Though probably not on the top of every tea drinker’s list of must-visit places, Inner Mongolia boasts a very interesting culture with ties to tea that have been around for more than a millennium. Colorful traditions, firmly held beliefs, and a strong sense of cultural pride distinguish the historically nomadic peoples of the expansive steppes. On the World Tea Tours: China Tea Tour 2009, an international group of tea lovers did indeed venture into Inner Mongolia and experience a taste of the ancient ways.
When we first arrived in Inner Mongolia and dismounted from our horses (or motorized steed), we were each offered a bracing welcome of song and equally warming grain wine. Before accepting the small silver dish nestled in a silk ha da, or scarf, we each dipped our right ring finger into the wine three times. After each dip, a drop of the wine was flicked first to the sky to honor heaven, then to the ground to remember the homeland, and finally across the forehead in remembrance of our ancestors. The bowl was then taken in both hands and sipped until empty, or until the greeters finish their songs of welcome. Those brave enough to try out their Mongolian squeaked “Bayarlaa,” or thank you.
Customarily, when entering the nomadic tent called a yurt or ger, one enters into the space in a clockwise direction. A stove and table are in the center. The Mongolians have a tea culture all their own and the hostess offers freshly made milk tea, consisting of grains, butters, milk, tea, salt, and perhaps other ingredients. Accept the bowl with the right hand. There may be other condiments on the table to add to your drink, including dried sweet and salty butters, puffed or roasted grain, and even small “bread” sticks.
A Mongolian saying goes: “Rather no food for three days than no tea for one.” And, after our horse ride across the grasslands, the group began to understand the feeling, most coming to crave the nourishing, rich tea.