I’ve spent most of the recent eight years in China, paying occasional and rather brief visits to Russia. Sometime around last Christmas I felt an urgent need to go home soon and live there properly, so I can meet up with my friends and family, rekindle old relationships, do some BJJ, and drink loads of good tea with as many people as possible.
Photo: My current tea setup in Saint Petersburg
So here I am in Saint Petersburg – the city where I went to college and spent the most formative years of my conscious life. SPb has gone through a lot of positive changes: the infrastructure has received a substantial boost, ethnic diversity has hit a new level, and tea shops have started to slowly carve their own niche in the city’s vast catering milieu.
NB: Don’t worry about our teaspotting.com‘s tea supply though. While I’m away, our online tea shop is fully functional. Chenxi, a Chinese friend of mine, lives in Kunming and visits tea markets on a weekly basis in order to fulfill your orders.
A bit of history
Long story short, Russians have been drinking tea for centuries: ever since Russia and China established proper trade and diplomatic ties in the mid-17th century. In the late 1950-s, after the relationships deteriorated for stupid political reasons, Sino-Soviet trade died out and Russians switched entirely to staple black tea from India and Sri Lanka. That tea was not as great, but it came in wholesome leaves and was often fresh and non-blended.
The post-perestroika Russia was swarmed with bagged teas that promised convenience and vast flavor variety. People quickly got used to steeping pulverized crap in large mugs and cared little, if at all, that cheaper and much better Indian tea was still for sale. In recent years, thanks to the zeal and grateful creativity of several Russian rappers as well as a growing interest in all things Oriental, high quality Chinese tea has started to gain a solid foothold in cafes and households throughout the country.
Drink tea to get high – what?!
Sounds weird, right? Tea and getting high – what do those two have in common? The correct answer is nothing! Yet, in the minds of numerous Russian youths resides the myth that certain types of Chinese tea, especially puer (both sheng and shu) can induce curious mental effects and even hallucinogenic experiences.
The roots of this disconnect can be traced to the content of a growing number of rap songs (e.g. by Basta & Guf) that mention tea and narcotics within the same context. In reality, what happened was that several rappers addicted to drugs were able to quit their vicious habits thanks to tea. They did not use tea as a substitute but rather were able discover the multiple planes of aesthetic, cultural, aromatic, invigorating, and other kinds of healthy enjoyment that the rich world of Chinese tea culture can provide to any open-minded tea drinker.
Naturally, these rappers wanted to share their experience with the rest of the world in hope to help others get off drugs. For some reason, they thought a good way to promote tea culture among the troubled youth would be to compare different teas to certain drugs and present those as worthy yet healthy alternatives.
Curiously enough, the trend did not go unnoticed by the police, and, at a certain point, a lot of officers developed a suspicion toward all teas that looked weird, i.e. didn’t come in bags. After a series of lab tests, though, it became quite clear that tea doesn’t actually present any danger, and that all that nonsense about getting high from a cuppa is nothing but a fad caused by the massive brewing of overly imaginative young minds. Alas, many initiates and even some experienced tea drinkers still play up to the unfounded hype.
The other big aspect of drinking Chinese tea in Russia is the search for so-called ‘tea states’, i.e. a special state of mind induced by drinking high-quality tea.
Russians are stereotypically portrayed as a thoughtful, introverted, soul-searching people. A lot of classical Russian literature is just about that – digging deep into the roots of one’s soul, contemplating on the purpose of life, and brooding on questions of outright cosmic proportions. Needless to say, a lot of this mindful contemplating is often accompanied by consumption of large quantities of tea. While one is pondering a serious question and drinking tea at the same time, it is natural to take a break from the former by channeling attention to the latter. As a result, people start to notice the different effects that different kinds of tea have on their mental activity, mood, energy levels, etc. Soon enough, people start sharing their experiences, and others join in the “state hunt”.
The problem is that such states are highly individual experiences that vary greatly in scale and nature from person to person. Nonetheless, one often comes across tea drinkers who ask specifically for a puer that can ‘blow their mind’ or a wulong that can send them ‘tripping high and far’. Needless to say, many tea merchants play along and promise rather attractive effects and experiences to potential customers.
As a result, people who buy tea for such reasons are likely to completely miss the point and often go back to tea bags… for good.
What I think about tea states
Of course good tea is not just about taste and flavor. I’m pretty sure that on several occasions I have experienced clear changes in my state of mind, but these experiences have always been so fleeting, subtle, and unobtrusive that I would never tell anybody that they will have even a remotely comparable experience.
Instead, I just tell people to focus on flavor and enjoy whatever else happens as an added bonus. Most people I deal with are reasonable, so they just smile and follow my advice. Some, however, are persistent in their inquiry, and I have to tell them about the roots of their expectations and the pitfalls they might come across. Such talks take time, but they’re worth it. People listen and approach the subject with an open mind.
In all my years of buying tea from Chinese merchants, I haven’t come across a single teashop where somebody would try to sell me a tea that induces a sense of peace, opens a third eye, or even helps look at things from a different angle (these are some of the typical tea properties that Russian tea drinkers look for). When I go to a typical Chinese teashop, the conversation usually revolves around origin, age, grade, fragrance, flavor, durability, and sometimes ‘warm vs cold’ (in Traditional Chinese Medicine terms) – that’s it!
In my experience, in China only TCM doctors, martial artists, and qigong practitioners regularly rely on tea for some sort of metaphysical sustenance, but they just say that good tea helps with practice. If I ask them to elaborate they just to just sniff on the bottom of an empty teacup and give me ambiguous smiles.
Photo: While in Saint Petersburg, I spend quite a lot of time in the woods, drinking tea with my friends
The Russian spin
In Russia, contrastingly, people get quite verbal and descriptive. The terms I’ve heard during tea drinking sessions range from ‘corporal plasticity’ to ‘heightened awareness’ to ‘falling out’ (from a conversation, for instance). Some people claim to have developed an ability to ‘resonate’ with fellow tea drinkers and either share their own states with others or ‘plug in’ to whatever their neighbor is feeling and later ask if they felt the tea in the same way.
None of this is bad or good. It’s just a curious trend that I’d heard about while I lived in China and that I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand in the several weeks I’ve been in Saint Petersburg. It’s not that pervasive either, just sizable enough to write and inform about. So if you travel in Russia and share a cup of tea with someone, don’t be surprised if you get into a conversation about which type of puer is the trippiest. Just enjoy your cuppa in good company and see where it gets you.