As the medicinal qualities of the tea leaf became more widely known, the demand for it increased and spread to all the corners of the Chinese empire. Far from its birthplace in China’s southwest, the nomadic tribes in Mongolia began depending on tea, not just for its healing properties but for basic nutrition. With a diet consisting largely of meat and dairy, the vitamins and minerals in tea were essential and so tea drinking became a necessary part of daily life. There is a Mongolian saying that echoes their dependence on tea. “A Mongol would rather go without food for three days than tea for even one.” As well as raising sheep, the nomads were master horsemen and breeders. Around 476 A.D. a commission was set up in the imperial government called the Tea/Horse Trade Bureau. The imperial government would barter Chinese tea for the swift Mongolian horses. As its northern “barbarian” neighbors also tended to be a bit aggressive the Chinese government would on occasion, withhold shipments of tea in order to exert some measure of control. Eventually and for nearly 300 years, Mongolia came under Chinese rule, but in the early 1900s the area was divided with Outer Mongolia becoming a sovereign nation.

The tea culture remains today much as it was in ancient times. The tea of choice is still compressed black tea, usually from central Hubei province. I had heard that they drank a unique milk tea and wanted to see for myself. After taking the overnight train from Beijing, our cadre boarded our coach and headed out into the grasslands. It was April, still chilly and the vegetation had not yet recovered from the relentless winter. The stark, barren plains and rolling hills gave me the impression of how arduous the life must be for those living here. Driving for hours we saw an occasional flock of sheep grazing on what newly sprouting blades of grass they could find. Amongst the sheep I could make out a few “scoops” of white, dotting the countryside. These were the yurt tent dwellings of the nomadic sheep herders. Although spartan in appearance from a distance, I would soon find out that they were quite comfortable, some even equipped with conveniences such as televisions and microwave ovens. We passed herdsmen on horseback, an occasional cow and to my surprise a few camels. Not as common now as in the past, camels were used as burden animals in the northern trade caravans and certainly carried tea to this remote place as well as transporting wool to the western and southern borders.

Finally we arrived at our destination, a resort by local standards. By custom, guests are welcomed with song and wine and as the leader of the group I was the first off the coach. Before I had stepped to the rock-hard ground, two black-haired young ladies clad in traditional dress, greeted our arrival singing folk songs “welcoming us home.” One of the girls, with outstretched hands, offered me a small silver bowl of rice wine which was nestled in an azure-blue silken scarf. On the long train ride the night before I had learned a few things from my cabin mate that came in handy at this moment. First, the rice wine in the bowl would be refilled until the serenade was over. The advice was “sip don’t gulp.” Second, that before drinking up, the guest is supposed to dip the tip of the left ring finger in the wine three times. The first drop is flicked in the air as an offering to heaven, then another to the ground for the mother land, and then a third drop is wiped across the forehead in remembrance of one’s ancestors. As a tea drinker, sipping was natural. Still, in the end I had consumed three bowlfuls before I was considered properly greeted. Strangely, whether it was the melodic chanting, the sincere look on my hosts’ innocent faces or the three bowls of wine, I did have the deep feeling of “coming home.”

After our long journey we were escorted to a tent to relax and take some refreshment. The short door was opened; I bend low and entered the world of the nomad. The yurt was surprisingly roomy with countless soft quilts and pillows to sit or lay on. A coal stove with a flue that rose up and out the top of the tent was the sole source of heat. A small, square table sat in the middle of the room. In a moment, our hosts entered carrying trays of small dishes and some shallow bowls. Into the bowls was poured a beige colored, milky liquid from an aluminum kettle. The small dishes contained several interesting condiments including millet, puffed rice and several kinds of dried butters and cheese. “Nai cha” (milk tea) our host said with an inviting hand gesture.

At last, what I had been so eager to see was sitting before me. I stirred in a spoonful of some millet and added a piece of yellow, dried butter. With two hands I raised the bowl and took a deep breath (like every good tea taster should do). Interesting! A unique aroma, no … a smell, something like a mix of week-old cream and hay, strained through an unwashed cheese cloth. I gathered my courage and took a big sip, and then another. Not so bad really. The oily concoction coated my mouth and throat, soothing the burn from the earlier three bowls of wine. I could feel the warmth wash downward, filling my stomach. On the third sip I relaxed my apprehension and let the warming glow flow all the way down to my toes. I eased back onto a pile of pillows and wondered if this is what it was like in the days of Genghis Khan. I think it is safe to say that most of the group quickly became accustomed to the thin “soup”. By dinner time we were refreshed and up for a banquet of “finger mutton.” As we dined we were serenaded with Mongolian songs and by a young gentleman playing the ma tou qin – a small, square, cello-like instrument, and at the top, a carved horse’s head for the scroll. The haunting tones emulated the whinnies and braes of the wild-eyed Mongolian horses. It is said that a Mongol is born and lives his whole life on horseback. I was starting to understand how deeply the creature had influenced the culture.

The singing was accompanied by more bowls of wine and bowls of milk tea, … I think. Our revelry went late into the night and when everyone had eaten their fill and sung at least one song (as a group we could only collectively remember the words to Auld Lang Syne) we retired to our yurts under a sky full of the brightest stars I had ever seen. The coal stove demanded feeding a few times during the night but by the morning I was ready for the next sip of Mongolian culture. After a simple breakfast we strolled out into the compound where some men were waiting with a group of horses. After some negotiation, we all chose our mounts, climbed on and headed out across the barren plain. As we meandered along, under the watchful gaze of the horsemen, we stopped for a rest at the crest of a hill. A pile of stones has been erected there and we were informed that this was a sacred place were people went to bring offerings, make requests of and generally commune with the ancestors. Wind blew through tattered, colorful scarves that were tied to standards which protruded from the pile. I made a request for the smooth remainder of our journey and placed a small stone in the crevasse of two larger ones.

We mounted up and continued our trek. After about thirty minutes we could make out the shape of a small building in the distance. Hungry for lunch, we made our way to the structure. We dismounted and said goodbye to our escorts and steeds. Our meal was ready and waiting for us when we arrived but before the food, we were offered (and gratefully accepted) more of the milk tea. Our host soon realized our interest in tea. He motioned for me to follow him and led me to the kitchen. With a smile he produced a book-sized object, wrapped in brown paper. He removed the wrapper, revealing a well used brick of tea. He picked up a cleaver and flaked off some pieces. As I scrambled for my cam
era he wrapped the pieces in a piece of cloth and set it into a large wok. There was still some milk tea in the bottom of the pan. By this time the others had come looking for me and joined me in seeing how the tea was made. The compressed leaves were boiled with water, milk, salt, grains and butter. After several minutes, the sachet was removed and the “soup” ladled into the big kettle. We expressed our appreciation for sharing his recipe and our host seemed quite pleased by our interest. After the filling lunch and many bowls of milk tea we said our thankful farewells and boarded our waiting coach back to our base. Though not the most luxurious of places I have been, it was one of the most enjoyable. Back in the big, modern city, awaiting the flight to our next stop, I felt a deep craving for just one more bowl. All in all, a simple cup of tea but it meant so much more having also tasted the culture from which it comes.

Next… The Dragon’s Well