I fancy Western China. One of the reasons I started LittlePo Adventures is that I want to bring as many people as possible to this less traveled region, the earlier the better.
Western China is exotic. Think Himalayas, expansive deserts, diverse ethnic cultures and more. While the wild landscapes might remain constant for generations to come, the local ways of life are changing rapidly due to globalization, tourism, and the interference from Chinese government. If the thought of visiting China ever crosses your mind, do it. Visit Western China where the cultures are the most intriguing, the scenery is the most breathtaking, and the soil was crisscrossed by footsteps of countless iron-spirited caravans traveling or vanishing on the two ancient trade routes – the Tea Horse Trail and the Silk Road.
The Silk Road
I traced the Silk Road back in 1995. Silk Road is famous and has always been a traveler’s highlight in China along with the Great Wall, Giant Pandas, and Three Gorges of the Yangtze. The tour started in Xi’an and ended at the Heaven Lake in Xinjiang.
I was 20 and everything about the trip was mind blowing. Terra-cotta soldiers, squatting road noodle eaters in Shanxi, the steepest stretch of the Great Wall, the layers of Buddhism wall paintings in desert caves. Delicious Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles made me almost swallow my tongue. Holding an arm-length iron stick of lamb kebab wandering in the night market in Urumqi was one of the best nightlife experiences. Crispy and juicy Xinjiang pears, candy-like Hami raisins, and long grained Xinjiang rice mixed with nuts, dried fruit, and most importantly dripping grease from roasted lamb.
The record of the Chinese Silk Road dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), one of the strongest imperial dynasties in Chinese history. The main branch of the Silk Road starts in Xi’an, which was the capital of twenty ruling entities in Chinese history, via narrow Loess Plateau in Gansu, Gobi desert, and exits Xinjiang towards the Middle East.
Xi’an was a commercial center where many high-end silk products from Southeast China were sent here for trading. Not too far west from Xi’an, the land soon becomes infertile, and local people make a living herding. A neighboring province Qinghai, where the average elevation is above 3000 meters and locals have a similar nomadic lifestyle on its endless alpine meadow, also plays a role in the Silk Road. Qinghai has a significant geological position because it is the source of the two major rivers in China, the Yellow River and the Yangtze. Little do people know, there is also an alternative route of the Silk Road across Qinghai.
The yumminess of the northwest cuisine though pleasant became a faint memory, but I can still feel the awe inspired by the vast landscape fifteen years later. Almost two full days of a train ride followed by a bus ride, I hardly saw anybody. Deserts truly have the ability to swallow people alive. No wonder the ancient stories along the Silk Road are forever legendary and romantic.
In 1995, I was a junior in college, curious about the world, but I was still an ordinary tourist on the Silk Road tour. As I recall, other than some old men wearing a Uyghur hat, holding a cluster of grapes and charging me 1 yuan for a photo, nothing was really that touristy. I was frightened by merchants crowding me when I happened to deviate from the group. The fear was soon replaced by the excitement triggered by the fact that every other Uyghur I met was so eager to take photos with us and made us promise to send the prints back to their villages. Little did I know the tension between Han Chinese and Uyghur had been accumulating which eventually led to devastating Xinjiang riots. Ironically I considered it the funniest joke when a Han book salesperson in Xi’an told me that they were going to liberate Taiwan.
Tea Horse Trail
I have always enjoyed studying Chinese history and geography, so it was surprising that I only got to know the Tea Horse Trail for the first time when I traveled in Yunnan in 2009. After digging in all the books I could find during the trip, I became obsessed with this ancient trade route.
The establishment of the Tea Horse Trail can be traced back to Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Tang era is one of the brightest period of Chinese history. The cultural development reached another climax and the society was very open-minded on female social positions and foreign policies. Princess Wencheng, a niece of the powerful Emperor Taizong of Tang, married the King of Tibet for political and diplomatic reasons. Wencheng was a tea lover and the marriage elevated tea drinking from occasional treats to a national drink of Tibet.
Tea is a necessity to the minority groups living on high plateaus, including Western Yunnan and Tibet, because of the shortage of fresh vegetables and the blandness of water. Each minority group has developed an unique way of tea drinking, such as copper kettle tea of the Sani people, oil-salt tea and thunder tea of the Lisu people, zamba tea of the Tibetan people etc. However, tea trees don’t grow at high altitude, and therefore importing tea from China was the only way to go. The minority groups offered horses in exchange for the tea which were the proudest asset on high plateaus and were in high demand because horses were crucial for transportation and military purposes.
Originally there was only one Tea-Horse branch, the Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Trail. Between flat Sichuan basin and Gongga (the highest peak of Sichuan, 7556 m), it lies Ya’an where the climate is perfect for tea and hosts the habitat for wild giant pandas. The Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse trail traverses along Siguniang and Gongga mountain ranges, which are so-called the queen and the king mountain of Sichuan, finishes in the roof of the world at Lhasa Tibet. In modern standard, this trek is absolutely gorgeous and scenic, but back then it was the synonym of hardship.
The tea trading was closely monitored by the government and people bribed corrupt officials to be granted the position of Sichuan salt/tea governor to earn extortionate profit. At one time, the relationship between China and Tibet was tense and Chinese government closed the trail to punish Tibet. This measure accidentally gave birth to the other branch of the Tea Horse Trail – the Yunnan Tibet Tea Horse Trail. Back then, Yunnan area was ruled by a small kingdom and was not part of China.
The tea from Southern Yunnan is represented by Pu’er tea. Pu’er is the trading hub centering tea products from areas such as Sipsongpanna and Simao. The travel from southern Yunnan to Tibet was more intense than that from Sichuan to Tibet. The mountains are steeper and there are many scary deep canyons and gorges. In addition to passing high mountains, travelers had to bushwhack through dense rain forests and wade through raging rivers. When the weather conditions were bad, the route also took a detour through Burma.
Most of the Tea Horse Trail is covered by modern roads or dirt paths now, while some of it remains only in history. When I climbed in Fumin, I could see some faint remains along the canyon. Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan were two important hubs along the Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Trail. The stories of the “horse gangs,” who were the major forces behind the caravans, are still passed by words of mouth in the region.
Tea Horse Trail versus Silk Road
The Tea Horse Trail and the Silk Road each has a distinct tone. The word I give to the Silk Road is vast – vast desert; vast meadow. I feel that I can see everything when I travel in boundless landscape, ironically, this type of landscape is also the perfect way to hide everything. When I was younger, I often went to the east coast of Taiwan to gaze at the Pacific when I was depressed. The endlessness of the ocean always soothed my mind but I knew that ocean while seem peaceful can be the most dangerous place.
It is difficult to use one word to describe the Tea Horse Trail, perhaps I will use mysterious. It seems that every time I go back to the area or study the area, I discover more fascinating stories. As climbing has become a major part of my life, it’s hopeless to try to resist the calling from the mountainous terrain of the Tea Horse Trail.
I wonder why the Tea Horse is not as well known as the Silk Road. Objectively speaking, the Silk Road has a longer history, has a larger scale, and way more internationally connected. Subjectively I think the Silk Road is more talked about because it is romantic. Vastness and boundlessness provoke wild imagination. Besides, the merchants traded via the Silk Road were high-end, while tea and horses were necessities. People usually brag about purchasing fancy luxurious items. Who would report on their daily errands shopping for groceries or toilet paper?
There are many books available about the Silk Road on the market. It is harder to locate English books on the Tea Horse Trail. The Tea Horse Trail wikipedia page provides some references. Ancient Tea-Horse Trails published by China Travel & Tourism Press is written in both English and Chinese and is an awesome coffee table read. A recent find was The Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Route to Tibet.
The living conditions along the two ancient trade routes were not particularly easy. Locals were willing to endure difficult long journeys because trading merchants brought better income even though it entailed high risks. Nowadays neither the Tea Horse Trail nor the Silk Road provide this type of work opportunities, and locals have to find other ways to make a living. Things are changing rapidly here.
Many young people become migrant workers and leave their children with their grandparents. These migrant workers send money back to the villages to support the families; however, the job of a migrant worker is not always stable, which causes their kids to drop out from the school. I detailed this phenomenon in the article “Village Kids in Western China Deserve Better – West China Story,” and LittlePo has made a commitment to support the philanthropy project by direct donation and providing service expeditions to interested small groups.
The traditional ways of life are transforming or disappearing one way or the other because of technology advance and globalization. It is not fair to ask the minority groups to keep living the old-fashioned way, especially when that means poverty and hardship. Nevertheless, it’s very interesting to observe the transitions.
During our Trekking the Oriental Alps 2010, our two horse packers always checked their text messages on cell phones when they stopped ahead to wait for the group. Learning from our conversations, I managed to draw the map of cell coverage of the Siguniang mountain range. One of them played pop songs stored in his phone all the time. When I asked, “don’t you worry your battery is going to run out?” Another horse packer replied, “don’t worry about him, sister Yi, his cell phone is powered by solar.”
Dave, our associate director, showed me an interesting photo he took along his Long Walk expedition – the photo shows a portable satellite disk on the wild grassland in Mongolia right next to a yurt. No matter where they move their residence to, they can always watch TV.
For me, it’s a good sign that these technology gadgets look out of the place, and I like what my friend, James Kullander, said in an email, “even though there was a television turned on to some old American re-runs, the people watching it were sitting there over dinner eating lamb brains and discussing the year’s mellon harvest, just like they always have.”
Trade is becoming an ancient concept for these two ancient trade routes. Nowadays these two routes are transforming into tourism hot places. Just like all other destinations which have transformed from a logging/mining/whatever town into a tourist destination, there are many side effects of tourism happening along the Tea Horse Trail and the Silk Road. However, I am very optimistic about the future development and confident that the beauty of the Western China will remain intact.
The most obvious side effect of tourism development is authentic minority singing and dancing performance became skin-deep and lost it’s soul. One day I was catching up with some emails in the open yard of a hostel in Lijiang. A group of people dressed in Naxi outfits hustled in and the leader yelled, “hurry, the next tour group will be here in a few minutes.” It is described in the book, China Road, A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, that the stereotype of minority groups – they are always singing and dancing happily – is widespread by Chinese National TV. All the Han Chinese tourists want to see that. High demand has generated massive supply.
Tourism also gives mixed reputation to popular hubs. For example, Lijiang, a hub of the Tea Horse Trail is a famous old city. The ancient architecture and the cobblestone walkways in the Lijiang old town are definitely worth checking out. However, Lijiang old town is also like a big shopping mall. Outsiders took advantage of the business opportunities of Lijiang and bought properties for building hostels and selling yak jerky and other souvenirs. Most of the original Lijiang old town residents now live in the Lijiang new city. However, aside from the unauthentic business residents, Lijiang is beautiful. You can see the sacred Jade Dragon Snow Mountain anywhere in the city. The mountain to Lijiang is like Rainier to Seattle. Lijiang is also a central hub to get access to amazing outdoor paradise, including Tiger Leaping Gorge and Laojunshan National Park in Liming.
Both Lijiang and Lhasa have a reputation of being a “hook-up city.” Many Chinese tourists come to these two exotic places to look for casual relationships. Many travelers complained on travel forums that some Tibetans in Lhasa have learned ways to rip people off. Even monks would try to sell ancient artifacts which in fact were made in China. Fortunately once you step out of the city limits, the breathtaking scenery is totally worth the hassle and the local residents living in the village are the most simple and hospitable people I have ever met.
Another change tourism can bring echoes the influence of globalization. The article, Important Occasions that Hold Together Jia Rong Tibetans in Siguniang Mountain, describes how a Jia Rong family started a SUV fleet when the tourism picked up.
Interference from the Chinese Government
After many times of traveling and leading trips in China, I often wonder whether Chinese government is promoting or destroying tourism. I praise the tourism development in many historic sites in Guilin. I have learned many new stories and gained much knowledge following the comprehensive mini guided tours sponsored by the government. However in many outdoor recreational destinations, I feel that the government just wants to charge money without giving positive contribution. For example, there are three layers of fee a backcountry traveler has to pay trekking and camping in Siguniang mountain range. My horse packer friend Mr. Huang is actively looking for new venue because his regular job, yak herding, is going to be banned soon by the government because “yaks consume too much grass and hurt the appearance of the national park.”
Chinese government’s plan to develop the West also worsens the relationship between Han Chinese and the local minority people as if the gap was not wide enough. Tibet’s issue is known by the western world. In Xinjiang there is a similar issue. My recent read, Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey between China’s Past and Present, described an interesting story following the author’s Uyghur friend, who was a black market trader in Beijing and eventually leaped to the States and obtained asylum right before the 911. Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Stuggle for Peace with China describes a story of a Uyghur human right fighter Rebiya Kadeer.
Interestingly, many Chinese people I talked to generally believe that Han Chinese have given Xinjiang and Tibet the best. They also believe the Tibetans and the Uyghur people are heartless and do not know how to properly express the gratitude. To quote one Chinese radio host I met in Dali, “in fact, Chairman Mao liberated Tibet.” Minority groups certainly are not on the same page as the Chinese government. One time when I dined in a Lanzhou pulled noodle chain owned by a muslim family in Yangshuo, a couple customers complained about the food and refused to pay. The noodle chef was irritated by the rude attitude of the customers, and screamed, “we traveled this far from Qinghai here trying to make a living, but you Han Chinese people are still oppressing us.”
Another phenomenon along with China’s political climate change is the revival of religions. Religions were banned during the Mao era. Once Chinese changed gear to develop economy, the rapid change draw out the quest of spiritual guidance from regular people. I visited this gorgeous town called Bai Sha in Yunnan. When I walked along the streets I was soon attracted by colorful handmade tie-dyed and wax-dyed cloth. I bargained with a Naxi woman and asked her whether I could make the final decision after I returned from my hike. She told me that she needed to “go to a church” at 4 pm and wanted me to come back before then because she did not want to miss it. I was intrigued because I thought Naxi has their own customs. It seemed that Christian seeds planted by missionaries starting from a few hundred years ago start to recover and prosper.
LittlePo Adventures and China’s West
I guess I don’t have to convince you that I fancy Western China. The more I visit the place, the more I am drawn in. The more I study the region, the more I want to study. The stories that happened and are happening in Western China are just endless much like the landscape. I wholeheartedly want to share my passion towards the region with you, and we at LittlePo Adventures are more than happy to design customized trips for small groups. Embarking on Trekking the Oriental Alps and Discovering the Lost Horizon is also a good way to start exploring the Tea Horse Trail as well. We are also thinking of going back to the Genyen massif and design a trekking tour in that region.
LittlePo’s friend Ed at Red Rock Trek also published a series of trip reports on Retracing Rock’s 1923 Expedition Across the Three Parallel Rivers. Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962) was a legendary explorer and botanist whose footsteps were all over the Yunnan province for his extensive study on the diverse flora of Yunnan.