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Party like a Russian. Drink tea like a Siberian

a cup of coffee on a table

Tea is always a good idea. How much tea do you drink a day? What’s your favorite kind of tea?

After reading this article, you will know

  • why you need a towel while drinking tea;
  • how many times you must reject a tea-drinking invitation;
  • what Kyakhta language is and
  • how to become a millionaire living on the border with Mongolia.

Settlement of millionaires 

Tea appeared in Siberia much earlier than in Europe. It came to Siberia from China through Mongolia and soon spread over Russia. Tea was delivered by camels on The Great Tea Way. Kyakhta a small settlement on the border with Mongolia was the main transit point for tea traffic. It was founded in order to develop trade relationships with China.  Trade with China was an archaic barter. At that time, we needed a lot of different things made in China, but what could we offer our eastern neighbor? Siberian natural resources – furs, especially sable fur, the most expensive one.

China at that time was an extremely closed country, where only official caravans that traveled every three years from Russia were allowed to enter the country. The only place where it was possible to carry out private commercial contacts with China bypassing the state caravan was Kyakhta.

In the 18th-19th centuries Kyakhta used to be known far beyond the Russian Empire as being the only settlement of millionaires in the world.

Especially for the needs of trade in the 1830s, a Chinese language school was opened in Kyakhta. For several years, father Iakinf Bichurin taught Chinese there. He was the first Russian sinologist, who wrote the first Russian textbook of Chinese grammar for his Kyakhta students. The school was actively supported by local merchants. Interaction with China developed a special Kyakhta language in Kyakhta. It was a kind of mixture of Russian and Chinese.

Play by tea-drinking rules

a banana sitting on top of a wooden table

In the 18th century when tea trade just started, that drink was a symbol of well-being because it cost a fortune. In the second half of the 19th century cheap teas appeared in Siberia, and tea-drinking spread all over Siberia. People used to drink tea up to 4 times a day. It usually came along with milk, jam, gingerbread and pastry. All guests used to be treated with tea. By the end of the 19th century tea-drinking in Siberia played a very important role in everyday life. People could spend long hours drinking tea. It was a kind of etiquette as well. When guests arrived, they were invited to drink tea. According to the etiquette you had to invite your guests to drink tea 3 times. Guests had to reject your invitation 2 times and your third invitation was accepted. While rejecting a guest used to cover a cup with a saucer and put a piece of sugar on it. Up to 8 cups of tea used to be drunk that is why samovars could contain 3 buckets of water. Samovars at that time were made manually from copper or brass, sometimes from silver or cupronickel. Pine cones and birch coals were used to boil water in samovars. Birch coals were considered to be the best fuel because they didn’t give any smell.

When guests were done with drinking tea, they used to turn cups upside down. Tea lovers used to drink tea with a towel around their necks to wipe sweat.

What kind of tea are you into?

There were many varieties of tea: flower tea, black and green tea, long leaf, tiled and brick tea. All of these kinds are from leaves of the same tea bush. The difference is in leaf age and preparation methods. Sometimes tea was flavored with jasmine flowers. Some people preferred herbal tea.

The ways of making tea were different. For example, in Eastern Siberia people made “zaturan” adding salt, milk and flour fried in butter. In the North of Siberia “perezhar”- tea with flour fried in fish oil – was famous.

All these ways of tea drinking reflected the influence of local peoples of Siberia.

The beginning of the end

a group of people riding on the back of a horse

In 1869 the Suez Canal was built. Delivering tea to Europe and the European part of Russia became more convenient. Turnover started to decrease. In the late 1890s, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed, and the main cargo flow went along it. Tea started to be delivered not through Mongolia but Vladivostok. After the revolution of 1917 wealthy people had to escape from Kyakhta to other countries. Kyakhta lost its former greatness and prosperity.

Although tea drinking traditions have changed and electric kettles replaced samovars, we still enjoy drinking tea in Siberia. And we always have “something for tea” in our shopping lists.

By the way, there is a very nice  Museum of Tea in Irkutsk. If you are interested in tea history of Siberia, our guides will take you there.


Written by Marina, local guide