The tea road

The history of Tea road is the history of the development of diplomatic, trade and cultural relations between people of Eurasia in Middle Ages. The development of these relations was accompanied by the development of roads, which in different times where the ways of tribes’ migration, military expeditions, diplomatic and religious missions and trade.
The first in a history of Eurasia nephrite trade way was established in the Stone Age and in the era of great nomadic civilizations in Central Asia, all main ways connecting East and West appeared. During the ruling of Han' and Khunnu states Great Silk road was created and new ways appeared in the 16-19th centuries later became a Great tea road.

Tea trade

The history of tea trade is closely connected with the history of Russian - Chinese relations in the 14-19th centuries.
The first information about Russia and Russians appeared in China during governing of the Yuan Mongolian dynasty, when China was the colony of Mongolia. “A guarding Russian regiment” that was famous for its loyalty to Khan, was formed near Beijing from captured Russian soldier. In 1332 its number was several thousand people, it was headed by a famous general- Boyan. In 1368 after overthrow of the Yuan dynasty, the Russian regiment probably left for the West with Mongols. After that there was no information about the Russians in Chinese chronicles in the period of the Min dynasty, which replaced the Mongols.

Russian chronicles of the 14th century mentioned China as the state subdued by the Mongols. The relations of Russia with eastern countries became regulated only after ousting the Mongols from its territory. In 1472 Afanasy Nikitin brought the information about the “Khatai” country and about possible ways of entering there from India by land.

The 16th century became a new stage in the history of Russian-Chinese relations when Europe and Russia became interested in China. Seaway, established earlier by Marko Polo, was very long and geographic knowledge about China and neighboring countries and about land road from Europe to China was rather poor. Therefore, Europeans began to look for a shorter and less dangerous seaway or land way to China across Russia. The first people moving to the East, and further from Siberia to the Pacific ocean, were Russian soldiers, and first of all the Cossacks - pathfinders who were collecting information about this country. During the reign of Vasily Shuisky in 1608, Volynsky governor sent ambassadors from Tomsk to Altyn-Khan, the latter was the governor of the northern Mongolia and Dzungaria. However the embassy did not reach the place of destination because of a war between Altyn-Khan and Kalmyks. In 1616, the new embassy headed by ataman Vasily Tyumenets was sent again. The ataman reached nomad camp of Altyn-Khan, established friendly relations with him, found out many new things, but did not move further and returned to Moscow. In 1619, a group of Cossacks headed by Ivan Petlyn was sent to Beijing. Petlyn brought detailed information about a way to China, “The Drawing of Chinese State” and the letter from the emperor of the Min dynasty. From the middle of the 16th century, English “Moscow company” received a right from King Ivan IV for a free trade with Russia. It began to search for new land roads to the East and, simultaneously, relying on the northern Russian ports in the White sea, tried to find northeast road, across the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, that were controlled by Denmark and Spain. After Siberia joined Russia, Englishmen tried to get a sanction to find a road to India and China by Siberian rivers from Russian government, however the Russian government rejected the project of English merchants.

During the reign of Alexey Mihailovich, trips of Russian diplomats to China were welcomed by Chinese authorities of the Min dynasty, but after its overthrow this attitude changed. The young aggressive Qin State spread its expansion to various directions - against Mongols, Oyrats, Koreans. After a significant part of Primoriye joined Russia, it tried to supersede Russia from Amur by sending Manzhurian troops there.  Expansion of Russian borders in Zabaikalye and Priamurye alarmed Chinese politicians for two reasons. It broke their foreign doctrine which suggested the impossibility of neighbouring with a strong state –Russia. On the other hand, it prevented China from conquering Mongolian khans. The imperial courtyard of China tried to treat Russia as its vassal, Russia tried to establish a good-neighbourly relations and trade. In 1663, the government of Russia sent an embassy on behalf of the Russian Tsar headed by an experienced diplomat Nikolay Gavrilovich Spafariy to China. The mission was unsuccessful, but trip of Spafariy became of great importance. It enriched science and knowledge about the Qin empire, enabled further development of methods and directions of Russian foreign policy towards China.

First trade caravans

One of the goals of the mission was to develop trade relations, and Chinese authorities did not interfere with that. In 1666, the first trading caravan headed by boyar son Ivan Per`yev and Bukhara merchant Sectula Ablyn was sent from Moscow to China. Bukhara merchants frequently carried out a role of intermediaries in trade relations between Russia and countries of the East. Despite of losses and big trade costs, the result of the trade of Ablyn in China was rather favorable for Russian treasury. Trade profit in Beijng was almost 100 %. Chinese goods brought in Russia gave a profit of more than 300 %. It brought a lot of interest to trade with China in the governmental and trading circles of Russia. At the same time there were serious difficulties on its way of the development – distance of the road across Kalmyk and Mongolian lands, robberies of nomads in caravans.

Settlements in Siberia and in Zabaikalye gave protection to the caravans, and at the same time they were shopping centers. Irkutsk ostrog, Udinsky ostrog (later Verhneudinsk, nowadays Ulan-Ude- the capital of Buryatia) and Nerchensky ostrog (nowadays Nerchinsk of Chita oblast) were of great value. The first Russian trading caravans began to pass through Udinsky ostrog since 1680. After “Nerchensky treaty” about free trade between Russia and China was signed by the ambassador of Russia Fiodor Alekseevich Golovyn in 1689, Udinsky ostrog began to guard the valley of the Uda river from nomads raids where the main road to Nerchinsky region ran.At the end of the17th century and at the beginning of the18th century, this road ran along Angara, Baikal, Selenga up to Verkhneudinsk town, then – along Uda up to Eravninsky lakes, and from there - along the Chitinka river and the Shilka river to Nerchinsk town which became the main centre of trade with China.

Trading and diplomatic relations of Russia with China were based on this road for a long time. Besides this road, there was a road through Verkhneudinsk on the Selenga river to Mongolia, that ran all the way to Urga (nowadays Ulan Bator - the capital of Mongolia). On these two roads the big state caravans, military caravans and also merchants who conducted private trade moved. Trading in Nerchinsk was interrupted because of frequent contradictions with local people, moreover it was confronted by Manzhurian authorities. In regards to this in 1719, the embassy headed by the minister Capitan Lev Ismailov was sent to Beijng. His secretary was Lorence Lang, who at the end of trip got interesting information on a history of Russian–Chinese relations and Siberia and also wrote “Description of Chinese state”. New, more detailed map of the road was also made. Ismailov was warmly received in Beijng, had 12 audiences with the emperor, brought gifts, but, except for the sanction to leave Lang as a trading agent and renewal of trade, achieved nothing.The Russian government was not satisfied with this situation. In 1727, Ekaterina I sent the ambassador Savva Vladislavich-Raguzinsky to China. After long negotiations on the Bura river, he signed a new treaty with China, its ratification was accomplished in 1728 on the Kyakhta River. Kyakhta contract defined the border between the states. It also resulted in the construction of a town called Troitskosavsk. Next to it a large trading village Kyakhta and the Chinese Trade City of Maimachen were built. Since that time Kyakhta became the main centre of Russian - Chinese trade. The city of Maimachen existed till the 20th century, and then it was demolished. Nowadays there are the Russian - Mongol border and cities of Altan-Bulak (Mongolia) and Kyakhta (Russia) on this place. After the construction of Kyakhta, Verkhneudinsk remained the main trading centre. Verkhneudinsk became one of the main points of wholesale trade of Chinese goods. Trade taxes were collected there, all trade with China and Mongolia was supervised. The city became a shopping center of all the Western Zabaikalye.


The state caravans sent to China were rather complicated. The caravan was headed by the trusted merchant. He was in charge of a governmental commissioner, four tax-collectors, guard officer with military protection that consisted of 100 Cossacks. Total number of people in a state caravan was around 200 people. Caravans were organized once in three years, their trip in one direction took one year. Sale of Russian goods and purchase of Chinese goods took several months.

The state monopoly on the trade with China existed more than 60 years, but did not give a big profit. As a result, Ekaterina II in 1762, banned state caravans to China and made trade in Kyakhta free for merchants. It changed Russian - Chinese trade. At that time many Siberian merchants were well known and commended by the government.At the same time, state caravans contributed to constant contacts between the governments of Russia and China.

The basic goods transported from Russia to China were: furs, leather, textiles, jersey, hemp, groceries, the Tyumen carpets, honey, butter, frozen fish (sterlet, lake white-fish), stearine candles, soap, iron goods, hardware goods and others. Gold, silver, pearls, jewels, expensive silk fabrics and cotton fabrics, food and other goods were imported from China. China became a large world importer of tea, and Chinese merchants were interested in Russian market for this product. In Russia only Siberian and people living by the Caspian Sea drank tea. But gradually tea became the most popular drink and replaced traditional kvass in Russia, becoming the main trading subject between Russia and China. Because of tea this trading way was called “The Great Tea Road”, Kyakhta used to be called “Russian Tea Capital”. Kyakhta was the only “City of Millionaires” all over the world. In some years the trade turnover reached 30 million roubles.

The Russian government, for which tea trade was rather profitable, tried to support a high level of tea import and encouraged re-export of Chinese tea to Western Europe. In the middle of the 19th century, about 95 % of Russian import from China was tea. Chinese interest in Russian market increased after England began to develop tea plantations in India and Ceylon. The trade sea road was laid from Guangzhou to Odessa, A Petersburg contract that led to a considerable increase in trade was signed. Through Russia tea and other Chinese goods entered not only towns of Siberia and Russia, but countries of the Near East and Western Europe. Kyakhta became the centre of sale of furs coming from Siberia, Kamchatka, Alaska and from Norway, Canada, and the US.

The Russian-American company of Grigory Shelekhov influenced Russian trade very much. It joined the Irkutsk commercial company headed by merchant Yel`nikov. The company was founded in 1798 and received the lands on the northeast coast of America up to the Bering strait, and also Kuril, Aleutian and other islands of the Pacific Ocean from the Russian government. The company was granted a permission to open new lands, to found settlements there and to conduct unlimited trading. The Russian- American Company became the main supplier of furs to Kyakhta. It was a pioneer of distributing Chinese goods to the northern part of the American continent.

The geography of the Tea road is very extensive. The road had a lot of overland roads, waterways, and branched into different Russian provinces. Several trade fairs opened along the way. 20 of them with a big trade turnover, 5-with average turnover and most of the fairs were small ones, 96 in total. The most famous fairs were the ones in Kyakhta, Verkhneudinsk, Irkutsk, Yeniseisk, Nerchinsk, Mangazeisk, Tarsk, Surgut, Turukhansk, Irbitsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow. Total length of the road was 9-10 thousand kilometers.

Caravans from Russia to China and back moved through the following cities: Moscow, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Vologda, Veliky Ustyug, Nizhni Novgorod, Irbit, Solikamsk, Ekaterinburg, Verkhoturiye, Turinsk, Tyumen, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Omsk, Ishim, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Yeniseisk, Ilimsk, Nizhneudinsk, Irkutsk, Verkhneudinsk, Selenginsk, Kyakhta, Saishana, Urga, Ern-Khoto, Kalgan, Beijng and other cities and settlements. On the same route caravans moved from Beijng to Moscow. The Russian merchant trading station, which played an important role in the development of trade, worked in Beijng.

There were land roads near Baikal across the Khamar-Daban range (Uduginsky, Ivanovsky, Khamar-Dabansky, Igumnovsky pathes, Krugobaikalsky road) and also waterways across Baikal and on the Selenga. Villages Kabansk, Mysovaya (nowadays Babushkin) were built there.

During the 19th century Moscow remained the main distribution centre in European part of Russia though not the only one. Tea was delivered to the capital of the country - Saint-Petersburg from Moscow. Up to the middle of the 19th century there was one secret tea shop in St. Petersburg while in Moscow in 1647 there were more than 100 tea shops and more than 300 tea cafes.

The tea road became one of the greatest trade roads connecting different lands and civilizations. Alongside with such roads as nephrite, silk, salt, cinnamon, tin, wine, slave, it had a great value in the history of human development and establishment of trade and economic, diplomatic and cultural relations between people. This road was the second based on the amount of trade after the Great Silk Road. The Tea Road existed more than 200 years and influenced social, economic and cultural development of Russia, Mongolia and China. Significant amounts of financial resources of the state treasury and merchants were contributed to the construction of roads and towns, to education and culture, to construction of churches and to the development of the new lands. Tea trade along this road continued till the end of the 19th century. Construction of the Suez Canal reduced the price of tea delivery to Europe. The beginning of tea production in India and on Ceylon the Tea road had caused the Tea Road to gradually lose its value, but it didn’t disappear. At present, many parts of the road are transformed into railways and automobile highways and became a part of a common transport network, connecting Asia and Europe. On the Tea Road the trade exchange between Russia, Mongolia and China is still going on. The history of the Tea Road is a foundation for the development of cultural tourism and creation of transcontinental international tourist route, the largest in the world. This idea lies in the basis of “The Tea Road” project.


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