The Long Riders' Guild

Travelling on the Tea Horse Trail

A documentary film has been released which follows an equestrian caravan from China to Tibet.

Humans and horses have been travelling along the ancient Tea Horse Trail for a thousand years. The name is derived from the trade of Tibetan horses for Chinese tea, along a rugged trail that began in Yunnan and reached Lhasa.

They say it takes raw courage to travel the Tea Horse Trail to Tibet and pure nerve to follow it from there on.

It was in the Tang Dynasty, (618 - 907), that caravans began to transport bricks of tea from Xishuangbanna, over the crow’s nest of Central Asian mountains before reaching India many thousands of miles away.

Historians date the introduction of tea to Tibetan-inhabited areas back to the 7th century. Tea quickly became indispensable to Tibetan people's daily life as its role in dissolving fat helped them digest their diet of meat and milk. As Tibet's climate and geography precluded tea cultivation, the hermit kingdom heavily relied on inland areas for tea supply.

The Chinese tea was exchanged for Tibetan horses during the ancient dynasties. Normally a horse was traded for 50 kilograms of tea but sometimes, as in the Reign of Yuanfeng (1076-85) of the Song Dynasty, for just 20 kilograms of tea. The Office of the Tea-Horse Department in Mingshan could handle 2,000 traders a day, said Ren Xinjian, a Tibet specialist in Beijing, and some 7,500 tons of tea were dispatched into the Tibetan interior every year.

The legendary Tea Horse Trail was still functioning in 1946 when the Scottish Long Rider, George Patterson, made his way from western China into the Khampa region of Tibet. This rare photo, which George took on his journey into Tibet, shows Chinese porters burdened with immense loads of tea.

With the onset of the 21st century, the celebrated caravan route was falling into decline. In 2006 English Long Rider Daniel Robinson joined a caravan of traders who were preparing to journey along this frequently deadly, but largely forgotten, trail.

Later, after Robinson had become the first foreigner to cross the Tea Horse Trail in modern times, after he nearly died in the Himalayas, after he was betrayed and imprisoned, and after a British reporter finally tracked him down to a shabby jail cell in India, Daniel Robinson recalled that his journey had taken him across some of the cruellest mountains in the world, that when his original Tibetan companions remained in Lhasa he journeyed on alone with just his two trusty mules and that after more than a year on the road the physical side of his sacred journey had become a gruelling nightmare, especially when the infamous trail forced him to winch his mules across steep mountain gorges.

This statue commemorates the horses and humans who travelled along the ancient Tea Horse Trail.

The Last Mule Caravan is a Korean-made documentary that follows a group of tea traders as they make a journey from the mountain village of Bingzhongluo (Village of Tibetans) in Yunnan, China to the Tibetan border town of Chawalong (Valley of Dry Heat).

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