We spent eight days in Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian (Shangri-la) exploring part of the Tea Horse Road in Yunnan. The Tea Horse Road is an ancient trading route starting in Yunnan province in the southwest of China, through the mountains to Lhasa in Tibet and beyond. In ancient times, traders trekked by foot and on horseback and took the coveted pu-er tea of Yunnan into Tibet to exchange for hardy, short-legged ponies and war horses, needed for their armies to protect its northern frontier and their trading caravans.
The Tea Horse Road, covering over 3,000 kilometres through forests, gorges and high passes to the Himalayan plateaus, used to be a very important trading route and a dangerous one. Groups of bandits controlled different sections of the road, demanded tributes from passing caravans, and even held hostages for ransom when wealthy merchants were travelling. I was very excited to see how this important ancient trading route looks like nowadays, explore the cultures and meet the people (there are 26 minorities living in Yunnan) along the Tea Horse Road.
Our journey started in the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming. Kunming is described as the “City of Eternal Spring” as it has a pleasant, spring like climate almost all year around with plenty of sunshine. We went to explore the magnificent, bizarrely shaped, underground canyon in Jiuxiang’s Scenic Area, China’s largest karst rock caves and . The caves were impressive with underground waterfalls and natural rock bridges. We also climbed up to the Kunming Dragon’s Gate at Xishan, for a bird’s eye view of the city of Kunming and the Dianchi Pool. Numerous grottoes, sculptures and pavilions are built impressively on the steep cliff face. The guide told us to touch the stone right underneath the Dragon’s gate to pray for good luck in studies and career. Well, there is no harm touching a stone, right?
Driving on to Dali, the ancient political and trading centre situated between Erhai Lake and the Cang Mountains, and home of the earliest group of merchants and middlemen. We took a refreshing boat ride on Erhai Lake in the morning and enjoyed the view of the golden sun beam on Cangshan. It was spectacular. The freshwater lake stretches over 116 kilometres, has a very rich biodiversity and is an important food source for local people. The lake is also one of the water sources of the famous Mekong River running through Myanmar to Saigon in Vietnam.
After the boat ride, we explored Dali ancient town where the government makes a great effort for preservation. We first arrived at the western street which is hugely influenced by foreigners and has a lot of western restaurants and bars. While we continued our walk towards the south gate of the town, we walked passed many small shops selling all kinds of tea, handicrafts, flower pastries, silver crafts and more. The city gate is so beautiful and full of Chinese architectural features. It was so beautiful that we saw many couples take their wedding pictures on the city wall!
We visited a Bai minority traditional house in the nearby Xizhou Village, the Yan’s Compound and enjoyed the Bai’s traditional Three Course Tea ceremony prepared by the Bai people as a welcome ritual. We took a seat in front of the stage and watched the Bai lady prepare the first course while dancers and singers performed on the stage. As the tea preparation was done, we were treated to the first course of tea, which tasted a bit bitter. Afterward, the dancers and singers went on stage again to perform. The second tea course tasted sweet with small pieces of ginger and almond. It was very tasty, maybe I had a sweet tooth, I liked the tea. Afterwards, the performance continued while we waited for the final course of the tea ceremony. The taste and aroma of final course of the tea was very different from the first two cups, it was a combination of the first two courses plus a little bit of spice and Sichuan peppercorn. It was a very intriguing experience with the Bai’s people hospitality.
The Tea Horse Road runs north from Dali passing through small market towns to the UNESCO Heritage site of Lijiang where my journey continues…..