Rediscovering China’s ancient Tea Horse Road, a branch of the famous Silk Road

Writer and National Geographic Society Explorer Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. He sends this dispatch from Sichuan Province, in China.

Meet Zhang Hongyi.

Kangding, Sichuan Province, ChinaShe strides beside me, eyes asquint over her smartphone, scanning maps the size of postage stamps. These absurd maps depict thousands of square miles of valleys and crags in southwestern China.

“Wait for me a second!” she exclaims. “Wait for me a second!”

We are lost, of course. We are attempting to follow the ancient Tea Horse Road.

What is the Tea Horse Road?

A southerly branch of the famous Silk Road. Its maze of trails and cobbled pathways date back many centuries. (According to some, more than 2,000 years.) Merchants blazed these zigzag routes, exchanging bricks of tea from Yunnan and Sichuan for sturdy ponies from Tibet. And more: Handmade paper, silks, jade, opium, gold, and salt all bounced atop the backs of mules, yaks, and human porters along a vast trade network that once bound China with markets as far flung as Southeast Asia and northern India. The caravans scaled 15,000 feet over the ice passes of Nepal. They tunneled through Burmese rainforests. The traders decorated their lead cargo animals with brilliant red tassels, with shiny mirrors and bells. They traveled for weeks, months, even years. They battled bandits with muskets. They helped spread Buddhism across Asia. Incredibly, a dwindling handful of these adventurers survive still: Old men with gnarled hands who sit in the doorways of Yunnanese villages, with the light of a pre-car world still shining behind their rheumy eyes.

I am walking the world.

For nine years, I have been trekking eastward to sunrise, toward Asia, retracing the journeys of the first Homo sapiens who dispersed from Africa in the Stone Age. Over the past six months, my long trek has led me to more recent tracks of human restlessness: China’s fading Tea Horse Road.

Zhang Hongyi, a documentary photographer from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is my walking partner. She contains the energy of a supernova. Arms waving in conversation, she regularly crowds me off the trail. Electrified by the sight of a flying squirrel, she leaps two feet into the air. She is always—always—the first to rise in the morning. She stands, backpack already shouldered, in guesthouse doorways. Anxious to get going. Eager to get lost. One does not walk the Tea Horse Road to get found: One walks it to meet other nomads.

“When I first saw you in Kunming,” Zhang informs me earnestly, “you didn’t seem like a man who could walk across the world. But then you opened your rucksack. And that smell! That smell told me.”

Meet Xu Xiake.

He walked the old Tea Horse Road. Born: 1587 A.D. His parents: rich landowners. Yet he was a bohemian, a misfit who rebelled against a comfortable life, an assured government post, to roam the lost world of imperial China.

Xu crisscrossed thousands of miles of Chinese mountains and rivers on foot. Sometimes bandits robbed him. Sometimes he supported himself as a scribe. His diaries (none published in his lifetime) eventually swelled to a staggering 400,000 Chinese characters. They mix details of geology, geography, botany, and local history with blistering ratings of Ming Dynasty lodgings. (“The monks who had used the cave as a dwelling place had left it in a mess, thus ruining the natural beauty of the place.”)

China has spawned more famed explorers. There was Zhang Qian, the diplomat who traveled into Central Asia during the second century B.C., opening corridors of trade that became the fabled Silk Road. Or Zheng He, the mariner who in the 15th century sailed treasure fleets as far away as Africa. Yet these voyages were undertaken in the service of emperors, of governments. Xu was different.

“On the surface, Xu’s travels can neither be classified as great affairs of state nor great undertakings that changed the course of history,” writes the cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. “Xu travelled to satisfy his own curiosity—he travelled for the sake of travelling and explored for the sake of exploring.”

The scholar Julian Ward agrees, describing the solitary Chinese wanderer like the Middle Kingdom’s version of John Muir: “Imbued with a deep love of Nature and a desire to find freedom from worldly concerns, Xu was a man obsessed with seeing and describing the landscape.”

Xu Xiake roamed China for 34 years. Perhaps his greatest journey was his last. At age 50, he traversed the harsh, tropical frontiers of Yunnan. Four centuries behind, we follow. We clamber up the jungled Gaoligong Mountains on overgrown Tea Horse caravan roads walked by Xu. Bypassed by modern highways, their flagstones, polished smooth by the feet of long-dead porters, shine dully in the green forest light. Centuries of mule hooves groove the set stones.

At the border town of Tengchong, we gape at the Dieshui River waterfall.

“The droplets roll back like jade chips or flying pearls, sprinkling onto the clothes from afar, just like rain and snow in the daylight,” an ecstatic Xu wrote of the cascade’s mist.

The dreamy explorer lost his money scaling a nearby cliff. His few coins slipped from a pocket as he hung by his fingers. He promptly sold all the clothes he wore, bought himself a jug of wine and a good dinner, and celebrated his survival. Naturally, he’s the patron saint of Chinese backpackers.

Meet Ma Chun He. 

Age 90, he is a retired muleteer. He lives in Shuizhai, one of the remote Tea Horse Road villages strung like beads across the hilly trade routes in Yunnan. Shuizhai means Water Village. Nearby lies HuaQiaocun, or Flower Bridge Village. Peach orchard. Goat. The communities of rural Yunnan, puddled in valley bottoms, appear to have been named by animists.

“We carried everything,” says old Ma, speaking loudly, cupping one hand to an ear. He is rope-thin and parked at the door of his whitewashed house. He prodded mule caravans for decades between Dali and the Myanmar border. Exhausting journeys lasting months. Cooked his own rice in copper pots slung on a saddle. “Salt was a big item. I made a lot of money off salt. Brought back things from foreign countries.”

“He doesn’t get his facts straight anymore,” says his 84-year-old wife, Yang Feng Jin. “My husband was a really good man. Traders were very successful. Now he’s old. His knees don’t work.”

In his book Forgotten Kingdom, the White Russian merchant Peter Goullart describes the frenetic energy of the Tea Horse Road caravans during their final glory years in 1930s China.

“It was a source of endless wonder to me to watch the speed with which the caravan proceeded,” Goullart writes. “On the level ground or downhill it was very considerable, and the men saw to it that it was not slackened without reason. All the time the animals were exhorted onwards with the most obscene curses imaginable and encouraged by small stones and cakes of dry mud which were thrown at them.”

The columns of men and animals could span more than 30 mountain miles a day.

“You can imagine the joy and excitement they brought,” says Wang Chengsheng, 70, an ethnic Tibetan Tea Horse Road veteran who ran yak caravans over snowy passes some 700 miles to the north, in neighboring Sichuan Province. “The caravans brought you everything—the outside world.”

Wang wrangled cargo yaks along alpine trade routes for seven years. He slipped on his first pair of factory-made shoes at age 15. The last of the antique caravans, he says, vanished when car roads unspooled through the region in the 1970s.

Meet Angela Yanfang Cun.

Cun is a member of the Naxi ethnic minority. She is an environmentalist who grew up in a Tea Horse Road village in northwestern Yunnan. She has studied across the world. Her local WildMountain company helps minority communities develop tourism in an ecological, sustainable way.

“We offer advice on how to benefit from the landscape without harming it,” explains Cun, a friendly, soft-spoken woman. “We teach people to become forest guards or bird guides. We distribute efficient wood burning stoves to minimize wood cutting.”

To reach Cun’s home base in Lijiang, you must walk 500 miles north from the Myanmar border. Many traces of the old Tea Horse Road you follow will be swallowed under highway concrete. After skirting the tourist meccas of Er Hai Lake, you huff up piney ridges to Shaxi, with its 18th-century open-air theater where caravan drivers once lay on their elbows to enjoy hours of Chinese opera. From the trading town of Jianchuan, you then scale a cobbled trail, walking under the hunting shadow of a large white owl, until you spot an astonishing pyramid of snow suspended in the clarion blue sky. This is 18,300-foot Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Naxi women toiling in the pear orchards at its base wear dresses with seven stars embroidered on the back.

Cun will await you there, to guide you farther north.

Botanist. Anthropologist. Explorer. Famous iconoclast.

In the early 20th century, Rock—an Austrian who became a naturalized American—spent the bulk of his industrious life gathering everything he could lay his eyes and hands on along the Tea Horse Road trails of southwestern China. A polymath and self-taught scientist, he collected plants for Western botanical gardens, compiled anthropological notes for academic journals, and filled in so-called “blank spots” on the map for readers of National Geographic. A brilliant linguist, Rock’s epic, 1,094-page dictionary explaining the ethnic Naxi’s complex, ideographic written language remains the most exhaustive translation in existence.

Rock’s work in the high frontiers of China is said to have inspired the classic Joseph Hilton novel Lost Horizon, which depicted a mythical community of immortal utopians living in a spiritual, vaguely Tibetan kingdom called Shangri-La. The explorer’s own tastes, though, were more earthbound.

“[O]ne cares little about surroundings as long as one has his own bed, table, chairs and other necessary adjuncts,” Rock wrote breezily of his traveling style in the mountains of China.

He was being modest. Rock’s immense caravans of porters and mules hauled boxes of sterling silverware and a rubber bathtub. He sometimes hired a bodyguard of up to a hundred mercenaries to ward off bandits. His personal chef prepared only European dishes.

“My father was a soldier for the landlord of Muli, and he traveled with Rock,” says Jia Luo Wu Jin, 84, a farmer in Maidilongxiang, an isolated village in the Sichuan ranges that the explorer passed through in 1929. “I really don’t know much about Rock. He didn’t mix with the people. My father would set up Rock’s tent, and Rock disappeared into it.”

Jia’s footsore dad did bequeath one anecdote:

“Rock carried a type of grass that, when burned, attracts rodents,” Jia says, scratching a grizzled cheek. “He collected two white mice this way. He picked them up with tongs. He put them into a box. He took them away. Why? Nobody knows.”

This is my favorite story from the Tea Horse Road.

People come to these sinewy trails looking for different things. And generally, they tend to find them.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk project since 2013. Explore the project here.