an interview with jeff fuchs: the tea horse road, living in yunnan and why simplicity equals quality

Jeff  Fuchs is a noted tea writer, traveler and explorer. He was the first Westerner to traverse the Ancient Tea Horse Road, one of the globe’s most arduous journeys and daunting trade routes. This trek took almost eight months to complete,the path of which took tea over 6,000 kilometers into the mighty Himalayas to sate the unquenchable thirst of the Tibetans.   This fabled road provided both a lifeline and access route that contributed immeasurably to both the Himalayas and China.

This route has for centuries been mysterious to outsiders and even though it’s been as important to the local trading as The Silk Road, it’s been largely unknown by comparison.  Jeff chronicled this journey in his book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road and has lived on and off in the Yunnan province since 2002 living in small villages as part of a real tea community.

Jeff also happens to be one of my favorite tea photographers; he kindly send me a collection of photos to accompany this interview, you can see a wider selection of his work here.  His focus is not only on tea but on the people behind it.


Often people can be put off traveling to remote areas, fear of the unknown, that it will be difficult or confronting – what would you say to people in this position;  what’s the best approach when going to places ‘off the beaten path’.

I’ve always adhered to the simple principle that if one really wants to see all that there is to see, there must inevitably be a kind of leap of faith or what climbers often refer to as ‘a moment of going beyond’. Fear or shall we say ‘self imposed’ limits are one of the great unfortunate motivators and if one does in fact want to go and see part of the ‘real world’ one should examine his/her motivations for doing so.

I’ve so often seen people who just need a little prod to go and do something not normally on their charts and come back from the experience so much the more alive and vital – it leads us to places and ways of thinking that can become a habit, and by extension to a more enhanced and pragmatic view of ourselves.

Having said all of the above my Hungarian grandmother once reminded me “know your limits”.

A Pulang elder and tea 'scribe' checks out his tea trees in a tea stronghold of southwestern Yunnan province.

Can you tell me a little about the types of people who have accompanied you on your tea tours – who are they, where are they from.

People who are either obsessed with tea consumption itself and want to go to the actual source or people who have slightly different view of what adventure is. One of the beauties of tea culture in Yunnan is that it involves at least a dozen indigenous groups, all with different methods of preparation and serving styles. Tea culture, especially when it deals with the Tea Horse Road, links to anthropology, linguistics, oral traditions and even ethnology. I’ve had tea buyers come on the tours, tea sellers interested in learning more about the source and even pure scientists who are interested in’ tea’s travels’, health properties and uses of tea amongst the locals.

Always, though there is in all of the people I’ve had on these sojourns a deep reverence of the green and all of its powers.

What inspires and drives you.

Tea and mountains have fueled my engine in equal measure for years, and the presence of both simultaneously is something close to a perfect moment. When one explores and finds these weaving patterns that convene again and again whether it is with culture or geography – or even mother nature’s impetuous force – it cannot help but feed the head and heart. It seems the more in life that is seen or felt tangibly; the less one really needs in terms of things. For me the senses and their need to be impacted have always motivated.

Our own caravan as a group of six (five Tibetans and myself) of us travel along a snow covered portion of the Tea Horse Road in the month of May.

Who is the most inspiring, interesting or surprising person you’ve met while traveling.

In my world I’m ‘hit’ with inspiring people on a monthly basis. People who often despite little or no formal education have an intensity of character and experience that shows in everything they do. One very special woman who was 93, and was from the Yi tribe told me about losing both her brother and husband to the dangers along the Tea Horse Road. Her brother was lost in a landslide over 60 years ago and her husband was robbed and killed. Neither body was ever recovered nor some part of her, even now, seemed to half-expect them to return through the door. While she told this story she was gazing off into the distance sipping on her one constant in life – tea.

What do you feel differentiates Chinese tea from tea from other parts of the world.

Tea in China is and has been for eternity, about community and as much as there has been written about the peaceful almost solitary meditational aspect of taking a cup of the green leaf, tea remains something that unites, promotes sharing and reminds one of that concept of taking time. A tea grower I often visit in southern Yunnan province sums this idea up rather brilliantly, calling tea the ‘great green constant’.

A simple pitted kettle sits atop of fire in a nomadic tent, where the pungent and nutritious butter tea is served from several times a day.

When I think of taking tea in China I always imagine what village the leaves are from, who picked them, whose household dried them – and from what I’ve seen in China’s vast tea growing zones tea and people seem inextricably linked. From the time a tea leaf is clipped with a fingernail until it arrives infused and steaming, the human hand and spirit is there. In China’s southwest one can still find tea production and a kind of worship that is little changed in centuries.

Part of what I love about tea history is that there are so many tales and fables – do you have a favorite tea story, fable or tale.

A tale I’ll never forget is that from an old Tea Horse Road trader when I myself was struggling along the length of the route. Keep in mind that this tale was told to me in a village of a dozen houses deep in the black-spired Himalayas with bristling winds that threatened to whip us away. The teller of the tale, Daba, was an 89 year old ancient who for over thirty years, worked as a muleteer for tea caravans that made their way west from China onto the Himalayan Plateau.

He recounted how his caravan leader had warned the muleteers of the clever bandits that roamed the barren lands. One morning upon waking they found the tea bricks had been stolen and replaced with bricks of earth by clever thieves. The leader formed a group of the toughest of his muleteers and told them that in no uncertain terms that the tea would be recovered – regardless of the time it took to track it all down. If the bandits were caught they would be executed, for in the words of traders, growers and nomadic recipients of tea alike, the sanctity of the tea trade represented man’s link to each other and was not to be messed with.

Daba reinforced over and over again how tea’s value was unmatched, neither as a commodity nor as a kind of binder of peoples. For me, the setting and Daba in his archaic almost shamanistic way of telling the tale made each word and notion settle deep into me – he spoke of a world of tea I had never imagined.

An ancient tea tree, said to be at least 1200 years in southern Yunnan, sits in its tea friendly setting of sub-tropical mists and mountains. Worshipped as deities by some of the indigenous people these old gargoyles testify to man's union with the earth.

Having spent time in the Yunnan province, and having spent time with the indigenous people there, have you seen how these parts of tea history are told, in the oral fashion.

The narrative and oral tradition is used for so much in the indigenous frame of reference and is rich in layers explaining everything from how people met to where the waters of the earth come from. The Pulang people of southern Yunnan are regarded as some of the most ancient custodians of the tea forests – some of which are centuries old. They often make reference to the tea trees’ continued importance (it is for many the only source of income) and health as being a sign that the spirits in the earth are content and that the relation of men with the earth is well and good.

Often, they refer to tea’s usages in history: of being used to sue or negotiate a peace settlement. It is widely believed throughout the south of Yunnan and even on the Himalayan Plateau that when one is sealing an oath or deal, tea is the beverage of choice and that to break an oath with tea as a witness (so to speak) was to incur a nasty end. These discussions inevitably take place around a simple fire with a banged up kettle whistling away while histories and legends are told.

What do you think defines ‘success’ for an indigenous community.

A woman of the Akha (Hani) people plucks tea leaves - all while she stands meters above the earth in a tea tree.

Sadly, it seems that ‘success’ for an indigenous community has more to do with brief interludes where they are left alone and thereby keep their own community links strong. In this present time, when so much has moved away from common sense and intuition their links and understandings of the land are, for me, key. They are successful in many instances of simply sticking to the basics – if you continually over-harvest to yield more profits; you inevitably cut your own longevity by shortening the lifespan of your crop or good, for example.

Success, in my mind at least, for indigenous peoples would be the ability to see the wisdom of maintaining their own ways while being strong or wise enough to sift through and edit the ‘outside’ world’s challenges and temptations. For most indigenous peoples that I’ve encountered there is always a strong sense of community, with almost casual rituals that enhance and ensure the bonds – even through conflicts.

Another big one – does tea make people happy (as a tea drinker it makes me happy, what about the people growing/producing)

What tea comes down to time and again - sharing.

“Tea is everything” is something I hear often from the people who nurture and harvest tea. It makes people happy in that it satisfies the great triad of needs: it stimulates, it pays and it preserves. It lies somewhere between a food and a provider – a panacea. Interesting to see how ‘tea breaks’ work in these communities as it certainly brings a happy reprieve from work. Same can be said for their home-brewed spirits as well mind you…

What would you like us spoilt-for-choice tea drinkers to know about our tea, what are we taking for-granted by not going to these tea growing regions.

It’s a bit of stretch to expect every tea drinker to travel to the source of their favourite jolt of goodness, but what purveyors of tea don’t offer and a voyage to the source does, is the understanding of the vital relationships between the soil, the earth and us and how this affects taste and the effects of tea. When I hear people going on about “hints of this”, “notes of caramel in here” in relation to tea I can feel that tea’s whole strength and direction is somehow diverted into a kind of convenient ambiguity. By not knowing the source, many supposed ‘tea gurus’ hijack or create a meaning of tea that they communicate that is far from what I perceive as ‘tea truth’.

I’ve often fantasized about one of these simple unpretentious growers of tea that I encounter so often – wearing flip flops, with tea stained fingernails and an unambiguous view of tea – and letting them run a tea clinic. They would explain tea, its tastes, the reasons and the meaning of tea more clearly than anyone in a fraction of the time.

Tea, while stained in ritual, isn’t something particularly esoteric for the people who grow and live with it – it is an ancient necessity. If you presented one of these local people a cup of caramel flavoured Oolong they would think you had gone completely mad. For them flavoured tea is an evil; something done to ‘hide’ an already inferior tea. This sort of knowledge would redefine the tea landscape.

Why do you think that people are so familiar with the Silk Road, but not the Tea Horse Road (& how is this changing)

Marco Polo and the Silk Road’s ties to Europe’s eastern frontiers insured its fame and mythology whereas the Tea Horse Road for thirteen unending centuries hustle and bustled along without really touching or being intruded upon by the west. It is in many ways a thoroughly Asian history that touched the Middle East and much of the formidable frontier lands, but never really had an impact on the west.

Tea in the west in most cases was transported by ships as opposed to caravans, so the Tea Horse Road happily moved vast amounts of tea without even getting a mention. If we in the west realized how much tea was used as tribute, pacifier, motivator and economic miracle we might have a better grasp of tea’s practical necessity in Asia. Slowly, the Tea Horse Road seems to being drawing more and more interest and I certainly think portions of it rate a ‘World Heritage Site’ status as it would both promote and maintain this legendary route’s contributions.

Have you seen tea production change in the Yunnan province in recent times (seeing as you’ve been there for almost 10 years on and off).

Paying homage to a seven-century year old goddess in southern Yunnan.

While tea production in many areas has changed – minimum monthly required yields, mechanized production and insecticide usage, the beauty of many of the most ancient tea forests is that almost nothing has changed (except the price). In a kind of sweet irony, the most prized tea by purists and big tea buyers in Asia is the tea that has the least ‘post picking manipulation’ done to it.

Great tea villages in southern Yunnan like Jingmai and Mengla often sell much of their best tea ‘a year in advance’, simply because the purchasers trust the methods and people. It is a superb example of ‘simplicity equals quality’.


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12 Responses to “an interview with jeff fuchs: the tea horse road, living in yunnan and why simplicity equals quality”
  1. Ken says:

    Great read- Thanks for publishing it. I will be ordering his book tonight.

    • travel&tea says:

      Thanks Ken, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the interview. Jeff is very inspiring isn’t he, I am desperate to get on a plane to China to go and discover all of this for myself, the tea, the people, everything!

  2. Jackie says:

    Wow! Great pics and a really interesting interview. The black and white photo of the man at the table is particularly amazing. I’m going to check out the other pics, when I’ve finished posting this comment.

    Thanks for telling us about a book which sounds very interesting, and well worth a read.

  3. Melanie says:

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it, quite a while ago now. I agree, his pictures are fantastic. Thanks for this interview, it was very illuminating & fascinating.

  4. Patti N. says:

    I had no idea that the Tea Road existed — now I’m off to buy a new book. Thanks!

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