The Tea Horse Road or chamadao (simplified Chinese: 茶马古道) was a network of caravan paths winding through the mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet in Southwest China. This was also a tea trade route. It is also sometimes referred to as the Southern Silk Road or Southwest Silk Road.
There are numerous surviving archaeological and monumental elements, including trails, bridges, way stations, market towns, palaces, staging posts, shrines and temples along the route.
Sichuan and Yunnan are believed to be the first tea-producing regions in the world. The first records of tea cultivation suggest that tea was cultivated on Sichuan’s Mount Mengding (蒙顶山) between Chengdu and Ya’an earlier than 65 BC. Ya’an has been an important hub of tea trading till the 20th century.
From around a thousand years ago, the Tea Horse Road become a trade link from Yunnan to Tibet; and to Central China via Sichuan Province. It is believed that it was through this trading network that tea (typically tea bricks) first spread across China and Asia from its origins in Pu’er county in Yunnan. The route earned the name because of the common trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea, a practice dating back at least to the Song dynasty, when the sturdy horses were important for China to fight warring nomads in the north.
Both people and horses carried heavy loads. Tea porters sometimes carried over 60–90 kg (132-198 lb.), which was often more than their own body weight in tea.Porters were equipped with metal-tipped staffs, both for balance while walking and to help support the load while they rested, so they didn’t need to lay the bales down (as illustrated in the photo).
In addition to tea, the mule caravans carried salt and silk products from Chengdu, notably Shujin (蜀锦).
In the 21st century, the legacy of the Tea-Horse Road has been used to promote a railway that will connect Chengdu to Lhasa. This planned railroad, part of the PRC’s 13th 5-Year Plan, is called the Sichuan-Tibet railway (川藏铁路); it will connect cities across the route including Kangding. Authorities claim it will bring great benefit to the people’s welfare.