Mountains and Their Precious Rivers

Rivers - Jeff Fuchs

Returning to northwestern Yunnan’s snow-clad mountains and their precious waterways. We’ll wander up the Salween River (pronounced Gyalmo Gyul Chu and written རྒྱལ་མོ་རྔུལ་ཆུ། in Tibetan) to the eastern extension of the Himalayas and a slow route south along portions of both the Mekong (pronounced Dza Chu in Tibetan and written རྫ་ཆུ) and Yangtze (Ma Chu at the source and written རྨ་ཆུ) Rivers.

Mountains - Jeff Fuchs

All of these waterways find their way off of the Tibetan Plateau and collectively they chart almost 20,000 km’s striating and convening as they journey to distant seas. Long coveted by the people within the mountains as living beings, the waterways are fast becoming the most coveted items to many beyond the ‘hills’.

Water - Jeff Fuchs

Tortured and utterly precious, the rivers are the arteries of the mountains, fed by glaciers and deep springs. Journeys that begin as begin as numbingly cold and clean descend to become barely recognizable. For centuries the rivers acted as not simply sources but as guides for the traders, pilgrims, and wildlife of the mountains.

Mountains - Jeff Fuchs

Winter’s snows are still atop the mountains that hang and feed the rivers – a perfect time to be there.

Water - Jeff Fuchs

As the nomadic Yi often say of the rivers, “As long as the water makes a sound, all is well”.

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A Brilliant Bit of Puerh Sampled…at Last

Almost ten years ago a particular Ban Zhang Puerh came gently into my life while sitting, ironically, in another tea town kilometres away. It wasn’t my first Ban Zhang experience but rather the first Ban Zhang experience that thoroughly impacted. This impact came not from the taste itself (for that was only to come much much later) but rather because of the generosity and tale of how the tea came to me.

An end view of the tea cylinder

An end view of the tea cylinder

 My annual jaunt to sample and procure in southern Yunnan had brought me deep into the Bulang Mountains to Lao Ma E village. At that point in time the village hadn’t quite yet gotten its consistency of tea production right, though it had stupendous raw materials in the form of its ancient tea tree forests. Its teas more often than not had remnants of dust, chicken feathers and all manner of goodies (some hidden, some not) within its teas. Goodies or not, the resultant state of tea-drunk that I was in, acquired over days of sipping had created a strong and not-unpleasant film in my mouth and across my teeth.

Meanwhile just ‘down the dirt track’ in Ban Zhang , its teas were already powering their way upwards becoming an astonishing village-artisanal-tea  (with the requisite astonishing prices for those special teas).

Sitting exhausted and absolutely ripped on days of samples and stimulant highs, I sat on the floor of a local family home along with another tea buyer, from Guangdong. I had met him a year previous in another town and in my mind referred to him as simply ‘Bamboo’ for his long bent body. He knew his teas and was one of the rare buyers I’d encountered who took chances with teas that he wasn’t certain of. Rare in the sense that not many mainland buyers take risks in sampling teas that aren’t going to necessarily ever sell. He enjoyed all teas for what they were and knew not simply the teas that sold but knew the people who produced almost every tea available in southern Yunnan. He had the requisite passion for people that some (though not nearly enough) within the tea world have.

A side view of the tea cylinder complete with the bamboo skin residue on the surface

A side view of the tea cylinder complete with the bamboo skin residue on the surface

We sat chatting comfortable in the knowledge that we weren’t competitors but rather fellow devotees of the leaf and the people behind the leaf. You tend to share more when there is that unspoken but entirely understood knowledge that our clients were never likely to be crossing over.

Discussions between buyers of tea often run the gamut of which tea’s from which villages and regions we had sampled, how we felt about production this year, and basically anything Puerh related. It is a time of equals or nearly equals and certainly of equal love of the leaf that involves gossip, guess-work, and notes on flavours.

An end wedge broken off reveals the inner leaves, which often gives a better idea of a tea's legitimacy

An end wedge broken off reveals the inner leaves and bud content, which often gives a better idea of a tea’s legitimacy

It was at this point that he unfurled a long rolled up towel of various tea shapes – all meticulously labeled – and presented me with a gift. A gift of tea from those that spend much of their lives obsessing over and shooting back liters of, it is something of an offering of a lifelong bond. It is a desire to share something special, potent, or simply something deemed good. This little collection of dried beauty in a half a dozen shapes and sizes were part of his seasonal collection of teas that he had found “interesting” (and yes, “interesting” is a legitimate description in the tea world). The ‘gift’ was an eight-inch tube of compressed Ban Zhang tea in raw form. Bamboo informed me in his rapid-fire nasal twang that it was a tea I would thank him for introducing me to, but would regret because of its inaccessibility (here he clearly meant availability and the ludicrous prices that such a tea could command). He referred to it as an astonishing tea that I should only sip after five years. Whether it be a Pu erh cake, a nest, a brick or cylinder, formed or compressed Pu erh’s are revelations of flavours every time they are unveiled. Leaves in their compressed forms age differently than do a pile of loose leaf tea, with the friction of the compression creating its own signature on a tea.

Ban Zhang teas have steadily increased in value (though some might argue the point) and this gift was in a rare cylinder form having been recently made by Dai artisans who acquired some of the precious Spring harvest. One of the most ancient forms of compressed or formed teas, the cylinder was long a method of creating compact shapes ideal for the transporting of teas and was – and still is to a degree – a bit of an art form in itself. Though the tea itself was not cultivated by the Dai people, they are one of the creators of such teas in this form. Ban Zhang teas have reached a kind of pinnacle of price point in the world of Puerhs, so much so that its teas regularly sell out before the teas have even been harvested regardless of price. Sumptuous raw materials, a name that is almost fabled, and an ever-increasing standard and consistency has taken this tea into the arena of legends.

The leaves unfolding in their first ever experience with a flared cup

The leaves unfolding in their first ever experience with a flared cup

Steamed and in a forced into fragrant bamboo husks (a particular species of bamboo) the Dai create leaves that are fragranced slightly with their time within the husk, emerging as masterpieces. Quality tea leaves with added manipulations would in some portions of the tea-drinking world be sacrilege…unless one’s palate for risk and adventure is high. Any Puerh deemed respectable or otherwise can find itself being prepared for this immersion into bamboo, but usually it is a tea that is considered excellent to start with, as the process is not common nor is it one that just anyone can perform.

——-

Presently and finally that tea cylinder lies uncovered in front of me after thousands of kilometres of travel and almost a decade of intention. Four years ago I wrapped it in a layer of light paper from a Dai village to wrap it. Having sat in a box untouched since then, and never sampled, it now sits awaiting its dousing with hot water. It is just after 4 pm in the afternoon and it is almost the time of the first harvest throughout the tea world. Spring teas the world over are awaited with something akin to a slightly paranoid lust. Considered by many to be the harvest of all harvests, drinkers are also wary of the famed fakes that abound.

A first round infusion

A first round infusion

Hawaii may not be a place that strikes one as tea country but in the words of one of my tea mentors “A good tea takes you into the earth of its birth”. My stained and loyal tea table provides the setting.

My own imminent travel back to Yunnan has reminded me of this tea and it seems a fitting time to sample and remember how it came into my hands and pay a little tribute to that man Bamboo.

 The cylinder is tightly compressed, with the light delicate strands of the inner layer of bamboo adhering to its surface like threads. Part of the delicate flavouring of the tea comes from this ‘skin’ and it is not simply any bamboo which can be used but rather a delicate version, which is available in the autumn months.

Whittling away an end of the cylinder a wedge comes off with a slight satisfying crack of noise. I’ve already decided that there will be no first throw-away rinse of this tea but rather a long infusion time to loosen up the tight compressed leaves and a contented swilling down of the first round. I’m not going to waste the water nor the precious first opening round of this special tea. The description those years’ ago from Bamboo of this tea being “astonishing” come at me into view as I prepare.

Peeking in to watch the leaves unfurl

Peeking in to watch the leaves unfurl

In the subsequent years since receiving this gift I ran into Bamboo three more times as we charted our respective courses through the Puerh lands of southern Yunnan and each time we’d share teas, stories, whisky and he’d inevitably ask if I’d sampled the tea that he’d presented, to which I could only shake my head. Then I lost track of him and his wondrous tea ended up in one of my boxes of neatly arranged artifacts of tea. I think of Bamboo and his life now and wonder where he might be and what his tea collection might look like. I think too of the wonderful generosity of that moment and how simple most of the most cherished gifts inevitably are.

This first infusion – so maniacally important to some and casual to others – takes a long while to inundate and break into the solid compacted shape. The fully boiled water though, works its own bit of magic and it will not be denied as it slowly breaks up the tightly held together leaves.

Good amounts of white end buds appear and unfurl. The colour retains a fairly light apricot hue given that this tea has aged almost ten years. I expect more colour but as I watch there is a hint that it will in fact continue to darken over the course of successive infusions.

The wonderful 'end pile' of what is left. The 8 grams made 9 superb infusions without losing strength

The wonderful ‘end pile’ of what is left. The 8 grams made 9 superb infusions without losing strength

Scent-wise a coppery-earth smell comes up out of the steaming leaves and the first sip is a powerful jolt of initial iron and soil that hit the sides of the tongue. It gives way to layers further in the mouth with a touch of smoke and some soft but unrelenting notes of brown sugar. The finish is a sweet one as any great tea endeavors to do as it disappears into the throat.

Bamboo has left its impression, softening the powerful Ban Zhang flavours and introducing some sweet touches. A second infusion softens but lengthens in time and experience as further layers of the leaves are revealed and the whole mouth can take part. Age has softened edges but with classic teas like Ban Zhang that are produced well, those edges remain ever so slightly and strength is retained. Bamboo has added soft nuances that are unmistakable and almost loam-like. The colour has in fact darkened and this raw Puerh’s transition tint-wise is one of the proofs of its ageing.

Two differing bamboo offerings from my collection that both show some of what makes this particular offering something special. Exposed buds, stems, and compressed leaves.

Two differing compressed bamboo offerings from my collection that both show some of what makes this particular offering something special. Exposed buds, stems, and compressed leaves that develop with time differently than a loose leaf bunch.

There haven’t been too many sips taken in my days of tea that don’t take me back to where the leaves and people of the leaves reside but this particular session hints at something all-encompassing. Produced by Hani, grown in the famed red clays of the greater Bulang Mountain, and ‘curated’ by the dominant minority of the region, the Dai, this experience is one that feels ‘entirely Yunnan’. Age has nicely rounded off the edges of this tea and will continue to over time. With Puerh cakes or cylinders one of the great beauties is that one can never be entirely certain of which tea will age well and become something better. Right storage might help and great raw materials and carful production cannot harm,but there is still a kind of random bit of alchemy involved.

As one of my old tea mentors once remarked during a tea-taking session, “What you taste when you know what has gone into creating that tea is an entirely different sensation than that same tea served without its story, without its hands”.

A view into the cylinder itself revealing why compressed teas were so popular long ago for ease of transport

A view into the cylinder itself revealing why compressed teas were so popular long ago for ease of transport

For now at least my hand remains perched contentedly upon the cup in front of me.

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The Ancient Tea Horse Road – Now in Portuguese

As an old trader along the Ancient Tea Horse Road once remarked to our team as we traveled through his village, “You all are lucky because you can read, you can write, and can tell a story that many will hear. I cannot read or write…I can only speak if there is somebody listening”.

Dandee Pinchu (tea trader, brigand, bodyguard, muleteer extraordinaire)

Dandee Pinchu (tea trader, brigand, bodyguard, muleteer extraordinaire)

In his case, his words rest here in this text so his audience has multiplied and many have heard his voice and of his tales.

Heartfelt gratitude and thanks to the courageous Livros de Bordo who relentlessly ploughed on with publishing my Ancient Tea Horse Road into Portuguese and extended this great mountain route’s history to a wider audience. Language is kept accurate and the thoughts and subtle wisdom of a last generation of muleteers and traders is wonderfully intact.

Tea Horse Road - Jeff Fuchs

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Tea Horse Road – words from Drolma

Elder Drolma from Dzogong speaks and reminisces about the days of the Tea Horse Road linking her home in eastern Tibet with Lhasa and beyond. In her words “It was a journey that both gave and took life”. Both Drolma and her husband offered up bo jia (butter tea) while speaking about an eternal route of tea, trade, and of relentless movement through the mountains.

nomad - Jeff Fuchs

These words (like so many from the elders) spoke of something tangible and fierce, but ultimately of a route that bound cultures within the Himalayas’ protective walls to others that they would never meet. The Tea Horse Road was one of the great Himalayan pipelines and providers to peoples whose version of luxury might extend to a single extra brick of tea or a bag of salt.

They spoke of a route of punishing and suffering landscapes that ranks as one of the great adventures. Always though was the reminder that the mountains also protected.

When our team of six moved on from Drolma’s home with full bellies and lumps in the throat, she wished us well on our way to Lhasa and with a small grin (that kept it all very real) reminded that though Lhasa was the holy place, she’d heard that thieves were perhaps more clever there and told us to “Bow on your knees to the great Jokhang Temple while keeping one hand on your knives”.

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Condè Nast Traveller Tea Article on Jeff Fuchs

 

Condè Nast Traveller Tea Article on Jeff Fuchs

Condè Nast Traveller introduces my latest tea-fueled exercises in the green leaf here.

A trip of sips with some of the most ancient of cultures of the green on the planet…from soil to cup.

Tea preparation with Bulang minority

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Snow Curtains in Tibet

Winter has set in marking the end of my own season within the Himalayas and Tibet. It is time for the  grand silences and deep cold – that seep into and out of the earth – to bring their annual change to the earth. This year brought with it all of the mountain magic that it always does with additional reference points on the ancient trade routes that once passed through the Himalayas, the health of the heights, and a confirmation that what happens in the heights will inevitably soon find its way down.

Tibet - Monastery

The time within the mountains also emphasized however impregnable they remain, they also are changing at speed and suffering as temperatures rise, glaciers melt into the depths, and water becomes an even more tempestuous necessity and commodity. Sand dunes climb ever higher into the mountain valleys as silt and sand from dry river beds are blown and carried into the heights.

Tibet - Sand Dunes

As always though, the overwhelming feeling and perhaps ‘lesson’ that I take with me is that beyond the risks and sheer daunting nature of the spires, snow passes, and isolation, the mountains offer up something of a sanctuary and silence. They nurture even while they are abused.Tibet - Himalayas

In a season that saw a Tibetan mastiff attack a friend leaving an inch-deep puncture in a leg, a blood oxygen level of another friend drop to half of what it should, the Himalayas did once again show an astonishing ability to soothe and remind of the sanctity of the elements.

Tibet - Nam Tso

Nam Tso lake in its magnificent sheen of power, and high-altitude waves that crash into the shoreline remain somehow pristine. The ever-flowing Tsangpo River which is the highest major river in the world, follows its ancient route etching its way through canyons and communities as it has for ages.

Tibet - Himalayas

Black necked cranes wandered through the valleys as elegant and without fear as they are rare. Beyond the buffer that the Tibetan Plateau has offered up in ice and stone, the great glacial pieces have long been the providers of some of the most important waterways on the planet. They are the crucial feeds of the waterways.

Tibet - Himalayas

I was also reminded of the wisdom that remains so present in the mountains when Tibetan friend Gonpo said one day “The mountains and rivers are the same. One end is always attached to the other end and you cannot touch part without touching the whole thing”. I would only add to that, that one cannot touch a part without being touched.

Tibet - Himalaya

A trader (another of those gems of the times when things moved and were moved by foot rather than wheels) offered up another mountain law telling me ”If you are lost, you must ‘follow the snow’. It too has a path” – this while looking at a white drape of snow lining the entire sky.Mount Everest

Chomolungma the great female deity that rises in stone higher than any piece of earth, (aka Mount Everest) sits broadly and mesmerizing in its intensity. But it also feels intensely calm and almost forlorn.

Tibet - Sand Dunes

I often wonder what the mountains would wish for and what they might observe. Tibetans certainly think that they might slowly shake their heads at some of the shenanigans performed by their noisy little two legged neighbours. Or perhaps the mountains might simply remind us that beyond being wondrous widths of stone and ice, that they are also the harbingers of things to come.

Tibet - Himalayas

In Tibetan there aren’t really words for good-bye but rather to “live long”, “go slowly”, “go well”… and so a year comes to an end ‘going slowly’. People, phases, time itself are all given a farewell but rarely a good-bye.

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Our Expedition Ladakh gets Cover Feature in Outpost Magazine

Delighted to make the cover-feature (top-less no less) of Canada’s award-winning Outpost Magazine in the current edition. Our journey last year along the Route of Wind and Wool, tracing the ancient Himalayan pathways by foot is the focus.

Cover - Outpost, Issue 101

Expedition Ladakh, Jeff Fuchs

Another of the great mountain’s unheralded routes gets a little light shone on it with some emphasis on the glaciers, which continue to ‘bleed’ and disappear. Our ‘expedition Ladakh’, known more accurately as the Route of Wind and Wool (both of which thrive up in the mountains) was an odyssey as much into the suffering mountains as they were along a timeless route of commodities.

glacier - Jeff Fuchs

Indeed, it was the glaciers (and the elusive snow leopard) that were occupying the mind during much of this journey. A few years ago, according to a local, glaciers like the one above were “covered in white“. Now, “The mountains I knew as white, my son has only known as black and snowless“.

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Tea-Infused Journey to the Sources of the Leaf – Beginning next March

 

Much sipping, waiting, travelling, and finally contentment, has been put into creating a tea tour with Wild China where we will sip of the greens, the whites, the precious Puerhs and as many other teas as we can manage in between. A journey that begins next March spanning China’s famed southern tea belt, it will be nothing short of an odyssey of instruction and history as it applies to what was known once simply as ‘du’ or ‘bitter herb’.

A tea cultivator enjoys a tea high away from the precious leaves

A tea cultivator enjoys a tea high away from the precious leaves

An immersion into the fluid, the leaves themselves, and the personalities behind names like the famed (and much faked) Longjing, and ancient tree Puerh. How tea is produced, its history and a rampant bit of sampling at all hours of the day and night will be enjoyed.

tea - jeff fuchs

From my adopted home in Yunnan, we’ll head east into the southeast of China, where Oolongs were born and shipped out by schooner, and where white buds now stir up trends.

tea - jeff fuchs

Tea as a medicine, as a tonic, as a food and fuel, and tea in its most notable form: desiccated leaves unleashed by water, will all be looked at and sampled where possible. We’ll take in one of the ancient world’s great green commodities in tiny sips, and great heaving gulps.

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Sri Lanka In Style and Dilmah Teas join with Jeff Fuchs

 

Though I’m not known for cocktails, looking forward to joining tea-stained forces with Dilmah Teas and Sri Lanka In Style for a series of hosted talks and evenings throughout some of Sri Lanka’s most fabled resorts. Tea tales, mountain tales, and some ‘tangent’ tales to be shared.

Event(s) Information here.

tea - Jeff Fuchs

 

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Tea Horse Road – Nomad Style

Few can claim to live as simply and as absolutely efficiently within (and atop) their environment as the nomads (ndrog’ba) who have long learned to survive and thrive well above 4,000 metres. Closer to the sky than most, their lives are shorn down to essentials, and precious few luxuries. One of the great fuels and treasures was ‘ja‘ (tea).

Tea Horse Road - Nomad Style - Jeff Fuchs

During many visits with Ajo and Omu over the course of years to their various seasonal homes, the bare minimum of ‘things’ always struck the mind. Like so much that is hidden and understated about these people, their role as prime consumers of tea along the Tea Horse Road has gone largely undocumented.

Tea Horse Road - Nomad Style - Jeff Fuchs
Only what is absolutely needed is taken…tea was inevitably one of those necessities.

Tea,  could always be found and was always craved and in fact much of the tea in history that travelled along the Tea Horse Road was destined for the smoky yak wool tents of the nomads. As one old saying of the nomads goes, “We waited for the caravans bringing tea like we waited for family”.

Within Ajo and Omu’s tent, tea was a constant, whether flowing, being prepared, or waitng. Most often in its bamboo and rattan cylindrical containers, bricks of the stuff inevitably sat close to the altar, occupying a place of rare privilege in the lives of truly stoic people.

Tea Horse Road - Nomad Style - Jeff Fuchs

Cooked rather than infused, with additions of thick butter globs and salt, a kettle would be tucked into the embers and kept at the ready day and night.

Of tea, Ajo once said, “Tea is a food, it is something valued from far away, and it is something that no nomad would ever leave the tent without first sipping.”

Tea Horse Road - Nomad Style - Jeff Fuchs

Ajo, like his people, wasn’t given to much excess talk, but tea, yak wool, and the weather occupied both his thoughts and words to an almost obsessive degree.

It is as concise a description as any I’ve heard about tea’s enduring vitality.

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