My husband has a subscription to National Geographic, and the other morning I went downstairs and wondered why he'd left "his" magazine open in the spot where I always sit to watch the news each morning. It didn't take me long to see why he thought I'd be interested. "The Forgotten Road" is the name of the article about the legendary Tea Horse Road by Mark Jenkins (with wonderful photographs by Michael Yamashita), and I know my fellow tea lovers will lap this up just as surely as I did!
The opening spread (hiding one of those wonderful tri-fold panoramic shots) features an image at right by Mark Thiessen of the National Geographic staff. This tea brick is in honor of the Year of the Horse, and I must say I did not know tea bricks could have designs on them. But enough of that ... the article and photos are just incredible, and I knew I was going to like this as soon as I read Jenkins'scene-setting opener about his search for this long-lost road of tea commerce: "That night I camp high above the creek but the wood is too wet to make a fire. Rain pounds the tent. In the morning I probe ahead another 500 yards before an impenetrable wall of jungle stops me, for good. I'm forced to admit that here at least the Tea Horse Road has vanished..." Jenkins managed to find part of the original trail in China, and when he aims to do the same in Tibet, he calls on an experienced mountaineer he happens to know: his wife, Sue Ibarra.
I'm just enough a student of tea to have known that the Chinese once traded tea to Tibet in exchange for horses, and this article is the story of that trade, its route, and most poignant of all, those people who once made the trip up mountains and through rivers and deadly mountain passes, all in the pursuit of tea commerce. It is heart-breaking to read about and see some of the hundred pound men who once clawed their way up mountains with 300-pound loads of tea on their backs! One of the most intriguing modern-day photos in the piece is from a horse race held each year to commemorate the famed Tea Horse Road. Every time I read about tea's fascinating history, it makes me appreciate the beverage I enjoy today even more. I am just delighted NG gave space to tea's "Forgotten Road." Beautifully written and photographed, and accompanied by a lovely two-page map of the historic Tea Horse Road itself, this article (also available here) is simply a must-read piece for tea lovers!