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The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Think horses and tea have nothing in common? Rewind the clock back a thousand years to southwestern China where history tells us a different story!

If there’s one thing that sippers love more than drinking tea, it’s learning where it comes from. In the spirit of this, The Tea Centre is extending beyond concepts like single origin and single estate’ when it comes to discussing the origin of tea.

Specifically, we’re not only travelling beyond the usual scope this Christmas but back in time as well! Through our Stories From The Silk Road’ series, The Tea Centre is embarking on a trip down the original overland trade routes that first enabled the spread of tea throughout the world. Our first stop: The Ancient Tea Horse Road!

What is the Tea Horse Road?

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The Tea Horse Road is truthfully two roads spanning over 4,000 kilometres! The first road is a cyclical route between Yunnan and Tibet, and the second goes between Sichuan and Tibet. In Chinese, the road is called chamagudao (茶馬古道) and elements of the pathways exist to this day. 

Why is it called the Tea Horse Road, you ask? Beginning in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) the ancient Tibetan people loved tea so much, they were willing to trade their strong horses to the Han Chinese in order to secure the precious commodity!

Moreover, unlike East China where goods are easily traded via rivers and other waterways, Southwestern China is a highly mountainous region. Such elevation makes the province great for growing tea, but difficult to traverse when it comes to trade.

To help navigate large bundles of tea through steep mountainsides and rickety bridges, ancient merchants innovated tea bricks (more on this later) and used—you guessed it—horses.

Why start at The Tea Horse Road?

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Our choice to begin our Silk Road series here is not insignificant. The Tea Horse Road is not only where the story of tea began (historians believe the humble loose leaf originates from the Yunnan province) but also the section that has lasted the longest!

Having fostered relations across the Eurasian continent between ancient empires like the Roman, Chinese, and Ottoman for many centuries, the majority of Silk Road routes fell into disuse around the eighteenth century. This was due to the increasing danger of the roads themselves (becoming overrun with bandits from the Mongol empire) as well as the introduction of maritime trade. 

Despite this, the Tea-Horse Road plodded on all the way into the late twentieth century! In fact, it remained largely unchanged since its conception in the Tang Dynasty and only ceased operation when the Chinese government were able to build highways and modern roads. Given the mountainous terrain, this was no easy feat!

While parts of the Silk Road have been revived today for nostalgic or economic purposes, the Tea-Horse Road will always stand apart as one of the few routes that retained its original purpose; a tea trade circuit that used horses as the main means of transportation.

The origin of tea bricks

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The Tea Centre’s modern version of a pu-erh tea brick.

That’s enough about the horses; now we can talk about the tea! Many Tea Centre customers are curious about pu-erh and often ask our tea-loving experts why they are compressed into such unique shapes. Well, the answer lies on the Tea Horse Road. 

Given these Silk Road routes were long journeys and dangerous to traverse, it was important to merchants that the tea being transported was as compact and food-safe as possible. Therefore, compressing loose leaf into tea bricks and lengthening the fermentation time was their solution. As a result, a whole new tea category was born!

Moreover, the machinations of pu-erh continued to evolve as trade on the Tea Horse Road went on. Specifically, tea merchants soon discovered that loose leaf travelling on long journeys began to take on scents and tastes from exposure to the elements. 

While the most famous example of this phenomenon is Russian Caravan, such exposure had an impact on pu-erh too. When rain dampened the exposed tea bricks, merchants would unwrap the bricks and leave them to dry in the sun, incidentally setting off a micro-organic fermentation. In turn, this second fermentation changed the aroma and profile of the loose leaf. This is how sheng pu-erh came to be in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Yunnan Finest

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To this day, The Tea Centre continues to honour the legacy of the Tea Horse Road through providing Australians with the finest quality tea from Yunnan; the region where tea first began!

Discover the secrets of this province when delving into cups of delicious Yunnan FOP or its premium counterpart, Yunnan Finest. The journey doesn’t end there either.

Come November, The Tea Centre is thrilled to reintroduce our leaf lovers to ancient teas with a whole new collection! Including the likes of Yunnan FOP and other Chinese blends, our ‘Silk Road’ wooden tea box is a delicious gift you won’t want to miss.

Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!

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