Glaciers’ Breath ll Update – Ice, Ganges, and Shiva

Our departure nears from here in Hong Kong’s heat to India’s northern Himalaya range and the ascent to Gangotri glacier. From the heavens it is said, the Ganges River descended at Gangotri (‘Ganga’ meaning river, and ‘Utri’ meaning descended) and despite the heat and blur of Hong Kong, this simple image of water descending from the skies stays with me. It will be a welcome swap of heavy humid air for clear brisk stuff but the magic lies in the transition from one to the other. My kit lies in scrappy piles that are tidied and then scrapped again, as pieces of gear are temporarily lost and then found once again. 

The are of that we travel into

The area we travel into

It is the time when I finally imagine all of the various pieces and items packed up, tucked away and no longer visible. As many times as I’ve prepared for these journeys upwards and into the mountains it is always the same. I start with too much, knowing full well it is too much, but needing to whittle it down nonetheless. It pleases to cut things out and remove. It pleases too to know there are absolutes that will be needed. Some little books, the inevitable tea, solar panels, the requisite undergarments, and a small army of camera kit all await their final deposit into the smoke tinged red bag that is a scarred veteran of dozens of journeys into the heights. 

A long diagonal strip of moraine ripples like a false floor. It is such forms that make up much of what is referred to as glaciers.

A long diagonal strip of moraine ripples like a false floor. It is such forms that make up much of what is referred to as glaciers. 

Peering at maps, reading bits of lore that good friend Dilip Talekar (a huge bow of thanks to you Dilip) sends from his many times up the route we will tread, and imagining all of the blips and sounds of the mass of city life ebbing away. It’s not that these bangs and muffles they won’t exist momentarily in the mountains; they won’t exist at all up there. They will give way to muddled voices, swishes of wind currents and tent zippers. Huge gaping silences that suck sound await. One of the sounds that does await us is the roar of water that comes out of the mountains with impunity. It is the water and its solid but fleeting forms of ice that Debra Tan and I have come for. These temples of ice are disappearing and ebbing across the expanse of the Himalayas. Our upcoming journey’s aim beyond simply being amidst all of the wonder, is to ascend to, explore and live upon the source glaciers for one of the globe’s precious waterways. It is too to document ice in all of its mottled forms. Beyond simply the aesthetic masterpieces of azure blue, huge expanses of stone and silt laden moraine sits in gaping valleys.

It is said that Shiva was the very first yogi, and the name Ganga or Ganges was given to the River Bhagirathi which originates at Gomukh. The wonderful tale continues that the Holy Ganges River was once a celestial river called the Akash Ganga (Akash – sky or space, and Ganga – river). Akash Ganga is the Hindu mythological equivalent of the Milky Way. Akash was convinced to come down from the heavens by King Bharigath. She descended into the locks of hair of Shiva and broke up into several channels. Thus in many paintings of Shiva, one can see the Ganga River issuing from his locks.

Lord Shiva depicted with the Ganga River flowing from his head.

Lord Shiva depicted with the Ganga River flowing from his head.

Mountains have long beckoned not simply for their ‘away-ness’ or for their all-powerful winds. They beckon for the space they allow in the head and the effort that cleans out the detritus. In the words of a Tibetan trader, “In the mountains, there is that that matters, and that that doesn’t”…and there was much that really ceased to matter in the mountains. 

Alongside the water in its various forms and the winds, we’ve come too for the beings that reside on high for it is them that carry the tales, the ways, and visions of the mountains’ sacred role. Their tales of are of memories, of experience and of tales that steep backwards in time from generation to generation.

To approach mountains, one must navigate glaciers

To approach mountains, one must navigate glaciers

One of the figures that we’ll meet with is a swami who has lived in Gangotri for 60 years. In his time he climbed, observed, and breathed in the mountains’ every shift and the water’s every turn. Context is vital for an ascent and for any wanderings in the mountains sanctuary. Wisdom too is needed, otherwise the ascent – however personal and deeply felt – isn’t quite the same journey. Moraine - Glacier

An addition which will make the whole Glaciers’ Breath ll expedition that much more timeless is the cooperation with Colorado State University’s Julia Klein, Sarah Whipple, Patrick Donovan and Mountain Sentinels to create a living map of the route using ARCGIS. 

The journey too will be a chance to reconnect with the gracious Kapil Negi who will host and interpret, mountain god and brother, Puran Thakur, and the remarkable chef and speaker to the deities, Karma.

A reconnection with brother Puran is another reason for some joy.

A reconnection with brother Puran is another reason for some joy.

 

Less than a week now remains before one of those flying tubes of steel, a plane, will arrive to Uttarakhand and words will become steps.

 

More updates to follow

 

Posted in Explorations, Glaciers, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Glaciers’ Breath ll Expedition – The Ganges’ Source

Preparation Notes…and Tea

Stirring through some cakes and balls of tea deciding on the leaves to take on this upcoming venture to the Himalayan Headwaters of the great Ganga, the sacred life giving Ganges River. A 2,527 km river of water that sluices through the Indo-Gangetic Plain and discharges close to 40 thousand cubic metres of water per second (third in the world).

Tea = Fuel

Tea = Fuel. Even in the realm of the glaciers

This journey, beyond all of the stuff needed, beyond fabrics and fixed items of steel and aluminum, begins as so many do: selecting a bunch of dried leaves of camellia sinensis, and deciding which flavours to bring. Two cakes of ancient tree He Kai are stacked and ready, lying flat in their mulberry paper wrappings. A hand made ceramic tea pot and cup sit next to the compacted teas. Pungent with wonderful finishes this tea is tested, true, and entirely needed on long journeys.

Glaciers: Temples of Ice

Known as ‘traveller teas’ these selections of mine are not at all random. They are part need, a little bit of panacea, and part joy. These leaves are mates that will be along side my every step. Desiccated leaves that are an elixir and ritual, I could not imagine a journey without them. Potent and as perfect a fuel as I can hope for, they will nourish the early morning exits from the tent and they will stimulate the entire system in the withering high altitude afternoons.

Every major water source is a journey 'up'

Every major water source is a journey ‘up.

For the upcoming journey Debra Tan of China Water Risk and I will spend a month along with a mountain team of locals traipsing and tracing the great burrowing force of water, the Ganga (Ganges) River to one of its vivid sources. The ‘source’ of the Ganges River, the Bhagarathi River, forms at the base of the Gangotri Glacier at Gomukh at 3,895 metres in the state of Uttarakhand in the Indian Himalaya. We are following up last year’s ascent to the Bara Shigri glacier in Himachal Pradesh, and the Lasermo glaciers west of Leh in Ladakh to explore yet another of the precious bodies of ice. Beginning September 19th of this year, an extraordinary team of locals will join erudite Kapil Negi and us to begin this journey to – in my words at least – the glaciers’ breath. This name came about standing years’ ago at the base of a great body of moraine ice, feeling this powerful and ever present ‘whoosh’ of wind blowing down.

And every journey is lit by a team who provide insight and feel into a landscape.

And every journey is lit by a team who provide insight and feel into a landscape.

The Ganges in all of its names wrests its way out of rock and ice at Gomukh (Mouth of a Cow) in Uttarakhand State, which is our ultimate destination. We will trace and document the river, its watershed, and the souls who live along its barreling corridors to give some texture to this source of so much life.

Many 'sources' of water aren't raging eruptions but rather solid sheets of ice and crumbling moraine.

Many ‘sources’ of water aren’t raging eruptions but rather solid sheets of ice and crumbling moraine and glaciers that few see.

Sources of rivers are rarely seen or acknowledged and it is perhaps more clearly in the sources that one can feel the absolute core vibrancy and life of what is known as पानी – paanee – ‘water’ in Hindi. It is said often in India that “water is life”. This journey is to travel to a source of so much life.

A dried silt bed close to 5000 metres that once held glacial water.

A dried silt bed close to 5000 metres that once held glacial water.

From the ancient city and portal to the Himalayas, Rishikesh, we move to Uttarkashi on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, towards our ultimate destination of the terminus of the Gangotri/Gangautri glacier. This past summer it is reported that a segment of the snout or terminus was obliterated following heavy rains. The source, like all else, is in flux. Our journey will take in this flux and the ever-changing spaces.

Camp will be atop moraine and ice and power will come entirely from the sun.

Camp will be atop moraine and ice and power will come entirely from the sun.

Along with the cakes of tea, aluminum bits, layers of wool and wires of every sort I’ll be shooting with a Samxung Gear360 camera to get as much dimension and dynamism as possible of this changing landscape.

That which feeds, rests on high

That which feeds, rests on high

Tea and curiosity fueled, the journey is as much about simply being there as it will be about retrieving imagery and impressions of the Ganges and its precious people. Meditation caves and the shadows of the nearby Meru and Nanda Devi peaks will mark the lands we pass through on our way to the gushing mouth of the source of the great Ganga.

Posted in Explorations, Glaciers, Media, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

He Kai Ancient Tree Puerh – A Long Walk

Nothing quite ‘scars’ the palate like a magnificent hit of a powerful tea. From that moment forward something has changed and it might as well be an actual mark or scar because it is memorable and it changes everything for all time. Whatever it is that has grabbed the molars, wafted into the cavities of the mouth and nasal cavity, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that from that moment on a portion of the brain has decided that something stunning just occurred, and it is a critical moment that will move decision-making irrevocably when selecting leaves. Something has been activated and there is no real return to anything remotely blasé. Important too is to revisit these monsters of the palate to be part of their evolution. It is one of the eternally delicious aspects of Puerh…that it does evolve and grow with time.

One of the beloved ancients that rest in the sub-tropic forests of Bulang Mountain

One of the beloved ancients that rest in the sub-tropic forests. They are the providers of something utterly sacrosanct when produced properly.

Beyond fabled names, reputations, and beyond too some of the outrageous hype around teas, a tea (however humble the source and the hands that create it are) can grab a palate as surely as a moment of enlightenment can. The experience of a good tea can happily obliterate all memories of every average/flavoured tea that has ever made it into the cup and mouth and serve to clarify.

He Kai was one of those teas the first time I tried it and there was something slightly revolutionary about it. It lingered in the mouth and mind after having been vigorously advocated by a friend in southern Yunnan. It was a tea that powered onto the molars and cells within the mouth and didn’t relent. It lasted and lasted and never seemed to finish badly. In the words of a good tea drinking mate, it was “haunting”. That it was. In subsequent samples it remained just as striking over months and then a year it evolved in small ways but it retained its enamel challenging strength while never straying into the ‘too-bitter’ or the dreaded ‘sour’. It was a tea that carried deep throngs into the mouth and finished clean. Of course, there was too the fact that a particular family had produced it by hand from pluck to wringing out the last bits of moisture.

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

Bordering the fringes of the famed Puerh Ban Zhang region in southwestern Yunnan, these gentle areas (and its teas) of the Lahu, Dai, and Hani minorities frequently gets missed. Missed things are often very good things because they must continually develop rather than presume anything. Koreans have long found value in the teas of He Kai and been fans of its qi (energy or force) whereas locals are fans of the ancient trees in particular and its long flavor notes. Ancient trees (older than 100 years) offer up flavor notes that can either be maintained – and even enhanced – or hands that produce them can desecrate them. No tea is guaranteed status unless the hands and knowledge are equal to the raw materials. My He Kai experiences had run the gamut from Dai people’s offerings to Lahu and back to Dai. It was their leaves and their procedures that rang all of the salivary glands for me.

The place of He Kai is a wonderful kind of crucible of indigenous cultures and epic tea growing regions. Known for gorgeous parasitic orchids (rumored to enhance some of the ancient tea trees as they fuse onto the trunks and branches), mountains, and clay-heavy soils, it remains a tea coveted by drinkers year after year. It hasn’t always been a place of consistency but its teas have improved to a point where one can start to depend on independent families to provide a little bit of predictable pleasure. It is a danger to depend but, for a drinker, it is a sacrosanct pleasure.

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

Years had passed since I’d first wandered into the region with a friend covered in dust and craving a sit down with tea. Southwest out of the tea collection point of Menghai in southern Yunnan, we turned off into the watermelon fields shielded with plastic at the village of Meng Hun and towards the Bulang Mountains. The spine of the Bulangs was a kind of elevated holding line for the valley. Arriving to a Dai homestead we were confronted with tea’s ever-present wafts, shapes, and necessary tools. Tea ran the entire place and harvest seasons were a time when every mortal being was involved somehow in some stage of tea’s collection, production, or sale. Upon our own arrival, tea was barely mentioned in the first 24-hours. Firstly, one had to eat, meet, sip some of the tea before meeting more and sipping some of the potent local firewater. I was happily dragged through homes and nearby villages as the local Dai New Year’s celebrations were in full swing.

Nothing goes forward without epic amounts of food, alcohol, and friends.

Nothing goes forward without epic amounts of food, alcohol, and friends. 

Villages and sources of tea are precious things as it is here in moments, meals, discussions and wanderings that the leaves that are consumed become physically linked to the land and its people. A visual and very tangible line from source to sip is made visible. Untidy to some, many of the villages (that appear as forlorn little pods amidst the sub-tropical forests) will produce teas of such divine maturity and strength that it is scarcely believable. In such regions there is too, the predictable other side of that coin: the pilferers, pretenders and charlatans. Pristine, ultra-clean and smiley places can create veritable messes of a particular tea.

After the first infusion - Puerh

Over the course of years, multiple returns for meals, purchases of tea, episodes of incorrectly frying leaves, and repeated conversations, I’d come to feel deep gratitude to be able to return again and again to a slightly off-the-grid village that consistently produced tremendously powerful teas. Teas that please are all the more pleasing when there is a tangible reference point beyond simply a name. This is when land and geography – along with the imprints of smell and feel – are associated with a particular tea and experience. In such regions, such tea zones weren’t so much tea fields as they were chaotic orchards and forests that spread and ran entire mountain sides and plateaus.

My own palate was recently reminded of He Kai’s graces and fervent power when some of the leaves from a wonderful 2014 harvest were revisited for a slow sit and sip session with the leaves, some water and time. Two phrases were mentioned in relation to this tea long ago and I carry them around in my head whenever I think of this tea. One phrase was “smooth force” and the second was it “lingers for hours in mouth”. In this most recent bit of sampling, it did these two things beautifully. Though it has smoothed slightly in the two years since it was harvested and created, it still carried its distinguished power everywhere it settled in the mouth. Bold and deep, this He Kai adheres to its original line and it is here perhaps that a tea reveals itself in its truest form: with time. Tea needs time; time to sip, time for the tea to develop and it needs time and care to produce it. After two years the tea was still fixed in its strengths with only soft touches of change enhancing it even more. With the first sips my own palate could feel those first times of sipping and conjure up images and smells when I first shared some of the leaves.

 Tea Cake

Upon re-sampling the 2014 Spring version, the leaves still carry their tang of pungency and urgency and it is in this magical ‘urgency’ that this particular tea shines in a green glow. That little sampling takes place one morning before any food passes into the mouth, and before the synthetic chemistry of toothpaste touches any enamel. It is the first infusion consumed (no rinsing) and first substance that passes into the lips for hours. Every few months I had inverted and shifted the loose leaves so that air could touch and run through even the most tucked away clumps. Dry circulated air is the lifeblood of Puerh teas, unlike so many other teas which require absolute vacuum sealed, air tight containers. Its’ powerful long leggy flavors refuse to release their grip on the molars, even long after the essences have passed smoothly past into the gorge. The volatile elements that contribute to a tea’s flavor are potent but rarely harsh in older tree’s leaves and with competent withering and frying in clean zones some magic happens…and it remains happening.

Puerh, Pu er, Pu erh Tea Cake

Some wonderful vegetal astringency – and that vital urgency – still lasts and that is largely to do with polyphenol family which includes flavonoids, which imbue the end buds and leaves on a tea tree. Though the leaves alter with time and procedure, they ring true with my memories of He Kai’s strengths. I have little notes scribbled onto a little piece of paper from long ago sipping’s. That paper remains tucked in amidst the leaves consistent to the first detailed notes about the tea: “persistent”, “powerful”, “long impressions. The notes get an update with the words “like a long walk through the mountains”. It is the long walks that remain nicely hiding the little strolls.

 Puerh - A first cup

Posted in JalamTeas, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Puerh – The ‘Sort’

Tea ends up in nuggets and in twisted desiccated things of tangy beauty. Cakes and compressed forms line shelves and delicate curled buds are unveiled out of boutique bags and wrapping. It ends up with names and tales scarcely believable at times.

Lifting the leaves so that they untangle and separate, post-frying.

Lifting the leaves so that they untangle and separate, post-frying.

There is a stage almost never mentioned in the processing of teas, and particularly in Puerh production. It is a simple stage that needs hands, a bit of time, and it absolutely requires a bent body over a steaming heap of newly fried limp tea leaves.

I call it “the sort” but it is much more. Freshly fried leaves, expunged of their humidity come in balls and clumps from their wok’s or frying pans and are dumped onto rattan woven racks. They are then kneaded like dough, of any last moisture which is purged onto these racks. Then comes this wonderful “sort”.

Separating leaves into smaller bundles, the sort becomes a thing of soft touches that need the hands. No machine can sort like the hands.

Separating leaves into smaller bundles, the sort becomes a thing of soft touches that need the hands. No machine can sort like the hands.

Palms up, the ‘sorter’ will lift and separate the leaves to allow oxygen through the still moist leaves. This will continue until all the leaves have been completely plied apart. The leaves are then ready to dry in the sun and shade. Puerh needs this stage, and with so much within the tea world, it is the hands that supply the magic rather than any clever machines.

A simple stage that affects little but affects everything. Without the separation humidity will continue to work on the leaves…with the ‘sort’ comes a reliance on the old ways – the good ways.

Separating leaves close up post frying...essential and yet something almost forgotten.

Separating leaves close up post frying…essential and yet something almost forgotten.

Posted in Explorations, JalamTeas, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Puerh – Age and Other Words

Worlds of tea exist in twisted semi-fermented forms, flat green shapes and black beetle bits. Formats, ferments, withering, fries and dries and even the all-too-often mentioned colour designation at times drag some of the thought around tea into a place of too-much.  

A Hani harvester balances within the arms of an ancient tea tree in southern Yunnan.

A Hani harvester balances within the arms of an ancient tea tree in southern Yunnan.

The spelling, phonetics, and even the often disagreed upon geographic designations bring into focus how tea has lost some of the simplistic aspects as it broadens its liquid reach. Even the spelling of Puerh (Pu’erh, Pu’er, Puer) gets some blood ripping through the veins of purists and sippers.

This little missive of words’ focuses only on Puerh sources and the ‘age of leaves’ question. Regardless of whether a Puerh is a raw (sheng) in cake or loose form, or a cooked (shou) version in pressed or loose form, there is the question of what the age of the provider of leaves is. This question differs from ‘how old the cake is’ or ‘how old the tea itself is’. 

The horizon is a green series of rows of 'tai di' or young bushes near Nannuo Mountain, Xishuangbanna.

The horizon is a green series of rows of ‘tai di’ or young bushes near Nannuo Mountain, Xishuangbanna.

Age of trees or bushes is one of the questions particularly vital to any discussion or selection of Puerh (regardless of how you spell it). A ten-year old tea doesn’t tell the drinker anything about the age of the leaves when picked, and for many of us this is a more intriguing and more delicious question than it sometimes gets credit for.

Harvests ideally fall into 5 categories…and here I use the simple structure and language of the villagers and locals I’ve long sourced from. Their language is simple, their feel for tea immaculate, and their views rarely overly complex or pretentious. They too disagree at times, and as happens frequently, the terminology that exists is that which has been injected and sometimes imposed upon from the world outside the tea regions. It is this world which needs terms for marketing, marking up, and mystifying (in many cases overly-so).

Bushes are often pruned to keep them relatively neat and easy to harvest from. Communities that are fortunate enough to have ancient trees want to retain them in their natural forms and refrain from over-harvesting. The value of such teas consistently rises with each new year.

Bushes are often pruned to keep them relatively neat and easy to harvest from. Communities that are fortunate enough to have ancient trees want to retain them in their natural forms and refrain from over-harvesting or over-pruning. The value of such teas consistently rises with each new year.

Each category of ‘age of provider’ has its own breadth of possibilities in terms of flavor profile, aftertaste, qi and effect on the digestive and intestinal systems. There are some general characteristics that locals will refer to again and again when speaking about the ‘age of the source of leaves’. Ancient trees and old trees generally provide smoother teas with less astringency (if produced well). Wild tea trees can carry a load of astringency that can be like a digestive cleanser and scrubbing brush all in one. Medium and younger bushes provide a little more blast and bitterness (not necessarily a negative for many palates). Older trees are also generally fine on empty stomachs, whereas harvests from younger bushes and trees can cause (what a good friend of mine, Rob) once called “true distress on the innards”.

There are five categories that are used by Southern Yunnan locals (and one extra little designation) with a ‘rough’ guideline for age of source. These age numbers – like so very much in the tea world – aren’t always agreed upon standards but they can steer a drinker in a direction. I’ve heard some refer to a 60 year old growth of green as being ancient, and there was a tale that a grower near Lao Ma E(r) in the Bulang Mountains trying to sell an ‘ancient tree tea’ that was likely from 30 year old large leaf bushes.

 

  1. Tai Di – Young bushes (Under 15-20 years)
  2. Sen Tai – Medium Aged bushes (20-80 years)
  3. Lao Shu – Old tree (80 years +)
  4. Gu Shu – Ancient Tree (100 years +)
  5. Yī kē shù – Single Tree (1 tree’s tea leaves. Rare but out there – the leaves are entirely of one single tree. Expensive and something of a treat for those looking for a true single origin tea)
  6. Yě shù – Wild Tree (Usually old or ancient and somewhat of a wild cat, these teas can be blockbuster brutes but are also capable of being something of a one off stunner).
Taking the term 'single origin' to another level, there are examples in the Puerh world where there is a limited edition tea that is sourced and harvested from one single tree or bush. Expensive, often fake, but entirely divine if one can find an authentic offering.

Taking the term ‘single origin’ to another level, there are examples in the Puerh world where there is a limited edition tea that is sourced and harvested from one single tree or bush. Expensive, often fake, but entirely divine if one can find an authentic offering.

Another aspect of tea is mixing and it is here that some of the dark forces come into play. Many so-called ‘Gu Shu’ (ancient tree) offerings are mixed or blended ‘down’ with additional young bush leaves. Well-practiced eyes (and palates) can identify this if one breaks and peers into a cake (this practice is less simple with loose leaf offerings where leaves can be studied in wonderful obsessive detail). By ‘cutting’ the ancient tree leaves with younger leaves, the overall quality is also cut. But who can tell? It is the sometimes only the truly obsessed and knowledgeable that can sniff out a tea that has been cut. For those that care it is one of the great ills of the modern Puerh world, for it is a deliberate attempt to manipulate an end product and ultimately lie to drinker’s palates.

Puerh

An old tree or perhaps ancient. In any case the tree is around 100 years old according to the locals close to Meng Song, Xishuangbanna.

All of the above ‘ages of sources’ can create great infusions if produced and served carefully, just as a Single Tree Origin’s from an ancient tree can be a mess of awful results if there is incompetence, apathy or simply intentional skullduggery.

A very young cutting starting its life out near its ancient tree DNA bloodlines in the background in He Kai.

A very young cutting starting its life out near its ancient tree DNA bloodlines in the background in He Kai.

With all things tea there is that informal ‘law of the leaf’: Know your source, and you will know your tea.

Posted in JalamTeas, Media, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Explorers Summit – Cardiff Wales, Exploration and its vital people and tales

World Explorers Summit in Cardiff Wales

Will be speaking at the World Explorers Summit in September…with tea at the ready. Great line up of speakers and passionate engagers of this world and its tales.

Cardiff, Wales – September 3/4, 2016

The all important 'us' on a the Glacier's Breath Expedition...the all important porters who carry the burden and still smile.

The all important ‘us’ on a the Glacier’s Breath Expedition…the all important porters who carry the burden and still smile.

Posted in Explorations, Media, Mountains | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tea Journey Begins

Tea Journey Magazine is now up and running on Kickstarter for the next 60 days. A great initiative for one of the fastest growing consumer industries on the planet and one that dearly needs a more intimate and authentic telling of its tales. I’m happily contributing to both tastings and tasting notes on teas from Yunnan…and casting eyes sideways to sample fellow contributors’ selections. Ultimately it is about opening up the world of tea and providing simple platforms by which to enjoy teas, without hype or hyperbole.

Mountain brother Kamal enjoys a sip of 'whatever' tea. Matters not what vintage...just that it is tea.

Mountain brother Kamal enjoys a sip of ‘whatever’ tea. Matters not what vintage…just that it is tea.

Rehashed tales and information needs to be greatly diluted with a bit of authenticity and some grit. It is also in need of those who care for the leaf, produce it and not simply profit from its wonderful resurrection.

Posted in Explorations, Mountains, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tea’s Last Guardians – The Himalayan Muleteers and the Tea Horse Road

Joining the storied Royal Geographical Society here in London as they host my upcoming talks: Tea’s Last Guardians – The Himalayan Muleteers, this upcoming Monday and Tuesday. A magnificent venue to rant on about two great fuels: tea and mountains…and their epic custodians whose grand work rarely gets a worthwhile bit of mention.

Tea Horse Road - Muleteers and Guardians

Monday, March 21st at the RGS headquarters and a follow up presentation put on by the RGS for the City Lecture Series on Tuesday March 22nd, will allow for some rants on the landscapes and personalities upon the Tibetan Plateau. The Gya-lam (Tea Horse Road), the Ancient Road of Salt (Tsa-lam), and the Pashmina Route (Hor-lam) will also be introduced.

Posted in Explorations, Media, Mountains, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pu erh Tea and its Precious Pickers

There is much made of a tea’s geographic designation, its altitude, its harvest season, and its growers…and there should be! The earth, the temperate surroundings and the handlers and coaxers of the leaves are to be thanked and acknowledged.

Within the Bulang Mountain's ancient tree forests in southwestern Yunnan.

Within the Bulang Mountain’s ancient tree forests in southwestern Yunnan.

Every effort and breath within the mountains and forests, every little build up to harvest time matters. Harvesting for the purists is a time not simply when leaves are clipped. It is the moments/days/months before, watching how bushes and trees form, grow, develop or wither. It is also vital to study the leaves and plants post-harvest to see how the leaves have faired.

Pu erh - Harvest

A sip can bring this all to mind, or simply bring into focus the flavonoids and chemistry that moves the senses. Pu erh tea particularly is one that deserves some understanding from start to finish because it is such a simple and sometimes inconsistent process.

Pu erh - Harvest

Pickers, and particularly those who are part of old clans that have been ‘at the leaf’ for generations are bound to this end-result-first sip moment. Their piston-like picking may not appeal as art but their abilities to instantly recognize what to pick (if at all), when to pick and then slice it off with a quick slit of a fingernail do bear acknowledgement and some praise.

Pu erh - Harvest

Usually women – though not always – make their way through the soft round loamy hills, and feeling the textures and soil. They know what days and times might not be ideal for the removal of a leaf from its stem. It is often they, who will understand why leaves may wither or wilt, or indeed why they might thrive. Bun from the Wa people once remarked, “Of course I know the leaves. They are children and there are very few days that I am not beside them”. This brings the difference of machine vs hand picked harvests into close focus as well. Machines simply don’t do well in terms of discernment or exact location to cut the leaves from stems. They don’t do well with the feel of a leaf. Hands, and particularly those in the indigenous forests of southern Yunnan province have never had machines to pluck or cut and they view such instruments as brutal instruments of trauma.

Pu erh - Harvester

A focused and learned picker can tell when a tree or bush’s roots are not draining well just from looking at the leaves and stems. It is one of the great and deadly plights of a tea plant when moisture gathers at the roots without an exit point and so there must be a kind of immediate interpretation and that interpretation is done by one who knows the soils intuitively. As many of Yunnan’s old gardens and forests become the target of larger tea companies wanting to put a brand name upon a particular mountain, or region, minimum harvest targets and increasing yields means that some of the forests’ inherent sustainable model are disappearing. Pickers are more than simply removal agents of the green stimulant gems; they are the witnesses and monitors of the lands and forests.

Harvesting is knowing about not only the correct time, but which bushes and trees to pick from and about the intensity of the picking itself.

Harvesting is knowing about not only the correct time, but which bushes and trees to pick from and about the intensity of the picking itself.

The much used word “sustainability” can also be credited to the pickers and indigenous, for it is they who can and often do decide not to pluck from certain trees or bushes, deciding instead that the bush is stressed and should rest. “Ama” a Hani matron who I’ve spent time with in the tea mountains of southern Yunnan also reminds that it isn’t simply a case of picking all leaves in sight. Plucking is an ongoing observation period and study of something that is obsessed over. All of this takes place in tandem with the singing and rampant conversations that seem to accompany all harvests. Work with song within the leaves.

Pu erh - Harvest

Posted in JalamTeas, Mountains, Tea | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nomad’s Fine Food – Air-Dried Yak

Tibetan styled air drying. Slabs of yak meat hang in a nomad’s tent letting 4500-metre air and wind dry one of the vital protein sources for families in the Himalayas. Yak have long been one of the essentials for the very highest of high-residents, providing sustenance, cloth, mobile transport and tools. In the words of Omu (pictured), “We wouldn’t be able to be nomads without our yak”.

Nomads - Air Drying Yak meat

The nomad ways are a combination of ultimate pragmatism with a touch of the otherworldly, and a worship of all natural elements.

A binding and timeless cooperation that hopefully will remain. Many Tibetans will not/can not kill their own beasts, instead depending on outsiders to do the slaughtering. With many of the nomad clans, however, practical needs outweigh all. With a blessing and a well placed long knife, the yak is despatched and given tribute for its offering.

Posted in Explorations, Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment