The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Gary Sigley, Perth, WA

As the Chinese economy continues to develop and living standards rise, more people are spending their spare time and disposable income on the pursuit of leisure. By 2050 China will have the largest leisure economy in the world. One area of strong growth is the outdoor hiking and adventure industry.

China has given birth to a growing cohort of enthusiastic hikers who pack their rucksacks and head off to the mountainous terrain of western China to commune with nature and meet the many colourful minority nationalities that call the mountains home.

There are many beautiful places to go hiking in China. Western China is blessed with majestic mountains, bucolic valleys, rapid rivers, myriad streams, seas of grassland and pristine forests. It is home to many different ethnic groups, some of whom still live traditional lifestyles, albeit lifestyles that are changing as the effects of  development reach further inland. Unfortunately, for a non-Chinese speaker, finding out where to go and how to undertake short and long distance hikes is not easy. At this stage China does not have any specifically designed long distance hiking trails like the Bibbulmun Track—something that may change due to the efforts of two adventurous and committed hikers.

Ancient Road remains at Bingzhongluo.
Ancient Road remains at Bingzhongluo.

Edmund (Ed) Jocelyn and Yang Xiao are two of China’s respected and established outdoor enthusiasts. A few years ago they completed a hike along the Long March, over 6,000 kilometres. That’s a long way to walk with 25 kilos on your back, so they employed horses and mules to carry their burdens. This experience led them to develop mule team hiking as the foundation of China’s first long distance hiking trail. The question then arose as to where would be the ideal location, and they turned their attention to Yunnan Province.

The people of western China have been using horses and mules to transport goods and people for over two thousand years. Unlike eastern China, which could rely upon well developed water networks, the people of the mountains had no other choice than to organise horse and mule caravans, or yaks at higher altitudes.

Around the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the Tibetans acquired a taste for tea, grown in subtropical Puer in Yunnan Province, a journey of six months from Lhasa, and so the long distance trade in tea began, including routes to Nepal, India, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

Over time the trade became very profitable and commercialised. Some of the trails were extremely difficult and literally carved out of the steep mountainsides. Many different forms of bridges were also made to facilitate the tea road, some of which are still standing today. In some places muleteers, mules and cargo were ferried across steep gorges by cable.

About twenty years ago a number of Chinese scholars went to explore the ancient roads between Yunnan and Tibet. They coined the phrase The Ancient Tea Horse Road (chamagudao) and have been actively researching and educating the public ever since. Within China the tea road has become quite well known and is already being marketed as a tourist attraction. The authorities in Beijing are also taking notice and have initiated the first steps to have the Ancient Tea Horse Road placed on the UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Tentative List.

With this growing interest in the tea road as a background, Ed and Yang Xiao founded the Red Rock Trek and Expedition Company ( and have been exploring the remnant tea road in Yunnan Province, which is located in southwest China, sharing borders with Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi as well as international borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

Given the expansion of the road network, the long distance caravan is a thing of the past. But it is still possible to put together a small mule team to undertake a short distance trek. To fund their research, Ed and Yang Xiao take paying clients. I was very pleased to join them on two of their expeditions in 2010.

The Author on the Ancient Rd.
The Author on the Ancient Rd.

Given the exploratory nature of these expeditions we can’t always guarantee to end up in the right place, but Ed, Yang Xiao and the muleteers are experienced, and after all that’s part of the adventure. The treks go through some beautiful country, ethnic villages, over high mountain passes and through wonderful meadows and pastures.

The good thing about all this is that our four-legged friends are carrying most of our gear, and we can get to camp knowing that there will be a few luxuries, like chairs and table, a good kitchen, and even a private sit down toilet. However at the end of the day, the truly great thing about all this is being in close proximity with the muleteers and their animals and observing their skills in animal handling and path finding.

I began to research this topic only a year or two ago and I have been very inspired by what Ed and Yang Xiao are doing. (See No-one else is undertaking explorations of the old tea road, or helping to keep the spirit of the muleteers alive. And nobody, it seems to me, is committed to helping poor mountainous communities to benefit from trekking. If readers are interested in joining one of the expeditions simply visit the red rock website and send Ed an email. He would be delighted to hear from you!

It will take many years before China gets its first long-distance hiking trail. My money is on the Ancient Tea Horse Road as the most likely candidate, but there is a great deal of work to do to educate the Chinese public and especially the tourism authorities and outdoor lifestyle industry as to the benefits of a designated long distance trail.

Ed and Yang Xiao are doing their bit. Earlier this year they took a group of Chinese outdoor adventure writers to experience the Appalachian Trail and the Grand Canyon (the latter also using mules). It was a real eye opener for the Chinese participants as they have now seen the possibilities for well managed trails.

I have talked at length with Ed about the virtues of our Bibbulmun Track as a successful long-distance trail with a strong volunteer and community foundation and close relations with government and business. I hope in the near future to bring some of our Chinese friends to experience the natural beauty and advanced system of organisation and management of what I unashamedly see as a first class model for China to emulate. Of course we will have to leave the mules at home.

Remnants of the Road rising from the Nu River.
Remnants of the Road rising from the Nu River.