Rediscovering the Ancient Silk Route Branch in China

The Tea Horse Road in China is a southern branch of the world-famous Silk Road. The Sichuan-Tibet Highway joins through the Tro Pass, climbing to almost 18,000 feet of elevation, as it follows the Tea Horse Road. Paul Salopek, a National Geographic Society explorer, walked along the ancient Silk Road to reach the old and fading trade route.

The Route

The now vanishing Tea Horse Road has its own legacy of trade and exploration more than 2000 years old. Since imperial times, many Chinese explorers of Sichuan province and outside have walked the route. Even the wanderers from the world and the Chinese backpackers of today walk along the Silk Route to locate this branch road, which was once a bustling trade trail. As per the local saying, one doesn’t walk the Tea Horse Road to be found, one walks it to get lost and to meet other nomads. Their sights and sounds are what bring the ancient trading road to life.

The Olden Time

During the busiest days back in time, the zigzag routes of the Tea Horse Road were crowded with merchants passing through the Silk Road, exchanging bricks of tea from Sichuan and Yunnan for strong ponies from Tibet, hence giving the road its name. Handmade paper, jade, opium, silk, gold, and salt were a few of the other products bounced on the backs of yaks, mules, and human porters. This vast network of Silk Road and auxiliary trading routes once bound China with global markets stretching as far as northern India and Southeast Asia. The caravans tunneled through Burmese rainforests and frequented Nepal by scaling 15,000 feet over the ice passes. The lead cargo animals were decorated with shiny mirrors, jingly bells, and brilliant red tassels. The traders traveled for weeks and months, occasionally battling the bandits with muskets. These merchants also helped spread Buddhism across Asia.