The sound of horses’ hoofs clicking on stone echoes round the valley. The harsh expel of breath with every struggle uphill. The moments of pause and with it the rhythmic munching and crunching of nearby foliage.
We were riding – as many had centuries before us – astride horses, and underfoot the tea horse road rose and fell. It escaped over hilltops, it skirted round valleys and disappear through still-verdant forests.
Leaving the friendly faces of the small town of Shaxi behind us we had set out along this infamous road. The road that carried the legendary pu’erh tea from the verdant valleys of Yunnan through the terrifying peaks of Tibet and then effortlessly falling into India. We were but at the start of this journey and would, of course, not see it through to its end.
As the bustle of town became a distant memory tranquility set in on the almost abandoned trail. All around rich greens clung to the mountainside alongside unique red and black rocks; above the sky was a regal blue and down below in the valley, fields were tended; life went on.
Whilst the road was quiet it still had purpose. Families plied the well-worn trails with wares for the market. The young and old rode the horses instead of tea, and those fit and able guided and pulled the caravan into town.
Even though the days of the tea traders has long since faded into obscurity (over 100 years ago) the stories and legends live on, and the path they forged is a life line for those high in the mountains. In fact, if you listen closely enough you can still hear the old ringing of hoofs and echos of panting men straining with their caravan.
Warm sun on our backs gave way to chill winds. The greens of the lower valley gave way to snow and ice covered trails. Even though the last snows were more than 2 weeks past, at this altitude it refused to give way. It was thick. Inches to feet. It was hard. Like rock.
’Zippp…’ The jacket went, as below me my horse just ploughed on. Within moments the trail turned precipitous. To my left nothing but a few sporadic scrubs and bushes hemmed me in from a very long fall. The trail narrowed. On the incline leaning forward, patting the flanks of my straining, sweating horse, offering encouragement, praise. On the decline, sitting high and letting the brisk mountain air beat my face and refresh my spirit.
An the valleys continued to give way (and the snow thickened) we knew we were nearing our mountain abode. Ma Pingguan.
Riding into town across an ages old bridge we found ourselves stepping into history. Dismounting – and feeling the spots were bruises and sores would no doubt hound us in the coming days – we stepped into a stone courtyard. Our home for the night amongst amiable hosts.
A late lunch was served and we were spoilt. Every dish was delicious from fermented and spiced tofu to deep fried mountain ginseng; from pig blood fried and boiled to shredded pork from the recently slaughtered carcass.
And then the hours ticked by. There was nothing to do but be embroiled in village life… Which basically meant chasing chickens around the courtyard and keeping them out of the kitchen!
And to watch the slow descent of the sun and the retreating of light from floors and walls as that daily orb became trapped behind houses and hills.
And so nothing remained but to accept the hospitality of the mountain and its people and to warm ourselves besides glowing coals.
Well. One thing remained. To watch the stars; to think upon the men long ago who trudged this trail and who – just like us – looked heavenward and stared upon those very same stars.