National Geographic : 2010 May
• loads of brick tea, veiny hands on T-shaped crutches, heads down and eyes on their splayed feet, the two old men showed me how they wobbled single le along a wet stretch of cob- blestone. After seven steps Gan stopped and stamped his crutch three times, following tradi- tion. Both men circled their crutches around to their backs to rest their wood-frame packs atop the crutch. Wiping sweat from their brows with phantom bamboo whisks, they croaked out the tea porter song: Seven steps up, you have to rest. Eight steps down, you have to rest. Eleven steps at, you have to rest. You are stupid, if you don't rest. Tea porters, both men and women, regularly carried loads weighing 150 to 200 pounds; the strongest men could carry 300. e more you carried, the more you were paid: Every pound of tea was worth a pound of rice when you got back home. Wearing rags and straw sandals, porters used crude iron crampons for the snowy passes. eir only food was a satchel of corn bread and an occasional bowl of bean curd. "Of course some of us died on the way," Gan said solemnly, his eyelids half shut. "If you got caught in a snowstorm, you died. If you fell o the trail, you died." Tea portering ended soon after Mao took over the country in 1949 and a highway was built. Redistributing land from the wealthy to the poor, Mao released the tea porters from servitude. "It was the happiest day of my life," Luo said. A er he received his parcel of land, he began to grow his own rice and "that sad period passed away." , legend has it, when Tang dynasty Princess Wen Cheng married Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in . . 641. Tibetan royalty and nomads alike took to tea for good reasons. It was a hot bev- erage in a cold climate where the only other options were snowmelt, yak or goat milk, bar- ley milk, or chang (barley beer). A cup of yak butter tea---with its distinctive salty, slightly oily, sharp taste---provided a mini-meal for herders warming themselves over yak dung res in a windswept hinterland. e tea that traveled to Tibet along the Tea Horse Road was the crudest form of the bever- age. Tea is made from Camellia sinensis, a sub- tropical evergreen shrub. But while green tea is made from unoxidized buds and leaves, brick tea bound for Tibet, to this day, is made from the plant's large tough leaves, twigs, and stems. It is the most bitter and least smooth of all teas. A er several cycles of steaming and drying, the tea is mixed with gluey rice water, pressed into molds, and dried. Bricks of black tea weigh from one to six pounds and are still sold throughout modern Tibet. By the 11th century, brick tea had become the coin of the realm. e Song dynasty used it to buy sturdy steeds from Tibet to take into battle against erce nomadic tribes from the north, antecedents of Genghis Khan's hordes. It became the prime trading commodity between China and Tibet. For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Chinese would get a single horse. at was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, established in 1074. Porters carried tea from factories and plantations around Yaan up to Kangding, eleva- tion 8,400 feet. ere tea was sewn into water- proof yak-skin cases and loaded onto mule and yak trains for a three-month journey to Lhasa. By the 13th century China was trading mil- lions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year. But even all the king's horses couldn't save the Song dynasty, which fell to Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1279. Nonetheless, bartering tea for horses con- tinued through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the middle of the Qing dynasty (1645- 1912). When China's need for horses began to wane in the 18th century, tea was traded for other goods: hides from the high plains, wool, gold, and silver, and, most important, traditional Chinese medicinals that thrived only in Tibet. ese are the commodities that the last of the tea porters, like Luo, Gan, and Li, carried back from Kangding a er dropping o their loads of brick tea.