The Northern Tea Road

A camel train in Mongolia, from Roy Chapman Andrews' book  Across Mongolian Plains , New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1921

A camel train in Mongolia, from Roy Chapman Andrews' book Across Mongolian Plains, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1921

After two days of fierce winds, the road across the plains beneath my home were astonishingly clear. It reminded me yet again of the northern tea route, which is often forgotten. For in Qing times mule-trains carried tea across the plain towards Mongolia. Packed into bricks which were also used as currency, it had travelled by sea from Fujian and Central China to Tianjin, then onwards to Beijing – where a Russian merchant quarter stood on the land which today houses the Russian embassy. From northern Beijing it was carried by mule to the gate through the Great Wall at Kalgan, now the grim steel-making city of Zhangjiakou - which literally means “the Zhang family pass”, presumably from a family which once controlled it. As late as 1918, the american zoologist and collector Roy Chapman Andrews refers to lines of ‘lines of laden camels plodding silently along the paved road beside the train’ which took him from Beijing to Kalgan, and hundreds arriving in nose to tail lines in Kalgan from Mongolia. From there, it was ‘straight out into Mongolia’. There it was transferred to vast camel trains which took the tea northwards through Mongolia to Kiakhta on the Mongol-Russia frontier and on to St Petersburg and Europe. It was known as the Siberian Route or the Tea Road.

By then it was an old route, for the Jesuit linguist Jean-François Gerbillon set off from Kalgan to negotiate the first ever Chinese trade treaty with Russia in 1689, after which the exchange of tea for furs and other items developed to such an extent that tea accounted for 20 per cent of Russian customs duties before the route became obsolete with the Suez Canal. 

Surprisingly, in 1908, according to the Statesman’s Year Book for that year, tea was still China’s second largest export after silk (“raw and material”), around £4.4 million against £11 million. Despite claims for southern tea routes, from Yunnan southwards for example, of a total export volume of 210,151,406 pounds in weight in the same year, 128 million pounds went to Russia.