For all the tea in China: Discover a wild and charming rural idyll on a 1,000-year-old trade route

Row after row of neat bushes lined undulating hills. It could have been Tuscany, except for the hats. The conical straw headgear of the workers was a constant reminder that this was Asia. More specifically, we were in Xishuangbanna district, Yunnan province, at the start of a 1,000-year-old trade route that once linked southern China to Tibet, and beyond.

Sometimes called the Southern Silk Road, the trail was more commonly known as the Tea Horse Road. From the seventh century until just 60 years ago, Chinese merchants transported the large leaves of the pu'erh tea varietal so that Tibetans could make a delicious hot drink to keep themselves warm on the roof of the world. Tibetan traders would bring a commodity of which the Chinese were even more in need: strong horses to fight off the marauding barbarians on their northern border.

The entire route stretched over 5,000km and included difficult mountain terrain, thousands of metres high. Over a week, with six other travellers, I traced the most clement section of this one-time trade highway, the part that runs through Yunnan, from the subtropical south near the Burmese border to the province's snowy north-west frontier with Tibet. Our guide to this varied trail was Jeff Fuchs, a Canadian mountaineer who had spent the last decade researching the Tea Horse Road, collecting oral testimonies from those who remembered a time before paved roads rendered it obsolete.

With his wiry overgrown hair, high-altitude tan and bristly chin, Jeff was every inch the explorer, except as I watched him survey the green hills, I realised it wasn't the unknown that inspired him. Tea was his obsession. "It's amazing," he said, fondling one of the bushes. "The locals can tell which side of the hill a bush grew on just by inspecting the leaves."

That morning we had left Menghai, one of the few places in Xishuangbanna large enough to be considered a town, and passed along a main road bordered intermittently with small blue-tiled outbuildings. These are "factories" where the pu'erh is sorted before being sent on to real factories elsewhere, where it is packaged, ready for the world's thirsty masses.

Eventually we arrived at a dirt track. Here we changed over to a steam-powered tractor and tugged uphill through the manicured tea bushes to the thatched brick houses of Nongyang village. In Nongyang, we were offered suancha – pickled tea – and shown how to make it. Our host gently boiled the leaves, packed them into bamboo and buried them in the garden to ferment for up to two years. She then unearthed a one-year-old bamboo package and scraped out the contents for us to nibble. This sour snack was an acquired taste.

Fifty kilometres northeast of Nongyang are the tea forests of Nannuoshan. This area was one of the first places in the world to cultivate tea, and its antiquity shows. Instead of orderly rows, planted to meet the needs of a booming modern market, the tea is wild. For centuries, the people who live here have picked the buds and leaves, but the trees are left to grow in whichever formation nature chooses. Hunched, gnarled and covered with a patchy grey-green bark, they appeared like a huddle of wizened men. "You do not go into these forests alone," said Jeff. "The locals are fiercely protective of these trees. They're liquid gold." Jeff enlisted the help of a villager, Ming Pei.

We walked quietly through the forest. Our silence was broken only when Ming told us how the tea was harvested. All the leaves are hand-picked by women, she said. During harvest season, they begin early in the morning and finish late at night. It's tiring work, not least because only the top two inches of leaves are picked, so pickers must scramble up ladders to reach the treetops.

Ming fell quiet as we approached the "king" tree. This 800-year-old tree is just six metres high but its wide trunk and interwoven branches command respect. It was fenced off, probably for good reason, as Jeff looked like a child in a sweet shop.

"My mouth is itching for tea," he said, as he hurried us on to Banpo, Ming's village, a further half-hour's walk into the forest. We knew we had arrived when we spotted a clump of wooden houses sprouting from the earth. The women of the village were waiting for us, cups in hand, dressed in the traditional costume of the Aini minority: black tunics and hats stitched with feathers, pompoms and silver baubles. While they cooked dinner, we sat outside on tree trunk stalls with the men to prepare the tea. Leaves were roasted on an open fire, then soaked in water, before the golden liquid was poured into our simple ceramic cups. The fire gave the brew a smoky flavour, but you could still taste the tang of just-picked leaves.

Most of the tea harvest is left to ferment into the musty taste that consumers normally associate with pu'erh. It's then sold on to China's wealthy for 10 times what the pickers are paid. This style of tea is treated like a fine wine; connoisseurs carefully note vintages. But for the people who grow it, fresh is best.

Seven cups of the raw, unfermented stuff and I was buzzing. We were ushered into one of the families' simple homes for a dinner of chicken, potatoes and winter melon. After the meal we continued sitting on low stalls on the wooden beam floor. I was suddenly thankful for the cha skipping round my veins as the hospitable Aini ladled us shot after shot of potent rice wine. "Don't worry," I was told. "Tea has a counterbalancing effect."

The next day I felt a distinct lack of counterbalance, but persuaded myself this had more to do with altitude than overindulgence. The province of Yunnan is one giant slope, rising from 76m in the southeast to nearly 7,000m in the northwest. We now moved on to the walled town of Dali, which stands in the middle, at about 2,200m.

Dali marks the start of the tea road proper. It was the trail's first trading post and its citizens, the Bai people, were known as shrewd merchants. They converted their profits into elegant stone buildings, still on view in the old town. With its willow-lined, pedestrianised streets and views of the Green Mountains, it is a picturesque place to wander. But thanks to the local backpacker population, another leaf now predominates. On every corner, hawkers peddle "smokey-smokey".

Away from the main streets, cobbled alleyways offer a more authentic flavour. Walking south from the north gate, we squeezed down the first alley on the right. Women in headscarves were selling goods to the locals: giant incense sticks to offer at temples, paper money to burn at funerals. A van tried to turn into the alley and knocked over a rattan cage, sending the chickens squawking to freedom.

We ducked through a low open doorway and entered a half-covered market, where dried chillies, fruit and live fish in buckets competed for space. But Jeff was still restless. He seemed intent on leading us to his favourite teahouse. We didn't have time for a ceremony but while Jeff stocked up for later, we admired the building's typical Bai architecture, with its black-and-white tile paintings and the marble screens for which Dali is famous. In a previous incarnation, it was a guesthouse for travelling merchants.

Guesthouses once stood all along the tea horse trail. But when the Communists came to power and built highways, trade along the trail dried up; the guesthouses shut. Today though, some are reopening to the newest wave of travellers: those that journey for pleasure instead of business. Later that day, we made our way from Dali to a renovated guesthouse in Shaxi, where hints of bygone days remained: the courtyard where the horses were kept; the narrow, steep stairs up to the rooms; and window-sill pews which doubled as the merchant's bed and a security box in which to place his goods.

More a village than a town, Shaxi is a collection of wooden courtyard homes, with exquisite carved screens. From the central square, it is a minute's walk to the countryside. It is a rural idyll; locals carrying baskets from fields across a stone bridge. The sweet smell of straw mingles with the incense burning in nearby shrines. The only sound was the chug of a lone tractor.

Shaxi is a forgotten place. It's hard to believe it was once a trading post as important as Dali. Luckily, someone in town still remembers. Ouyang Shengxian was born in 1941 to a family of muleteers. In his 100-year-old courtyard home, he showed us his father's saddle and recalled with a toothless smile how the streets were once lined with mules tied outside guesthouses. "The town's entire economy was the caravan trade," said Ouyang. "When the trail died out, we had to rely on farming."

The only clue that the tea horse trail once brought far-away visitors here are the street names, such as North Tibetan Alley. At our final stop on the trail, we started to breathe in the Tibetan influence. At 3,200m, Zhongdian sits among snow-slicked mountains. The architecture, too, is Tibetan: two-floored chalets, gargantuan in size, serve as houses. Jeff had made his home in the loft of one of these. He invited us up for tea and shared some tips: "The fourth infusion is best – the leaves have had a chance to open up. You can tell if a tea is good by sniffing the cup afterwards – no smell means poor quality."

Zhongdian was never an important market town like Dali or Shaxi. It was a last outpost before traders took on the daunting next stage of the Tea Horse Road, the Himalayan highway to Tibet. Here they would upgrade to hardy mules and even hardier muleteers: Tibetan lados. Caravans gathered at nearby Napahai lake, where monks from Songzanlin monastery came to bless them.

When we visited Napahai, cows tinkled past and rare black cranes flew overhead. On the surrounding hills prayer flags fluttered in the wind. This is where, just over two years ago, the tough part of Jeff's journey began. From here, he journeyed for eight months to Lhasa, negotiating 78 peaks over 3,000m and took down the stories of people he met who still remembered life on the old trail. But I am no lado. I was happy to go back to Zhongdian for a nice cup of tea.

Travel essentials: China

Getting there

* The author travelled with Wild China (001 888 902 8808; wildchina.com). Jeff Fuchs will be leading two Tea and Horse Caravan road trips this year, departing 24 March and 13 September and costing US$3,180 (£2,120) for 10 days, including full board. Flights to China are not included. Other tea horse trail trips run regularly throughout the year.

* You can fly from Heathrow to Shanghai on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and China Eastern Airlines (020-7935 2676; flychinaeastern.com).

* Domestic flights to Xishuangbanna are offered from Shanghai by Shanghai Airlines (shanghai-air.com).

Red tape

* A single-entry tourist visa to China costs £65.25. Applications should be made to Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (020-7842 0960; visaforchina.org.uk), which has offices in London and Manchester.

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