This blog takes its name from a southern branch of the old Silk Road – far less known than the main route that ran from the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (today’s Xian). The southern road ran from northern parts Yunnan – a southwestern border province that is today buffeted by Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – all the way, through mountains and harsh terrain, to Tibet. Traders from Yunnan would sell tea to Tibetans, who paid for their purchase with horses.
Some of that tea later made its way to India. The road subsequently popularly came to be known as the Tea-Horse Road.
Yunnan happened to be the first province I travelled to on my first trip to China some five years ago. The visit left a deep impression, particularly as I was struck by the history of close cultural and economic links that once bound the region.
Yunnan is a unique melting pot unlike any other place you will see in China, home to some two dozen ethnic groups. Its southern tip, near Xishuangbanna, is home to the Dai people, whose ways of life appear far more in tune with what one would come across in Thailand or Vietnam rather than elsewhere in China. In the west, Ruili is China’s link to Myanmar – both economically and culturally.
Head north to Lijiang, an important centre of the Tea Horse Road, and you will find a window into the local Naxi culture and an impressively preserved old town that is, however, increasingly overrun by tourists. Further north along the Tea Horse Road in Gyalthang (christened by the Chinese as “Shangri-la”) you will find the southern boundaries of Tibet, whose influence is still evident in the Songzanlin monastery that is the centre of the town’s religious and cultural life.
Today, much of the old road – as well as the economic and cultural links that it enabled – lies in ruin. It is, nevertheless, an interesting window into forgotten links. A more recent project that briefly enabled a renewal of those links was the construction of the Ledo Road, that ran from Ledo, in Assam, through Myanmar, to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. Built in the early 1940s, the Ledo Road was constructed with a rather immediate objective – to enable supplies to reach China from India during the Second World War, as the Allied forces fought the Japanese in Indo-China.
The Joseph Stillwell Museum in Chongqing has a marvelous collection of photographs showing the construction of the road by Chinese and Indian workers, and the training of Chinese soldiers in Ramgarh. The museum itself is a run-down place and some of the photographs are literally falling apart – a perhaps fitting reflection of a long-forgotten chapter of history – but it is still worth a visit for travellers to Chongqing.
From time to time, small attempts are made to revive regional links, but they have gone nowhere. It is striking that this piece written by P.V. Indiresan 13 years ago is just as relevant today – a reflection of the sad fact that the debate has perhaps not taken a single step forward since. The Kunming Initiative, which still meets every year, has been reduced to a talk-shop, as well-intentioned as it may be.
The view from here in Beijing is that the Chinese appear far more optimistic about taking forward trade ties through Yunnan and making the province a centre of regional trade. China has recently started work on a high-speed rail line that will link Yunnan to Laos and Thailand, and eventually run all the way to Singapore (and more here)
That is not surprising, considering that Yunnan remains perhaps the most stable of all of China’s border regions (China, for instance, is far more reserved on the question of opening up Tibet to trade). Yunnan is, however, in need of investment, lagging far behind more prosperous eastern provinces. Recently, the Yunnan government announced it would hold a first ever Expo (which means, in China, access to significant Central government funds) to court investment and make the province a “gateway” to South Asia.
Last month, a small step towards reviving those links was made through a car rally, throughparts of the old land routes. It helped highlight the state of disrepair of the land links. It is, no doubt, tempting to imagine a region that sees flourishing trade and open borders that brings prosperity to India’s northeast and the rest of the region. (One rather optimistic Chinese scholar I spoke to even made a case for high-speed rail links from Kunming to India. The recent troubles in Myanmar are a timely reminder – and reality check – that any such prospect will continue to remain hindered by the sizeable political obstacles that continue to challenge the region.