Following the Ancient Tea-Horse Road. Or at Least Trying.

Following the Ancient Tea-Horse Road. Or at Least Trying.
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Following the Ancient Tea-Horse Road. Or at Least Trying.

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MAPINGGUAN VILLAGE, China — Liu Xing Ma was sitting in his timber-frame home here when two hikers with scraggly beards appeared in his courtyard.

That was me and my French trekking guide, Jean-Yves Tollu. We were several hours into a two-and-a-half-day, 30-mile walk through the foothills that encircle Shaxi, an ancient trading town in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. And one of us — me — was terribly thirsty.

Could Mr. Liu possibly spare some water?

Our plan had been to follow vestiges of a trading route that Chinese scholars and officials call the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, and some call the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail. But the journey was bound to be quixotic, and dehydrating, because the road — which the Yunnanese authorities promote as a symbol of the area’s rich cultural heritage — is as much a historical concept as a physical entity.

Trade along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, a title used for a informal network of caravan routes across a vast swath of Asia, began in earnest around the seventh century and peaked between the late 1600s and mid-20th century, according to Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Western Australia who studies the intersection of history, tourism and politics in China. He said that on horseback, it would take about six months to travel the Chinese portion of the trail network, which began in the tea plantations of southern Yunnan and ended in Tibet.

Many segments of the Tea-Horse Road carried regular horse and mule traffic as late as the post-World War II era, when traders transported military supplies and scrap metal, and at least one segment was active until the early 1990s, Professor Sigley said in a telephone interview. But he noted that the label actually had been coined in the 1990s by a group of Yunnanese academics.

Map | Mapingguan Village, China

Professor Sigley said the idea of ancient caravan routes in southwest China appeals to Chinese tourists as proof of the country’s ancient history and a stark counterpoint to its rapid development. But surviving portions of the caravan routes themselves, he said, are not well marked.

“You really need a lot of local knowledge” to follow them, he said. “Otherwise you’ll get lost.”

Mr. Tollu, my guide, had spent years exploring segments of the caravan routes, reading travel accounts by 19th-century European explorers and talking with elderly villagers who remembered when traders had carried tea and salt — which was mined in Shaxi — on mules or horses through Mapingguan and other villages.

Our route, which began in Shaxi, mostly followed horse paths and shepherds’ trails that zigzagged through hilly pine forests and clusters of azaleas and rhododendrons. None were formally marked, and all were in a state of near-constant change from erosion and other natural or human disturbances.

So it was hardly surprising that, around lunchtime on the first day, we found ourselves at the edge of a cliff.

“Sorry about that,” said Mr. Tollu, 34, the founder of the Yunnan-based adventure company Amiwa Trek, as we retraced our steps under a cloudless winter sky.

Around midafternoon, we entered Mapingguan, a village of the Bai ethnic minority group, along a freshly paved stone path. Mr. Liu, the villager, said the stones had been laid for tourism and that Mapingguan was emerging as a popular destination for Tea-Horse enthusiasts.

“Many more people this year than last,” he said. After refilling our water canteens, he poured out complimentary shots of homemade baijiu, or rice wine, which burned as it went down.

From Mapingguan we followed another network of trails through some hillside farms where Bai villagers were planting potatoes and carting supplies to and fro on horses and mules.

The scenes had a timeless quality; Mr. Tollu said they reminded him of Dutch landscape paintings. But signs of change were everywhere, too. Mapingguan had a new cellular phone tower, for instance, and other villages were flanked by newish-looking roads, power lines and wind turbines.

On one dirt road, a villager pulled his truck over and asked if we needed a lift.

Thanks, Mr. Tollu said in Mandarin, but we were happy to walk.

Sixteen miles from Shaxi, we walked into Dong Zhuang, a cluster of traditional Bai homes in an isolated mountain valley. The temperature was falling sharply as the sun set, so I was delighted to smell wood smoke as we neared the gates of our village home-stay: a timber-frame house with a barn for pigs and chickens.

Over an open fire, our hosts cooked a delicious meal of pork, chicken, mushrooms, rice and cubes of homemade goats’ milk cheese. And after dinner, the family patriarch, Shi Jizhong, told us what he knew about the Tea-Horse Road.

Mr. Shi said local mule caravans had ended before he was born, a year after China’s Communist revolution of 1949, but that his grandfather had seen muleteers carrying salt from a nearby mine to other villages.

How far afield, we asked, did those caravans travel?

“Far,” he said, naming a village that I assumed was hundreds of miles away.

But Mr. Shi was speaking in horse, rather than car, distances: The village was at most 50 miles to the southeast, and the most direct route was not the multilane expressway that now passes within a few miles of the Shaxi Valley, but a horse path that once led directly over some rugged hills.

Mr. Tollu and I rose early the next morning, and I noticed that ice had formed overnight on the edges of some trail-side streams. The sun rose strong and clear, though, and before long we were peeling off layers and slathering our noses with sunscreen.

We entered a more remote stretch of trail, and the fragrant pines, ferns and wildflowers reminded me of the central California wilderness. But we also saw indications of human activity, including abandoned homes that may have once been way stations for passing muleteers; outdoor charcoal ovens that had fallen into disrepair; and bare patches of forest that recently had been logged for timber.

That afternoon, we walked into another Bai village, Shilong, and watched a group of men carting stones on horseback. One of them, Zhang De Ba, said the stone would be used to build a path to a local temple, about 20 minutes away by horse, and that the temple was important because it housed a protective spirit.

“It’s the same in France, with churches,” Mr. Tollu said.

Mr. Tollu said the temples of the Shaxi Valley illustrate a cultural diversity born from centuries of trade. Some have religious art inscribed with Tibetan script, for example, while others have white-elephant and reclining-Buddha statues, which are typically associated with Southeast Asian forms of Buddhism.

“You don’t see these in the rest of China,” Mr. Tollu told me, as we looked at a reclining Buddha in a temple that had been carved into a cliff face near Shilong village.

It was the third and final morning of our trip, and we had risen just after dawn and walked to the temple along a freshly paved road.

After descending its stone staircase, we sat in a nearby parking lot, eating noodles around an open fire with Li Quan Jin, 60, one of the temple’s managers.

“Today we have cars but in the old days we had to use horses to get around,” Mr. Li said, when I asked how the area had changed since he was a child. Even a village like Mapingguan, he added, had been without road access until very recently.

I told him we had just walked about 30 miles — from Shaxi to Mapingguan to Shilong — and joked that the journey might have been more comfortable on horseback.

He smiled.

“If you had told me before,” he said, “I could have arranged some for you!”

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