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History | Tibetan Trade Routes

Chámă Gŭdaò –Tibet and the Tea-Horse Road

By Harry Cannell
July 18, 2009
At elevations above 12,000 feet, snowstorms are common even in the summer, and the Tibetan tribesmen considered the Nangchen horse essential to survival when navigating the wild rivers... 
Ancestor of Tibetan Horse
Cave Painting -Ancestor of Tibetan Horse

Tibetan horse-breeding had it origins in the nomadic lifestyle of the ancient powerful tribes known as “drokpa” or “high-pasture people”, who lived in the inaccessible regions of the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, and domesticated the wild horses of the area.

Over thousands of years, as they migrated between remote snowcapped mountains and lush valley pasturelands ablaze with wildflowers, these wild-looking, fierce warriors who wore animals skins and braided their long hair with red yarn, became know for their proclivity to live free from outside control, and their ability to breed horses.

With their tents rolled up on the backs of yaks, the Dropka herded sheep, goats, yak-cattle, and horses, around the Himalaya at altitudes up to 15,700 feet. They hunted antelope and gazelles, gathered wild grapes, berries, and herbs, crossing over some of the most varied, beautiful, and inhospitable landscapes in the world.

During this extended isolation in the Himalaya the Dropka selectively bred a horse that was very useful to their nomadic way of life. With fine physical features and incredible stamina, a powerful chest and neck, strong legs, fast gait, and sure step, the Nangchen horse could easily carry a man, his weapons and his gear for long distances, over high altitudes and under the most extreme weather conditions.

At elevations above 12,000 feet, snowstorms are common even in the summer, and the Tibetan tribesmen considered the Nangchen horse essential to survival when navigating the wild rivers, deep gorges, and abrupt cliffs along winding, narrow stone paths, some of which were chiselled into the cliff face.

In the third century BC, the Chinese began trading with the Dropka, when Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of unified China, who started the Great Wall of China and built the Tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi and the life-sized Terracotta Army of Xi’an, found he needed the Nangchen horse to help defend China’s farm lands and borders against the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes from Central Asia.

The Nangchen horse allowed Qin Shi Huang’s troops to organize and travel quickly to the far-flung territories most vulnerable to attack. The emperor sent gold, silver, silk, jade, pottery, and grain to trade for horses in great numbers, and in China, Nangchen horses became known as Qin horses.

Tibetan Horse Handler
Tibetan Horse Handler, 1925

The fundamentals of a future trade root between China and Tibet were in place, and in the first century BC, development of the Silk Road, which was a network of interconnected trade routes, brought an era of increasing trade between China and Tibet.

By the seventh century AD, the ancient trans-Himalayan road, originally established by nomadic horsemen, was called Chámă Gŭdaò, or Tea-Horse Road, because of the increasing exchange of tea, horses, silk, and jade.

Chámă Gŭdaò extended trade from Yunnan in southwest China to the Khamba tribes of Changdu, the mountain dwellers of Lijiang, into the remote villages of Tibet, and thereby linking to mainland Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam.

When Emperor Gaozu of Tang, who had inherited a bankrupt state, discovered that he had only a few thousand horses, he sent his emissary up the abrupt cliffs and and across the wild rivers of the Hengduan Mountains on the trail through Qinghai and into Tibet, to trade for horses with tea from Sichuan and Yunnan.

Tibetan love for tea was well known, but the isolation of the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau made it hard to deliver in an unspoiled condition, and Tibet's high elevation, cold climate, and rocky soils made it impossible to cultivate.

In the eighth century, Yunnan tea merchants introduced Pu-erh tea, made with leaves from ancient wild tea trees, into Tibet. The leaves were fermented to preserve them for the long trip and stone-pressed into bricks that could be transported by mule or yak over the mountains to Lhasa and beyond to Angkor, Khmers, and Chiang Mai.

Tibetans traditionally made “bo ja” or butter tea, which is more like tea soup, by boiling Pu-erh, adding salt and yak butter, and shaking in a wooden cylinder called a “dogmo” until frothy. Pu-erh became a staple of the Tibetan diet, valued for its invigorating qualities and its color, with an average consumption of fifty or more cups a day.

From Lijiang, the Yunnan tea caravans climbed and switchbacked through high mountain deserts, rich conifer forests, snow-capped peaks, steep river gorges, and subtropical forests and lakes, in the shadow of Yulong Xueshan or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, along the shores of Black Dragon Pond, across Tiger-Leaping Gorge, and to the River of Golden Sands.

In exchange for Pu-erh tea bricks, Tibetans traded horses, cattle, furs, musk, quinine, gold nuggets, silver and leather-work harnesses, woven saddles blankets, sheepskin saddles, precious stones, rhubarb, dried grapes, and rare dyes.

Along Chámă Gŭdaò, plentiful goods were traded for rarer ones, and objects were often exchanged several times. It was not unusual to meet Buddhist pilgrims, bandits, nomadic wranglers, wandering musicians and poets, and merchants of sugar, salt, and beads.

By the middle of the eighth century, Tang was powerful and affluent, its wealthy merchants were at the center of an immense trade network, journeying to major trade ports, villages and cities. The arts of cloisonné, woodblock printing, paper making, brush and ink, lapidary, porcelain, and silk embroidery, flourished, along with poetry, dance, and music.

During the prosperous Tang era, China was reunified, the Silk Road reopened, and trade caravans began moving again. Tang’s eighty million people produced one fourth of the world’s goods, exporting rice, spices, teas, silk and wool fabrics, pottery, bronze mirrors, ironware, scissors, pots and pans, lacquerworks, stoneware, jade, glazes, enamels, wood boxes, and stone figurines. It had an army of one million soldiers, and 700,000 horses to defend China against the Uighur nomads.

The Chámă Gŭdaò brought commerce and trade, the first agricultural practices, medicines, painters, and architects to Tibet. The Dropka did not significantly change their lifestyle and remained mostly untouched in the Himalaya, continuing with their ancient tribal allegiances developed over thousands of years, breeding and raising horses, and drinking butter tea.

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