Travel to the Cradle of Pu’er Tea in Yunnan

Travel to the Cradle of Pu’er Tea in Yunnan

1. The tea and silk road

The Southern Silk Road, better known as the Ancient Tea and Horse Route predates its famous northern Silk Road by at least 300 years and was an important thoroughfare for the trade of various products between neighbor regions. It was one of the longest trade routes in the old world. The first documents mentioning it date from the Tang dynasty (618-907) and locally from the period of the Nanzhao Kingdom (649-920). From the plantations on the slopes of Simao and Xishuangbanna, the mule drivers brought Pu’er tea and bought from the Burmese traders often accompanied by Indian monks’ leather and animal bones intended for Chinese medicine. Salt, an essential commodity before the advent of refrigeration, came from Qiaohou, south of Shaxi and Yunlong. Apart from these necessities, felt, silk, precious stones, and opium passed through this path. Tibetans also took the opportunity to trade local products such as musk, rare mushrooms, and medicines found in the icy mountains to the north.

The Ancient Tea and Horse Road linking Tibet to southwest China


The village of Sideng became an important staging post for merchant caravans, and the entire valley flourished under the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Sideng Market Square which became famous throughout the southwest attracted traders from a wide range of cultures thus boosting the profitability of the Tea and Horse Route. The Hani of southern Yunnan sold tea and cloth, the Naxi of Lijiang lumber, while the Hui Muslim community bought furs from yaks and horses. The wealth generated by all these exchanges is found in the local architecture with imposing doors and spacious courtyards. In the center stands the Qing Dynasty Theater right in front of the ancient temple dedicated to such a wide range of beliefs as the merchants and pilgrims who visited this village.

The caravan routes finally died out around 60 years ago, when the newly formed People’s Liberation Army colonized western Tibet and requisitioned all draft animals. The inhabitants quickly returned to agriculture and have spent the last decades in relative isolation.


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2. The Pu’er, the beginning of a story


The epic of the Tea and Horse Route is inspired by this famous tea cultivated in the southern region of Yunnan: Xishuangbanna. Taking its name from the town where tea was once collected from the nearby mountains, Pu’er grows in the cradle of “green gold”. It is here, in the heart of the tea belt stretching from Assam to northern Vietnam, that the origins of tea and its varieties are found. Tea has been cultivated by various mountain minorities, such as the Blang and Akha (Aini in Chinese) for at least a millennium and it is from this region that its cultivation has spread to China and around the world. It was in the 7th century that the Tibetan Tubo Empire, after having conquered most of present-day Yunnan, discovered tea. Another hypothesis is that tea was discovered when Tang Taizong, Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, offered Princess Wencheng in marriage to the King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo. One thing is certain: Tibetans have developed a great passion for tea which is still alive today. The tea and its virtues indeed fill the dietary and health gaps, relieves the oxidative stress related to life at high altitudes on the Tibetan plateau. Tea became a strictly regulated activity under the Chinese government, which wanted to obtain Tibetan warhorses in return for its imperial army. Tea is divided into six different types (green, white, yellow, Oolong, black, and Pu’er) depending on how it is processed. Pu’er tea responds to a very specific process, post-fermentation. Unlike other teas, Pu’er continues to ferment even after conditioning and improves over time like a properly stored wine. This fermentation originally took place during the transport of “tea cakes” packaged in bamboo mats, braving bad weather on horseback, of the Tea and Horse Route.

3. An ancestral flavor: Yak butter tea


Image source: Luxresorts

Butter tea is very popular in Tibet and is an integral part of local culture. If the discovery (7th century, Tibet) and the tea trade were the origins of the Ancient Tea-Horse Road (see [link to Pu’er Tea Article]), then this beverage has been greatly developed since ancient times. Residents of southern Yunnan and all of China have tasted it. Butter tea is called po cha, bod ja, ja srub ma, or suyou cha (shortened oil tea) by the Chinese and is made of yak butter and salt. Except for Tibetans, few people dare to taste this particularly nutritious drink. The tea is first boiled and then steeped for a long time (usually an hour). Add a small piece of yak butter to a large cylindrical blender called mdong mo (pictured) and top with a handful of salt. Add the steeped tea, then use a piston to stir the mixture. As the British writer and explorer Spencer Chapman aptly described: “The result is a purple liquid. Although it is excellent in soup, it tastes different from tea. Butter tea is an indispensable drink for Tibetans and is also their first choice for hospitality.

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