Monday, October 13, 2008

The Ancient Tea Horse Road

The Ancient Tea Horse Road / Jeff Fuchs
Toronto : Viking Canada, c2008.

This is a book I received courtesy of the publisher, via Mini Book Expo. I requested it since I am a real tea fanatic and thought this might be something new for me. When I first began it I wondered if I'd be able to finish, however; this is the story of the author's trek along the 6000 kilometer ancient Tea Horse Road, and it began with prose just as pedestrian. But early on, Fuchs catches me when he states:

Tea's importance in the history of the route cannot be overstated, nor can its importance to me. Tea in its myriad forms and colours, its culture and its lore, had charmed, stimulated, and addicted me ever since I had lived in Asia, almost a decade ago. Its regenerative abilities had been one of the few constants in my life, and it would join me on this journey along a thirteen-hundred-year-old trade route that carried its name. Of all the items that I might part with, the dried, unattractive lump of fermented Puer tea was the one I was least likely to give up. I had imbibed tea, studied it, written about it, and spent entire days marvelling at the high it gave me. From Taiwan's oolongs to India's Assam, I was a humble admirer of tea in all its forms. I was eager to visit the tea sanctuaries in the jungled south of Yunnan Province, where my green friend grew rampantly. But first the mountains awaited my attention.

I am glad I kept on, because the story quickly became an absorbing and fascinating tale. I knew absolutely nothing about the existence of this ancient trade route previously but now feel fully versed in all its variety. Fuchs travels along the different branches of the Tea Horse Road, introducing us to the people he both travels with and comes across along the way. The first stretch takes us from Shangri-La to the holy city of Lhasa, a two month mountain trek full of danger but also lonely, windswept beauty. Through his writing I could almost feel the reach of space and the silences. The team flies back to Shangri-La at the end of the journey, and as one trekker states, it is "like pushing a button." Fuchs comments on the dislocations of modern air travel and how the nature of such travel is one of the reasons he prefers moving at the speed of a human being.

After this first and longest section of the road, Fuchs heads out more on his own along some of the shorter arms of the route. When he heads into Yunnan, to the source of the tea being traded along the route, he really gets passionate. If you are in any way a tea junkie, as I am, this will be of great interest. He visits tea houses, plantations, warehouses, and tiny shops; he discusses drinking habits, sources of various teas, preferences in flavour and type, and makes us jealous of the enormous tea stash he ends up with. His insistence on Pu-erh as the tea he favours, and his belief that it would convince anyone who has tasted it, inspired me to head down to my local tea shop and take a look. Newly arrived was a cake of Pu-erh -- it's a compressed and naturally fermented tea, bought in a solid chunk. So I bought one, to be tried out soon.

Also included in the book is a nice collection of colour photos, understandable as he is a professional photojournalist. His travels were intriguing and original, and he weaves in lots of historical bits that I appreciated learning about. The only flaw in my reading was that the focus was perhaps a little too heavily on himself -- his reasons for tackling this project, his own fascination with tea. There is one point on his journey where his guide is not even mentioned by name. It is clear that his interests lie mainly in the landscape itself and its history, rather than the current social milieu, full of its human foibles. And there is nothing wrong with that, but I believe the book would only benefit from more commentary about the people around him. Nonetheless it does give us a very good idea of what it would be like to travel this ancient route and it has certainly made me desirous of tracking down more information about this part of the world. Well worth reading!

(see an interview with the author on CTV)
(Q & A with author in the National Post)


  1. That sounds like quite the adventure! Thanks so much for sharing, this sounds like a great read. :)

  2. I don't drink a lot of tea, but I have a sister who does, and she's very particular about her tea and how it's prepared. I think she might enjoy this book.

  3. Dan - it was an adventure! I am glad I can just read about it :)

    Jeane - I think a lot of tea lovers would be intrigued by this one.


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