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20 July 2012


Kyakhta, ancient Russian Tea Capital. Picture:arzarubin.ya.ru

Everyone knows about the mystery and romance following in Marco Polo's footsteps on the Great Silk Road through central Asia. 

Now plans are afoot to offer tourists the chance to travel along the Great Tea Road in an ambitious joint project being planned in Russia, Mongolia and China. 

Some two billion people around the world starting each day with a cup of tea, so there could be strong interest in the scheme.

An international forum was held in June in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, which attracted travel industry specialists from Spain, France, the United States, Taiwan, and Japan in addition to the three countries co-operating on the venture.

Another forum was held on July 17 and 18 in Erlian, a another strategic point on the Great Tea Road. 

Erlian - or Erenhot - in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia - is a Chinese outpost on the border with Mongolia. 

The Great Tea Road has been called the longest land trade route in the history of mankind, starting from the Great Chinese Wall and weaving its way to Europe via Mongolia and Russia.

Great Tea Road Great Tea Road

Box used to transport the tea from China, and a Tea Caravan. Pictures: Kungur City Museum

A key Siberian point on the tea road is the ancient merchant town of Kyakhta, a name that may not trip off the tongue now, but it was world famous in previous centuries for its role in trading tea - but many other commodities too - between China and Russia. 

Founded by Serb, Savva Raguzinsky, as a trading point with the Qing Empire in 1728, it had close ties to its Chinese counterpart, Maimaicheng, and boasted a 19th century tea bourse.

The two towns even developed their own language, for use in trade and known as Kyakhta Russian-Chinese Pidgin, enabling them to barter goods. 

At the time,  as Wikipedia relates, 'the Russians sold furs, textiles, clothing, hides, leather, hardware and cattle, while the Chinese sold silk, cotton stuffs, teas, fruits, porcelain, rice, candles, rhubarb, ginger and musk.

'Much of the tea is said to have come from Yangloudong, a major centre of tea production and trade near today's Chibi City, Hubei'.

By the mid-19th century tea accounted for 90 per cent of imported goods on this trading route, brought by camel caravans crossing Mongolia.

An early visitor in 1782 was Sir Samuel Bentham, a noted English mechanical engineer, naval architect and adventurer, and brother of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In a varied life, Sir Samuel variously was put in charge of Prince Potemkin's workshops and factories,  decorated for his role in a victorious battle against the Turks, and appointed commander of a battalion of 1,000 men in Siberia. 

He took back to the West the Chinese boat designs he had seen deployed on Siberia's great rivers. 

Crossing from Kyakhta he noted that he was treated  'with the greatest politeness which a stranger can meet with in any country whatever'.

A later Western traveller, Charles Wenyon, observed in 1893 that 'the best tea produced in China goes to Russia'. 

Much of it then went further west, to Europe. 

The tea route in Russia received 'bricks' of compressed tea from camel caravans at Kyakhta - which came via Mongolia from the Great Wall of China gate at Kalgan and beyond.

The cargo was then moved across Lake Baikal and  through towns and cities including Irkutsk, Yenisysk, Tomsk, Kainsk, Tara, Tobolsk, Tyumen, Yekaterinburg, Kungar, Perm and Kazan to Moscow and points west.

The coming of the Trans-Siberian railway ended the tea caravans, yet more than a century later, interest is now rekindled in the Great Tea Road. 

Many towns on this historic road have buildings and museum collections relating to this earlier era.

There is now a yearning to honour this trading history and the achievements of previous generations.  

In 2010, as a mark of this respect for the past, the first symbolic tea caravan in 100 or so years arrived in Kyakhta.

Great Tea Road

2010 Great Tea Road Caravan's map. Picture: tearoad.ru

This month sees  300 tourists from China on a train following the Great Tea Road, for the first time. 

A mammoth motor rally in July is also being  used to publicise the Great Tea Road.

Starting in St Petersburg on 30 June, it passed through several dozen towns and cities with 'tea traces' including Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Perm, Kungur, Tyumen, Tobolsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk.

By 19 July, it reached Ulan Ude before it proceeds to Chita, Svobodny, Khabarovsk, Ussuriisk, finally finishing in Vladivostok having completed around 12,000 kilometres. 

Great Tea Road

A girl, dressed in national Buryatian colours, welcomes Great Tea Road rally in Ulan-Ude. Picture:arzarubin.ya.ru

'Our goal is popularise the Great Tea Road tourism project and to study the tourism potential of Russian regions located along the rally's route,' said the project's leader Ernst Kim.

The rally is organised by the Russian Tourism Agency, the Russian Geographical Society, and Moscow's Association of Entrepreneurs.

There are also hopes of support for the tea initiative from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. 

'In particular, the UNWTO will help Buryatia present tourism projects, including the trans-border Great Tea Road, at major international exhibitions,' said Alla Peresolova, of the World Tourism Organisation.

Backing the plan is the Siberian Accord economic co-operation association, known by its Russian acronym MASS. Its deputy chairman Sergei Tikhomirov said recently that the Great Tea Road concept as a tourist project is winning key public and private sector support. 

'This idea is being promoted by the Siberian Accord association which has been closely following the development of the Great Tea Road for fifteen years now,' he said.

'Now that it has been recognised by the authorities of the regions of the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Mongolia and by businesses, it has become quite a feasible task to add substance to this tourist brand and give it an important international status.'

Russian support has also come from the Federation Council upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federal Tourism Agency, the Association of the Tour Operators of Russia, the Russian Union of the Travel Industry.

Comments (1)

What was the level of reciprocal trade along the tea route and what was the nature of the goods?
dropboxx400@gmail.com, Edmonton, Canada
02/05/2016 02:46

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