When tea was worth more than porcelain or silk, porters and pack animals inched up switchbacks to cross Tibet's 15,000-foot Zar Gama Pass as they followed the Tea Horse Road. Today travelers climb the terraced route by car or truck.
When tea was worth more than porcelain or silk, porters and pack animals inched up switchbacks to cross Tibet's 15,000-foot Zar Gama Pass as they followed the Tea Horse Road. Today travelers climb the terraced route by car or truck.
Michael Yamashita

The Forgotten Road

Chinese tea and Tibetan horses were long traded on a legendary trail. Today remnants of the passageway reveal grand vistas—and a surprising new commerce.

Deep in the mountains of western Sichuan I'm hacking through a bamboo jungle, trying to find a legendary trail. Just 60 years ago, when much of Asia still moved by foot or hoof, the Tea Horse Road was a thoroughfare of commerce, the main link between China and Tibet. But my search could be in vain. A few days earlier I met a man who used to carry backbreaking loads of tea along the path; he warned me that time, weather, and invasive plants may have wiped out the Tea Horse Road.

Then, with one wide sweep of my ax, the bamboo falls. Before me is a four-foot-wide cobblestone trail curving up through the forest, slick with green moss, almost overgrown. Some of the stones are pitted with water-filled divots, left by the metal-spiked crutches used by hundreds of thousands of porters who trod this trail for a millennium.

The vestigial cobblestone path lasts only 50 feet, climbs a set of broken stairs, then once again disappears, swept away by years of monsoonal deluges. I carry on, entering a narrow passage where the sidewalls are so steep and slippery I have to hang on to trees to keep from falling into the bouldery creek far below. I'm hoping, at some point, to cross over Maan Shan, a high pass between Yaan and Kangding.

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