Tuk-tuking for Tea

Inspired by a love of tea, a team of British students is planning on retracing the ancient routes followed by tea merchants—in teeny, tiny little cars.

The Tracing Tea expedition will leave Calcutta in July, traveling 10,000 miles over rough terrain in order to be home in England for Christmas. Its mode of transport is the auto rickshaw, more commonly known in Asia as a tuk-tuk. The team of seven Cambridge students will take on the mountains of northern Pakistan and the deserts of Central Asia—18 countries total—all in the equivalent of a golf cart, a vehicle with a maximum speed that hovers around 30 miles an hour.

Tuk-tuks may be the how, but tea is the why. The group plans to follow the old trade routes (as much as possible while avoiding conflict zones), to study the history of Britain’s favorite hot beverage. The team includes a historian, an Asian studies expert, an artist, a writer, and two engineers (one of whom will serve as the—no doubt much-needed—mechanic). “Tea might be seen as quintessentially British but behind it there is a fantastic story of eccentric adventure that goes much further,” said Ian Ball, team leader for the expedition. “It’s about people and politics, religion and society and the interactions of strangers and lives lived in different ways. Hopefully we can capture something of that in our expedition.”

The expedition has already been endorsed by Cambridge University and has received the blessing of the UK Tea Council. But it’s looking for sponsors, to make up the anticipated budget of more than $100,000, though trip leader Ball is not worried. “Tracing Tea is a unique project with far-reaching appeal … with four iconic vehicles, a website, a book and a TV series, we are confident that it will be possible to raise sufficient funds before departure,” he writes on the project’s website.

Yeah, it’s a far cry from the school projects of yore. The entire experience will be documented for a planned film and book. Any profit made will be donated to charity, and the team members plan to set a world record while they are at it.

The team also has a blog. It hasn’t been put into regular operation, but there are some initial posts. “I have yet to really decide what I like in the tea world,” writes trip leader Ball. “... But I’m acquiring a more refined taste as this project progresses, and almost know my first flush Darjeeling from my Orange Pekoe and Oolong.”

Something tells me that by the end of those 10,000 miles he’ll have that bit nailed.

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