ONE FOR THE ROAD
When the Tibetans encountered tea during the seventh century, they became so enamoured of it that, over the following centuries, a network of trails grew up between southwestern China and Tibet. It was called the Tea Horse Road because of its role in the exchange of China’s unique Puer tea for Tibet’s hardy war horses.
Today, pack animals are rare on the route, but the tea trade still flourishes
PHOTOGRAPHS by MICHAEL FREEMAN
A Bulang woman, dressed in ceremonial clothes, takes part in ritual tea picking. The Bulang, who are largely based in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, are one of the 56 ethnic groups o cially recognised by the People’s Republic of China. Every year, they hold a ceremony to thank their ancestral founder figure, Pa Ai Leng, for the gift of tea trees. During this time, an altar is constructed in the forest, sacred texts are read, candles are lit, ceremonial dances are performed and oﬀerings, including a previously slaughtered chicken, are made. The Bulang have been cultivating tea for more than 1,000 years, and are descended from the Pu, thought by many scholars to be the first people in the world to cultivate tea around 1,700 years ago. The Bulang grow and harvest a mixture of wild and domesticated tea plants to create Puer tea, a much-prized traditional tea that can sell for as much as £200 per kilogram. The high-altitude region in which they live, among the evergreen forests above the Mekong River, is the motherland of the tea plant. From here, the tea belt extends from Yunnan into contiguous parts of China (Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangzi provinces) as well as Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and northeastern India
20 www.geog raphical.co.uk FEBRUARY 2011