A swaying suspension bridge ominously creaks forty feet above a churning river. Six villagers trek across this makeshift structure, straining under huge sacks of chili pepper.
They reach the opposite bank, dump their fiery cargo, head back and reload, oblivious to the watery turmoil below. As visitors soon discover, life in western Sichuan is not for the faint-hearted.
“We work hard, and sometimes we take risks,” explains Kunsang, breathing hard from her backbreaking labor. “This is the price we pay for living in such a beautiful environment. It’s hard to get here, and sometimes tough getting by, especially in winter, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”
Extending north to Gansu, south to Yunnan, and west to Tibet, western Sichuan sits at the very edge of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau. Rising up from the flat plains around Chengdu like a fortress paradise, the region offers some truly exhilarating scenery: hilltop prayer flags shining bright against a deep blue sky, rows of sun-bleached stupas beneath snowy peaks, and time-honored monasteries beside massive, serpentine glaciers.
“Western Sichuan is a land just waiting to be explored,” says Roland Zeidler, a German national who co-runs Western Sichuan Tours out of Chengdu. “There are still plenty of places where tourists have never been, and peaks which are only now being attempted by climbing expeditions. The vibrant culture and stunning landscapes are the reasons why I keep coming back here time and time again.”
As its Chinese name suggests, the chamagudao —- literally translated as “Ancient Tea Horse Road” —- was a central trade route for exchanging Tibetan horses and Chinese tea. As it developed, this corridor began to play a crucial role in communication and cultural exchange between present-day Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet.
Although it is difficult to overstate the importance of quality horses to the Chinese state, the horse trade itself, which weakened the nomads to strengthen the empire, was for the most part unstable, dangerous, and the cause of much friction.
Fortunately, at the turn of the seventh century, stability was found in the form of a still-popular export: tea.
“After Sichuan tea was introduced to Tibet it quickly became a key part of the Tibetan diet,” explains Chengdu-based historian and tour guide Li Qiang. “Many Tibetans are big meat-eaters, and tea aids in the digestion process. The leaves were chewed and used to make yak butter tea. Even up to the early 20th century, tea caravans crossed between western Sichuan and Tibet. Bags of tea were traded for high quality Tibetan horses, for the emperor’s cavalry.”
According to the earliest known Chinese manual on pharmacology, the first tea plantation was established in 53 B.C. by the legendary tea cultivator Wu Lizhen in Mingshan County, near Ya’an. Wu Lizhen is said to have planted “seven seeds of miraculous tea” in his garden on Mount Mengshan.
Tea plants still cover Mount Mengshan’s flanks like gently rippled green corduroy. Wu Lizhen’s garden is preserved, and the bushes are replanted every three to four hundred years.
“Mengding tea is still known across China,” explains local farmer Wang Lei, who also grows tobacco and corn on his high altitude terrace. “In the past, teams of porters would take away bricks of tea into Tibet, and as far as India and Europe.”
The Sichuan-Tibet Tea Horse Road was perhaps the most arduous of its kind. The first major obstacle the caravans, bloated with impossibly-heavy loads of tea, had to overcome was the colossal 3,437-meter Mount Erlang (Erlang Shan) or “Two Wolves Mountain.” Cruel weather and bandits didn’t help.
Today a paved road runs between Ya’an and Luding, and the mountain pass has been replaced with a four-kilometer tunnel through the mountains.
“I don’t even want to think about the hardships those tea porters had to endure,” says Kevin Cleary, an American cyclist on a tour of western Sichuan. “Cycling the Mount Erlang road today is physically draining, but it doesn’t begin to compare to what those guys had to go through. They had a rough trail to follow, almost no food, and over a hundred kilos of tea strapped to their back.”
Most of Wang Lei’s tea from Mount Mengshan now ends up in Kangding, the capital of western Sichuan. It’s known to Tibetans as Dartsedo, and is a surprisingly dense metropolis squeezed between high valley walls. As you enter the town, it’s hard to imagine the place as it was half a century ago, when it was a frontier town trapped in a wild landscape, full of ramshackle wooden houses. Despite its recent modernization, it’s still an unfettered gateway to Tibet.
The town’s sizeable Tibetan population gives the streets an exotic air. With silver daggers in their belts, these Khampa Tibetans are renowned for their prowess in battle and pious devotion, but today the weapons are purely ornamental.
Inside the grounds of Kangding’s Anjue Temple, prayer flags flutter noisily, and a group of crimson-robed monks focus on their morning mantras. The atmosphere here, as in all of western Sichuan’s temples and monasteries, is one of tranquil reflection.
“Kangding was always a major town on the Tea Horse Road,” head monk Choseng Rinpoche offered in slow, precise English. “Caravans from Tibet and Sichuan would meet here, do business, and gather their strength for return journeys. As you can imagine, travel over the terrain of western Sichuan was very strenuous, so for some caravans, just arriving here was reason enough to celebrate.”
Caravans still travel to Kandging for business. Tenzin, a Khampa farmer, makes weekly journeys into town to sell mushrooms and dairy products in the bustling market. He sets up a makeshift stall overlooking the fast-flowing Zheduo, and hawks huge wheels of creamy yak butter, many still enclosed in protective yak skins.
Tenzin offers a regular customer a cup of fresh yak butter tea. “Foreigners generally don’t appreciate the taste of it,” he explains, “but it is the Khampa Tibetan drink of choice. First I soak the tea leaves in hot water for a few hours. Then I add butter, salt and milk, and mix everything together. I’m sure you’d like it a lot more if you’d been walking all day in freezing temperatures.”
Those seeking the perfect conditions for yak butter tea can always make a beeline for Mount Gongga. Outside of Kangding, this sky-piercing pyramid of granite, snow and ice ranks high in the list of hallowed Buddhist peaks. Just to gaze upon it is supposedly equal to a decade of meditation.
Mount Gongga’s awesome beauty belies its perilous nature. Until recently, more people had died climbing it than had reached its summit. These days most visitors prefer a cable car ride up to the Hailuogou Glacier, one of four frozen tendrils that crawl down the mountain’s steep sides. As misty temperate forest gives way to Hailuogou’s deeply crevassed tongue of ice and rock, the ascent is truly breathtaking, in every sense of the word.
“Some days you can see Mount Gongga all the way from Chengdu,” explains Tang Lei, a man selling hot tea and thick pancakes from a stall on the mountainside. Above his head, hundreds of prayer flags rise and fall in the wind, and a plume of incense smoke drifts from twin stupas below. The spirituality of western Sichuan’s paramount peak remains as palpable as ever.
Western Sichuan is not all mountain, gorge and valley. Surrounding the town of Tagong, about a hundred kilometers north west of Kangding, is a sea of grass that stretches to the horizon. One of China’s few grasslands, this rolling expanse of hills and meadows is dotted with monasteries, Khampa villages and alpine lakes.
“We usually find that visitors end up staying in Tagong longer than they’d intended,” says Sally Norbu, co-owner of Sally’s Kham Restaurant. “It’s very relaxing and picturesque.” With the golden roof of the nearby Muya Pagoda shimmering against the snowy backdrop of sacred Mount Haizi, one would be hard-pressed to disagree.
“For Khampa men, riding horses has always been special,” continues Sally. “Galloping across the grassland with the wind in their face, shouting at the top of their lungs, they’re truly the descendants of the legendary King Gesar.”
While travel in western Sichuan is certainly far easier today than in the days of the Tea Horse Road, the region’s enduring remoteness simply adds to its appeal. This is a land where self-reliance counts far more than material wealth, and harmony with nature is a way of life. Those seeking a real-life Shangri-La may well find it in this wondrously wild corner of south-west China.
TOURS & TRANSPORT
Independent travel in western Sichuan is possible, but unless you speak Mandarin Chinese and are a fan of long, uncomfortable bus journeys, it’s best to join a tour, or at least hire your own vehicle and driver. Many parts of western Sichuan are very high, so altitude sickness medication is recommended, and ensure you become acclimatized to changes in elevation gradually.
Western Sichuan Tours
Gaoshengqiao, Luofu Shijia 4-1-104, Chengdu
+86 139 8003 5421
Sam’s Guesthouse Travel Center
130 Shaanxi Street, Chengdu
+86 028 8611 8322
Sally’s Kham Restaurant & Bar
Tagong (next to Snowland Guesthouse)
Offers a range of very reasonable Western, Chinese and Tibetan food??check out the yak and potato stew. Also has special tea for relieving high altitude sickness.
22 Renmin South Road (Nan Lu), Chengdu
+86 28 8555 3856
Offers an array of tasty Western dishes as well as an extensive drink list. Free wifi and English-speaking staff.
Jya Drolma and Gayla?’s Guesthouse
Tagong (close to Tagong Temple on the main square)
+86 836 2866056
Tagong (next to Tagong Temple on the main square)
+ 86 836 2866098 / +86 139 9045 4752
Large, comfortable, traditional Tibetan guesthouses that arrange horse riding and local tours.
- I’d like to go horse riding.
- Yuck, what’s in this tea?