China is not just Coronavirus and we want to show our friendship by continuing to discover curiosities, stories and places that we will return to visit together. A magnificent country with a thousand-year history that everyone should know better.
Yesterday, looking for stories about horses, I came across the Via del Tè e dei Cavalli (Cha Ma Dao), a long track of almost 10,000 km that passes through 20 mountain ranges and 4 rivers, including the Yangtse. Sometimes it is also called the Southern Silk Road but for many of us it is an unknown story.
It connected Yunnan and Sichuan, where tea was grown, with Tibet via the Hengduan Mountains. The mountains of Yunnan with their height of 1000-1500 meters, their acid soils and the morning mists that gave plants moisture are perfect for tea cultivation.
On Mount Mengding near Chengdu, tea cultivation dates back to 65 BC.
Via del Tè e dei Cavalli was one of the most famous and dangerous roads in the world, and perhaps for this reason also one of the most fascinating, so much so that Marco Polo on his return trip to Venice also passed along the Via del Tè e dei Cavalli.
In some paths one passes at a time, cross the rivers with rope bridges and climb 3000 meters high mountains: it was once unusual to meet bandits and smugglers along the way.
Caravans of over 300 men and 1000 horses for centuries have traveled these paths on which the hooves have left their footprints in the stones. The longest caravans reached almost 8 km in length and took 6 months to arrive at the Lhasa tea market.
But why this trade and this huge walk?
It all begins with the discovery of the tea tree with its leaves that are used in soups and infusions, also creating healing syrups. In fact, like Coca-Cola, tea was initially used as a curative element and only afterwards did it become the drink we know today.
A small story: tea was born in China and all Chinese, Japanese and Indian legends testify to it. The British brought it to India and Ceylon to have their plantations and tea was also the fortune of the Company of the Indies, the British commercial fleets that connected east and west.
In China, the God of Tea was celebrated, with the Book of Tea, and tea is the protagonist of many local customs, so much so that a tree was planted at the wedding, just as in Italy walnut trees were planted for the furniture. The tree was a gift that would bear fruit (and therefore wealth) generation after generation.
For local people, tea soon became part of their diet and news of its beneficial properties spread quickly. Above all, the fact that tea is rich in vitamins and breaks down fats makes it perfect for those who have a diet as rich as that of the mountain populations of the Himalayas who fed on milk, butter, mutton and beef.
And like many of the world’s stories, this also begins with a wedding when, in 641, Chinese princess Wen Chen, daughter of Emperor Taizong, married Songtsen Gampo, the king of Tibet and introduced tea to his court.
And here begins the story of the Way of Tea and Horses
The people of Tibet needed tea to the point that it began to be used as an exchange currency for the purchase of the famous Mongolian horses, which drank it combined with mare’s milk.
The caravans set off in the spring after the leaves were collected and pressed and left to ferment again on the horse’s back. Fermentation is said to last 14 days in warehouses or 100 days on horseback.
Horses and mules were loaded and fed abundantly to face the journey and forced to eat: the best food was destined for animals before man.
The history of the Way of tea and Horses
The Tea and Horse Route was traversed by tea vendors who went from the plains to Tibet to trade it for horses that were used for military and prestige uses. Bartering was a form of exchange economy and has been described in treaties that governed and favored it.
The road was used starting from 600 AD, during the Tang Dynasty period (618-907), and then it had a great development when during the Five Dynasties period (907-960 AD) many horses were needed for the numerous wars in progress.
In fact, Tibetan ponies have been extremely important especially to stem the advance of populations from the north, to the point that trade was managed directly by the government during the period from the Five Dynasties to the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).
After this date, the lack of horses ended and the route was used mainly as a route to sell tea in exchange for money or other goods.
The Tea and Horse Route was restored during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) which used it as a system to control Tibet through the establishment of four agencies and to supply horses to fight the Mongols. At that time a horse corresponded to about 60 kg of tea.
In 1702, Emperor Kangxi established a tea customs in Dajianlu (now Kangding in Sichuan) which became the most important center of the Tea and Horse Route where the caravans stopped and were checked.
The Tea and Horse Route was then very important for China during the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945 when it remained as the only international access to China. Aid and goods passed from here and contributed to the Chinese resistance against the invader.
The history of the Via del Tè e dei Cavalli was documented in 1899 by the French Auguste Francois with his camera which he traveled in about 5 years noting everything on his diaries.
What did the Way of tea and Horses leave with us?
Goods, but also ideas, customs and cultures, pass on every road. And the Way of Tea and Horses has brought Chinese and Indian culture into communication, leading, for example, to the knowledge of Buddhism and all spiced cuisine.
Some villages along the way where caravans stopped and shows like the Chinese Shadows were on the lists of candidates to enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And now we explain why in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, the traditional Tibetan horse race festival of Tagong was born in August.
Chengdu: we will come back to visit you and embrace all its inhabitants!