Long a backpacker favorite, the ancient trade route known as the Tea Horse Road connects southwest China with Tibet, Southeast Asia, and India. And as domestic and international tourism boom throughout China, points along the old trail are becoming increasingly popular destinations, both with trekkers willing to bed down in local guest houses and hostels, as well as among those looking to explore the China beyond the usual mainstream tour-group offerings but less interested in roughing it backpacker-style. Indeed, the Tea Horse Road’s reputation is coming to rival similar trails that wind down the west coast of South America, through the old towns of Europe, and down the east coast of Africa among those seeking a mix of authentic indigenous cultures, stunning natural scenery, traditional towns and villages, and affordability. With so many cool spots, amazing sights and unforgettable experiences along the Horse and Tea Trade route, you might be tempted to just throw your hands up and stick in one place for a week or three rather than end up exhausted and traveled out after trying to do a bit of everything. And though there’s nothing wrong with that, it is, after all, a road (more or less)made for traveling, and it would be a pity to miss out on the highlights scattered along its length. That’s why I’ve put together this little Tea Horse top ten. Check it out and use it to plan your way….
Our list is limited to China sections of the trail, most of which passes through the incredibly diverse province of Yunnan, so please go ahead and reply with your own recommendations of things to do along any part of the Horse and Tea Trade Route. If we gather them all together, we might just end up with something like a comprehensive guide to the road. So, counting down, let’s take it from the top: 10. Hunt for, buy, and sip tea in and around the Xishuangbanna region. You won’t find too much online about where to buy tea thereabouts, but part of the joy of the experience lies in hitting the pavement (and hopefully climbing the mountains) to get your hands on some good brick tea. 9. Buy an ice cream cone and take your plastic to-go cup of Xishuangbanna tea to Cui Hu Park in Kunming for an afternoon. The park is a lively place every day and each winter Russian gulls stop off at the “City of Eternal Spring” on their way south, happen to hit Kunming in January, join the locals in feeding the flocks. 8. Spend a couple nights in Ruili, Dehong Prefecture while you look for Burmese ruby chips (and, perhaps, discover exactly what Burmese whiskey can do to you). This was once a border town with all of the rowdy, seedy, shady elements known to frequent such places. Things have changed a bit over the years, but you can still feel the strong Burmese influence, especially if you head a little way out of town. 7. Take a bike ride around Dali’s Erhai Lake, stopping every thirty minutes or so to chat, take a picture, skinny dip or buy a snack. A lot of people backpacking in Dali miss this great opportunity—don’t be one of them! Sure, the ride is a long one and could take more than a day to complete it, so chop it up into pieces. You can easily find a place to crash at almost any point along the way. 6. Hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge, eat “herbal banana pancakes” at the Halfway Hostel and climb down to the rock the Tiger supposedly jumped from. There were rumors out there that the Chinese government was going to flood the gorge in order to build another dam here (cancelled in 2007, but it’s quite possible it could come up again, so get there ASAP and enjoy one of the best, most accessible hikes in China). 5. Visit the Buddhist temples of Shibao Shan outside of Shaxi and make an offering at the Yoni Shrine. You’ll have to ask for directions if you’re heading out there by yourself, but once you get there just follow the paths around the massive temple and shrine complex and bow down at the appropriate spots.
4. Spend a day at the Buddhist monastery in Zhongdian (Shangri-la) and share some yak butter tea with local monks. The town itself does not have much to offer, but if you head just a few minutes out into the countryside, the plateau and sky open up, complete with red-robed monks silently making their way through lanes with water pails sloshing and swaying across their shoulders. 3. Drink from the Yupeng Waterfall near Deqin and, when no one’s looking, dip your head all the way in to the water. In fact, if you are lucky enough to be near any mountain-fed stream, dip your head in. That’s an order. 2. Watch the Horse Races in Litang and avoid getting beat up when the inevitable brawl breaks out between the winner, the runner-up, random Khampa passers-by and the police. 1. Do all these things overland, continuing either east toward Chengdu or west to Lhasa… and send us a detailed report!