The Tea Trade Along the Silk Road

The history of growing, making, and drinking tea can be traced back to thousands of years. Based on a popular story in China, Emperor Shen Nong was the first person to drink tea. He was boiling some water one day when the wind blew some tea leaves into the pot. When he tasted the result, he was delighted with the flavor and felt invigorated, as well. These tea leaves were from the plant we know today as a tea plant or Camellia sinensis.

But did you know that many years ago, all of the teas we know today traveled along the Silk Road to various nations, people, and continents? The Silk Road was an ancient 7,000-kilometer trade route that spans from China to the Mediterranean Sea. It lasted from about 100 B.C. until the Middle Ages.

The Silk Road was originally used to transport silk, for which it was named. But aside from that, different people in Asia also used it to transport many types of commodities and goods, including jewelry, spices, rice, and ivory. One of the most vital introductions to the West, thanks to the Silk Road, was the newly steeped drink popular in China, which is called tea.

If you want to know more about this, read on because we are giving you more information about the tea trade along the Silk Road.

The Silk Road

The Silk Road, as mentioned above, is a network of important trading and caravan routes. It linked China, Central Asia, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It was first used by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German explorer in the 19th century. This route interlaces through the Taklamakan desert to Kashgar, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and on to the Mediterranean.


The tea trade journey along the Silk Road started during the Tang Dynasty. It was at the splendid capital city of Chang’an, which is now known as Xian in Northern China. From Chang’an, the great trade caravans set out with their cargos. Most of the time, the goods are carried by camels on their backs. That’s why they were referred to as “ships of the desert” during those times. These caravans traveled long distances over high mountains and passing through barren deserts.

During these times, compressed teas were made with dried and ground tea leaves that were pressed into bricks and other shapes. They were left to cure, dry, and age before being sold or traded. In the 19th century in Asia, tea bricks were preferred because they were more compact compared to loose-leaf tea, and they are less vulnerable to damage. Aside from that, these tea bricks can also be sewn into yak skins to protect them from knocks and bad weather.

The universality of tea bricks made it become a form of currency for bartering. In fact, some tea bricks were also mixed with binding agents, including yak, flour, and blood, to preserve them better, since they are being used as currency back then.

There was also a description of how to infuse pressed tea found in an extract from the Kuang Ya, which was a dictionary of c. 4th Century AD. Based on the description, the tea leaves were plucked and made into cakes in the district between the provinces of Szechwan and Hupeh. The cakes were then roasted until they become reddish, and then pounded into tiny pieces and placed in a chinaware pot. After that, boiling water was poured over them, then onion, orange, ginger, and sometimes salt was added.

During these times, tea was a bitter medicinal drink that was used to treat different ailments, such as stomachaches, exhaustion, and even eyesight problems. Later on, during the Song Dynasty, which was from 960 AD to 1279 AD, the rustic tea brick fell out of grace. Tea became more delicately flavored, and experts ground tea leaves to a fine powder, poured boiling water, and whisked it to a froth.

Tea houses started to emerge in the big cities, and drinking tea spread to the middle and working classes via the Zen Buddhists, who belonged to the lower classes. Drinking tea also played a role in Zen religious ceremonies. Many of these rituals and customs were adopted by the Japanese later on in their own tea ceremonies. After this, tea became a homely beverage that was drunk daily and served to guests.

During the Ming Dynasty, which was from 1368 AD to 1644 AD, drinking tea was revived after it declined in 1280 during the Mogul conquest of China. Fermented black tea then became popular during this time. Aside from that, tea also developed as an art form. Teapots with different shapes and sizes were made, and the round teapots that we see today are based on one of the Ming designs back then.


From Yunan in China, tea traveled along the Silk Road, going to Tibet in 641 A.D., as a result of a royal alliance. However, instead of adapting the way the Chinese drink tea, they found other ways to prepare it, which, aside from providing warmth, also gave extra nutrition. Their tea called po cha or bo-jha, which is referred to in the west as butter tea, can be prepared in different ways.

Brick tea is used in making butter tea. The chunks are broken off and toasted over a fire to remove any infestations by insects or molds. Then, it is boiled in water for five to ten minutes until it becomes dark and strong. After that, it is strained into a wooden or bamboo tea churn. It is added with yak milk, yak butter, and salt, and the mixture is churned strongly using a stick. If it will be used for ceremonial rituals, they used an elaborate and decorative teapot.


From Tibet, tea traveled along the Silk Road to Kashmir, which is now known as India. In India, there were three ways to make tea. One is Kahwa, which is often served on special occasions like weddings and festivals. This tea is prepared traditionally in a samovar, and it is made by boiling green tea in water and adding cardamom, shredded almonds, saffron, and cinnamon, and sweetened with honey or sugar to taste. This type of tea is served in small, shallow cups, which they called khos.

Another type of tea they make is the Dabal chai, which is also made using green tea. They added almonds, milk, cardamom, and sugar to it. It is also rarely called bambay chay because it used to be imported via Bombay.

The third type of tea they make in India is the Sheer chai, or also known as gulabi chai or pink tea in English. It is made of green tea or oolong tea. The tea is brewed over a fire and is added with milk, bicarbonate of soda, and salt. These make it distinctly frothy and pink. It is usually served for breakfast.


From Kashmir, tea traveled along the Silk Road to Kashgar, which was a major junction and important trading center along the Silk Road. Travelers and merchants would stop here to rest, trade, and take in fresh supplies to continue their journeys. Many would also stay at a chaykhana or tea house, which also provided accommodation and other basic needs aside from serving tea.

Kashgar is located at the heart of the Uighur world. The Uighurs were ancient Turkic people who settled along the Silk Road a long time ago, most especially in Xinjiang province. They also make tea in different ways here and is usually drunk with salt and milk with added sour cream, cream, or butter. The black tea here is often flavored with cinnamon and served with sweets after a meal. Some Uighurs, on the other hand, prefer green tea over black tea.


The next place that the Silk Road leads to after Kashgar is Afghanistan, where the Kirghiz nomads live. For these people, tea is a luxury. It was worth so much that each camel-driver carries the tea in a beautifully embroidered little bag, which is produced cautiously to put the tea in the kettle. Also, during these times, sugar is so precious that tea is drunk with salt, and salt is very scarce and was only used in tea.

The road leads to the grasslands and to the ancient city of Balkh, which was a very significant trading city of the Silk Road. A comparable tea to the sheer chai of Kashmir is made in Afghanistan, but instead of salt, sugar is added.

During special occasions, such as engagements and weddings, a more elaborate tea is made, which is called qymaq chai. It is made with green tea, but added with bicarbonate soda, making it appear red. It is also served via the process of aeration, which is pouring the tea from a height from a pot to another pot for quite a few times. It is also added with milk, making it become pinkish. It is flavored with cardamom and sweetened with sugar. This tea has a strong, rich taste, which is similar to the kaymak in the Middle East.

In Afghanistan, both green tea and black tea are popular for everyday drinking. Tea is drunk from small porcelain cups or bowls called istekhan. The custom here is to drink the first cup or glass of tea with sugar, then top it up with more tea until the last cup is no longer sweet. But for guests, a lot of sugar is usually added. It’s because for them, the more sugar, the more honor.


In the 1920s, the father of the former Shah of Iran became suspicious that coffee houses were nurturing political dissent. With this, he decided to persuade people to drink tea instead. He traded in new kinds of tea from China and recruited Chinese families to supervise and upgrade the production of tea in Iran. The efforts he made were successful, and tea became the most popular drink in Iran.

Tea is grown and produced around the Caspian Sea area. However, it is expensive, and not enough tea is produced to satisfy the demand. That’s why some of the tea are also imported. In the present time, tea in Iran is usually drunk out of glasses called istekhan. During formal gatherings, Iranians add cinnamon or use crushed rose petals for garnishing to flavor their tea.


Turkey is where the last stage of the Silk Road leads to. The northern route leads to Tabriz going to Trabzon, and on to Istanbul. The earliest reference of tea in Turkish literature is from Evliya Celebi, who was a famous traveler. In 1631, he described servants offering tea, together with coffee from Yemen, to officials of the Ottoman Empire at the Istanbul Custom Offices.

The daily life of the Ottoman Turks was greatly affected by tea, as it was served in private homes and in public spaces. With this, tea houses and tea rooms blossomed. In fact, even Sultan Abdulhamid II, who’s a coffee addict, showed a strong interest in tea.

Experiments in planting saplings and seeds were done in different parts of the Ottoman Empire. In the end, the eastern Black Sea coastal area proved to be ideal for growing tea as it has high rainfall, fertile soil, and a mild climate.

The founder of the Turkish Republic, named Ataturk, encouraged homegrown tea as an alternative to imported coffee. It’s because, during these times, coffee had become expensive and sometimes unavailable after World War I.

In Turkey, tea is usually brewed in a samovar, or a tea-kettle called a caydanlik. Boiling water is poured over tea leaves in a teapot called demlik and then left to brew. The tea can be served either light or strong. To drink tea, they use tulip-shaped glasses called ince belli. A little tea is poured in it, then diluted depending on the strength they want using boiling water from the tea kettle. They usually use sugar to sweeten the tea, and it is also sometimes served with a thin slice of lemon. However, they never put milk in it.

The Silk Road indeed had a very important role in introducing tea in different parts of Asia. It is amazing to know that tea came from one plant, but its preparation and way of drinking differs from places to places. We hope the information we shared here helped you in further understanding the tea trade along the Silk Road.