From camels to SUVs, the travelers on tea road then and today

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A replica of Da Sheng Kui, the business shop started by tea merchants from Shanxi province, is being constructed to tell the story of the once prosperous tea trade. [Photo:]

A replica of Da Sheng Kui, the business shop started by tea merchants from Shanxi province, is being constructed to tell the story of the once prosperous tea trade. [Photo:]

Camels used to be the major means of transportation along the Tea Road which spans China's Shanxi province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and further into Mongolia and Russia. But soon sport utility vehicles (SUVs) may take the place of animals and revive this once prosperous trade route.

A group of historical experts and avid travelers, supported by local governments in cities along the Tea Road, have been exploring the route once again in order to open up an international travel route for tourists with their own means of transportation.

Private travel by tourists using their own cars is an emerging trend with great market potential and the Tea Road appears to be an ideal route for these forms of travel, explains Wang Jun, the director of the Tourism Bureau of Yuquan District in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia.

As the initiator of the project, Wang has a great interest in the history of the Tea Road and has made many investigative trips along the route. Speaking from personal experiences, Wang said the charm of the travel route lies in the experience of being part of the majestic and varied natural world and following the footsteps of the tea merchants.

In the mid and late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), merchants from Shanxi province came to Hohhot and developed a booming tea business. They set up stores and shops and used camels to transport tea to border cities in Mongolia and Russia. Thus, their heroic journeys were crucial in establishing what has come to be called the Tea Road.

The proposal to turn the trail into a route for tourists who have their own vehicles has been under research since 2007 and it will be introduced as a travel product next year. The target customers are those who prefer independent travelling over packaged tours.

"I think the travel route based on Tea Road holds great appeal to foreign tourists," Wang said, "they like self-designed travel and they are also interested in Chinese culture."

Preparation for the launch of the route is in full swing. The project has received support from Mongolia and Russia on their governments' part. Stopover camps have been set up along the way and even a special form of automobile has been designed to cater for the rough road conditions. A magazine telling stories of the trips along the Tea Road is set to be published regularly.

But the Tea Road travel route is only a small part of a larger scheme. "The Tea Road has such a rich history that a lot remains to be rediscovered," Wang said.

Another project she is supervising is the renovation of Da Sheng Kui, the largest tea business establishment in Hohhot which was set up by the tea merchants from Shanxi.

Right beside the 310-year-old heritage building located in the Yuquan district of Hohhot, the construction of a new cluster of buildings is under way. It is to be the replica of Da Sheng Kui and a set for the filming of a documentary-drama featuring the rise and fall of this business asset.

Wang Xinmin, the director of the TV series, believes Da Sheng Kui is a valuable piece of the history of the Tea Road and it contains significant insights into that particular period of history.

What inspired the director, however, was the peaceful co-existence of Shanxi merchants and the local Mongolian ethnic people. "The Mongolian minority is a great nationality in that they accepted the Han culture and even drew from the bordering nations such as Mongolia and Russia," Wang said.

The first installment of the trio saga has been completed and is expected to debut later this year.

It is the wish of the heirs of Da Sheng Kui to tell the stories of their forefathers through the docu-drama and pass down the spirit of the Tea Road by re-branding it as a travel route.

Chen Yi, the third son of the last shopkeeper of Da Sheng Kui has made essential contributions in restoring a genuine picture of the business establishment. His father's last words were an appeal to restore the family business's name. Chen has donated numerous precious files such as account books and other family heirlooms to support the construction of the new Da Sheng Kui.

Once completed, the place will be opened to tourists and serve as a key destination for Tea Road travelers.

A number of other Tea Road ruins including the tracks where camels used to pass are also being renovated to welcome tourists.

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