The Ancient Tea Horse Road is a series of trading routes crisscrossing Southwest China. This tour explores the southern section of the Tea Road, namely, the prefectures of Puer and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province (straddling both sides of the Mekong as it exits China into Laos). This is the zone of tea production where most of the tea was grown. The tea was harvested, processed, steam compressed into ‘cakes’ and transported by horse and mule caravan on long-distance journeys over countless rivers and mountains to places as far away as Lhasa and beyond. The tea is still grown arboreally as trees in large groves. Many are several hundred years old and not a few have been dated to over 800 or even 1000 years. The local trees are used to make a distinctive kind of tea called ‘puer tea’. The tea groves are tended by a diverse array of ethnic peoples, some of whom are probably among the first peoples to ever harvest, cultivate and enjoy tea as a beverage. As an item that binds a diverse array of different people into a shared culture tea is thus an integral and rich part of the social life and history, and indeed future, of Yunnan.
In this tour, we explore the culture, history and rich ethnic diversity of the ‘tea mountains’. We will meet tea merchants, tea farmers, tea scholars and a range of other colorful characters and friendly locals. We will visit tea plantations, ancient tea tree groves, and tea factories to get insights into the processes of tea production. Along the way, we will also visit historic sites and places where most tourists never reach. We will walk on remnant parts of the tea road. We will visit remote tea villages and interact with the locals. And of course, we will enjoy an endless variety of culinary delights not to mention countless cups of tea. We stay in 3, 4 and 5-star hotels and one night in an actual tea village guesthouse. The tour is suitable for active persons as it does involve a lot of walking (although no strenuous walking or camping in the wilderness). You will only need to carry a day pack. Details of each day’s activities are provided below.
DAY 1 – Monday the 3rd of February 2020 – “Old Kunming”
Arrival in Kunming. Guided walking tour of old Kunming followed by a welcome banquet.
The weather in winter (December to February) in Kunming Puer/Jinggu and Jinghong/Xiding/Zhanglang is relatively mild. When the sun is out, and it usually is at this time of year (Kunming and the other regions we visit generally have dry winters), it will be bright and warm. This makes a sun hat, sunscreen, and glasses an absolute must. After sunset, the temperature drops and layers of warm clothing are strongly advised (so you can adjust the layers to suit requirements). Of course, it may also rain in which case having some form of wet weather gear (light raincoat or umbrella) is strongly suggested. The average minimum and maximum temperatures in December for the places we will visit are:
Kunming: 4 – 15 degrees celsius.
Puer/Jinggu: 7 – 23 degrees celsius.
Jinghong: 11 – 25 degrees celsius.
Xiding/Zhanglang: 6 – 23 degrees celsius.
The trip starts in Kunming (altitude: 1,900 m), the provincial capital of Yunnan. This is the highest altitude on this tour. After we leave Kunming we descend in altitude and go back up again in Xiding/Zhanglang. We first travel southwards to Puer and Jinggu (both approx. 1,500 m) passing through the Tropic of Cancer, followed by Jinghong and Xiding (Zhanglang) (500 and 1,700 m respectively). You should not experience any altitude issues on this tour. We return to Kunming at the end of the tour. We have more info about prepping in the FAQ, and please do not forget our extensive packing list downloadable below.
We have ranked this expedition in the “EASY” category. This means accessibility is relatively high, altitude is low (500 – 1,900 meters) and there are no challenging trails or exposed terrain. There is no camping on this tour. All you need to carry is a day pack. All of the expeditions in the EASY category are suitable for outdoor lovers found of walking. We will provide very detailed information about all the distances and changes in elevation. We travel with a small group, so we can give a very customized service.
DAY 1-2 – Kunming (x2)
The Moon and Chalice 5-star boutique hotel, perfect location in the heart of old Kunming.
We’ll be traveling with an 18-seat officially registered tourist van, operated by an experienced driver accredited by the tourism authorities of China. Yin Guangtao.
The trip starts in Kunming (altitude: 1,900 m), the provincial capital of Yunnan, a city of approximately four million people. It is easy to take a taxi to the hotel and full instructions will be provided. Arrangements can be made for the Hotel to meet you at the airport for an additional fee.
In the afternoon we will take a two to three-hour loop walk from the hotel to the flower and bird market via the Green Lake and local streets. We are staying in the old section of Kunming and this walk will provide a good orientation. Gary will point out places of interest.
In the evening we have our welcome banquet and try the local cuisine.
On our first day in Yunnan, we’ll explore the nearby Western Hills. This is a very pleasant walk with great views of the Dianchi Lake and Kunming. The trail was many by monks (Buddhist and Daoist) many centuries ago. A number of historic temples and shrines are situated along the trail. We will take a packed lunch to enjoy one of the many scenic lookouts. After dinner, we will experience our first tea tasting.
Today we fly from Kunming to Puer (altitude: 1,500 m) (flight time approx. 40 mins), the main tea distribution center in this area. Pu’er is a small regional city that doesn’t get many foreign tourists. Upon arrival, we take our chartered vehicle to the nearby county of Jinggu (approx. 80 km and two hours travel). We stop at the ancient staging post of Nakeli where we witness first-hand how puer tea cakes are made. We will have a light lunch along the way. We return to Puer in a few days.
Jinggu is a small rural county town inhabited by many different ethnic groups. The main groups are Dai, Han and Yi. It is famous for its ancient tea trees and temples. The temple architecture is an interesting mix of Chinese and Dai styles. It’s rarely visited by foreign tourists (or Chinese tourists for that matter). It’s a real hidden gem. We are lucky to spend a few days here.
There will be time to stroll around the town of Jinggu (safe and small enough for us to split up and follow our fancy). Lots of interesting streets and market activity in this small rural town. A very picturesque bucolic feel. Rarely visited by foreigners. You will attract a lot of smiles and stares! The people are colorful and friendly. During our stay in Jinggu we will visit some of the local sights. We also baptize our feet by taking a short walk on a stretch of old tea road through a picturesque gorge (four kilometers of moderate walking).
We will also visit some villages. We will visit a nearby Yi village on Suanzaoshu (‘sour date tree’) Mountain to see the tea groves. We will return to the main town of Jinggu for a special hands-on class on how to brew puer tea (and this lesson will apply for many other forms of Chinese tea).
The Dai are one of the major ethnic groups in the region (they share many cultural affinities with the Thai people of northern Thailand). Mangdao village is home to a national heritage registered temple that is more than 400 years old. We will walk into the nearby hills (app. 5 km) and search out for sites of interest (legend has it that Buddha came here and left some footprints and other signs).
If the local hot springs are open we can go for a recuperative dip.
Today we travel from Jinggu for Puer (approx. 80 km and two hours travel by chartered vehicle). After lunch, we will take a leisurely walk around the nearby tea terraces and see the city view. Puer, like many small ‘prefectural cities’, is urbanizing rapidly. This is a side of China’s transformation that not many people understand or see firsthand. Of course, we cannot visit Puer and not go to the main tea markets. You’re not likely to see this much tea in one place ever again! Our special friend of many years will brew us some tea.
After a light lunch, we head for our next stop, Jinghong, the prefectural capital of Xishuangbanna (chartered vehicle, approx. two hours travel, approx. 130 km). Jinghong is the prefectural capital of Xishuangbanna, a region inhabited by the Dai people (some of whom we will have already met in Jinggu) and many other ethnic minorities too. Jinghong sits on the banks of the Mekong River (which in China is known as the Lancang River). We descend in altitude to the Jinghong basin. It will be very pleasant and warm (usually 14-24 c in December).
Before dinner, we take a loop-walk along the Mekong River. After dinner, you can visit the night markets (within walking distance of our hotel).
This is an optional day for you to choose an activity. There are quite a few to choose from such as visiting temples, botanical gardens, activities on the Mekong, or just taking it very slowly and occupying a strategic position in a local café. The street-life of Jinghong is bustling and colorful. You will be responsible for your own lunch and dinner.
Today we will have an early start in order to catch the colorful local market in the nearby tea hills. This is one of the last traditional style markets in Southwest China. Locals travel from near and far to come to the weekly market. You may join us for an optional hike (a few kilometers of moderate hiking through rolling hills) from the village where the market is held to another village nearby with a beautiful temple. You may also just ride in the coach to the village and wait for the walkers. We will be staying in the village – Zhanglang Village – for one night. It is a typical Bulang people village with resident (Theravada) Buddhist temple and great views of the tea groves. We will have a unique opportunity to interact with the villagers and learn about their life and the place of tea in their culture. We will sample some of their homegrown and processed tea.
The tour has come to an end. We have one last breakfast together.