Inspector Shan and The Imperial Tea Heist (A Poem)

Bridge across the Nujiang (Salween River). Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

Here is poem that originally started out as a novel many moons ago. It is not strictly a historical document but much of the content is anchored in history not the imaginative realm. My deepest thanks again to Michael Soper for guiding me in all kinds of crucial ways and for providing timely comments and encouragement. I would also like to thank Jacek K. Belc for reading several drafts of the poem. His enthusiasm has given the work the energy and momentum to carry it through to the end.

If you wish to quote any part poem please contact me. I am also humbly asking for any small donations that don’t exceed US$5 which can be sent to my paypal account:

–peter micic

Inspector Shan and the Imperial Tea Heist

for my brother Damian

Acres of burial shapes
Shrouded in daybreak’s fog
A web of ghost energy
Hovers over inscriptions
Long buried in grave grass.
Spirits slumber and stretch
A cypress tree bows its head
Hidden beneath the river’s mist.

My grandfather spoke in my dreams
Of a mountain peak
Chanting with the cosmos in its idleness
And the Taoist monks who came to pick herbs
Placing them in wicker baskets
For the winter’s keeping.

A hermit too
Who found his way down a path
Feet beneath wet leaves
A butterfly he met two summers before
Could have mistaken it for a falling snowflake
If it was winter.
A grass thatched hut
An old man pruning his rose bush
And a tree whose roots splay like a giant duck’s foot
across the garden.

I loved my grandfather’s play-ful-ness
How he brought his own telling to a story.
And then me to make up an alternative ending
Coz he would often declare, perhaps
Pontificate is more accurate:
“There are really no endings, my child, just pauses in between.”

I’ve always loved to watch, observe
Notice a bruise on an arm
And wonder how it got there, for instance
The hide and seek dimensions of peoples’ masks.
My education honed by a long apprenticeship
A seed nourished and transformed
By the soil my teachers gave me.
I became more gut, less mind
Given the license to also daydream
To wander, to drift, to hibernate
To yield to the unstruck silences
Beyond the soil, beyond myself.

I read up on geomancy and architecture
Which impacted the way I see things.
Moving clues around physically
Usually writing them out on scrolls
So I can see all of them together at once.
I look for clues everywhere
Some hiding under floorboards
Behind a cracked mural or a flower bed
Often piggybacking on others.
You take something said
And riff on it for a little
Then something shapes and gels
If you’re paying attention.

I try to keep my cool
Even when my habitual reactions
Get the better of me.
Crime both on and off the page
Has intensified my own experience of reality.
Tongues are generally mute during an investigation
Pulses beat in panic mode
Running still in the heat of fear.
It’s my business to remember
What others choose to forget
What lies veiled under events
What lies behind the patterns
Until something very real appears.

The emperor is far away
Yet his messengers find me
In these far-flung mountains.
I no longer thirst to catch criminals
The next day always brings further crimes
Another round of disheartening news
And so it goes on and on.

I can’t help but revisit cases, however,
Places I return to each day
Even if only for a few moments
I still mourn a closeness to them
Yet now, I want to get as far away from
the courtrooms, the magistrates sternly banging their gavels,
The rackets, the worst side of people
Retreat to the quiescence of my mountain cabin
Revisit the biographies of eminent poet recluses
Who hid under the wings of resting eagles on cliff tops
And recite my favorite lines from the eleventh century Chan text
Records of the Blue Cliff.

I’ve been called many things:
Obsessive, fastidious, bothersome, irascible
I’m a fool too so I’ve been told
The keeper of moral principles
Intrigued how power operates
How justice is fought
People killing, lying, stealing
As readily as they are loving, smiling, giving
Even when people behave abominably
I still believe we can transform evil and malice
Into luminous stars.

My reputation came unlooked for
Promoted to Inspector during a case
To knock off the emperor in the Forbidden City.
They tried to strangle him
But the knot in the noose slipped.

The Forbidden City is by some estimates
The murder capital of the Empire
A palatial playground bristling with steely bristles
Daggers glittering in the sunlight.
It’s a cruel world in there
Intrigue and plots abound
Maneuverings, machinations
Malicious tongues reporting for duty
Even the trees don’t sleep well
The rhododendrons bear witness too
Demonic, tectonic forces
And truth an answered call.

The emperor’s most intimate retainer
A eunuch who stands guards at his bedchamber
Privy to his emotions, his idle thoughts
The rhythm and rhyme of intimacy
Finally spilled the beans
Exposing the court astrologer’s fortune cookie
And several of the emperor’s high consorts
Before being hacked into a thousand pieces
And all their other secrets with them.

Eunuchs, for good reason, get a lot of bad press
Meddling in state affairs
Scheming better than anyone else
Educating their cronies in vice
Cloak-and-dagger intrigues
The court scribes can’t keep up
With their sinister doings.
Some involved in shady antique deals
Treating the palace
Like it’s their own imperial gift shop
And others, setting things on fire.

Not all were maligned in their ways.
One of our finest historians, Sima Qian, had offended the emperor
Chose castration rather than death, arguing that it
Would enhance his masculinity
The emasculated scholar-official then scribed
His brush into the annals of history.

At this time of the day
I practice calligraphy
Slow, stonecutter-like
Less interested in merely copying a master
Drawn more to the interiority
Of his imagination.

I have this habit of talking to my brushes
Like a conversation with a friend
Allowing me to step back
Redial the imagination, anxiety dissipating
Then pretty soon there’s stuff to animate.
But it’s in poetry that many of my conundrums
And hunches are revealed.
And as I think of these precious moments
My celebrity summons
An imperial tea heist
Along a section of road
In the southwest of the empire.

The road is a route known as the tea horse roads,
Made famous by horse diplomacy and tea.
Modern and ancient worlds
Journeyed by day and rested by night
Paths and trails, some call bleak, others romantic
Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Nepal, India & beyond
Other routes bound for the northern capital, Southeast Asia
Others still to the afterlife.

Here humanity rubs against each other–traders, monks, the literati
Poets, writers, pilgrims, hermits, heretics, soldiers, couriers, brigands,
Other predators–leopards, alligators, demons and spirits
Thousands of pack animals, human portage
Blistered feet across landscapes
Some slipping undetected across borders
Aided by those now lost to history
A bond of humans, animals & trade
Altered by the close proximity
That commerce demands.
It isn’t just tea—
Pelts, medicines, incense, jade, sugar, salt, musk
Precious metals (bar and powder form) opium
Sandalwood, copper, utensils, rice, oil, corn, potatoes
Dried dung compressed like tea cakes
And on shorter distances
Corpses placed in caskets
Heading home.

As roads expanded and became regular trade and mail routes
So too the number of attacks
Bandits, gangs, bloodshed
What trade routes are possible, the blackbird sings,
Without the flow of goods and bandits?

Smuggling tea across mountains
Borders, coastlines.
All efforts by the authorities are futile
Despite the penalties, the severe beatings
Even death won’t curb it.
Commanders rally their soldiers
But you can’t catch all of them
An imperial tea tax forced merchants to band
Tea commerce armies.
You see there’s much at stake in the world of tea—
Power, money, prestige
The tea merchants’ men
Poised to do battle
Against the emperor’s troops.

A gang usually never attacks close to home
So they can return unsuspected
And resume their normal, other lives—
Farmers, blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, tanners, other trades.
They are not heroed in verse, prose or art
Yet every tale narrated along the roads, paths and trails
Never fails to mention the bandits rustling in the shadows.

Brigands will befriend travelers, the muleteers
And then, usually kill them—knife, dagger, or a smoldered handkerchief
Divide the spoils and vanish in the woods.
There’s no telling where they run and hide
You can seal off roads, trails, even garrison towns
But try sealing off the mountains.
Some of the wealthier merchants pay off bandits
so they won’t loot their cargo
I guess some of the bandits don’t get paid enough.

A local magistrate suggested placing signs
Along sections of the roads—
Looting Strictly Prohibited
Thank You For Not Killing Anyone
Police Escort Next Bend
The Empire Ain’t Got Time for Robbers
For Every Disobedience, The Rod Awaits Without Mercy

“It’s worth a try,” he chuckled
“I know they’ll still do it in spite of our notices.”

My first day on the margins of the empire
Sultry weather despite a sudden downpour
Anticipating when a rainbow will paint another sky.
I’m told to prepare for humid days, the elephants,
The giant insects, the harsh shrieks of peacocks
And the frogs that chorus at sunset.

I’m staying in a courtyard owned by a local magistrate
No shortage of servants and guards
Already in love with the rock garden, the gnarled pines
The thrush that comes back again to sing
A new song order at dawn’s chorus
When I notice things slowly come awake
And the goldfish sketching colors in the pond.

A young man appears: barely thirty, medium height
Solid build and swarthy complexion
His boots stand muddy at the entrance.
A servant takes his parasol
And makes a perfunctory bow
“Good morning Sergeant Zhao.”
“Has Inspector Shan arrived?
“Yes sir, he is in the rock garden. Allow me to escort you.”

We greet each other with courtesies
Then return to my quarters.
I pour tea and learn the sergeant once served
As a bodyguard for a local chieftain
Handy with all kinds of weapons
Including crossbow and small pike.
“Where are we again sergeant?”
“Sipsongpanna,  Inspector, bordering
Burma, The Kingdom of Xang and Vietnam.”

The tea the magistrate gifted me
Somersaults my tastebuds
A magic potion stirred in
palette’s light green.

“Your assistant Sergeant Kong
Is not accompanying you Inspector?”
“I lost him three years ago.
He was attending a murder trial
Not as far south as here
Mengku, that’s the place
and came down with a bout of malaria.
The indigenous people who live in the valley
Have far stronger constitutions
By the time I got word of his condition
The pestilence had finished him.
I treated him like a son, you know.
He kept me on my toes, always gave his best
And was never dull company.
That episode has stayed with me like a splinter
And who knows when I can finally take it out.”

Two attacks, two separate caravans
The first attack—
one of the main three roads leaving Yibang
The victims—a well-to-do Tibetan merchant
His son, two muleteers.
The proprietor of the inn where he was staying
Some 20 li from the crime scene
Said the merchant had two large wooden chests
Which he proudly announced were his bounty
His final words before leaving:
“I will return when my business brings me.”

The perpetrators could no doubt smell the same bounty
Silver taels would soon rain down at faraway taverns
Other coins kept for bribes, rewarding promises.
A savvy bandit leader reminds his men:
Never spend a haul at local drinking holes,
Gambling dens or pawnshops
Coz the law will surely make the rounds.

Five days after the first attack
A second, a tribute tea caravan
Soldiers armed with halberds
An official on-the-map route
From Yibang to Pu’er, then Kunming
Before proceeding north to the capital
The caravan ambushed
All sixteen men
Ten muleteers, six soldiers

A thousand taels of silver for any information
Leading to the capture of the culprits
Though the empire was willing to yield
A lot more ounces of silver and gifts.
Handbills drafted and posted within hours
A pair of guardians
Imprisoned on a temple door
Look out and ponder
When does a bandit
Stop being a bandit.

I knew something of Yibang
One of the six tea mountains
All crowned as cradles of Pu’er Tea
And home, we are told, to the first cultivators of tea
The Pu. I don’t want to merely repeat myth and legend
Though I suppose it might be true
But in retelling it, I’m kind of re-owning it
So what harm is there in reinventing the Pu
And their connection to tea or suggesting it was
Other hill tribes as well?

The finest tea buds from Mansong village
A fragrance said to rival all the broad leaf buds
On all the other five mountains.
When infused, the buds float to the top
Their needle hair stems stand upright
Kowtowing in deference to the emperor no less.

The tea plucked in early spring
Before honoring the dead during
The festival of Purity and Brightness
When flowers announce their fragrance
And the sky begins to blossom again.
Meanwhile, the necessary toiling from
The frontlines of the tea world
Tribute tea drives tea farmers and their families
Into the mountains
Bitter times, sad songs
Their hardships are no bedtime story.
Tea like salt and precious metals
A constant flow of coins for the royal coffers
Power’s hubris too requires finances in the afterlife
I’m told that more tax is collected from the six tea mountains
Than any other tea area across the empire.

One of the toughest jobs plucking tea
Yuan Gao, the governor of Huzhou
Said as much in the mid eighth century
Witnessing the bitter toil first hand.
Hard to imagine anyone
Would idealize such work
But some male poets, I have to say
Painted an entirely different picture
A beauty pageant of young women
No mention of the brambles, the thorns
Or the stumbles and the falls.

Gifts to the empress, the emperor’s favorite consorts
Visiting envoys, the dignitaries
Glue for the affections, the alliances
That’s what tribute tea is.
Spring flowers will dare not open
Until the emperor has drunk the first
Spring tea. Nature too must
Submit to the emperor’s mandate.
Those imperial messengers ride unimaginable distances
“Express tea” as it’s called must reach the emperor
Before the fifth day of the third lunar month
To perform his ancestral rituals.

Back at my lodgings, I sit in the rock garden
Both cases intrigue me as do the bandits—
Marginal, a sort of chameleon-ness
In the woods, out the woods figures
Rash and heartless yet friendship, loyalty and honor too.
Sparing lives when it suits them
But will betray or slay their own as well.
There are those who look the part
But aren’t bandits at all.
Anyone can turn crooked
But none can be entirely noble and upright.
Nothing ever quite black or white
Nor black and white like the magpie.

On the way to the crime scene
Open to vast yellow-filled fields
Wildflowers choreographing
A pulsing swirl of impulses that scoffs authority.
I will have to admire them from horseback until
I can lie in the fields, a heart-to-heart
With these wild free, intoxicated spirits.

The sergeant draws bridle and points to a flat stretch of road ahead
“Some boys who were playing hide and seek
In the cornfields nearby reported the gruesome spectacle, Inspector.”

“Decimated” was the actual word the sergeant
Used to describe the carnage
Throats slashed with the precision of a surgeon’s knife
Death decided by intention and speed
The caravan looted, stripped of tea and other empire pieces
Other corpses—money belts, gold, silver trinkets
Daggers and swords, a button from a soldier’s coat
A slain animal resembling a wolf or bear
And shards of broken mirrors.

The attack rolled out across the empire
People had given up being shocked by
The news of yet another highway robbery or tea heist
But the ambush of emperor’s caravan
The bloody and brutal nature of the attack
Sent seismic ripples throughout the land.
Who would have the gumption to execute such an attack
For what is the emperor’s dominion
Wrote one imperial scribe who like other writers
Refrained from any speculation in print
Tongues more loquacious than ink brushes
In the taverns and brothels.
The news stirred anxieties about more attacks
Fear embracing all possible connotations.

Someone knew the exact number of the caravan’s men
A plot in which I believe many were involved
We didn’t see faces, says one of the mules with stammering lips
Still bruised, trying to unpack some of the lingering fear
A flash of light, then a turbulence,
Bodies, gestures, pandemonium
Then they were gone.

A muleteer once told me
When a caravan is ready to depart he gets the jitters.
What use are the prayers, the blessings
If an alligator is mistaken for a log and
It almost bites your friggin’ head off
And fate finds you all of a sudden
Without you looking for it.
One of your muleteers falls from a bridge
Not coz he fell
But coz he jumped
Or your head mule worn down
From some gut-wrenching illness.

The mirrors recalls a case
Several years back
Bandits pointing mirrors to the sun
Reflected light blinding their victims.
The robbery doesn’t go to plan
One of the bandits is caught
Ends up in prison awaiting trial
Dies before he can plot his escape.

I have a thought of Sun Zi and his craft of war
Never march your armies toward the sun
A battle fought no one can see.
But if you get the angle just right
The sun high enough
Before it blinks its eyes
Not to blind your eyes
But holding your foe
To its blazing.

The case received its fair share of publicity
One scholar-official wrote a piece: “The Broken Mirrors Mystery”
Meticulously reenacting the attack in all its gory detail.
Is it possible the essay could have been
A blueprint for the attack?

As for motive, let us define it not as a drive
That propels someone to behave in a certain way
But an impulse of moving here and there
Doors that slam and swing open, vulnerable to the winds
Until finally a beginning and end
With all the finicky details in between.

“What do you suppose is the meaning of this attack Inspector?”
“We can only guess,” Sergeant.
“But a number of potential suspects spring to mind:
Local chieftains, Ming loyalists, disgruntled imperial soldiers
A magistrate stripped and exiled to the margins working up
The strength to exact vengeance.”

Consider the local chieftains.
Replacing them with Qing civil magistrates
Not a frontier policy
The chieftains were going to give up lightly.
They could see what was coming
Drawn into tenacious struggles
Over territory, forgotten sites, nomadic roots
The trees, fields and eagles rebeled with them too
Raising wine cups in homage to subversive verses
Lending voices to defiance and protest.

The ancient rulers and their ministers were a cruel lot.
If they didn’t like someone or you didn’t submit to their rule
They would find ways to frame, to blackmail, to accuse,
Dragging you into crimes you didn’t commit,
Then into a three-legged bronze cauldron you go
Boiled alive.

From my combing of the dynastic histories of Yunnan
“Barbarian,” “savage,” “untamed,” became normative titles
To describe the cultural groups in Yunnan
Names all too familiar I guess to
The chieftains and their tribes
Such is the racial attitudes of those in power.
Ortai, the much feared and hated governor-general of
Yunnan and Guizhou
And other Qing-appointed commissioners
Imperial orders to “pacify” the “barbarians”
To prove their mettle and that of the empire.

Men such as these have long sworn allegiance
To protect the emperor’s honor.
It reminds me of his war generals
Horsing the vast spaces of the empire in quests
Returning to the capital to share their battle wounds
With the Son of Heaven and his entourage.
An elaborate procession follows
Horses neighing unapologetically
During the thunder of drums
Nostrils flare to still some of the anxiety
While hooves continue to pace solemnly
On cobblestone paths.

Stray threads of catkins litter the air
Fans poised to shield
The throng of heads in long lines
Crane to see the spectacle.
Where are the generals’ servants
Reminding them as the slaves did
In ancient Roman:
“Abjure the honors and power
You’re a mere mortal, remember,
And will die too.”

I too Sergeant would be peeved if you called
My people by any other name
And then write it down to history.

“Your people, Inspector?”
“I’m Mongolian.”
“Now that you mention it, I do see the semblance Inspector.
I have never traveled that far north.”

There will surely be an opportunity for that Sergeant.
But let me tell you a thing or two about detective work.
It’s all about problem-solving, puzzle pieces,
You start to examine stuff and in the course of figuring,
The unexpected turns
Facts unknown, the inferences,
Suspects ruled in, suspects ruled out
A pendulum oscillating between time, resources and emotions.

In some cases, there are plenty of motives and suspects
But nothing to connect them to the crime.
Leads, hunches that feel right
But others that end up way off base
I admit some of my cases have ended without resolution
Hovering like a shimmering red leaf in midair.

This case will be a tough nut to crack Sergeant.
We’re dealing with dangerous
powerful people both in the criminal world
And in some of the highest offices in the land
Lives linked by secrets, unresolved dealings
Long buried but not forgotten.

To be sure, there is room for error in any crime
But this attack was executed with such finesse
I’d go as far as saying mastery!
I’ll have to report my findings to the emperor
But I’ve already scribbled down some ideas for
A piece titled “Ambush as a Fine Art.”

In later times, a poet wrote:

The emperor’s tea caravan on a path to ruin
A pack of wolves, stealthily moves
The baffling questions of identity
The unresolved remains just that
Tethered to neither justice or retribution.


It was a morning that drizzled
The rain bird’s prayers heard
Before dawn by a sleepless deity.
In the early hours I pray too to my wife.
Had she lived to see me ride an elephant
Would she recognize me now
More forgiving, less judging
Kindness that wants to flower
To open itself again
Reaching behind
The moist palm-throng ear
A gentle caressing
A growing shared affinity.

©peter micic

Lijiang and The Tea Horse Roads

Front Cover, “Lijiang and the Ancient Tea Horse Roads”

Lijiang and the Ancient Tea Horse Roads (丽江与茶马古道) published by the Yunnan University Publishing Press in 2004 delivers over forty informative and detailed essays. It allows us to wander through the geography and history of Lijiang and trade routes that extended further northwest to Kalimpong, Lhasa, Nepal and India.

Lijiang became a major transfer market and terminal hub to access other trade networks and consumer markets in China. Many if not most merchants from Tibet and India terminated their transactions in Ljiang. And many Han Chinese merchants went no further because of changing geography, unfamiliar terrain and language barriers.

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Winding Alley, Lijiang. Source: Baidu.

Lijiang in the late 1930s was what I like to call a World Trade Centre, the hub of a global market, a “trading paradise” for merchants and businesses alike.

The pack animal transportation network was massive and the logistic professionals–the muleteers–were ubiquitous from the villages and towns to the roads, paths and trails connecting urban centers. It was snail mail, for sure, but it was a delivery service that traversed long distances and crossed national borders.

These trade routes witnessed the growth and expansion of multinational trading houses, cross-cultural transactions, the individuals and trade communities that churned the wheels of commerce–the bankers, the merchants and their agents, the moneylenders, the landowners, the hired muleteers, the itinerant traders–and all the other actors along these regional and international routes.

In Forgotten Kingdom (1957) Peter Goullart, a Russian living in Lijiang in the 1940s writes:

Sewing machines, textiles, cases of the best cigarettes, both British and American, whiskies and gins of famous brands, dyes and chemicals, kerosene oil in tins, toilet and canned goods and a thousand and one varieties of small articles started flowing in an unending stream by trail and truck to Kaimpong [Kalimpong] to be hastily repacked and dispatched by caravan to Lhasa. There the flood of merchandise was crammed into the halls and courtyards of the palaces and lamaseries and turned over to an army of sorters and professional packers. The least fragile goods were set aside for the northern route to Tachienlu [ Garze, Sichuan] to be transported by yaks; other articles were packed for delivery at Likiang [Lijiang], especially the liquors and cigarettes which were worth their weight in gold in Kunming crowded with thirsty American and British troops.

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Sifang Street, Lijiang, 1920s. Photo: Joseph Rock. Source: Baidu.

An iridescent kaleidoscope of goods, people and pack animals.

The frenetic pace of trade was due in no small part to the construction of the Ledo Road a 1,736 kilometre road from Ledo in India to Kunming in southwest China. The Burma Road, which served as a vital military supply route for the Allied Powers, was effectively cut off by Japan’s military presence on Chinese territory in the 1930s Japanese leading to the construction of an alternative road.

The Ledo Road–also called The Stilwell Road after the U.S. Army General Joseph Stilwell– facilitated the growth and expansion of trade along caravan routes, a web of long-distance trade networks between Kunming, Lijiang, Lhasa, and Kalimpong in West Bengal. Businesspeople of all stripes and colours swarmed to these trades routes in pursuit of profits, connecting urban and rural centres, states and empires.


Lijiang and The Ancient Tea Horse Roads is divided into five sections: “The Exploration of Routes,” “History of the Caravans,” “Biographical Sketches of Famous People ” “A Love Affair Between Tea and Horses,” and “Commerce and Religious Culture.” I would not call the book travel literature because the it is not for the general reader. But it is very much a book about the men (and women) who risked life and limb in pursuit of fame and/or fortune.

After reading the table of contents, I randomly opened the book to an essay titled “Lijiang and Caravanserai” (“丽江与旅马店, pp. 120-125).

The Naxi cultural group in Lijiang have a veritable history of trade that can be traced back as early as the Han and Jin Dynasties (roughly 220 BCE to 420 CE) where they exchanged cloth, cotton, salt, iron and animal products with Han Chinese traders in the Kingdom of Shu (present-day Sichuan).

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Dayan Town at the foot of Jade Dragon Mountain, Lijiang, 1930s. Source: Baidu.

The Naxi in Lijiang also have a long history of trade with the Sino-Tibetan regions and beyond. The Jiaqing Period (1796-1820) saw an increasing number of Naxi merchants trading with Tibet and they were called “Tibetan guests” (藏客).

One of the most famous Naxi traders was Li Yinsun (李荫孙) who rose to fame after helping out a strapped-for-cash Qing-appointed minister in Tibet. The minister later invited Li to Beijing where he was given the red carpet treatment. Li returned to Tibet as a celebrity of sorts and did much to elevate the profile and prestige of Naxi traders who flocked to the Lhasa and other regions in Tibet in increasing numbers.

It wasn’t long before these traders travelled beyond these regions to Nepal and India. International trading companies run by predominantly Naxi traders from Lijiang began to mushroom from over ten to thirty in the mid to late nineteenth century. By the late 1930s, that figure has risen to over a thousand (p. 22).

Lijiang as mentioned earlier became a major transfer and distribution center for all manner of goods, and traders had firms or branches in the city. “The routes to Tibet and India,” writes Li Ruiquan (李瑞泉) “became roads paved with riches.” Each year more than 25,000 caravans from India and Tibet poured into Lijiang” (p. 122).

Li continues:

In the wake of a burgeoning economy, Lijiang saw a gradual increase in caravanserai. Shuangshan Village, north of Dayan Town became the main area to accommodate the Tibetan caravans. There were seventeen caravanserai in the village staffed by over forty people. Among these included the older “Jade Dragon” (玉龙) and “Auspicious Spring” (瑞春).  The latter was run by an elderly man called Zhao Zongying (赵宗英) and his son Zhao Xiankun (赵鹇锟).

The younger Zhao learnt Tibetan and after a few years could speak the language fluently.  He also managed his own caravan owning more than twenty pack animals. His life was abruptly cut short when on a business trip to Tibet he was shot by bandits and died (p. 122).

Bandits, brigands, robbers, the hold-ups, have been around as long as the caravans. I have not read anything that specifically focuses on caravan heists, but you’ll find references to those unfortunate souls who lost their lives throughout the tea horse road literature (including songs). As supply trails grew into larger trade corridors of commerce so did the number and location of attacks.

Two lines from a poem by Robert Haight while not written specifically about the Tea Horse Road, poignantly express those individuals who died at the hands of bandits, predators, the capriciousness of weather or some other misfortune:

Now they are ghosts along the path,
snow flecked with red wine stains.

–“How is it the Snow”

Muleteers carried firearms and some of the wealthier and more prestigious caravans most likely hired security guards to protect the caravans, but also to pursue the perpetrators of previous heists. Whether there were security guard agencies or individuals hired to track down brigands remains a topic for a future blog entry.

Some caravans travelled under the auspices of a warlord or governor, as in the case of Bao Wencai (包文彩), a chief muleteer and his connection with Long Yun (龙云) the warlord and governor of Yunnan during the early Republican period. Wherever Bao travelled with his men, he did so under Long Yun’s flag. No soldier or bandit dared to attack his caravan.


Caravans and Mule Packers

Front cover of “Longpan’s Story: An Ethnography of the Ancient Tea Horse Road”

This translated and edited excerpt is taken from Chapter 4 “Memories of Longpan” (龙蟠的记忆), in Yang Jiehong (杨杰宏) Longpan’s Story: An Ethnography of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (龙蟠故事: 茶马古道民族志), Kunming: Yunnan University Press, 2014:100-101.


Each caravan was made up of 4-10 units. Each unit between 8-10 pack animals managed by two muleteers. A large caravan had over one hundred pack animals; a smaller-sized caravan, 40-50. The chief muleteer’s salary was determined by the Dong family business who lived in Lunan Village, Lijiang.

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“When you hear the bells in the mountain, you know the caravan is approaching…” Source: Baidu

A good salary could buy a house in two to three years. An average salary was enough for a family. These salaries were a lot more than what a hired farm hand would get. We have a saying in the village: “after three years, a hired farmhand earned enough to buy a waistcoat made from Tibetan cashmere.”

The head mule was more of average status and had to be strong and healthy. She was elaborately draped with ornaments: small button-like mirrors studded on leather straps across her forehead and the halter to ward off evil spirits. When the sun’s rays reflected off these mirrors, she could frighten or scare off potential predators.

The head mule wore larger bells. They could be heard in the ravine three to four kilometers away. These bells were also used to deter predators and announce to other caravans of traffic on the roads or paths ahead.

The second mule’s bells were smaller. A string of tea-cup bells, five to six in varying sizes, hung around the mule’s neck and made quite a sound. The head muleteer had small bells which dangled from his saddle, sharp and loud bells that stood out from all the others. You could differentiate the pack animals by the bells they wore.


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Caravan. Source: Baidu

Not all pack animals carried goods. On the road, food and shelter was a basic need. Several pack animals carried tents, grains and meat, pots and pans, clothing and other necessities. Tents were essential, especially during the rainy season. You could come done with a terrible cold with no tents and put the entire caravan in jeopardy.

The tents were pitched to the ground with thin stick-shaped iron stakes and fastened with rope made of cowherd. The resembled the black and white Tibetan tents, large enough for three to four people to sleep in.

I once watched a TV series on the Ancient Tea Horse Road where wooden stakes and nylon were used to secure the tents. But this is not historically accurate, just as a horse is not a mule.

Each caravan arrived at the camping ground by four or five in the afternoon. Any later and it would be getting dark and not enough time to make the necessary preparations.

The head muleteer carried a small case that contained a Maitreya Buddha made of bronze. Arriving at a camping ground, he took out the bronze object, chose a place that was not windy and faced the direction of the sun. He then chose a place to set up camp, where to set up the pots and stove and where the pack animals would be tethered. His men went about their tasks making sure that none of their cargo was missing or that it was secure and not fallen apart or damaged.

At night you slept where a fire was lit or had been burning. When scooping out soup, you did so from the sides of the pot or cauldron, not the center where it bubbled and where there was a larger concentration of fat.

After the animals grazed they returned to camp and commingle near the tents. If the animals did not come back at the designated time, the head muleteer whistled and they complied. Some of the pack animals were tethered beside the tents. A horse rope was tied to their ankles.

Trading Horses in Dali. Source:

Each muleteer had a skill set that included riding horses, feeding them, calling them, shoeing them. They were skilled at using a hoof pick and other tools of the trade to maintain hoof hygiene and protect the animal from injury. Horse shoes went through the wear and tear of years trodding the mountain paths.

To shoe a horse or mule you first take off the old horseshoe then use a hoof pick to remove the calluses. When doing this, care must be taken not to hurt or hobble the animal. If picked or cut too deep, the animal could bleed. If cut too shallow, it would amount to not repairing the horseshoe. After a few days, you’ll have to shoe them again. In both instances, the animal would limp and not be able to carry its load.

Photo: Fumio Obitsu

All pack animals were broken before they joined a caravan. One type of training involved tethering one of its legs so it could only stand on three. This trained them from jumping around and also accustomed them to receiving orders from the mule packer.

Mule packers would pair up and load each mule, lifting and loading over 20 kilos on each side. Both packers and mules would then make any necessary adjustments. Loading and unloading the pack animals was handled in a very systematic manner, starting with the head mule, then the second mule, and so on.


Li Xu’s Ancient Tea Horse Road (2005)

Front cover of Li Xu’s Ancient Tea Horse Road

Below are excerpts from Chapter 1 and 2 of Li Xu’s Ancient Tea Horse Road (2005), a book that deserves to be translated in its entirety (213 pp.). 

Li graduated from Beijing Normal University in 1983, completing a Master’s Degree from Yunnan University in 1990. He is a research fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming, Yunnan. As well as writer, he is also a photographer and has travelled across some of the remotest corners of China.

Muleteer chain bridge, lower Nujiang, northwest Yunnan. Photo: Chris Barclay.

In some pretty inaccessible places on the winding mountain roads, you can still see copper bells hanging from the necks of mules and horses and hear the distant sound of bells across the tranquil mountains. The pack animals’ hooves are heavy and dense on the cobbled paths.

Both bells and hooves are an indelible fixture of the Ancient Tea Horse Roads. It might be difficult to find such trade routes anywhere else in the world and the caravans that still travel them. The caravans went everywhere and the muleteers endured all kinds of hardships. In the popular imagination, the muleteers were romantic and legendary figures.

Caravans consisted of the “head pot,” that is, the head or chief of the caravan. He cooked, ate and lived with his men, and was for all intents and purposes, the caravan’s logistics manager.

On the road, the head muleteer’s responsibilities included the welfare and safety of his caravan, transportation costs and others expenses. His men were hired laborers. Some of the pack animals belonged to families or business companies; others to the head muleteer. Pack animals were also brought in by the muleteers. In this respect, the muleteers were hired hands as well as business partners. They received salaries and profits.

The muleteers were also called “horse’s hooves” (马脚子). They usually came from poverty-stricken families and forced into the profession to make ends meet. Although the roads, paths and trails were riddled with all kinds of hardships, one could make a living, more than could be earned working in the fields. Some, I should add, didn’t even have fields.

It was a rough life on the road. Every muleteer had the skills and talent to perform their assigned tasks. They needed to understand weather conditions, their geographical surroundings, the appropriate roads, trails and paths to choose, where to set up camp, converse in any number of regional dialects and understand the temperament of their pack animals.

They had to be adept in all aspects of caravan life: pitching tents, cooking, chopping wood and making a fire, packing and unpacking their loads, fitting, trimming and repairing the animals’ hooves, and treating both men and animals when sick.

Generally, each muleteer was responsible for seven to eight mules. His packed animals and goods were made up of a unit, referred to in caravan parlance as “a grasp” (一把), which collectively formed a caravan.

If we compare these caravans to those unruly regional warlords during the early Republican period in the early twentieth century, the muleteers resembled more of an army regiment of trained men. Everyone worked hard and exercised prudence over carelessness, conducting themselves in a businesslike manner. Everything ran to clockwork precision.

The pecking order of mules on the caravans was organized into a head mule, followed by the second mule, and so on. The first two mules were selected as the best pack animals. These mules were both mare (female) mules endowed with traits of sensitiveness, intelligence and a natural sense of cautiousness, in contrast to male or horse mules, considered too impulsive and quick-tempered, and less than ideal to lead a caravan.

It should be said that in transporting goods, mules for the most part were used, not horses. Strictly speaking, we should therefore call them “mule caravans.” The superiority of mules over horses is amply illustrated in the saying: “Constantly comparing oneself to others will only make you angry, but horses can’t carry as much as mules.”

Unlike horses, mules can carry half their weight or more on their backs. They also have more stamina and can work on less forage than horses–rough forage at that–while horses depend more on grasses.

Particularly attention was given to the decorative ornaments worn by the head and second mule. A flower-shaped ornament or colored embroidered cloth was draped from the bridle or halter across the mule’s forehead and its nose. Small buttonlike mirrors were studded on leather straps to ward off evil spirits and when the sun’s rays reflected off the mirrors, silver flashed in the sun, scaring off potential predators.


Tassels were also fastened to the mules’ nose, and under the saddle, ornamented cloth ribbons or tassels. A yak hair tassel was also tied to the mules’ tail.

Two “large bells” (大铃) hung around the neck of the head mule, and nine walnut-shaped loose bells around the second called a “second hairpin” (二钗). The head and second mule invariably shared the same coat color. Some caravans companies who could afford it, decked out their entire caravan with pack mules that uniformly shared the same coat colorations.

The head mule was bold and quick to respond to her surroundings. The second mule followed closely behind. This is summed up in the adage: “the head mule maintains her sure-footedness, the second mule follows” (头骡奔, 二骡跟). With these two mules, the caravan formed a single connected line.

A “caravan flag” was inserted in the saddle of the head mule, usually a yellow triangular-shaped flag with green serrated edges. Because of their saw like teeth edges, these flags were also called “dog-fang flags” (狗牙旗). The caravan’s name was written across the flag for all to see.

Different bells were worn by the head mule and second mule, and the second mule did not carry a flag. As these two pack animals were adorned with numerous ornaments, they generally carried less cargo than the other mules.

–“Caravans” (“马帮”), Chapter 1, in Chamagudao (The Ancient Tea Horse Road), Beijing: Xinxing Chubanshe, 2005:8-11.

The following edited and translated excerpts are taken from Chapter 2. 

When you think about it, leading your own caravan has a special kind of responsibility, a duty that stirs up all kinds of emotions since everything in front of you in an unknown variable. You are responsible for the welfare of your men and yourself, those naughty but sturdy pack animals, the valuable cargo, and loved ones far away.

Photo: Obitsu Fumio

You set out an hour before sunrise, riding through the shrouded mist, climbing mountains, on foot and by horse, till you reach a point where your body doesn’t want to go any further. At sunset, you arrive at a clearing in a valley camping for the evening, looking forward to nothing more than to get under your blanket and get a good night’s rest (pp. 20-21).

Zhao Yingxian, a muleteer in his eighties believes that all the good and bad dished out to us is a combination of luck and fate. There’s no point fighting it.

For some of the muleteers, all kinds of disasters came their way–nothing to show for all their hard work, debt-ridden, and in extreme cases, never returning home. For others, it was pretty much smooth sailing–returning home safely and picking up a bonus or salary. Looking back, Zhao considers himself lucky. It didn’t strike it rich, but neither did he incur any financial loses (p. 21).

There’s always two sides to a coin, and the flip side of all the obstacles and discomforts the muleteer endured was that it was a-once-in-a-lifetime adventure. When you return home and see Jade Dragon Mountain in Lijiang, you know that you have won the battle.

The muleteers traveled to remote and unfamiliar places gambling their life and possessions. There were no coincidences. If it was just you and the pack animals, it was one step at a time, one mountain at a time, one river at a time. You relied entirely on your own wits, perseverance, ability and plain luck, day in day out, year after year. This is what I call a real man (p. 21).

Photo Credits: Chris Barclay, Obitsu Fumio, Baidu.

Interview with Chris Barclay


The interview was conducted in early May via email. 

–peter micic

PM: How did you get into historical restoration?

CB: I saw so many great buildings being demolished in cities across China, I thought if I ever had the chance, I would buy something and re-purpose it, so that more people could come and appreciate it and see that it would be worth saving. Maybe this would inspire others to do the same.

PM: Where do you think your urge to preserve things comes from?

CB: I went to Cranbrook School outside Detroit, Michigan in the U.S. The campus consists of an art academy, girls school, boys school and museum of science. The buildings themselves are all on the national historic register, built by architects such as Sarinen, Wright, and with artwork around campus from Calder and many others. The chapel was built with stone brought from Kent, England and the boys’ school design is also based on a very old school in England. So the whole place is a living work of art and I developed a deep appreciation for design.

When I came to China, I saw so many beautiful vernacular buildings in Beijing that had been abandoned, used as dumps or turned in to coal depots. I felt it was a shame that no one cared for these places. To lose one’s heritage is really something that you can never buy back.

PM: How did you come up with the name Ginkgo Society? Do you have a special relationship or history with ginkgo trees?

CB: Originating in China, the ginkgo is the world’s oldest living tree species and is venerated in the East as a sacred symbol of wisdom, longevity and health. Its leaves and nuts have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and have proven qualities to boost mental capacity and fight disease.

Ginkgos are widely used as ornamental trees in the West, given their resistance to disease and ability to thrive especially in cities, amongst the pollution and poor soil.  It is these core values of longevity, wellness, wisdom and adaptability that embody our community spirit.

PM: Tell us about your journey that led you to founding the Ginkgo Society in 2012.

CB: Our first daughter had passed away in 2009 and both my wife and I were in our mid-40s and didn’t believe we would have another child. We had tried many interventions and therapies but weren’t successful. In March 2011 we decided to take a break from the fertility regime and come to Shaxi at a friend’s suggestion–he was a travel writer who had come several times to the area. We visited the Nunnery of Sheltered Mercy (慈荫庵) and my wife prayed to the Guan Yin Who Gives Children in the main shrine there.

Pear Orchard Temple

Soon after we returned to Thailand, she was pregnant and our daughter was born in January of 2012. So we decided to donate to the temple, but the government were keen to let us manage it, to protect it and use it as a visitor’s center, in addition to having it still function as a religious center. I set up Ginkgo in Dali as a way to legally restore and manage the temple, which also houses a restaurant and gallery, plus classrooms and activity areas.

PM: Take us through the moments involved in rebuilding the Pear Orchard Temple. Why is it also called the Sheltered Mercy Nunnery?

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Pre-construction, courtyard, Pear Orchard Temple
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Pre-construction, courtyard, Pear Orchard Temple
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Pre-construction, Pear Orchard Temple

CB: The temple didn’t have an English name, and the translation of the Chinese is Sheltered Mercy Nunnery, which is a little hard to remember. The temple is surrounded by old growth pear trees, so I thought Pear Orchard Temple was fitting as a translation. We replaced every roof truss, every floor, rebuilt walls, windows and doors and installed electric and water. It is a ground-up renovation that took 3 years and $250,000 of our own money.

Construction Process, Pear Orchard Temple
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Construction Process, Pear Orchard Temple
Donkey carrying sand (Large)
Construction Process, Pear Orchard Temple

PM: When was the Pear Orchard Temple built? Can you share some of its history and the community of nuns that lived there? I’m interested in the nexus of monastics, if any, with the local economy and whether the Temple was patronized by local merchants as well as seasonal traders who passed through Shaxi.

CB: It is believed that this temple is the third build after fire and earthquake destroyed the earlier versions. It was likely originally built in the Ming Dynasty, around the same time as Hai Yun Ju Nunnery in Shibaoshan. The most recent major renovation was 1916. There were at least two nuns here as late as the 1960s, but since then there have been none.

During renovations,we found an inscribed tablet from the 1970s, which was a Diantou Village elder recounting the history of Shaxi and this temple.

Inscribed Tablet Narrating Shaxi’s History and The Pear Orchard Temple

PM: And other restoration projects that you have completed or are working on in Shaxi?

CB: We rebuilt a family courtyard in Xia ke Village as homestay accommodation for school groups that come for social enterprise work and cultural learning. Our requirement was that the family continue to live in the courtyard, and we pay them rent plus some per diem to cook, guide and clean for the school groups. We installed new solar hot water showers and toilets which are really nice.

PM: Are you mainly involved in the public relations side of both conservation projects and sustainable tourism? What does a typical day look like for Chris Barclay in Shaxi?

CB: I stay at the Old Theatre, try the new offerings for breakfast (cornbread pancakes last time), chat with staff, meet with my partner, Mr. Wu, go visit the Li family in Xia Ke Village, go to the Pear Orchard Temple for lunch or early dinner. I will have some wine at Old Theatre, as we have a very nice international selection. Sometimes I will meet with govt in Jianchuan or receive a delegation. Mostly I go around on my bike and visit with neighbors. I will have dinner one evening at our builder’s house, Mr. Yang. Everything is quite in flow, with casual discussions instead of formal meetings where possible.

PM: How long have you been interested in sustainable travel? How do you define the term?

Guilin Yangshuo Yulong River - Yangshuo Mountain Retreat-1
Yulong River, Yangshuo, Guilin

CB: I became interested with my first project, the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, as it was in an ecologically sensitive area on the Yulong River.

Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, Guilin Yangshuo China
Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, Guilin

I wanted to protect our surroundings so started researching on what green hotels were doing. We made this conservation into a selling point that until now, almost none of our competitors have thought to copy. Sustainability to me is using existing resources to grow vs. having to build lots of new infrastructure and bring in new resources, and creating a high degree of participation for local people in the economy.

PM: What do you see as the main challenges in implementing sustainability travel initiatives in Shaxi?

CB: The government doesn’t have a lot of good models. Looking at Dali and Lijiang, these are all mass tourism models, not small-scale quality and value models. So their first instinct is to make a gate and charge money to go in. That immediately puts visitors off. Then they encourage a ton of new construction, as outsiders take over local housing in the old town, and locals need to move out. They look at mass tourism as the key to growth, building big bus parking areas, making new roads, trying to focus tourism in the old town vs. expanding it into villages so more local people can take part. It is a failed model but the Chinese government is not designed to try new things or take risks, so here we are. I share my opinions with the government, offer my time and support so it may yet change.

PM: How have your perceptions of sustainable tourism changed since you founded the Ginkgo Society in 2012?

CB: Local people aren’t excited about it. They don’t easily buy into it. Even when you show them things can work, they don’t trust it. So outsiders come in with money and take the business away from them. Most local people in Shaxi, are short-sighted and narrow-minded. They are also very risk averse and don’t care that much about getting rich. They are small farmers and merchants, not entrepreneurs in the newly developing local tourism economy. There are outliers, local people who are visionary and daring, such as my partner Mr. Wu, but there are very few like him. It is why Han people from big cities get the big rewards in the economy – they are forward-thinking risk takers and fast learners.

PM: Part of the enjoyment of travel–an enormous part–is letting yourself experience things you do not understand, allowing it to reanimate our reality, stumbling on the unexpected discoveries. What kind of things do want your clients to discover while they are in Shaxi? And what would you like them to take away from the experience?

CB: We encourage guests just to walk or bike through the villages and look around. Local people are very friendly and welcoming. They’ll often invite you into their courtyard and offer you tea or fruit from their trees. They will want you to stay for lunch and maybe dinner. I think guests will be blown away by how hospitable and open people here are to strangers.

PM: Do you have a favorite place in Shaxi that you don’t necessarily take your clients to? If so, what makes its special?

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Shizong Temple and Buddhist Grottoes, Shibaoshan

 CB: It’s the Haiyunju Nunnery at Shibaoshan. It’s such an active temple, with music, worship, incense, candles and very hospitable local village elders running the temple. You rarely see temples like this in China – most are empty museums and charge admission. Not every guest is excited about temples as I am, so unless they express an interest, we send them to the grottoes at Shizhong temple, or the cliff temples at Baoxiang temple. Those are the “famous” temples that the government promotes, but Hai Yun Ju isn’t on the map, through it’s just past the main entrance at Shibaoshan.

PM: What kind of groups have you hosted so far? Can you share a memorable moment from one of them?

CB: College students, high school students, government delegations, corporate groups, eco-tours. We have the high school groups build greenhouses up in the Yi villages, and there’s a great satisfaction in seeing them complete these projects, as they’re a big benefit to the Yi farmers.

PM: What other projects do you have in the pipeline for Shaxi?

CB:  Nothing right now. Growth in Shaxi is very slow and there is a huge overcapacity of guesthouses and restaurants. Currently we are marking trails up on the mountains behind the Old Theatre Inn for adventurous guests to hike.

PM: Where is home now–Thailand, Yunnan, the States? How do you define “home?”

CB: I live most of the year in Thailand, though we take Summers in the U.S. my goal is to be able to take a few three-week vacations around Asia every year. I really like Japan, looking forward to New Zealand. My daughter is in school in Chiang Mai, so this is where our home is for now.

PM: What other things keep you busy apart from your work in Shaxi?

CB: Visioneering (planning the long future), meditation, fitness, working on improving current business for other projects, such as Yangshuo, family life, trying new beers.

PM: What books are you reading at the moment? Favorite authors? How much of your reading is for pleasure?

CB: I’m reading Kevin Kelly, Tim Ferris, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell. Favorite author is Alan Watts.

PM: If a complete stranger asks you, what do you do for a living, how do you respond?

CB: “As little as possible.”

PM: Chris, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a real pleasure!

Photo Credits: Chris Barclay

For more information on the Ginkgo Society visit:

For more information on the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat visit: