Ma Ping Guan - Shaxi China
Hot springs, waterfalls and colorful minorities
Mapingguan (literally "Horse Pasture Pass") is located about 15km southwest of Shaxi Valley at the site of a covered bridge, on the road to three major western Yunnan salt wells, further along in Misha. The village was a key checkpoint where the government collected tax on the salt trade. In fact, this was the first of four toll gates to be constructed in the area. This one takes the form of Wenfeng Bridge, a rare covered span, that once provided shelter for the caravans as they waited to make their way past the sentries. Despite boasting wonderful examples of ancient architecture, including a a Confucian Temple, a shrine to the Guanyin Buddha and a traditional theater devoted to the God of Culture and Learning, this tiny hamlet of less than 100 households, is so peaceful, that even Shaxi Old Town seems positively metropolitan in comparison.
If you start from Fushouchang village about 2km south of Shaxi, the hike takes anywhere between two and four hours, depending on how much time you spend savoring the magnificent old growth stands, and pausing to slake your thirst from fresh mountain streams on the way. Mapingguan is nearly another 1000 meters higher than Shaxi, so you might find yourself glued into the saddle on much of the ascent. The village offers a number of basic home stays, and there is the opportunity to continue your journey into the wilds even further with a trek up to the hot springs at Misha.
Pu'er tea has been the life blood of the Tea Horse Road for hundreds of years, despite the fact that it remains relatively unknown in the west. White, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu'er tea leaves are all picked from the same bush, the camellia sinensis. Most of the major differences arise from the way in which the leaves are processed, although climate, elevation and soil all influence the final taste. By far the most important factor, is the level of oxidation that the leaves are allowed to undergo. In the same that an apple begins to brown as soon as it is exposed to the air, tea leaves begin to oxidize naturally as soon as they are picked. The secret with pu'er tea however, is a secondary fermentation process, similar to that of sugars transforming themselves in alcohol in wine, utilizing bacteria only found in Southern Yunnan. Finally, the tea is formed into chunky bricks and cakes, often being pressed into molds by barefoot villagers, similar to the way that grapes were originally pressed for wine.
The resulting product proved especially popular with Tibetans. Up on the higher parts of the plateau, vegetables and grains are extremely difficult to grow, and so the population relies heavily on the yak as a major food source. This means a very high cholesterol diet that is rich in fats, oils and salt. Fermented pu'er tea greatly benefits the digestive system, and was the perfect way to improve their fiber-free diet. During the long and hazardous journey, over roaring river valleys and snow-bound high passes, the sweat of the mules deeply infused the saddle bound tea bricks. This, along with the months of bright sunshine of the high elevations, caused the tea bricks to slowly ripen along the way. Ironically, many Tibetans claimed that the taste just was not the same when the bricks started being shipped in by air. Who would have known that horse sweat was such an essential ingredient in a good cup of tea?