After Japan for the first time, we have decided to travel in non-tea producing countries to explore a new horizon: Mongolia and Russia.
These two countries do not have a favorable climate for the production of tea but they catch up on consumption, tea being a very popular drink. Russia was the first to catch the virus when in 1638 a Russian ambassador brought back tea from China to the Tsar’s court. The Tsar was immediately seduced and began to import tea from China which marked the beginning of the “Great Tea Road”. First major trade exchange between these two powerful empires, the tea caravans began to cross Mongolia, the junction point, to bring tea to western Russia.
Did you know?
The Great Tea Road was 9.000 to 10.000 km long. His starting point was Kalgan in China, now a city named Zhangjiakou. Located north of Beijing, Kalgan is very closed to the Great Wall of China. In Kalgan, tea was converging from all the Chinese producing regions. Large camel caravans were set up to confront the Mongolian highlands. This journey was full of dangers: wild beasts, hostile peoples and brigands of all kinds populated these places. Then, the caravans reached the Russian border in a town called Kiaktha. This city became one of the largest centers of wholesale trade and supplied tea to Russia and part of Western Europe. After a well-deserved rest in Kiaktha, the caravans left to face a new challenge: Siberia. They crossed the Republic of Buryatia to reach Irkutsk, located south of Lake Baikal. In this huge “hub”, the caravans separated to supply several Russian cities: Tobolsk, Tioumen, Nijni Novgorod … This great trip could last a year! The Great Tea Road, the 2nd largest trade road after the Silk Road, has get China and Russia closer together.
Mongolia, place of transit to facilitate trade between China and Russia, has also seen its habits change in contact with tea caravans.
Virgin land as big as 2.5 times France, 50% of the population lives in its capital Ulaan-baator. The rest of the 50% are mostly nomads, living with their family in a yurt (also named a ger) and raising their flock of sheep, goats and yaks.
We are going to conquer these large spaces, eager to better know this way of life. Given the lack of roads, one of the best ways to get around is the horse. It is part of the Mongolians identity; each child from his earliest childhood knows how to ride a horse. We meet 7-year-old boys proudly standing on their horses, galloping through the vast Mongolian steppes. Here the French horsemen feel unhappy: these small and robust horses obey only one rule: the “tchô” to direct them (to be pronounced not like Homer Simpson). Not really trained, they are still a bit wild.
We are welcomed by Podka, a 4-year-old mischievous girl who invites us to enter in the ger. All Mongolian ger are more or less arranged in the same way. In the center of the ger is the stove, source of life because it is the source of the essential heat during the harsh winters and necessary element to bring food and drink to all family members. Two beds are ordered on both sides of the ger. At the bottom, it is the altar for the ancestors. A portion of each meal is extracted and deposited in front of the altar to honor them. Two fine poles painted with multiple colors split the space in two parts: women sit on the bed on the right of the entrance and the men on the left. It’s prohibited to pass between the two poles that represent the husband and the wife. It can bring pain and break the harmony of the home!
We settle in the ger well heated with animal excrement.
On the stove, our host installed a large saucepan looking like a wok. Water is boiling. She adds a large tea bag. The gesture is too fast so we do not have time to identify the tea but we recognize a black tea bag version XXL. She adds a pan of milk and a handful of salt. She takes a large ladle and by slowly and largely movements she aerates the milk. Then, she hands us with her right hand a bowl filled with this mysterious beverage. We also take the bowl of the right hand with the left hand that supports the wrist, a sign of respect.
We are enjoying our first salted milk tea. After our galloping race in a dry cold, it instantly warms the body. We hardly smell tea and salt, the taste of milk being very powerful. The milk comes from different animals depending on the family and especially their flock: cow, yak, sheep, mare, goat and even camel.
Salted milk tea or süütei tsai is the most consumed drink in Mongolia (before vodka!) and a real cultural institution. As nomadic people, Mongolians have a millenary tradition of welcoming. The spaces are so huge that a Mongolian could not survive a long journey without the long chain of open doors that he can find on his way. In Mongolia, no locked door, no need to knock before entering, the Mongolians know that they will be welcomed in every ger. Mutual help and solidarity are necessary for this country subject to a difficult environment. Each visitor will be offered a süütei tsai upon arrival prepared by the host. The Mongol recipe reminds us the Tibetan salted butter tea. Dairy products being the basis of the diet of these two countries, it’s not a surprise they share this kind of drink.
The salted milk tea is drunk at any time of the day. During breakfast, it is accompanied by a rich slice of bread with creamy butter (or buttered cream) well nourishing that fills the body. After the first surprising swallow, we learn to appreciate this substantial drink that allows us to face the nights when the frost hits even in the middle of August … It is also easier for us to accept a bowl of tea than a glass vodka! But just like tea, it would be impolite to refuse it so our Mongolian evenings look like a happy mix of meat broth, vodka glass and salted milk tea!
The tea lovers may not be seduced but no one could resist the traditions of this people who live in a perfect harmony with nature…
Just like the caravans two centuries ago, we continue our tea road to the north of Ulaan-Baator the capital of Mongolia. We arrive at the border by bus. Fun fact, we cross the border to Kiaktha, the city that was the economic heart of tea during the intense exchanges between Russia and China. Today it is a simple border post, yet it has seen thousands of camels and men gathered to bring tea to Russia.
We cross the Republic of Buryatia and arrive at Irkutsk, the western capital of Siberia, which has a tiny tea museum which explains the great years of the Tea Road.
We met for the first time the samovars that will punctuate our Russian stay. This large metal carboy is used to boil water, keep hot water and dispense tea via a tap. Essential tool for all Russian, a samovar always thrones in a corner of the living room or dining room.
Become popular since the 18th century, the samovar was first used in the Urals. Two brothers, Ivan and Nazar Lisitsyn, created the first manufacturing factory in Tula, 200 km away from Moscow.
The samovar is above all an object with a great practicality and economically interesting. The central part consists of a pipe where coal or pine cones burn. At the top, a teapot with a strong and concentrated tea is placed. A little of this tea is poured into the cup and diluted with hot water that comes from a tap positioned in the lower part of the samovar.
Associated with the typical Russian art of receiving, the samovar joins today the decorative art…
Today, the samovars are often electric and tend to disappear, replaced by kettles. The samovar can be made from metal, copper, bronze or even silver or gold. Samovar is a symbol of hospitality, cordiality and talks. If you read Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s novels you will be surprised to see how many encounters are made around a samovar…
But the Russians do not just drink tea. With the drink, come sweets named Prianiki, a type of gingerbread. Another star product of the city of Tula, this gingerbread goes well with tea.
Russians consume mostly black tea. Formerly consumers of Chinese tea, the Russians will later turn to a neighbor country to supply them : Georgia. After being part of the USSR, Georgia was the land of tea for the entire Federation. During the prosperous years, its annual production reached 200,000 tons! Today Russia also imports tea from India and Sri Lanka. Always adepts of black tea, we have not seen the trace of an oolong or a green tea…
In Irkutsk, we get on board of the Transsiberian for a journey of more than 5,000 km. A big program awaits us: 76 hours of train in Platzkart (or 3rd class), 5 time zones crossed and the passage from Siberia to Moscow. Accompanied by an adorable babouchka and a welder who goes to the Yamal peninsula in the far north of Russia, we spend 3 days reading, writing, contemplating the taiga landscapes and … drinking tea! A samovar thrones on one side of the car, it reigns over the 54 passengers and distributes heat, water and food. The passengers came equipped: tea bags and lyophilized soups punctuate the daily life. We are taking a step back in time by picking some leaves from a black tea bag offered by Yan Kan San, owner of a small tea factory in Yunnan, China.
This journey in train marks the end of our trip around tea. We have got some emotion when we come back to Europe, in Moscow. End of a stage, beginning of another, the Tea Travelers project is not over, we already have in mind the place of our next discoveries…
So, see you soon!