tibet. Entering this route at the Shangri-La city in north-western Yunnan, the group made its way to Lhasa. The second part of the journey was along the Sichuan Tibet route, originating in Ya’an in western Sichuan. From there, Fuchs went into the heartland of the pu-erh tea mountains.
It never ceases to amaze me that one plant has journeyed so much and grown so many stories. Tibet, Fuchs writes, knows and loves the dark tea that is fermented as it journeys to them—it has never been exposed to any other type of tea. It is not a specialty, or single estate or a first flush, it’s more earthy and hearty, a cup that offers sustenance. As winds raged and blizzards blew, tea and fire held households together, and where tea was shared, there was kinship, says Fuchs.
As I write this, I think of how tea has supported my own wanderlust—I am a great armchair traveller. Itchy feet are somewhat soothed by a cup of tea, and a book to journey with becomes my link to people and places.
There is a story that a tea maker in Berinag (now in Uttarakhand) had learnt how to make the brick tea as trade with Tibetans was frequent. To try compressed tea, choose from the handy tea cakes designed for single use by Woolah, or the singpho falap, or the pu-erh-style tea by Ketlee.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.