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The peaceful village of Momchilovtsi, Bulgaria. Photo by Ning Hui / Initium. 

08:35 am | 14. August 2019

The Secret of Longevity Village

Nestled deep in the mountains of southern Bulgaria is the most unlikely of connections, between a tiny village and a multinational food and beverage giant based in the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai. 

By Ning Hui / Initium

On this unusual map of the world, Eastern Europe is represented at one end by two boxes of yogurt surrounded by the iconic pink roses of Bulgaria and bearing the brand name “Mosili’an.” Off to the East, at the opposite end, is an artist's rendering of the Chinese megacity of Shanghai, teeming with modern skyscrapers. A train of camels plods between the two points, and a slogan across the top reads, in both in Chinese and Bulgarian: “Jointly Building a Yogurt New Silk Road" (共筑酸奶新丝路). The map hangs in a small village called Momchilovtsi nestled deep in the mountains of southern Bulgaria, about 50 kilometers from the Greek border. Home to just 1,200 people, the village has become a household name in China, thanks to aggressive marketing by Bright Dairy, a listed subsidiary of Shanghai’s Bright Food Group.

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For Chinese, the village of Momchilovtsi  (莫姆奇洛夫齐) is known by the shorter and more palatable “Mosili’an” (莫斯利安) – just four characters instead of six. No one is sure exactly how the variation came to be. But one guess is that Chinese marketers adopted the village’s opening “Mo” sound, and for the rest substituted an approximate rendering of “Smolyan,” the name of the province in which the village is located. Outside the Chinese language, the brand name remains "Momchilovtsi," the village's romanized name. 

Lingering Doubts

Serious problems with China's domestic milk and formula supply first came to light in July 2008 as infants in Gansu province were diagnosed with kidney stones and medical professionals reported to health officials that all had been fed formula manufactured by Hebei's Sanlu Group. Although several major media outlets, including Guangzhou's Southern Weekly newspaper, had planned to publish in-depth reports in July, Chinese authorities kept the story under wraps to prevent embarrassment as Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. The scandal exploded only on September 11, with a report in Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post linking infant kidney stones to Sanlu formula. A product recall was finally announced, more than six weeks after local health officials first learned of the problems. 

Though the Sanlu Group was singled out as the worst culprit, domestic milk and formula brands from 21 other companies, including Shanghai's Bright Dairy, were found to contain the chemical compound melamine, often used in plastic and fertilizer production. The milk scandal claimed the lives of at least six children, and an estimated 300,000 children suffered from kidney stones and other ailments in China in 2008 as a result of tainted milk and formula. More than a decade later, the 2008 milk scandal continues to shadow China's milk products industry.

For Bright Dairy, the result has been not just catchy but extremely lucrative. The company launched its Momchilovtsi yogurt brand in mainland China in 2009, its main selling point being that no refrigeration was necessary during the distribution and sales process. At the same time, this "room-temperature yoghurt” was marketed in China as a “healthy food product,” or jiankang shipin (健康食品).

This push for new branding came in the wake of the 2008 milk scandal in China, in which milk and infant formula from domestic manufacturers, including Bright Dairy, were found to contain melamine. The milk scandal encouraged widespread distrust of locally-produced milk products in China, and enhanced the appeal of foreign brands. 

Employing its two-pronged marketing strategy centered on the supposed healthiness of an apparently foreign-sourced product that required no refrigeration, Momchilovtsi steadily grew in popularity after its launch, particularly in second and third-tier cities. Its sales were given a big boost in 2012 as distribution went fully nationwide. By 2014, annual sales had reached 6 billion yuan. Finally, in 2017, Momchilovtsi landed on the Hong Kong market. 

Visitors in "Longevity Village" 

With its now popular advertising slogan, "The Magical Secret of Longevity Village," Bright Dairy has profited immensely from the Momchilovtsi brand, encouraging Chinese consumers to imagine new horizons of youth and good health. That imagination begins with an image readily seen on all Momchilovtsi packaging – that of a young girl dressed in traditional Bulgarian garb and holding a milk jug. The image was not invented out of thin air, but in fact comes from the old village emblem of Momchilovtsi, which features a similar young woman holding instead a loaf of bread.

Momchilovtsi is a quiet place. Hundreds of small buildings, all with the same bright white walls and red-tile rooftops, cluster together along the contours of the mountains, which are covered with lush pine forests and verdant pastureland. The road up to the village road is quite steep, and a sign at the base of the road cautions visitors that there are bears lurking in the forest.

According to the village's own history, Momchilovtsi derives its name from Momchil Yunak, a Christian hero who resisted the Turkish invasion in the 14th century.

There is just one minibus per day connecting the village to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city. Similar villages are scattered among the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria. Most of these villages share a traditional craft – the making of yogurt.

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An advertisement for Momchilovtsi milk products in China. 

In the summer of 2008, people from China’s Bright Dairy arrived in Momchilovtsi for the first time. Baba Dobi, an old woman who lives near the village gate, received the group and introduced them to the local practice of making yoghurt. The process is not complicated: filter and heat fresh milk to the proper temperature; mix it with a small spoonful of yoghurt containing a culture of lactobacillus for fermentation; finally, seal the mixture for several hours.

The 74-year-old Baba Dobi has a bit of difficulty walking now, but she is full of cheerful spirit. She very clearly recalls that there were five or six people from Bright Dairy. They left the village after spending less than two hours there. When they left, they took with them a jar of her homemade yogurt.

In 2012, four years after leaving Baba’s farm, representatives from Bright Dairy returned to the village of Momchilovtsi. By this time already, Momchilovtsi had been transformed in the minds of consumers in faraway China into the "longevity village" of "Mosili'an."

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Baba Dobi was the first villager to receive guests from China's Bright Dairy in Momchilovtsi. Photo by Ning Hui / Initium. 

Tall Tales About Longevity and Sour Milk

Bulgaria has long been known for the quality of its yogurt, and in the local culture yogurt has traditionally been associated with good health and long life. It is a source of pride for Bulgaria that the bacteria essential to yogurt culture  – Lactobacillus bulgaricus – can be found naturally in the country, and that it was first identified in 1905 by a Bulgarian researcher named Stamen Grigoroff, and named after the country itself. 

Bulgaria's close association with yogurt has drawn many dairy professionals to the country. In the 1970s, Japan's Meiji Holding's purchased from Bulgaria, which it called "the birthplace of yogurt," the naming rights to Meiji Bulgaria Yogurt. The yogurt's release in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia was a major success, and every year Meiji pays the state-owned LB Bulgaricum 5 million Euros for patent licensing of its lactobacillus LB81. 

But fermenting the lactobacillus in milk, a key part of the process of yogurt production that Baba Dobi introduced to her Bright Dairy visitors more than a decade ago, was ultimately of no importance to the Chinese group. Momchilovtsi brand yogurt employs aseptic packaging technology that enables yogurt to be stored and then consumed at normal temperatures, without the need for refrigeration, and this means that the lactobacillus cultures in the milk, which many see as the source of its health benefits, must be destroyed in the process. 

Bright Dairy’s liquid yogurt drink is worlds away from Bulgaria’s thick and rich traditional yogurt. The “secret recipe” Bright Dairy acquired when visiting Baba’s farm in 2008 has nothing whatsoever to do with the yogurt itself or with Baba's recipe. Nor does it have anything to do with the global image of Bulgarian yogurt per se. It has everything to do with Momchilovtsi itself, with an authentic Bulgarian village where the ancient traditions of yogurt making are maintained to this day. 

The company's creative act was all about storytelling. 

According to this story, the Russian-born biologist Élie Metchnikoff, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1908 who is credited today as one of the founders of the field of immunology, had conducted his own research on longevity in the village of Momchilovtsi. In an online version of the story pushed by Bright Dairy, an old black-and-white photograph of Metchnikoff is superimposed on an contemporary black-and-white image of the village, a bright gold Nobel medallion at the bottom left. The explanation reads:

Nobel Prize recipient Metchnikoff came to the mysterious Momchilovtsi village to carry out deep investigations and systematic research, and he discovered that the local villagers all had the custom of drinking yogurt, and that this was closely connected with the health and longevity of the local people. Later, people called the unique active probiotic strain in the local yogurt “the Momchilovtsi probiotic culture.”

There is no evidence, in fact, that Metchnikoff ever visited Momchilovtsi, or any other Bulgarian village. He did deliver a lecture in 1904, however, when he was head of research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, in which he suggested that aging was precipitated by harmful bacteria in the intestines, and that one way to combat this was to encourage helpful bacteria in the body by eating yogurt or other sour milk products. For his knowledge of Bulgarian yogurt, Metchnikoff was very much in the debt of the young Bulgarian researcher Grigoroff, credited with discovering the Lactobacillus bulgaricus in the Geneva lab of Léon Massol.

Bright Dairy’s liquid yogurt drink is worlds away from Bulgaria’s thick and rich traditional yogurt . . . . The company's creative act was all about storytelling. 

 

In his 1908 book The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, Metchnikoff notes (on page 175) the work of Grigoroff, who "has been surprised by the number centenarians to be found in Bulgaria, a region in which yahourth, a soured milk, is the stable food.”

Metchnikoff’s experiments purporting to link longevity among Bulgarian villagers with their habitual consumption of yogurt – relying largely on samples of yogurt brought to Paris by Grigoroff – are not regarded today as serious science. But his work, and his huge reputation at the time, not least as a Nobel Prize recipient, did result in a craze over yogurt in Paris and beyond, and the association between yogurt and health and longevity has been a boon for yogurt marketers ever since.

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Russian-born biologist Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, today considered a founder of immunology, is superimposed on a modern image of the village of Momchilovtsi in this this soft advertisement from Bright Dairy.

Bright Dairy’s tall tale, which quite literally superimposed Metchnikoff’s legacy on the village of Momchilovtsi, was just the latest in a century-old tradition of selling the health benefits of yogurt – even if the company’s aseptic packaging technology meant that the Lactobacillus bulgaricus that had so enchanted Metchnikoff had to be eliminated altogether.

Belt and Yoghurt?

Before she entered the race for mayor of Momchilovtsi three years ago, Siyka Surkova had spent 16 years working as a journalist in Bulgaria. It was several years earlier, in 2009, while she was covering a story at the seat of the provincial government in Smolyan, that she first learned that her native village of Momchilovtsi had become household name as a yogurt brand in China. Knowing she was from the town, several colleagues asked her about it. In July 2012, when Bright Dairy returned to the village and officially introduced its yogurt, Siyka was the first to interview a company official. She asked at that time how it planned to maintain its relationship with Momchilovtsi in the future.

It is a question that still reverberates. 

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Siyka Surkova, Momchilovtsi’s elected village chief, in 2019, with Bright Dairy’s map of the “Yogurt New Silk Road” on the wall behind. 

This future, in fact, had been planned long before Bright Dairy’s return to the village. The unlikely connection between the village of Momchilovtsi and a major Chinese company was getting attention at the bilateral level, seen as an example of how China and Bulgaria might find opportunities for mutual benefit.

Ivan Todorov, 55, a property investor and businessman who operates a vineyard near Plovdiv, a large city in southern Bulgaria, says he approached around 2012 by both the Bulgarian president and the Chinese ambassador with the hope that he might become involved in the development of Momchilovtsi, which both China and Bulgaria felt could serve as a bridge between the two countries. That year, he launched the Bulgarian Travel and Investment Development Center in China (BTIDCC) in the capital city of Sofia, signing a contract with Bulgaria’s Ministry of Tourism to jointly develop the “Mosili’an” (Momchilovtsi) brand along with Bright Dairy.

Todorov and the BTIDCC have since been involved in a number of initiatives between China and Bulgaria, including the hosting of annual business forums, and even discussions over the possibility of a Chinese-invested industrial park in the city of Plovdiv. But one of Todorov’s core projects has been the development of Momchilovtsi as a brand that is profitable both commercially and politically.

In September 2015, Bulgaria’s tourism minister, Nikolina Angelkova, visited Momchilovtsi to formally open the country’s first festival devoted to yogurt. Festival guests included a 37-member delegation from Bright Dairy, which organized and sponsored the event in cooperation with Todorov’s BTIDCC and Demi Travel, a local tourism services provider in which Todorov is a partner. The Bulgarian news agency BTA reported that Bright Dairy had “stumbled upon Momchilovtsi during a research trip in 2008,” and noted that “[as] legend and Bulgarian media has it, the Chinese explorers were charmed by the village's beauty and the kindness of its people.”

Ahead of the festival, referred to in Chinese as the "Bulgaria Mosili'an Yogurt Festival" (保加利亚莫斯利安酸奶节), representatives from Bright Dairy also met with then Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, familiarizing him, according to a report by China National Radio, with the "history of how Momchilovtsi yogurt had developed in China through the Bright Dairy Group." Bright Dairy CEO Zhang Chongjian (张崇建) told CNR that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s raising of the “Belt and Road” initiative had provided “a totally new proposition” for China’s foreign trade.

Zhang’s words were a foreshadowing of things to come. After 2015, Bright Dairy’s marketing of Momchilovtsi as “Mosili’an” back in China gibed perfectly with China’s message of engagement with Central and Eastern Europe through its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and platforms like the so-called “16+1” (China-CEEC Cooperation).

In September 2017, the Momchilovtsi Yogurt Festival was formally attended by Chinese Ambassador Zhang Haidan (张海舟), who said in a speech posted to the website of the Chinese embassy in Bulgaria that "Momchilovtsi had benefitted from the publicity offered by the Chinese company and Chinese media." It was during that 2017 opening ceremony that Mr. Todorov joined Bright Dairy executives onstage to unveil a large map of the “New Yogurt Silk Road.” 

Friendship, or Appropriation?

A large plaque now hangs at the entrance to the administrative building in Momchilovtsi. “Long live the friendship between Bright Dairy and Momchilovtsi,” it reads. On the walls of the building are painted Chinese characters for “bright,” or guangming (光明), along with Chinese national flags – all painted by Shanghai artists invited to take part in the Yogurt Festival.

But behind the overtures of friendship, and the now seemingly ubiquitous marketing, questions have lingered about the relationship, and about who exactly has benefitted. 

I had heard in chatrooms maintained by Chinese in Bulgaria that at first some villagers in Momchilovtsi had considered legal action against Bright Dairy, seeking copyright fees for the company’s clear use of the village’s name and official seal in its marketing. But for a small Bulgarian village to bring a case in Shanghai against a major Chinese conglomerate would have been as futile as throwing an egg against a wall, nor did it suit the growing desire for closer trade relations between China and Bulgaria. The talk of legal action did not persist for long.

After a trip to Shanghai in 2011, Ivan Todorov says, during which he met with representatives from Bright Dairy, he registered the “Momchilovtsi” trademark in the EU. Records with the European Union Intellectal Property Office (EUIPO) show that “Momchilovtsi” was successfully registered as a trademark in June 2013 by Bulgaria’s “Demy Travel,”  a Todorov company. Just two months later, a separate “Momchilovtsi” trademark was registered with the EUIPO by Shanghai’s Bright Foods.

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Two separate “Momchilovtsi” trademarks registered with the EUIPO by Bulgaria's Demy Travel and Shanghai’s Bright Foods. 

But while the immediate threat of a lawsuit against Bright Dairy may have diminished, the gleam of defiance can still be found in the village.

At a café near the entrance to Momchilovtsi, I sit down with villagers Tencho and Gergana. Tencho, now in his early 30s, spent a number of years away from the village of his birth, living in various cities throughout Europe. A few years ago, he returned to Momchilovtsi and opened a guesthouse. Gergana, 37, calls herself a “new villager.” Two years ago, she moved here with her husband and three children from Varna, a port city on the Black Sea.

Every morning the café is crowded with locals, all seated around seven large tables. A group of retired schoolteachers gather at one table. At another, old men from the village gather – including Georgi, now into his nineties. Gergana says she chose to live in Momchilovtsi because the village, though small, has its own kindergarten, a primary school, a hospital and a police station. For all of its modesty, it is fully functional as a place to live. Many locals make a living through the traditional craft of carpentry. And there is some local tourism as well, with the Rhodope Mountains bringing in skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer.

While they have left life in the bigger cities behind, young people like Tencho and Gergana understand the imperatives of the commercial world. They feel a coldness toward the advertising and signage Bright Dairy has plastered all over the village, and there is a sense of violation. Bright Dairy, both tell me, should have asked for permission first.  

A Strategic Partnership

On July 3, 2019, Xi Jinping met with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in the Great Hall of the People, during which the two countries agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership (战略伙伴关系). The visit corresponded to the upcoming 70th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the People's Republic of China and Bulgaria on October 4, 1949.

During a meeting with representatives from Chinese state-owned enterprises on July 2, President Radev said: "Bulgaria has an important geo-strategic situation, which should not be underestimated. Bulgaria is an extremely important unit of the 'One Belt, One Road' initiative. We have to fight for this strategic location to be used to the best advantage as quickly and efficiently as possible."

The locals in the café seem to be in general agreement that Bright Dairy should do more to benefit the whole village given the immense profits it has reaped in China in the village’s name. “Only when everyone can benefit will we not feel that we’ve been used,” says Tencho. More importantly, they tell me, Momchilovtsi has its own history and traditions – and no one wants a foreign company, from China or anywhere else, to simply barge in, rewrite its story and transform its face.

When I mention these complaints to Surkova, the village chief, she nods with understanding. She is no stranger to these views. I ask her if she thinks Bright Dairy should have sought permission before using the village’s name. Diplomatically, she keeps her composure. It’s a pity, she says, that the village could not be involved in Bright Dairy’s product development process from the beginning. But the key now is to maintain the relationship. “As long as we have active cooperation in the future, it is a good thing,” she says.

Yoghurt Queens and China Dreams

Since its return to Momchilovtsi in 2012, Bright Dairy has more actively incorporated the village and the local people into its messaging. The first European model to appear in advertisements for the yogurt brand was actually Ukrainian, but she has now been replaced with the local Bulgarian winner of the annual “Rose Yogurt Queen” competition, held as part of the Yogurt Festival. Local villagers also featured in a series of 2016 advertisements along with the Taiwanese rock ban Mayday (五月天), although the most of the shooting actually took place in a Taiwanese studio.

The association between Momchilovtsi and Bright Dairy has brought a constant stream of visitors to the village. In 2014, this included seven Chinese participants in a reality show modelled after the American show “Survival,” who stayed in Momchilovtsi for 30 days, along with a filming crew. Bright Dairy employees have also been frequent visitors, bringing with them a parade of gifts, many of which can now be seen now in a corner of the village’s local folk museum – Chinese shadow puppets, embroidery from Suzhou, skeins of silk, a small screen emblazoned with a golden dragon, and a guitar signed by the band members of Mayday.

The locals in the café seem to be in general agreement that Bright Dairy should do more to benefit the whole village given the immense profits it has reaped in China in the village’s name.

 

As the villager to have first made contact with Bright Dairy, Baba Dobi often receives visits from company representatives bearing gifts. These include a foot massager, a photo album documenting the 2008 exchange, and even an official Bright Dairy certificate acknowledging the contributions she and her husband made by revealing the “secret” of Momchilovtsi yogurt.

The story of Momchilovtsi as “Longevity Village” has also brought a steady stream of media visitors from all over the world. But when I spoke to local Bulgarians on my way to Momchilovtsi, few had ever heard of such a place. The handful of people who had turned out to be journalists who learned of Momchilovtsi’s reputation only after the Chinese reality show guests descended on the village in 2014.

For some in the village, the criss-cross between Bright Dairy and Momchilovtsi has brought fresh opportunities.

One such example is Maria Tsvetkova, a former schoolteacher who now runs a tour agency. In 2017, Maria realized her dream of visiting Shanghai when she was cast in the leading role of a short documentary funded by Bright Dairy called “The Secret of Longevity Village.” In the documentary, Maria travels from Momchilovtsi to Shanghai to get a taste of the megacity. She visits Bright Dairy’s farm, and also makes a journey to the old town of Lijiang, a popular tourist destination in the mountains of southwest China. The documentary begins with a long sequence in Momchilovtsi that again reinforces the notion that the village’s yogurt is the secret of health and longevity there.

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Maria Tsvetkova, a schoolteacher from Momchilovtsi, appears in a Chinese documentary funded by Bright Dairy. Screenshot from YouTube

“Going to China was a dream come true,” Tsvetkova tells me. After the trip, she decided to quit her job teaching kindergarten and open a travel agency. Drawing parallels with Lijiang, she is convinced of the potential of Momchilovtsi as a tourism destination, and she hopes the documentary will help draw Chinese. “Chinese people will see that Momchilovtsi is real, it is not just an imaginary place.”

Tsvetkova’s travel agency is developing services that cater to Chinese tourists and their image of Momchilovtsi. These include Bulgarian folk performances, demonstrations of traditional yogurt making methods, and even sit-downs with centenarian villagers to discuss the habits that lead to greater longevity.

Longevity is a crucial part of the “Mosili’an” brand image, and according to Surkova, the village chief, there are now about 130 villagers over the age of 80 living in Momchilovtsi. But the public image of “Longevity Village” can come up against an unfortunate contrast when Chinese tourists actually arrive.  In keeping with the area’s Orthodox Christian traditions, obituaries are posted in public places whenever villagers pass away. You can spot them, along with crosses and portraits of the deceased, nearly anywhere – on utility poles, near fruit stands, at the bus station. Some places are crowded with scores of such posters and notices going back several years.

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A typical obituary posted out in public in Bulgaria. Photo by Murat Ertürk available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. 

Wang Feng (王丰), a Chinese student who runs his own travel agency in Sofia, the capital, tells me with a smile that his customers find the obituaries awkward when they arrive in otherwise picturesque Momchilovtsi with the notion that it is synonymous with longevity.

Another challenge where Chinese tourists are concerned is getting them to stay. In most cases, Chinese tourists – which according to Surkova numbered around 1,000 in 2017 – stay in Momchilovtsi for around two hours, just long enough to speak to aging villagers. There are few souvenirs to buy, and little else of interest to visiting Chinese. Tsvetkova is working to change this. “Maybe we can sell some herbal teas,” she suggests, searching for ideas. “Or develop some yogurt-based face masks or other skincare products?”

Bulgaria has so far failed to become a hot travel destination for Chinese, who generally have few impressions of this former socialist country.

Todorov, the property investor who has taken the “Momchilovtsi” trademark under his wing, puts it rather more bluntly: “Except as ‘the nation of rose,’ China knows nothing about Bulgaria,” he says.

Having built its “Mosili’an” brand around the image of “Longevity Village,” Bright Dairy has an ongoing need to generate images that shore up the narrative around Momchilovtsi. Beyond this, however, the company has little interest in developing the village’s tourism potential – something Todorov says he has realized while working closely with his Chinese partners.

Much of Bright Dairy’s attention is focused back home, where similar yogurt brands not requiring refrigeration have been introduced by competitors, also hoping to capitalize on the exoticism of the Balkans and Europe. Yili Group, based in Inner Mongolia, has introduced its own “Greek Yogurt.” The state-owned Sanyuan Group, headquartered in Beijing, has introduced “Icelandic-style Yogurt,” a commercial tribute to skyr, which has a similar consistency to Greek yogurt but is generally more mild in flavour. One thing all of these brands have in common is the lasting appeal of their apparent foreignness, a mark of trust for Chinese consumers who continue to view Chinese milk products with suspicion even more than a decade after the 2008 poisoned milk scandal.

But another driving force behind Chinese interest in Momchilovtsi is its ongoing appeal to the Chinese government as a story illustrating the success of the bilateral relationship between China and Bulgaria – and beyond this, the depth of China’s engagement with the Balkans region and the rest of Europe. The political imperative is visible on the village streets of Momchilovtsi, where Chinese signs point visitors in the direction of “Bright Dairy-Momchilovtsi” (莫斯利安-光明乳业), an agricultural park planned between the Bulgarian and Chinese governments as part of China’s so-called “16+1” engagement strategy with Central and Eastern Europe. China has called it a “’16+1’ Modern Agriculture Demonstration Park” (“16 + 1”现代农业示范园). A notice published in Chinese on the website of the Association for the Promotion of Agricultural Cooperation Between China and the CEEC (APAC), a group formed in 2015 under Bulgaria’s Ministry of Agriculture, said that “the success of this project is inseparable from cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and '16+1' cooperative framework between China and CEE countries, and has great significance for cooperation in the areas of engineering, politics, industry and science and technology."

There has even been a push to teach Chinese among the villagers of Momchilovtsi. To this end, Bright Dairy cooperated in 2017 and 2018 with the Confucius Institute of Sofia, affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, to offer six-week Chinese language courses in the village around the annual Yogurt Festival. 

So far, the Chinese tourist numbers in Momchilovtsi are insignificant, explains Todorov. “Tourists from China to Mosili’an still amount to nothing,” he says, opting for the village's Chinese moniker, “but in a few years, after we build a tourism center, maybe it will be better.” An entrepreneurial man, he is busy finding other ways to develop other products and services under the Momchilovtsi brand. He’s not in a hurry. The ideas will come. Recently, he says, Chinese property developers even approached him with a novel idea that would allow tourists to enjoy the mystique of “Longevity Village” without the need to travel to Bulgaria at all.

The village of Momchilovtsi, or at least its doppelgänger “Mosili’an,” could be rebuilt from the ground up – this time, in China. 

14. August 2019
Author
Ning Hui / Initium

Based in Brussels, Ning Hui is a senior journalist for international news at Initium Media, a Hong Kong–based digital media outlet. She was formerly Europe correspondent for China's Caixin Media.