Sunday, 20 December 2015

The horse gang 馬幫

Do you know how puerh tea was transported to the rest of the world in the early days?

As  there there were no ships and transport planes, the only possible means of transportation was via the horses' back. This gave rise to what is called the horse gang (馬幫) whose members were actively involved in the delivery of puerh tea to where it was needed. The horse gang was really a group of dedicated people who worked diligently and traveled thousand of kilometers to ensure that the tea reached its destination. Now you would appreciate why puerh tea had such unusual packaging, seven in a pile and 12 piles in a rectangular basket and each piece weighs 357g. All were made necessary so that the horses would survive the tedious journey.

In a typical tea expedition, hundreds of horses were employed to transport puerh tea across rugged terrain and mountainous regions from Puerh city to the north (Tibet) and to the south (Loas and Burma). Apart from horses, donkeys were also employed to carry the tea as donkeys were stronger, they ate less and complaint little. With so many animals involved in the process, workers were needed to supervise and take charge of the flock and the goods.

This journey normally took several months to a year before the job was done. Members of the horse gang had to endure unimaginable hardships and difficulties through out the journey. Not only they had to leave their love ones, they had to deal with the harsh weather conditions, the attack from wild animals and the ruthless robbers and also the corrupt officials that demanded bribes before letting the group to pass the border. It won't be surprise to know that some might not even survived the harsh journey and returned home safely.

The journey of the horse gang

Horses were used to carry the tea to its destinations
As the journey was a long one, there were resting places (Stations) every 20 kilometers along the way for the horse gang. Hotels were built to cater for the needs of this group of people. Some of these hotels are still around today in the Yunnan province and they are preserved to their original states for tourists to visit. If you happen to be in Yunnan, you can visit these places to find out how members of the horse gang lived their lives during those difficult times. If the group missed the stations, they had to stay overnight in the wild where attacks from wild beasts were not uncommon.

The inn where the group stayed overnight

Members of the horse gang passed through many villagers and towns. They had to direct and guard the horses to the final destination. Most often they had to travel on hard ground, roads that were just stone pavements. Today, one can still see these stone pavements inter-linking villages and towns in Yunnan.

Some of these ancient stone pavements had been trampled upon by members of the horse gangs for hundreds of years. The state of these rugged pavements seem to tell people the hardship and difficult lives of the people that ploughed through them for a living.

Outside the inn where the horse gang rested
The leader of the horse gang is known as Ma Kuatou, and was in-charge of the day-to-day operations of the group. He managed the external affairs  like dealing with the custom officials (paying taxes), fending off attacks from wild beasts and robbers, deciding when to stop overnight, etc. At the same time he was also responsible for the welfare of the animals and his fellow workers. He needed to look after the animals and his fellow workers when they were sick. He had to handle emotional problems that might arise form his mates. To be a leader, he had to be brave and strong, otherwise the horse gang would not be able to make the trip and return safely.

Simple furniture inside the inn

Items used by the horse gang on display

Generally members of the horse gang would rest where the tea was unloaded from the horses' back. Usually the tea in their baskets were rested on wooden structures, so the men would have to sleep underneath these structures. This could prevent the tea from being stolen by unscrupulous people around. You could imagine tea at that time was also a rare and expensive commodity. If not the horse gangs would not be commissioned to bring the tea to its destinations.

The leader of the horse gang would normally stay in the upper floor. His bed was also specially made in that there was a compartment when the mattress was unrolled. Why it was important that he slept on such a bed?
The bed for the leader

A secret compartment under the mattress
Usually the leader handled a large amount of cash and valuable. He knew that he was miles away from home and a lot of people and animals depended on him for survival. He could not afford to lose his money and valuables. As there was no safe for him to deposit such valuables, he had to hide it somewhere. The compartment under the mattress was an ideal place for safe-keeping of money and valuables. If anyone wanted to steal from him, he had to first roll him over before he could uncover the compartment and the things inside. In this way, the leader of the gang could have a good night sleep without worrying about losing his valuables.

Some of the things used by the leader

He drank tea from this funny utensil
Various Gods to pray for a safe journey
As there were so many uncertainties in the journey, he had to pray to many gods to ensure that no mishaps happened to him and the things under his charge. He was sure to be under tremendous stress when he took over the job as the leader of the horse gang. When one had to survive in those days, one had to be strong and courageous. Don't forget, in this world no one would promise you a free lunch.

Recently in the early 2000s, some people were trying to repeat this remarkable tea expedition of the horse gangs. They recruited many tea traders and employed hundreds of  horses to carry the tea through this ancient route. Guess what happened, only 2 horses survived the harsh journey and reached the destination.

Today when we sip our cups of fragrant puerh tea in the comfort of our homes, just remember its rich history and the people that contributed to its success.
7 pieces of puerh cakes in a bundle

One Piece (Zhi) contains 12 bundles

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