Monday, November 22, 2010

Russian Caravan Tea

By Jess Hodges

The idea of tea being shipped across vast oceans through storms and pirates is certainly a romantic one but it's not the only way that tea used to be transported around the world and certainly not the most arduous. If you've ever wondered what links tea, freezing Siberian winters and thousands of camels (and who hasn't?) then the answer is Russian Caravan tea.

The Chinese started exporting tea to Russia in 1638 and they sent it over land. It was transported by camel caravans which carried a blend of Oolong, Keemun and Lapsang Souchong. Russian caravan tea, as the blend became known, is a strong, full bodied tea with a distinctive smoky taste from the Lapsang Souchong component, though some say this was added to by the camp fires of the weary caravan traders.

The camel trains travelled through Mongolia and Siberia and took six months to reach Russia from the Chinese border. The tea was said to benefit from taking the terrestrial route and avoiding the hot, humid sea air of the tropics but that can't have been much consolation to the travellers struggling through the cold, harsh conditions for months on end.

The route was so difficult that the costs of tea remained sky high until the creation of the Tea Road, also known as the Siberian Route, which was started in 1730 and not completed until the mid-eighteen hundreds. The road started in Moscow made it's way across Russia, through Mongolia and passed through the Great Wall of China before continuing onward to Beijing.

The road made tea transport easier and record volumes began to pour in to Russia but it wasn't to last. With the advent of the suez canal, which saved ships from having to journey around the cape, a general increase in sea borne trade and the completion of the trans-Siberian railway the camel trains were gradually replaced and faded out of history but the distinctive tea they carried remained as popular as ever.