In my novel, The Ming Storytellers, one of the sub characters, a fierce Tibetan tea-horse trader, makes the long arduous journey from Pu'er county in Southwest China, leading his caravan of mules loaded with tightly packed tea bricks. He trades Pu'er tea, long known for its medicinal and well-being properties and avidly sought by the Tibetans for flavouring their yak butter soup, in exchange for horses. Three times a year, alongside other traders and pilgrim monks, Sonam crosses the chamadao, across deep ravines, rope bridges, past ice-capped mountains, in freezing and often capricious mountain weather.
The cha ma dao, or tea (cha) horse (ma) way (dao/tao) traverses spectacular mountainous terrains in China's Yunnan province, overlooking deep gorges, roaring with torrential waters. One of its legs begins in the Pu'er county and passes through Dali, the mountainous canal city of Lijiang, across the vertiginous Tiger Leaping Gorge and into Tibet, all the way to Lhasa.
It is the 15th century. The trade is highly regulated. Only licensed traders can take part in it and the government, managed by the emperor's provincial eunuchs has a strict monopoly on the horses gained. License checks are performed at several checkpoints along the road, including Deqin. Horses are primarily destined for the Ming army, to aid the emperor's relentless quest in warding off the Mongol invaders of the North East. Still yet, horses are loaded in the hulls of gigantic lateen sail ships to be traded in the Arabian and South Indian lands, alongside Ming silks and porcelains.
Pu'er tea was, and still is, highly regarded. It is often expensive. Much like wine, the quality of well-prepared Pu'er tea improves with age. This tea also has many health benefits, perhaps better documented by ancient physicians whose records may have been lost after thousands of years. Today Western science is still discovering the health properties of Pu'er tea. But so far they include:
- Reduction of blood cholesterol.
- Anti-carcinogenic properties - Pu'er tea has antimutagenic and antimicrobial properties possibly slowing or preventing the growth of cancer cells
- Counteraction of the effects of alcohol
- Invigoration of the spleen to inhibit "dampness". According to the Chinese medicine model, this means Pu'er tea can be used to treat diaorrhea and edema.
Not your ideal looking present but packed with goodness
Much like green tea, Pu'er tea is believed to help with weight loss either by an increase in metabolism or via the reduction of fat absorption in the small intestine.
While writing my novel, I had never really seen Pu'er tea. But on a recent trip to Singapore, I discovered Paragon's Canelet cafe on Orchard Road. While my first reaction was to ogle the Mont-Blanc and the other delightful cakes behind their generous glass display, I was soon drawn by Canelet's fancy tea menu.
Canelet is one of the cafes offering Pu'er tea experience. This particular menu offered 5 year old Pu'er tea. Note that Pu'er tea can continue to ferment for many years and there exists Pu'er tea leaves that are over 1000 years old.
I wonder about these brave mountain men who long ago, journeyed through such a dangerous road, carrying their precious tea bricks to Lhasa. I do like horses, but in this case, I have to say the Tibetans had the better deal.