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Carrying straps for humans or animals from Shaxi Market

Carrying straps for humans or animals from Shaxi Market

Tea Horse Road Part I Tiger-Leaping Gorge

“The Tea Horse Road” has a good ring to it, and it’s a big deal in these parts – with something of the same mystique as the Silk Route. And just like the Silk Route, it’s not actually just one road. Generally the road leads from the Tea Mountains further south up through Yunnan and out to Tibet and maybe onwards to India or Burma. Goods were traded on its path – the most famous being (as you may have guessed) tea and horses. The tea came from those southern tea-producing hills and the horses came from Tibet. Tibet wanted tea and China wanted horses, so it made sense. Other things like salt, copper and silk also made their way along the road. The southern Silk Route which begins up north in the ancient Kingdom (now Province) of Sichuan also joins the Tea Horse Route for some of the way.

We have been hiking in “Tiger Leaping Gorge” a towering gorge of the Yangtze River where through the centuries, caravans of horses many carrying packs of dried black and green tea would have wound their way slowly into Tibet. There are still horses there now but they are mostly used to haul weary tourists up the steepest parts of the trail.

Before we were even off the bus we are stung for 65 yuan each (£6.50) The Chinese Tourism Administration is ubiquitous and ever vigilant – no one shall climb these mountains or see glorious sights without paying for it!

Leaving our rucksacks in a handy guesthouse we start on the trail – to find that it has been turned into a dirt road. We are enveloped in clouds of dust as construction lorries drive past every few minutes. I’m having just another of those “I hate China” moments. It’s not good enough that roads have been built and tunnels blasted through both sides of the river along the foot of the mountains, now they want to make a road on the hiking trail too. Because of a landslide and huge bulldozers in the way, the first part of our hike takes much longer than it should but once we finally leave all the earth moving behind, it’s worth it!

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The start of the trail

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Looking down into the gorge of the Yangtze River

 

The first guesthouse we come to is the Naxi Family Guesthouse where we stop for lunch and its sooo lovely that we find it hard to leave. The sun is warm, the family is friendly, the views are stunning, the food is delicious and generous, and rooms are available. So why not stay the night?

Naxi Family Guesthouse

Naxi Family Guesthouse

 

 

 

 

 

and as night falls...

and as night falls…

 

I can’t get enough of the snowy mountains above us and as evening comes and the cold descends, it becomes a magical haven. Ah yes it’s one of those “I Love China” moments.

 

 

The next day is the day to tackle the “agonising 28 bends” which the Rough Guide speaks of – all the way to the top. However…. there are horses and this might just be the time to engage a couple – money into the local economy and all that PLUS we get to ride a horse on the Tea Horse Road!!!

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It’s tough on the back of a rather recalcitrant horse. He keeps stopping to snaffle grass, he doesn’t want to go up the steep bits (and who can blame him) and he will take a detour whenever he can – luckily impossible most of the time. With cajoling from his young owner, me, and Jim’s steadier horse behind we eventually reach the top and hand over our money – totally exciting and totally worth every yuan!

Amazing views… and an amazing sheer drop to the Yangtze River 800 metres below. The horses and traders of long ago would have had many more hundreds of miles to go into the foothills of the Himalayas to reach their destinations in Tibet.

stall small On the way down a woman has set up her stall – the usual… honey tea, Nescafé, Snickers, fruit, marijuana….

The Tea -Horse Road Part II – Shaxi

Leaving the Gorge which a Tiger Leapt Across (once, apparently), we have travelled 100 kms. south to the “hamlet” of Shaxi, (in other words a small town in China). Shaxi is famous as one of just three remaining “Tea Horse Oases” surrounded by fertile grazing for the horses and where provisions could be stocked up in the market.

It’s actually market day when we arrive and the main street is full of stalls. We find “The Tea Horse Caravan Trail Inn” down a cobbled alleyway between the mud brick traditional houses, and decide that’s where we have to stay. It’s a delight with its two plant filled courtyards and a view of rooftops, hills and a splendid persimmon tree.

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Breakfasts are somewhat freezing but very generous and unusual. No-where in the town has heating and we, along with everyone else, have to get used to eating with coats and jackets on and just sticking it out.

Shaxi was in a state of dilapidation until 2008 when some Swiss Foundation began an ambitious project to fund its restoration and generate income from tourism without destroying the town, the environment or the lives of the locals. They seem to have done a pretty good job – local people clearly live here in the old streets and there is a life to the town beyond tourism. The old square is jaw-droppingly picturesque with its ancient and exotic three storied theatre building opposite an even older temple, all surrounded by wooden buildings and horses tethered in the middle.

We’re no longer in the realm of the Naxi people and are now in Bai territory. Bai houses are still based on a design of three buildings surrounding a courtyard (one for people, one for animals and one for storage of food and fodder) They’re substantial with a couple of courses of big square stones below walls made of mud bricks, topped with grey roof tiles. Around here, the Bai women don’t distinguish themselves much costume-wise round although the old biddies wear a dark blue turban and an indigo blue apron with two blue straps whose white embroidery is an echo of the Naxi.

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A Bai woman wearing a shibori stitch resist indigo cap and some Yi women from a village near Shaxi, both at Shaxi market day

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The Shaxi Bai people are great at storing food – lots of hams, salami, maize, chillis and persimmons!

The most appropriate textile to buy here seemed to be woven straps. I found them at a stall selling the wonderfully practical “rucksack” baskets. Women use these all the time for carrying shopping (I am really tempted to get one for popping down to the Co-op) or for bringing produce back from the fields. If the load is particularly heavy, like big loads of firewood or fodder the strap goes over the forehead. The straps are tough and hand woven probably made in just the same way that Turkish women make their straps, on ground warp looms.

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Shaxi has enchanted us and Jim reckons he could stay a year or so. Life is generally pretty good, and the fields provide natural abundance. Perhaps that’s because, as we have discovered, although the Swiss wanted to adopt more modern sanitary arrangements, the local people “were reluctant to relinquish their faecal matter”. Well it obviously works!

Shaxi (31) Shaxi small

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