A week ago, my husband and I took the train from Culver City to Exposition Park, home of the Natural History Museum. During the mere 7-mile trip, I anticipated the museum’s latest exhibit, Traveling the Silk Road. In Los Angeles, where the car has long been king, there is still something a bit romantic and exotic about traveling by train. The short stretch evoked a sense of the adventure – minus the hardships and danger – that the Silk Road merchants undoubtedly felt centuries ago as they embarked on the 4,600-mile trek from Xi’an in China to Baghdad in Iraq. My hopes were high that the trip would teach me more about tea’s role in the history of the Silk Road. Sadly, I was disappointed.
The exhibit, which is designed primarily for families with young children, started out auspiciously. One of the first installments described the connection between tea and the discovery of silk through the story of the Chinese empress Xi Ling, who was in her garden drinking tea when a small white cocoon fell from a nearby mulberry tree into her tea cup. As the cocoon began to unravel, the empress noticed that its long strands were sparkly and soft. Later, she persuaded her husband to plant a grove of mulberry trees, and thus began the silk trade in China. This was a good omen. I was excited to see what I would learn around the next corner.
Unfortunately, the story of the Chinese empress was the only tea-related information in the exhibit. Once I returned from the exhibit, my online research revealed that the primary artery for the tea trade was the Ancient Tea Horse Road, also known as the “Southern Silk Road.” As it turns out, merchants followed several overland and sea trade routes in search of consumers for their goods, which ranged from precious metals to furs, foods, spices, and, of course, tea. The Traveling the Silk Road exhibit focuses on the route that began in Xi’an, China, passed through Turfan (later renamed Xizhou) and Samarkand (currently the second-largest city in Uzbekistan), and ended in Baghdad. But tea was not the main commodity traded along that route.
During my online navigations, I stumbled across Dr. Selena Ahmed’s research at Tufts University on the impact of climate change on tea growth and phytochemical quality in China. Among her accomplishments, Dr. Ahmed had co-authored The Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet. Intrigued, I sent her an email. As fate would have it, Dr. Ahmed was slated to deliver a lecture on the Ancient Tea Horse Road at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum the following Thursday. If I lived nearby, perhaps I could attend, she suggested. So I did.
The Ancient Tea Horse Road, not surprisingly, began in Yunnan Province, snaking north and west to Tibet and central China. If you are wondering how horses figured into the picture, it turns out that Tibetan ponies were prized as warhorses by the Chinese and were frequently traded for Chinese tea, dating back at least to the Song Dynasty. Prior to the 1990s, the Chinese paid little attention to the Ancient Tea Horse Road, which brought the puerh of Yunnan to other parts of China. Just as with the more widely known Silk Road, the journey along the Ancient Tea Horse Road frequently took six months or more over rough terrain, including high mountain passes and rivers. In recent years, with the growth of commerce and increased ties with the West, the Chinese have discovered the marketing potential of this “Southern Silk Road.” Yunnan now features at least two Tea Horse Road theme parks that give visitors the opportunity to experience the journey along the Tea Horse Road as merchants would have centuries ago.
The Los Angeles Natural History Museum’s Traveling the Silk Road exhibit continues through April 13, 2014. Despite its lack of tea references, I encourage you to check it out, as well as its adjunct lectures and other events.