SINGAPORE (Dec 18): Around the same time as the old Silk Road came into existence as a trade route, the Tea Horse Road in southwestern China was also thriving. This steep and narrow pathway wound its way through the jungle and over the cloud-covered hills of Yunnan to transport tea by horse and donkey to the tables of emperors and other nobles in capitals as diverse as Xi’an, Nanjing and Beijing. It was a tendril of the Silk Road.

These tendrils still exist, as I was reminded last week, when I puffed my way up narrow mountain trails in Zhu Lin village near the Myanmar border in southwestern Yunnan to look at tea trees between 600 and 700 years old. These long-leaf Yunnan tea trees are planted not in the neat serried rows seen in the tea plantations near the Hangzhou Xi Hu mountains but oddly spaced and clinging to impossibly steep hillsides.

Leaves from the older trees command up to RMB50,000 ($10,218) per kg. The average price is RMB5,000 per kg. Buyers come to collect the leaves from specific trees to produce the renowned Yunnan pu’er tea.

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