Lushi and Yunnan’s old Tea and Horse Road

Lushi, Yunnan

I discovered Lushi (鲁史) while reading about the ancient Tea and Horse road (茶马古道). Nested in the Wuliang Mountains (无量山), south of Dali ancient town and the Erhai Lake region, Lushi is a well-preserved village steeped in history which is about to change dramatically.

Tuesday is market day. Like any rural market in China, it is happy chaos of villagers selling products ranging from live chicken, freshly slaughtered pigs, and vegetables to fertilizer, denture and rubber boots. This weekly market takes place in the two main streets of the upper village, the ‘modern’ part of Lushi which dominates the lower village.

The historical village of Lushi looked like an ocean of courtyard houses with gabled tiled roofs on top of which, solar panels and water tanks reflected the sun. An endless stream of cables which run from a pole to another was there to remind me that rural China is changing.

In the streets of the village I could only hear the brouhaha of the market. Women were hunching under the weight of woven basket strapped around their forehead in which they carry their groceries back home. They walked carefully in the cobble-stone streets which were polished by the passage of the horse caravans on the old Tea and Horse Road.

Lushi, Yunnan

Remembering the past

An old man harboring a white goatee and wearing a navy-blue Mao era-like costume with matching hat was leaning on an adobe wall, smoking a cigarette in silent. He was visibly surprised to see a foreigner in his village. ‘Did you see the caravans when you were a child?’ I asked. His smile widened.

With a thick Yunnanese accent I had trouble understanding he explained that they were sometimes up to seven-hundred horses going through the village. They carried bricks of Pu’er from southern Yunnan as well as locally grown tea leaves to Xiaguan where they were transformed into Tuo tea (沱茶)  and then redistributed along the road.

Lushi, its history and its culture have been irremediably linked to tea since the time of the Nanzhao Kingdom (750-937). Under the Ming and Qing dynasties, transportation of tea and other good intensified contributing to the prosperity of Lushi. However, with the development of roads in the 1940s and 1950s, the horse caravans stopped and Lushi, like other towns and villages on the Tea and Horse road, declined.

Lushi, Yunnan

Change has already come

Aware of the cultural and historical value of Lushi, the local government and private companies have invested in the development of tourism, which, it seems, is the only way to develop specific rural regions.

There are a few signs that change is coming. First, many houses were being ‘renovated’ (in Chinese 翻新) and at least one compound was being transformed into a museum dedicated to the old Tea and Horse road.

Then, there were a group of students from the University of Southwest China in Kunming, doing a survey of the village. Armed with a detailed map of the village, their task was to go from one house to another, ask local about how old their house were and determine who in the village owns what courtyard. Ultimately, the students’ work will be used as a blueprint for a conservation. Properties that have a significant values will be protected.

Lushi's cobble-stone streets, polished by the horse caravan

Lushi’s cobble-stone streets, polished by the horse caravan

At the bottom of the village a temple is under construction. Locals are working hard, carrying baskets of bricks, moving mud from one spot to another. Two women stop by and look at how strange I am with my pale skin, my facial hair and my big nose. They laugh.
– ‘So, you’re building a new temple in your village, uh?’
– ‘Oh no, it’s not new. We are just making it more beautiful!’ replies one of the lady
– ‘It looks pretty new to me, how old is the temple?
– ‘We are not sure, maybe more than one hundred years old. Go inside and visit’

I follow their advice and climb the stairs. I stumble upon a man from whom I learn he is the contractor.

– ‘How old is that place?’
– ‘Oh … well, it’s about 300 to 400 years old. I am not sure’ he says scratching his bald head.
– ‘It looks very new to me! … and the paint is still fresh’
He laughs. The original temple was 300 years old. We took it down and re-built it.

In the locals’ narrative, this renovation will make their temple more beautiful. I understand that a 300 year old temple made of stone bricks, adobe wall and wood will not last forever, but I find it sad that they are not able to re-build with the same time of construction materials.

The new face of this 300 year old temple. Work in progress.

The new face of this 300 year old temple. Work in progress.

How to get there and where to stay

Step 1 – Get to Fengqing
Lushi is located in the mountain northeast of the town of Fengqing (凤庆) in Lincang prefecture (临沧). Your first step to going to Lushi will be to get to Fengqing. There are buses from Xiaguan / Dali to Fengqing (around 5 hours) via Weishan and Yunxian, or from Baoshan (3 hours).

Step 2 – Get to Lushi
Buses to Lushi leave in the morning only. There is roughly one bus every hour between 7 AM and 1 PM. It’s a 2.5 to 3 hour bus ride in the Wuliang Mountain. It’s a windy mountain road. Beware : many locals suffer from motion-sickness!

In case you miss the last bus, you  will have to spend the night in Fengqing. The area around the bus station is new and you will be able to find cheap accommodation easily. There is even a high-end 4 or 5 star hotel, the Dianhong Hotel (滇红大酒店), just a 10-minute walk from the bus terminal.

Step 3 – Stay overnight in Lushi
There are a few basic hotels (宾馆) in Lushi which offer simple but clean rooms for 40 or 60 RMB. Nothing fancy at all. With the development of tourism, things may change.

From Lushi back to Fengqing, there are only 4 buses at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 AM and 1 PM. Buy your ticket in advance for the next day at the shop next to the bus station.

Step 4 – Leaving Fengqing
From Fengqing to elsewhere. There is a regular service to Baoshan (3 to 4 hours) from which you can get to Tengchong and Heshun (3 hours) or Xiaguan / Dali (3 hours). Another option is to go to Yunxian (45 min) where you can take buses to Lincang, Weishan and Dali (via Xiangyun).

Another view of the streets of Lushi

Another view of the streets of Lushi

There are 54 comments

    1. Gaetan

      China is really a vast and amazing country. Travelling in China can be difficult because of the language barrier, but there is no adventure without challenge 😉

  1. Lara // the passage

    Wow. What an enjoyable read…Thank you for transporting me to such an interesting place, and sharing a bit of its history. I love venturing into lesser known spots, which seem to be more and more difficult to find as places around the globe move toward a more homogenous modernization. For a long time now, I have been hoping to make a visit to China, and now that I am living in South Korea for a bit, that dream may become a reality. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to make a trek to Lushi before it evolves too much! Lovely photos…and travel information…

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Lara! I’m glad to hear you enjoy reading my blog.
      You’re right. With modernisation, it’s getting difficult to find interesting spots that are still off the way. I don’t think Lushi should go through dramatic change in the next couple of years mainly because there is long mountain road from the main city.
      The Chinese government is investing massively into the construction of highways and high-speed train network all across the country.
      Anyway, I hope you get a chance to visit China soon.

    1. Gaetan

      When visiting China, most foreign tourists go and see the famous sites like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta army of Xi’an, go to see Shanghai skyline and a few other places depending on time. These places are incredible and everyone wants to see them, but there are many more places of interests in this continent-sized country.
      I’m glad that my blog is sparking your interest. Maybe we’ll see you soon in China ? 😉

      1. archecotech

        I’ve got to be honest, we plan on visiting Europe this next summer, but your blog is opening my eyes to a different China. Personally don’t like going were everyone else goes. In my book it’s boring to see what everyone sees, but seeing places like this, well that’s another story all together. So with that in mind and following your blog will help understand what to actually see if we do travel there. Have you traveled outside of China?

      2. Gaetan

        I understand what you’re saying.
        Yes, I have travelled outside China, but like most people, I go to famous sites first and then try and go off-the-beaten path. I’ve been in China for ten years, speak the language, so it’s easy for me to find and travel to places that few people have heard about.

  2. Therese Lu

    I have had a small glimpse of China in the past. It is a beautiful country with a very rich culture. I hope to return one day to see more. In the meantime, reading about it through your wonderful blog will suffice. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Silvia

    hi Gaetan ! Great article. definitely will go there soon on way to Weishan, Baoshan , Heshun etc. my supervisor posted this article on our ATHR website. he’s in China right now …

  4. sbandtg

    again i thank you for your wonderful site. i have to return to china (as i have mentioned many times) just to choose one province and go to some of the many places you have shown us and that i did not have the opportunity to venture to because of the various reasons of life and time. my next visit to china will definitely include a few weeks to travel to places like this before they disappear. i applaud you, gaetan. merci!!!

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