The Other Silk Route
While we know of the great Silk Road which passed from China, through Central Asia, to Constantinople (Istanbul) , there was another very important trade route known as the ‘Southern Silk route’, or the ‘Tea-Horse Road’ which was a critical economic lifeline for China, Tibet and the Himalayan kingdoms of North-East India for over 1900 years. This trade route passed from Sichuan and Yunan provinces in South West China , through Tibet and the Nathula pass in Sikkim, down to the ports of Bengal in India.
Perilous to navigate through, the Tea-Horse road locally referred to as the Cha-ma-gu-dao, as the name suggests, was mostly used for bringing in tea from China and taking back wool, medicines and warhorses from Tibet. From India, it was the more exotic spices, corals, pearls, and incense that made their way out. In active use from 2nd BCE all the way to the 17th century CE, the traders on this route had to make their way through some of the most dangerous mountains like the Hengduan mountain range spanning the west side of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces of China and the southeast of Tibet, gorges and rough rivers which were crossed through bridges sometimes made of a single rope. But it was crucial as it connected China (Sichuan and Yunan) to Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan.