The Great Siberian Tea Road, a historic and legendary route that once connected China and Siberia with European Russia, was one of the world’s longest trade arteries. It began at the northernmost gate of the Great Wall of China and stretched nearly 4,000 miles north to Lake Baikal and west across Siberia before continuing on to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Tea has not always been a central feature of Russian culture. In fact, it wasn’t until the reign of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov (1613-1645) that Russia’s eastward expansion eventually led to the introduction of chai (the Russian word for tea that stems from the Chinese chá). But Russia’s first encounter with tea was not auspicious.
When the tsar’s ambassador, Vasily Starkov, was sent on a mission from Moscow to meet with the Altyn Khan of Khalkha – who ruled what is now northwestern Mongolia – he described a mysterious drink that was served, “consisting of leaves. I know not whether from tree or herb.”
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