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 sterns from the Chinese cha). 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."
Upon departing, Starkov was given 150 pounds of the leaves, intended for the tsar. But having no desire to haul heavy trunks filled with dried vegetation thousands of versts back to Moscow, the ambassador graciously declined. He requested instead that the khan offer the equivalent in sables. This was refused, so Starkov had no choice but to return, in 1638, with the tea. The account claims that when the bitter herb was presented to the tsar--who had never before laid eyes on the substance--he tried to chew it.
Thereafter, Chinese tea remained scarce and was mainly used for medicinal purposes; it was prescribed several decades later for Tsar Alexei's* stomach ailments. It would be another hundred years before tea became plentiful enough and prices low enough so that middle and lower class Russians would embrace it.
In the meantime, northeastern tribes in Asia had expanded their control south into Chinese lands. By 1683, the Manchu, today known as the Qing Empire, presided over the largest realm that China had ever known, including all of present-day China and parts of Central Asia and Mongolia.
On the Russian side of the border, well-armed Cossacks, having conquered local Buryat tribes in the Baikal region, ventured south across the Amur River and into Chinese territory. In response, the Kangxi Emperor sent a letter (in Latin) to the Moscow Court, demanding that Russian traders leave the Amur basin. The Russian government--knowing that it was impossible to defend an area so far east--decided it was in their best interest to establish peaceful trade opportunities. In January 1686, Count Fyodor Golovin, along with 500 streltsy guardsmen, set out from Moscow on the 2600-mile journey across Siberia. The trip was long and arduous, and the group did not reach Lake Baikal until nearly two years later.
After multiple negotiations, Golovin agreed to meet with Chinese emissaries in the small settlement of Nerchinsk, located another 400 miles east of Baikal. It was here that Russia signed its first trade agreement with China--the Treaty of Nerchinsk--in August, 1689. Golovin accepted the loss of the entire Amur valley in exchange for access to Chinese trade markets. Within a year, construction began on the Great Siberian Trakt.*
It cannot be imagined how difficult and dangerous it was to slowly carve out this monumental route. To lay a road across thousands of miles of inhospitable and desolate taiga forest--filled with swamps, peat bogs, permafrost ice fields, and mighty rivers--took nearly a century of toil by serfs and convict laborers. In the warmer months, there was so much mud and dust, along with swarms of mosquitoes, that any explorer or itinerant trader preferred to journey in the extreme cold and dark days of winter, when the ground was covered in ice and snow. In the early years of the/raki, it could take up to 18 months to complete the transcontinental crossing. As one Russian proverb expressed it, in Siberia, "God is high above and the tsar far away" ([??]). A traveler along the trakt could not have felt more remote and cut off from the rest of the world.
Over the next two centuries, merchants from all across China descended with their wares upon Kalgan (today's Zhangjiakou, 100 miles northwest of Beijing in Hebei Province). …