The legendary Chamagudao, the Tea-Horse Road, winds through dizzying mountain passes, across famed rivers like the Mekong and the Yangtze and past monasteries and meadows in a circuitous route from Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in western China to the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. Actually a network of roads, trails and highways, rather than one distinct route, the Chamagudao once stretched for almost 1,400 miles (2350 km) - a conduit along which the historic trade between the mighty Chinese empire and the nomadic Tibetans linked remote villages and ethnic groups. The Chinese military needed strong horses for their wars against Mongol invaders from the north, and the fiercely religious Tibetans desired tea both for sacred rituals and sustenance. Once tea was introduced into Tibet around the 10th century, demand for it grew. Tea soon became a staple for Tibetans, especially when combined with their other staple, yak butter. But with Tibet's extreme temperatures and altitudes, tea cultivation on a large scale was impossible. This set the stage for the tea-horse trade, which, by the 11th century, flourished along the Chamagudao, continuing until the 1950s.
ELIZABETH BIBB first moved to New York to attend Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has since lived uptown, downtown and in-between. She is a writer and editor who works in both magazine and book publishing. Bibb is a frequent collaborator with her husband, photographer Michael Yamashita. She lives with her husband and daughter in Murray Hill in Manhattan, as well as in rural New Jersey.