It’s not a road, it’s a region. The ancient Tea Horse trade route (also known as the Southern Silk Road) is a sprawling web of millennia-old paths connecting Southeast Asia to southwest China and Tibet. The network once ferried horses and silver from Tibet to China in exchange for tea, but people also traded salt for tea, ivory for gold, and religious instruction for food and shelter. It stretches over 1,000 miles from China’s Sichuan province through Yunnan’s mountains and the Tibetan plateau up to Lhasa, and is still bustling with old and newer kinds of commerce, although most of the original paths are gone—made obsolete or transformed into highways and railways by China’s appetite for tarmac. But you can still travel along the remnants of the old trails, which sprawl across four Chinese provinces, three countries (China, Laos, and Burma), and link the homelands of around a dozen ethnicities.
Choose a route. Or not. The established routes radiate from larger towns in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwest China. From Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, you can head west to Kangding in Sichuan province, and the doorway to Tibet. Or south from Chengdu into Xichang, and across the mountains into northern Yunnan and Lijiang. Starting in Yunnan, you can head north from Kunming towards Sichuan’s Tibetan areas, or head south through the tea mountains of Pu’er and towards Jinghong, then Laos and Thailand. Or, you can drift around the network for as long as you can. I lived in China for 14 years—12 of them in Sichuan—and traveled these routes several times, once for a six-month stint. I’m partial to heading west from Chengdu to Kangding, then south by southwest through Ganzi to Yunnan Province, taking in Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang. There are many ways to skin this cat: I once traded a bottle of booze for a bike and rode across Laos to Mengla and the border of China, then traded the bike for a bus ticket to Jinghong, where I was able to make my way north to Dali and eventually back home to Chengdu.
If you’re short on time, start in Dali. If you don’t have weeks and months to explore the network, head to Dali, in southwest Yunnan, and branch out along the old trading paths from there. Dali is a historic Tea Horse trail hub and these days it’s a little touristy, but it makes for a good base, and the banana pancakes are plentiful. It’s also my go-to place to buy memorable things, like hemp jackets and silver, or a bag of P’uer tea. Sure, everybody else shops here too, but a lot of Chinese artists have come here to escape the crush of the city and have left their mark on the place. They are the modern heirs of the sages, musicians, and painters who’ve always been here in some form or another, and I’ve found that a discerning trader can find a good deal on local art in Dali. Plus, it has the Bad Monkey Bar, a pirate’s den with live music and no closing time.