Aliona Velichko (Minsk, Belarus) has been studying tea culture for 14 years. Tea ceremonies, tea education and also tea travel. She calls herself a tea pilgrim — a person who travels across tea countries to study tea culture there. And she doesn’t do this alone — always taking a company with her. Five years of travelling with groups to different tea countries. What wind of inspiration is she driven with and what ground is she standing on? Let’s investigate together.
Aliona, what tea countries have you visited in a recent couple of years?
Starting with 2012 when I had my first tea trip, I have been to many tea countries, but I guess embracing only a little part of the whole tea world that exists. Let me count: China, India, Turkey, Korea, Georgia, Sri-Lanka. Seems like 6, but some of them I have visited several times, so it seems like a long never-ending journey.
Tell us more about how you got to the countries and were you alone or with the groups? Have you been a guide or a participant?
My very first trip started for me as a co-organiser of a trip with a woman who wanted to make a tea trip and had a contact person in China but she knew nothing about tea and didn’t know how to find the right people for the trip. So we organised it together, and this very step gave me confidence that such things are possible. Then I organised myself small tea groups to China to different provinces 4 times, once a year, every autumn.
Every spring, for 4 years already, I have also organised tea trips to tea regions of India. It all started with my studying tea tasting in Bangalore, where I made friends and wanted to see them again when my studies were over. So that gave me an impulse to start making trips to India, arranging the programme and learning more about Indian tea. We covered Assam and Darjeeling areas as well as very historical places and cities. And this year, I made the first trial of Georgia and Turkey tea trip which was amazing.
Being in a team of international tea masters, I take part in annual Tea Masters Cup International events which happen in different tea producing countries. Local organisers make terrific cultural tea programmes. This is how I discovered Turkey tea world and Korean one.
What were the most impressing things you saw there?
There are so many of them — big and small butterflies of memories. First of all the tea plantations you drink tea at and all the tea people you meet. Waking up in a small hut of tea workers at a Darjeeling plantation and when you go out you see beautiful a sunrise over tea fields which are more than hundred years old and you sit, brew tea that was just made and try to absorb, as clear as possible, this precious moment — the sounds of awakening village, the beauty of sky and mountains, the taste of tea… Or sitting with a cup of tea somewhere in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and talking about life philosophy with a local sage who used to be a criminal but then changed his way of life completely. And he says: “Aliona-ma, you travellers are like water — you go to every single little place because water can reach anywhere and you collect stories and then should bring them somewhere further”. Once we arrived to a wild, wild mountain place of Darjeeling where I had never been before but my friend booked this place for us and I trusted her a lot. When we landed at a small camp with three houses with not a single soul around at a long distance, only mountains, the owner of the place shakes my hand, looks in my eyes and says that he has just been released from jail, so we were lucky to find him there. You can imagine the situation — our small group, mountains and the owner who has just come from prison. But then he explained that it was due to political reasons and he turned to be an extraordinary big soul and heart who told us many stories of his region that he passionately loved and walked with us in the mountains even though he had a fever. And then wrote us a beautiful poem in the end in the style of Robert Burns… People, people I can talk about them endlessly).
I remember we were in Guangdong province making tea, going through the whole process of making Dan Cong tea with a very famous master of that place. The process took us all evening, half night and then first half of the day and at each single step the master took sample of the leaves and brew it to check how the process goes and we had to try it with him and then go and shuffle leaves every 1,5 hours — oh, we understood how much efforts are put into making good tea! And then they gave us as present the tea we made and this was the most precious tea I have ever drunk. These are the most valuable moments when on a tea journey you are allowed and honoured to join the process and go through it with tea people and they explain you every single step.
Memorable moments can be different. Once we were driving in the mountains a bit off the schedule and were late for the scheduled place so decided to make a turn and find a hotel somewhere on the way. It was raining heavily in the mountains and it was very late but we had a very good driver so I was very confident about him but one lady wasn’t — she had panic attack and asked to stop the car and leave her in the mountains. Of course we couldn’t stop and leave her so we had to manage the situation, tried to calm her down and be firm in decision for the sake of the group to continue moving otherwise we all would not find place to sleep. It turned out she had the phobia — height phobia and we didn’t know about it. These are the things people should tell before. But everything ended up well — we reached the city, found a hotel after some time and she was fine.
Or, in Batumi, I remember we tried to find a good local Russian speaking guide the whole day and we found Turkish speaking and Georgian speaking guides, but none could speak good Russian. One girl began her guiding tour with a piece of paper from which she started reading: “Batumi has Black sea…” We turned her down, but finally we found the best guide of the city in the street by chance and fell in love with her and spent 3 hours following her like puppies. Travelling is always a bit about hunting for your experience, making choices.
Tea journeys are always meeting with the culture of the country and so many beautiful stories about meeting monks in buddhist monasteries or celebrating new year in Assam or wedding in Kerala… Sometimes, when I look back, I am surprised at how it was possible to embrace all this and I am grateful to my heart and hearts of my groups to join me in these journeys.
How much time is required to prepare your tea journey?
It depends. Usually we start preparing 2-3 months before, making small steps from both sides — I give an announcement and start collecting the group, think over the frames, make the plan and then negotiate with my partner — the person on the other side who guides us and is a local expert, my connection to the place. I always have the partner — the local person I trust who accompanies us all the way or half of the way and this is very important to have a local guide friend. This gives more reliability for the journey. We negotiate many things — the detailed programme, the price, how to make it most effective and interesting. It is not that I hire the person but we make a common project. And I am very grateful to all people who guided us on trips. And what makes us special — we are very flexible both in planning and also during the trip if something doesn’t work and we have no time we adapt, we listen, we improvise.
What is an optimal number of people participating in such a journey?
I find it most comfortable to travel in a group of 4 people — good to share the car and rooms). Usually the number of people in my groups is 4-7 people. Maximum was in India — around 14. Most of these people are the people I know beforehand, half of them was after my tea classes. I realise, it is much better to travel with those people who you know, as personal contact is important and trust also. Once, one tea company whose owner I know asked me what if I can take some of their best employees with me on a trip — it was like a bonus trip for them and it was an unforgettable experience with many interesting stories and I liked this experience. Of course, it is about trust from both sides and sometimes I wonder how people can be so risky) But am I not like this myself? All trips are always adventures and leaving safe places in search for something more important.
Could you describe “post-productiveness” of tea trips, their practical benefits, like new tea events you can organise afterwards, new tea assortment of tea shops, etc.
Actually I didn’t analyse it much. As people go on such trips for pleasure and they are not aimed at buying a lot of tea and developing tea business so people just enjoy, learn about country and tea, and themselves, spread the story of tea leaves, stop drinking tea bags and get rid of many stereotypes connected with tea and countries they travel.
What do tea travels give you?
They give me joy, inspiration and the main thing — stories about people, tea, and country. Afterwards, I can spread them, share more tea and knowledge about tea. I also can bring tea that people have never tried before. For example, the very rare Syngpho Phalap tea that is made by a small village in Assam — smoked pressed Indian tea, the most ancient one ever made in India, even before the British — you can find it only when you go there. After being there, we made several workshops about this tea in different tea events to spread the knowledge and the story of Indian tea. I also write articles about some trips and places in such way sharing the experience. These trips fill me with inspiration, widens my horizons about the world, tea, people, this is the experience I find the most precious.
Could you share with us your tea traveling plans?
I have just come from China, Hubei province and now getting ready for TMC International in Vietnam and what will new year bring we will see — I always observe how the circumstances are shaped. So far, I have some plans for April, but don’t know whether it will be China or India.