The Tea Explorer

It used to be that tea was as precious as fine minerals – a stimulant that was also a food and a medicine. And while people made different “teas” by brewing everything from cedar bows to juniper berries, the tea leaves that we know today have their origins in the sultry low mountains of southern Yunnan, down in the southwest corner of China.

Buying leaves in the forest

Buying leaves in Beijing

Pu’erh teas that are still produced by ethnic minorities – the Hani and the Dai, to name two – can fetch thousands of dollars on the collector’s market. They are grown on trees that can live past 1,000 years, planted on selected hillsides of drained clay soil, untouched by chemicals and tended to by farmers every bit as disciplined as skilled and dedicated as a vigneron of Bordeaux.

Sorting leaves by hand

Tea frying process

Fifteen hundred years ago pu’erh teas rarely left Yunnan, but as traders cut new roads through the territory and tea got out to the markets of the Han Chinese and the Tibetans on the Himalayan Plateau, the thirst for tea was so insatiable that an entire system materialised to transport the leaves out of the south and over the mountains.

Map of the ancient Tea Horse Road

Photos of the tea works circa 1800

© Baker Library Historical Collections

Business was brisk for centuries and tea plantations popped up in other parts of the world – India, Sri Lanka, Africa and other regions in China. Tea grew to become the second most popular beverage on earth after water. As demand grew even further, the market fragmented to serve those who wanted really good unadulterated leaves like pu’erh and those who didn’t mind having inferior tea all chopped up – stems and all – and served in the convenience of a tea bag (alongside milk and some sugar).

How do we brew a cup Pu’erh tea?  Well it’s a 4-step process

Step One
Introducing the tea cake
Step Two
Whittling tea from the cake
Step Three
Pouring the first infusion
Step Four
Pouring the second infusion

Nomadic camp

Woman making butter tea

Jeff Fuchs was living in Gyalthang, Yunnan (aka ‘Shangri La’) when he first heard about the Ancient Tea Horse Road. His good friend had crossed over it as a boy, all the way from India to his father’s home on the royal grasslands of the Chinese Himalayan steppes. Jeff was fascinated – he had already fallen under the spell of pu’erh tea and now he had a chance to tell its story by retracing this old trade route of legend.

Stories From The Tea Horse Road

In 2006 Jeff trekked the route, over the first high mountain pass called Sho La (see director’s short essay for a story on Sho La) and then five other passes before descending into Lhasa nine months later. Along the way they found forgotten outposts and old traders who were more than happy to tell their stories of the tea trading days to Jeff and his team. The complete story of Jeff’s journey is chronicled in his book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road.

Faces from the Tea Horse Road

© Jeff Fuchs

Our film The Tea Explorer takes Jeff back to those tea forests in southern Yunnan and then up to that daunting first pass at Sho La. After that the trail veers into new territory – into Upper Mustang in northern Nepal and down the Kali Gangaki Gorge, the deepest gorge on earth and a highway for traders bringing tea from Lhasa down to the markets of Kathmandu.

Image Gallery

© Andrew Gregg
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