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CHINA’S ANCIENT TEA HORSE ROAD

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CHINA’S ANCIENT TEA HORSE ROAD

Follow the jingling mule trains carrying tea across the centuries from China to Tibet. 35 historic images, 10 contemporary images, 1 map

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

The antique Silk Road that connected the Chinese and Mediterranean Worlds for more than a millennium, facilitating the exchange of both goods and cultures, is widely known and celebrated.

Less familiar is its more southerly equivalent, the ‘Ancient Tea-Horse Road' that once linked the lush tea gardens of southwest China with the frigid wastelands of Tibet and – beyond – the torrid plains of northern India. The latter is also sometimes called the ‘Southern Silk Road', though this is something of a misnomer, as silk seems never to have played a very important part in the traffic that traveled along it.

By contrast, the name ‘Tea-Horse Road' is both appropriately descriptive, and of considerable antiquity. In this there are clear contrasts with the more northerly Silk Road, which was never known by that name to Chinese annalists of the distant past; rather the designation is thought to have been coined by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, as recently as 1877. Again by contrast, the name ‘Tea-Horse Road' – in Chinese chamadao – was in official use from at least the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The addition of the word gu or ‘ancient', making the currently popular name chama gudao or ‘Ancient Tea-Horse Road' is a much more recent designation.

Also unlike the Silk Road, which followed a relatively well defined route for much of its length, the Tea-Horse Road was more of a skein of tracks, a network of paths and passages both difficult and diverse, that passed through the immensely difficult terrain of western Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai, over some of the highest, coldest and most inhospitable regions in Asia.

  • Andrew Forbes and David Henley are a writer-photographer team who have been based in Thailand for more than 20 years. During this time they have travelled widely across the Ancient Tea Horse Road region, including Laos, Burma, Yunnan, Sichuan and parts of Tibet's historic Amdo State. They have both contributed to Insight Guide Southern China, AA Key Guide China and Berlitz China Handbook. Andrew has  a BA in Chinese Studies and a Ph.D. in Chinese History, both from the University of Leeds in the UK; David has undertaken more than 20 commissioned photo shoots across China in the last five years.

© 2012 CPA Media &  Cognoscenti Books. All Rights Reserved

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