The “Silk Road” was the route linking the ancient Chinese Empire to the West. Simultaneously, another great trading route flowed through the deep jungles of the eastern Tibet of Kham and Amdo, and the high passes of central Tibet via Lhasa, Shigartse, Gyantse, Nylamu to Nepal, India, Sikkim, Bhutan, as well as West Asia and the Red Sea. This is the route that is known as the “Tea Horse Trading Route,” and is also referred to as “the Southern Silk Road.”

Tea horse trade route

The Tibetan Plateau has an average altitude of 4,000 meters. The staple foods of Tibetan are mainly Tsampa, Yourghur, butter, beef and mutton. Vegetables are rarely available, because the Tibetan plateau is not suitable for growing vegetables since ancient time.

Tea is not only able to break down fats, but also prevent hot flushes. Since Tea was introduced to Tibet during the Tang Dynasty (618A.D.-907A.D.), Tibetans have enjoyed “tea” as an indispensable part of their life.

Tea does not grow in high altitude area, but in low altitude areas, such as Yunnan, Sichuan Province.

During the Song Dynasty (960A.D-1279A.D), the Chinese government decided to develop the Tea-horse Trade in the northwestern region of China to build enough warhorses for the Chinese Cavalry. Each year around 5,000 tons of tea was sold to Tibet. It was even exported to Nepal, India, and as far as West Asia. More than 15,000 horses were transported into the hinterland of China. All the goods were transferred via the Amdo to Tibet road traditionally. By making this important military road a Tea-Horse Trade route, the exchange of tea and fabric for horses stimulated tea planting and expedited the development of the Tea-Horse Trade.

During the Ming dynasty (1368A.D-1644A.D), the Tea-horse Trade Route via Kham officially formed, even though this trading route had existed since the early time of Song dynasty. Kangding, which is also named Dartsedo was the main site for Tea-horse Trading in Kham.

Generally, the Tea-Horse Trade Route included 2 major branches, which ran separately through Amdo and Kham to connect the hinterland of China and Tibet together. Since the Ming dynasty, the route via Kham became the main flowing area.

The major routes include:

Route 1: Depart the Tea-planting area of Ya’an (near Chengdu) to Kangding, via southern route leading to Lhasa and then onward to Nepal, India…
Route 2: Depart from Middle part of Yunnan via Lijiang, Zhongdian, Deqin onto the Tibetan plateau to Lhasa, along the Himalayan range into India continental.

Tea-Horse Trade Route formed in AD 6th century, and ended at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). However, it was used again during World War II when China was invaded by Japanese troops. This ancient Tea-Horse trading Route became the only one route that horse caravans were on this route to transport military goods from India to mainland China to support the Anti-Japanese War until it ended in victory.

Important Events:

  • Human and animal trails were naturally formed at the Tea Horse trading route;
  • Yunnan to Tibet horse Trading route formed in the late sixth century A.D.
  • Tang dynasty (618A.D. – 907A.D.), Tea-horse Trading largely developed in the Amdo to Tibet route;
  • In the seventh century, the Tibetan Empire established, the army of Tibetan Empire traveled south to build bridges on Jinsha River to connect Yunnan and Tibet;
  • During the Song Dynasty (960A.D-1279A.D), the major Tea-horse trading route was moved to the southwestern region of China in Sichuan and Yunnan which were the two main provinces to develop Tea-horse trading;
  • In the Yuan dynasty (1206A.D-1368A.D), Tea-horse Trading Route was well developed;
  • During the Ming dynasty (1368A.D-1644A.D), Kangding (Dartsedo) became a major site for tea-horse trading;
  • During World War II, this route became an international business trading channel, as well as a strategic route in the southwest of China;