Friday, January 25, 2013

Golden Horse, Jade Rooster, and the Hump

Golden Horse, Jade Rooster, and the Hump. Though it may sound like it, it is not a lesser known, sleazier sequel to the Ang Lee film "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon." Golden Horse, Jade Rooster, and the Hump are symbols associated with the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming.

"Education," my college English professor once said, "makes us appreciate what we see when we finally stand before Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece Mona Lisa." I would like to think that that is how it is with travel as well. And after having basked in Kunming's perpetually pleasant spring-like weather, I felt it was time to appreciate further one of China's most laid-back and less polluted of cities.

Golden Horse Jade Rooster Arch, Yunnan, China
Jade Rooster Arch. Plus points if you can spot the rooster.

Tea and Horses

In the city center of Yunnan's capital city Kunming stand two arches. To a traveler on a city tour of Kunming or to a regular passer-by in this city, the arches will not seem at all remarkable. Every city in China and every Chinatown in the world will most likely have similar arches. Yet these ones are special. The Golden Horse Arch and the Jade Rooster Arch marked the square at which traders from all over China, Tibet, India, Central Asia and the Middle East would finally put down the unbelievably heavy load on their backs after having arrived at the eastern terminus of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. The Ancient Tea Horse Road is a network of routes covering more than six thousand kilometers which provided for the transport and trade of one of the most precious commodities of the ancient world—tea. In some parts of the route, particularly Tibet, tea would be traded for horses. Hence, the name.

Tea Horse Trade, Kunming, Yunnan, China
That's actually tea. Yes, precious, dried, fermented Pu-er Tea.

The tea plantations south of Kunming comprised one of the first tea-producing regions in the world. Six famous mountains in Southern Yunnan produced and continue to produce the much sought-after Pu-erh Tea. Demand for the tea across all of Asia meant trade caravans would travel across the length and breadth of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Mules and human porters carry up to 90 kilos on their backs for thousands and thousands of kilometers.

The Burma Road and the Hump

Fast forward to the 1930s, while tea and horses had found other trade routes, Kunming became the terminus of another road. The years leading up to World War II saw the British, the Americans, and other Allied forces supporting China's war effort against the Japanese invasion of China's northeastern coast. Burma was a British colony at the time and from India, supplies were transported into Yangon in Central Burma by plane, then north onto Lashio in Northeast Burma by rail. From Lashio, the supplies were carried along the Burma Road which stretched from Northeast Burma through the mountains towards where else but Kunming.

When World War II was in full swing, the Japanese Empire had finally conquered much of Burma, including Yangon, effectively closing off the Burma Road. America's wartime president FDR wanted lines to remain open if the Allies are ever to win this war. This prompted troops to find other means to supply China's war effort. Since supply can't be done overland, an air "ferry" had to be created to fly from Allied-controlled Northeast India over the treacherous Himalayan peaks and foothills of Northern Burma and Yunnan province towards, you guessed it, Kunming. Pilots in the effort effectively called this air bridge "The Hump."

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Stunning but treacherous. Imagine flying through inhospitable mountains like these.

Today, Golden Horse Jade Chicken Square is now home to a hostel named The Hump and a number of restaurants and shops, much like every other tourist area in a Chinese capital city. However, had I not known about the history behind this square and the seemingly sleazy name The Hump, the experience of standing in this historic center would have been lost on me. Travel would have become superficial, like ticking off a list of sights to see. Having had the opportunity to travel to different places makes me one of the luckiest people on the planet. Neglecting to dig deeper into the history and cultures of the places I travel to seem to me like wasting an opportunity, ingratitude to the fates that brought me here. And no way in the world would I accept to be called an ingrate. Plus, history is awesome.

What has two legs and a history geek? Me! Are you one, too? Do you particularly like learning about the history and cultures of the places you travel to?

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