Moments with an Aging Classic – Bada at 10 years

“Forget about worrying about age. Forget it! If a tea isn’t made well, it isn’t going to become better. It is just going to age”.

Teacher, Provocateur and wonderful palate for all things tea…at work in one of his many playgrounds: the Bulang Mountains

One of the many voices that have counselled and often chided me comes from Mr. Li from Guangdong. Buyer of exceptional teas throughout China for collectors for decades, he runs a teashop that specializes in teas that are simply out of most people’s price range. “Aged” teas was one of his great peeves and discussion points. He raged against pricing a tea simply based on an apparent age of tea. Instead, he was an advocate on knowing a teas’s origins and knowing it was made simply with a good pair of hands belonging to a tea-mind.

Part of the wrap…though the wrappers can be misleading and outright lies. A wrap is just that whereas the storage for tea is a vital

Travelling with him throughout the years, I was gifted a particular treat one year when I joined him for a ten day tour with him through the Puerh tea regions of southern Yunnan years ago. He was – and continues to be – a rough-hewn sage on all matters life, but particularly tea. We spoke about tea, dismissed much that was tea related, and obsessed upon what made good teas good: good hands and great raw materials.

Bada 2007 Old tree cake at first glance. Not an overly tight compression but ideal for ageing as oxygen can circulate.

What was beautiful was that he simply enjoyed sharing knowledge and wasn’t the least bit interested in trying to sell me anything. It was about popping some predisposed bubbles about tea and hype. It remains the most productive and instructive tea episode I’ve been on the receiving end of.

“A good tea is above all other things, simple”. That was it for him. The sum of decades of tasting and making the leaf every single season was the word “simple”. It was with him that I ‘procured’ teas for my own enjoyment based on his words and gentle pushings. That was almost a decade ago and many of those little procurements only now (according to his recommendations) are getting some sampling.

An unveiling and an overview of the tea cake. Lighter coloured end buds are sliding into darker tones.

His face, like those of mentors or disruptors in life, appear often in tea related activities and when his provocative words come, they come full force into my mind.

It is his nonchalant way of speaking that arrives as I unfurl and prepare a Bada Mountain raw ‘Sheng’ Puerh cake from 2007, that reminds me why I acquired the cake in the first place. “This is a good tea and it will remain a good tea for a very long time”. Mr. Li was the very virtue that which he proclaimed a good tea should be: simple. He knew teas and found no reason to be overly stressed about who knew it.

The little table where so many tea operations take place.

Bada Mountain is a sanctuary of old tree forests and the handling skills of the local Hani has been consistent. I bought the cake along with about a dozen others that he recommended to me from different mountains and communities. Many cakes were consumed in the interim but many from that particular sojourn still remain and I chisel off some compressed leaves once in a while to sip them and make note of what is encountered. The Bada is one of the rare ones that hadn’t yet been sampled or ruffled from its little sleep.

Another one of Mr. Li’s mantras was that every single palate would encounter a tea slightly differently, so what was a ‘good’ tea had to be pinned down, otherwise the subjective palates of all would dictate what was “good” or “bad”. He spoke of three concepts again and again for raw Puerhs. In his frame of reference (and subsequently in mine) the notions of a clean and definable flavour with clear nectar, and he was absolute in his advocating that Sheng ‘raw’ naturally aged Puerhs should possess a little bit of ‘苦’  (‘ku’ or ‘bitterness’ in Mandarin) when it hits the mouth (but subsequently trails softer when swallowed), and lastly he mentioned his well-repeated comment to “forget about worrying about age”. In his views, the leaves’ quality was more important before the ‘age’ of a tree or cake.

Getting into a the Bada cake requires some gentle whittling…and then a little bit of force.

My own little tea table hosts this little series of sips with the Bada cake that finally gets unfurled. Mr. Li often espoused the virtues of sipping the first infusion, when one was certain of its source rather than rinsing. Unveiling the cake, the wrap crinkles open in folds and there the compressed cake sits. Leaves from old trees in semi-states of dormant fetal state. Many more stems are visible than in more recent harvests but that is as much about the aesthetic as anything. Stems carry tannins and flavours and their existence is nothing suspect. The light buds have turned a slightly apricot shade with time.

Much is made of teas that are ‘apparently’ decades old. Antiquity in the tea world is as suspect as any, and genuinely old teas are difficult to prove…and beyond it all, not necessarily ‘better’. What is stimulating in the Puerh world is to sample a tea throughout its natural ageing process when it is in those moments of change and comparing those notes to a previous tasting.

A closer look at and into the leaves that have remained in a kind of active dormancy

My own Bada sampling, which is done alone, upon one of my old tea tables is a simple affair and the first infusion has a copper tang as the tannins have morphed and gone from green vegetal into something more akin to a mineral set of taste markers. The tea is going dark and the flavour cuts cleanly with iron tones that penetrate the molars and go deep in the mouth. A kind of astringency cuts before giving way (as Mr. Li always emphasized ‘should’ happen) as the liquid departs the mouth. Second and third infusions followed in slow time and they please in that the tones are alive and in the very midst of big shifts towards their darker naturally aged versions.

It is this ‘in-motion’ that is special. It is a tea on the move with the volatile elements within taking part in this movement.

Alive and waiting. The first serving of leaves reinvigorated with water

The sips continue and go on and continue to unfurl. Michel de Montaigne the thinker, humanist and skeptic wrote “Why in judging a man do you judge him all wrapped up in a package?”, he continues …”you must judge him by himself, not by his finery”….and so it goes perhaps with tea too. That the tea itself on its own and out of its wrap and with a memory of a time and place is at its best.

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Interview with Love for Tea – The Tea Explorer

Love when the word ‘conversation’ is used instead of Interview. Had a wonderful ‘conversation’ with the eloquent Ruhani Sandhu of Rangsaa and Love for Teas.

Jeff Fuchs with tea trader who appears in The Tea Explorer documentary film

No conversation in recent times could be had without referring to one of my very favourite people, Konga. Here a moment during one of our own conversations about the days of tea trade in Lo Manthang, Mustang, Nepal.

The conversations ( Part 1 here) touched on some of the more intricate and intimate aspects of travel, tea, and mountains. They touched too, upon the motivations of mine to document not simply tea, but also its wonderful stewards and journeys. We spoke a little of the our recent film, The Tea Explorer, and the joy in bringing the Tea Horse Road tale (and its simple origins) to light.

Jeff Fuchs with a tea trader's satchel. The Tea Explorer

I hold one of Konga’s ancient horse leather satchels that he took on his trade journeys through the Himalayas. He joyfully dug through his paraphernalia which was in remarkably good shape…perhaps in wait for his next journey.

The Himalayas too often are seen simply as vertical challenges and efforts, rather than as magnificent horizontal journeys and adventures.

Nilgiri Peak in Mustang, Nepal. The Tea Explorer

Too often the timeless horizontal journeys through the mountains have been ignored in favour of the vertical journeys of the modern age. Here, the sacred Nilgiri peak in Mustang peeks out of a hole in the clouds.

A pleasure chatting with Ruhani about those journeys.

Mule team in Himalayas - The Tea Explorer

Journeys need contributors of two legs, of four legs – here our mule team during a recent expedition near Garphu in northern Mustang

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Our ‘The Tea Explorer’ Doc Film Gets Some Blushing Reviews

After much time, edits, permits, scoring the music and still more editing down from the team at 90th Parallel Productions, our first airing of The Tea Explorer took place on July 23rd. The first reviews are in.

Film critic John Doyle from the Globe and Mail  called ‘The Tea Explorer” 

“Visually sumptuous”.

and

“The program, made by Andrew Gregg, is an enchantingly successful hybrid of adventure tale and extravagant celebration of tea and you will never be blasé about tea again after seeing it”.

for a full review see here

One of the many characters along the Tea Horse Road. This monk from near Dzogong in Eastern Tibet aided our team with directions and information about the routing of tea.

James Bawden remarked that “The Tea Explorer May be the Year’s Best Documentary”.

Two more airings have been added to CBC’s Doc Channel Programming, and I’ll be updating as I know more of the workings of film screenings, and air dates on TV.

A Hani tea harvester near Menghai.

As always, a bow of thanks to the mountains, to the skies, to the leaves and characters, and to those of you that have followed these many journeys over these many years.

A moment in Lo Manthang, Mustang, just after I receive a Kata (scarf offering) from a muleteer and tea trader, Konga. Konga was first met when our film team were shooting the film The Tea Explorer and this photo was taken within his little bedroom. A massive prayer wheel sits patiently beside his bed.

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The Tea Explorer – Our Tea Documentary on CBC’s Doc Channel

Finally, our Tea Horse Road inspired film doc, The Tea Explorer has a first ever air-date on television on CBC’s Doc Channel on July 23rd, 2017 at 9pm ET. The link above will give a teaser of some of the people, leaves, and landscapes that are inseparable from this epic route through the sky. It is a story of Mountains, a green leaf, and the memories with some random obsessive bits from myself to fill in some of the spaces.

Shar Gong La, or Eastern Gate Pass along the Tea Horse Road in Tibet.

The Tea Explorer doc follows roughly the direction of my book but has to compress certain elements. Editing a passion project is an evil thing…for it takes an ability to cut out and for that I’m ever-thankful to 90th Parallel Productions  and director Andrew Gregg for making those cuts. For the film we followed a route into Nepal’s remote Mustang region and the hallucinatory spaces of the Kali Gandaki gorge. Our route traced yet another alternate route of the great tea road, as well as finding a gift: the absolutely epic trader, Konga, who features in our film and warms it with his integrity and passion. The film will travel to film festivals as well and I’ll be updating when possible about the tea-fueler progress of the film.

Epic Konga retrieving some of his trade paraphernalia, which was used for yak and mules. An epic interview with this treasure of the days of Himalayan trade.

We’ll follow the tea leaves off of ancient tea trees in Yunnan as they move through the Himalayas ending up in Kathmandu.

A Hani picker of tea moves along a branch in southern Yunnan Province

Will also update regarding online streaming and DVD possibilities as I know more. Good sips and thanks as always for continuing to participate in these mountain and tea-fueled rants and wanderings.

A moment with my idol, Konga, at a recent trip to revisit him and present him with some more of the Yunnan Puerh tea, he craves. The Tea Explorer is as much about these vital characters as it is about the tea itself. Tea could not have traveled for 13 Centuries without these titans of the mountains hauling it.

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Mustang – Part 2 – Route of Khampas

“A land of little and a route of much” is how I often view this present journey and it is how I’ve viewed many of Himalayan trade routes I’ve travelled. Our present route here in Mustang has taken us past an abandoned stone building that acted as the equivalent of a postal office and it now just shudders in the wind with its memories. The Khampas of eastern Tibet are part of Mustang’s history, having fought continued pitched battles during the Chinese occupation. The feared and often misunderstood Khampas had left impressions wherever they had travelled and they had certainly left their remnants here in Mustang.

Abhu and our faithful horse known as “Orange”.

Beyond 4,000 metres, the old postal structure has fallen in heaps with time, wind and cold. Little remains of what was once a drop off or pick up point for horsemen and travellers. The pathway we take snakes and drops and then always, it rises and rises.

One of many dilapidated structures that sit alongside our trail. Many abandoned communities lie in eastern Mustang.

To see such a hint of humanity’s presence is almost startling in this stark wind-infested world where we’ve joyfully encountered so little. It is quite a wonderful world where Nature dictates all and all of our team feel and accept it. We’ve all found our rhythm and Keoki, TJ, and Marcus are to be found at the lead following the fiercely strong Subash. Subash at times has to be gently instructed to keep the pace reasonable. His mountain power is something immeasurable at times and even while singing and hauling his kit, his pace tends to increase if not limited.

Each night a different home, with a different view and a variation on wind.

Meli and Julie trail up the rear but have also found a good pace and our team is a series of loosely strung dots along the route. Kiran and Pasang follow the ladies like wolfhounds. I am allowed to wander at will up, and into valleys to see what remains and admire the etched and wind-blown lands. Every once in a while amidst the wide landscapes a tiny paths darts off and it is likely that I’ll try and follow it.

Goats danse their way down with enviable ease

The Eastern flanks and communities (nomadic) of the Kali Gandaki Gorge have not had an easy time of it as water resources have dried up.  Glaciers no longer provide and we see the evidence of lost communities that for centuries stood, but had to move on. According to locals, snow doesn’t fall like it once did, and temperatures have steadily eased upwards. The terminology perhaps doesn’t matter…what matters is that it has happened and people have vacated. It isn’t change that has brought this on for a people who are used to Mother Nature’s moods…it is the speed of it.

A horseman who runs commodities and people like a small shuttle service was there to assist our team….which was followed by tea.

We plough through an 11 hr journey during one long segment, having to circumnavigate a mountain pass and the camp we crawl into seems somehow different. Abhu mentions that the region is known for Snow Leopards, and one morning we see the scat marks of one of the serene cats.

There always manages to be an extra ‘up’ after every successive ascent.

Mustang’s name has long been a question as it is known to locals as the Kingdom of “Lo”. Mustang is thought to be an aberration of ‘Lo Manthang’, which is the largest city in the north of Mustang. It doesn’t stop there either, as ‘Manthang’ is thought to be from “Mè” or “Mèn’thang” relating to grasslands and medicine. It is what we’ve been told by a local monk and it doesn’t surprise that once more an original name has been twisted into something more ‘suitable’ (but barely recognizable).

Subash during one of the rare moments when he wasn’t ascending at speed up the mountains.

Medicine’s, tea, salt, rice paper, and Buddhist scriptures could all be found moving through these huge spaces of light and colour. Mustang is colour it seems and light and wind. Mustang is also a place where the old gods and goddesses held sway, as much of the region was steeped in the ancient Bon traditions which predated Buddhism.

 

Our days get more interesting with each of our team member’s revealing of their character. This process is as entertaining and brilliant as the opening up of the huge spaces before us. Our team needs very little but they do require pay, respect and some fun and considering what they allow us in terms of freedom it is quite extraordinary how valuable to us they are.

The path continues north.

The tea that we are served by our chef Santosh comes in the morning, and every evening but still I prepare my own stash for myself and anyone else who desires it. It is a cake of He Kai raw green Puerh from ancient trees that brings with it some wonderful vegetal astringency and acts as an eternal tonic for me. As I unwrap it, I think always of the extra brick of tea that I’ve brought along for Konga, an old trader that lives further north. I met him two years ago and made a promise that I’d return to chat about the trade routes. I’d also promised him that I’d return with some of the tea that he loved: a Puerh from Yunnan, that I’d sourced a month ago. He had traded in tea and salt in his days and remembers well the teas from “the east”. It is one of the other reasons I’ve come back – because of a promise.

My own little tea stash with a kyusu tea vessel.

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Mustang’s Eastern Trade Route

Trade routes (still) offer up hints and teasers about how lands evolved and functioned. Everything from DNA to luxuries and tid-bits from the past travelled and each shipment and caravan needed the guardians, the traders and the willful to ensure that the world buzzed. Buddhism itself entered onto the Tibetan Plateau from one of these understated pathways. Nepal’s ancient kingdom of ‘Lo’, known today simply as Mustang, is a place where trade, migration, and pilgrimage routes have long coursed through.

Sun rises on Nilgiri Peak which rests west of Jomsom. Sacred and unclimbed it is another of the great pillars leading into Mustang.

Two years ago while filming the documentary, The Tea Explorer, I had wondered about the vast eastern flank that runs along the Kali Gandaki gorge. It was only now that I was able to return to this vast line of valleys and peaks. Tucked into the sides of disintegrating walls were caves where communities and hermits once resided. The isolation, the vibrance of the high arid earth tones, and the history of trade will always be enough of a draw to rope me in.

Nothing begins, no decision is made and nothing moves without first some tea

Trade and the spirit world fused in a kind of timeless weave in the Himalayas and it was upon the horizontal lines of the mountains (rather than the verticals) that the great journeys were undertaken. Months’ long journeys that took salt, tea, leather, corals, pilgrims, monks….all items and mortals that needed to move or had value, found their way into and onto one of the great spaces of the planet: the Himalayas.

Our group from left to right. Abhu, TJ, Pasang, Subash, Marcus, Keoki, Meli, Jeff, and Julie

For years these routes, whether mere barely visible strands or well marked bits have held me. Their ‘origins’ and their little stops along the way, as well as their ultimate destinations which seemed to change and evolve as time passed have been points of curiosity. Ultimately it was the journeys to trace the routes of tea that drew my attentions and this present journey to Mustang was no different.

Part of a gracefully disintegrating fortress wall in lower Mustang that lies along the trade rout

For every route, there is a tale and there are too, those precious personalities that in some cases remain to fill in some colour of the routes and the lives lived upon them.

This latest journey had the addition of my wife and 4 friends along. They’ve listened to me ramble on about the heights, the culture that resides within, and the addictive grind of ascents. Every single one of these wonderful additions was born at an altitude of less than 100 metres on an island. Hong Kong, Hawaii, Japan, and Guam all featured as birthplaces and as such all have watched as increasing water levels have affected their birthplaces encroaching ever further. I am the single member of the group that wasn’t born on an island. Where we tread in the Himalayas is on the opposite end of this trend of rising water levels. We will wander through villages and corridors that have lost vast amounts of their ice sheets and glaciers. Communities have had to move out of ancient homesteads because seasonal water flows have ebbed, or ceased all-together.

Subash (aka ‘Lion) on right and Abhu who hails from Mustang. Two vital parts of our team who will only get more vital as time passes.

We begin with a meeting with our team of Sherpas (Tibetan: ‘Eastern People’, ‘Sher’ or ‘Shar’ meaning ‘East’ and ‘Pa’ or ‘Ba’ meaning people), Magars (another Tibetan group who reside further east in Nepal and Sikkim), a single ‘Tamang’ who is also of a Himalayan people and a local from Upper Mustang in Nepal. Teams in the mountains either become families in short order, or they simply are helpers. I choose the former and have been so fortunate over time to count many of the mountain teams as friends. They are beacons of so much knowledge and power and they have a kind of fatalistic mirth which I suppose comes with being born amidst the great peaks. “Our blood”, a Sherpa friend of mine likes to remind me “cannot forget where we were born”.

In the days along the trade routes, the lead mule was known as the Sho’drel to Tibetan muleteers. This here is our gem of a lead in full kit. Without such mules the entire caravan could end up in disarray. Still now, they are absolute musts on any journey.

After the meeting of our extended family a blessing in a small dark Nunnery outside Muktinath, by a single nun. The blessing is for safe passage and it soothes and calms and reminds that the bodies don’t simply operate on their own.

Our mule team strung out following the lead mule. Everything we need for the coming three weeks is carried on the backs.

The journey will follow a rough 200 km route whose lines will be spent ascending or descending into gorges and onto ridge lines. We begin it all between the twin snow lines of the 8000+metre Dhaulagiri and Annapurna in the windblown town of Jomsom.

Our own team heads up along a strand of a pathway that reaches up into other worlds

Under Pasang Sherpa’s lead and with a restless mule team we ease out and up.

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Darjeeling Chronicles (2 of 2) – Jungpana

Past Kurseong’s mildly raging centre of town we settle at last at Goomtee, again with Rajiv acting as flawless and entertaining guide easing us through everything. He recounts a years’ ago walk he took wandering through tea gardens when he was younger, when his family were younger…he speaks of Goomtee. Rajiv Lochan has been a kind of unflappable organizer as we wander, generously running us any which way we choose travel, with random bits of thoughts on all matters. He has utter faith in the methodology of the Goomtee and Jungpana estates and hints that it is one of his sanctuaries for marvelous tea…there is little that is left to chance, he says, in such places. The people, its teas, and its processes are systematic, entirely set and the results are something rare.

Tea strung out in every space

Tea strung out in every space

We’ve wandered through Darjeeling’s gardens for almost a month but it is here when we arrive in complete darkness that there is a sense of having really arrived. My wife Julie mentions this arrival and how odd it is that after all of this time, we end up arriving with no view of anything; just a sense of the place. Even in dark there is a feeling of a sanctuary as though the place is enveloped. The darks are darker, the silences left intact, and the air somehow filtered.

Jungpana

Morning comes with a gift in the name of Prem. Barefoot and silent, this wonderful character is cook and caretaker of the Goomtee house that we stay. He ghosts across floors that are kept spotless and waits unashamed for a nod of acknowledgement that his culinary creations are enjoyed, before disappearing with a slight smile.

Wonderful Prem

Wonderful Prem

It will be like this every single meal every single day, regardless of other events, tea sessions, whatever. Food here, like tea, is something utterly sacred and Prem is the purveyor of the former. Tea is served first thing in the morning, served again at breakfast and lunch as well as at dinner, with another tea break shoved nicely into the afternoon slot.

The classic tea estates of Castleton, Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope, Giddapahar and Makaibari all lie within easy reach but here in the quiet valleys of Goomtee, it feels very much like we’ve found a different place altogether…or so my mind feels. This valley’s teas have always benefited from some ‘tea-staples’: south facing slopes, ample mists – and sun – with loads of spring water and drainage, along with prime elevation. Besides Goomtee and Jungpana gardens, the valley which splays out encompasses the Muscatel estate as well as the Mahalderam estate.

Mr. Mudgal (with his scarf) looking over the leaves at Goomtee

Mr. Mudgal (with his scarf) looking over the leaves at Goomtee

Tastings over the next days are done with neatly lined up cups at all times of day. Tastings generally can be things of joy but they can too be times of darkness if potentials aren’t realized or the ever-moody palates aren’t properly satisfied. These sessions were not at all overcast or despondent.

Two sessions stand out in particular. One tasting was special for the teas in particular and the journey to get to the tasting and the other was impactful for the personality that accompanied the sublime fluid.

A tasting to be had

A tasting to be had

Mr. Mudgal, Goomtee’s elegant General Manager stands languidly in front of the cups with a scarf around his neck. He is gently directing and assessing all at once and the reverence that those around him have for him is genuine. DK, who stands beside me says of Mudgal and Goomtee generally “Tea here is still made with the hands instructing…how can a machine know when fermentation is done? It needs the hands”. We stand in the tasting room, which is an immaculate run by systematic ruler. Every thing has a function. Mr. Mudgal is a lot of things that are very different from Raj of Makaibari. Quiet and serious, his smiles are things rare and magical and as we sample there are the sharp inhalations of liquid zipping into the mouth and its depths. He is a strict adherent to a system and one who samples even the smallest of freshly produced runs of tea.

Jungpana

From beginning to finish Mr. Mudgal infuses his teas with this feel of utter dedication. He explains that all he is concerned with is the particularities of teas made here. He knows the various notes that the harvests should hit on the palate. “Every garden is different and every estate has specialties. I’m only interested in mine here”. There is fierce pride in his space and his teas, but not one spot of arrogance. He is a dedicate of the leaf and a staunch believer in those rare core values of effort and integrity, and whatever must be done to achieve a good tea, he will willingly do it. He and his spirit imbue the place, the people, and the teas and that reputation was only enhanced as I traveled through the region in the past weeks. Everyone spoke of an unerring master and of an elegant advocate for the “right way of doing things”.

Within the tasting room of the Jungpana Estate

Within the tasting room of the Jungpana Estate

The Spring harvests flirt with the palate but nothing more for me and that is because of my own preferences. Summer and Autumns however, shine with their smooth dark layers. Layers of butter and malt cruise into the palate and do not relent.

“Which do you prefer?”, comes the question. When I point out two and my wife points out one, he imparts some of the simple magic of the tea world…not some complicated theory or anything deliberately mystic. “These are all well made teas. What is important is to know why they are the way they are, and what gives each tea its qualities. It isn’t so important which tea you prefer”. From here he began an explanation of each tea and where it was from and what qualities he felt they imparted.

The 'Island in the Mountain'

The ‘Island in the Mountain’

The second tasting of note comes only after the legs have done some churning and some gardens have been wandered through. They pitch, angle and dip down into the bowl valley deep below. We wander through Muscatel and on into Jungpana, having left Goomtee by foot.

It wasn’t enough to simply take the teas and slurp them. When one can, one needs to see the gardens, walk the soil and see the pockets of community life that supplied harvesters, hands, and bodies to the Jungpana cause. With this walk one can feel and take in the reasons why this valley is such an ideal swath of land. Sitting in a south-facing island of isolation with spring fed streams and rivers that roll down the steep banks, tea bushes spring and line every contour and swell. Known as the “Island in the Mountains”, with chiseled gardens ranging from 914 to 1370 metres, access to the factory is still by little cart road which on this day is being reconstructed after recent landslides.

Jungpana's gardens

Jungpana’s gardens

Julie wanders with me through the factory which is another epically clean place of smoldering tangs and wafts. She is seeing different things, smelling different currents, and feeling the place differently…such are impressions and senses.

It is a day of rest for the workers with only a few finishing up with a newly finished late harvest offering. The nearby high Mahalderam estate makes up the famed ‘quad’ of formidable tea providers joining Goomtee, Jungpana, and Muscatel in this valley of the leaf.

Within the sorting room at Jungpana

Within the sorting room at Jungpana

After having been outfitted with an apron, a little cap and shoe coverings we’re ready to seep into the place. Cups have been lined up and cups are ready.

Swiftly and almost belligerently I steamroll towards the tasting room, having had enough of the smells to feast on, now needing a little hit in fluid form. It is something entirely wonderful to finally be in the bunker from which an epic tea emanates from, though I try to keep some naivety in the mind rather than expectation…which is entirely useless.

Lined up tidily are tasting cups, spoons with white envelopes of scrawled notes (and leaves) behind. A quiet space of autumn harvests. Heavier, warmer, nuttier, these late harvests are bigger on the palate and they will suit just fine.

The Jungpana factory seen from Goomtee

The Jungpana factory seen from Goomtee

We move through the line up with a single spoon, rinsing with hot water after each and every sampling. Each tea is from a particular garden or combination of gardens and this is noted in detail in writing behind the individual cups. Some gardens sit higher, angle more southerly, or simply cover a wider expanse of space. They all hit the palate with fullness and warm nut tones, but one tea oozes butter and it is from the higher estates of Mahalderam. Leaves from Mahalderam are brought down into the Jungpana factory for processing and the warm butter and nut notes wander around the palate and olfactory nerves, while at the same time gripping the entire mouth with strength. It is a sensation that is not lost, even after taking other samples. It has become embedded somehow. It is right for my own version of what is good. I’m smitten and as it is so often, it is not a quick thing. It lasts for a couple of days and then it lasts a few more, until I purchase a few kilo’s.

At last I'm allowed to sample and sample some more....

At last I’m allowed to sample and sample some more….

Mr. Mudgal – draped as ever in his scarf – ensures our few kg’s make it from the Jungpana factory and when they arrive they have been freshly bagged and sealed. He inspects them, saying nothing but nodding slightly.

During the weekend of our departure from the ‘island in the mountains’ a football tournament is in full swing and a highly touted team from the flatlands of the Terai further south is playing a local team made up of teens and some of the tea pickers in Goomtee. My loyalties immediately swing to the locals. I cannot not hope that they win, and win they do.

Grommet's wall art

Grommet’s wall art

Prem, barefoot and proud serves us a last cup of tea before our own departure.

He still is silent as he waves with a smile as we leave his beautiful little world. I picture him preparing a tea shortly after our departure.

The corner room that was home at Goomtee

The corner room that was home at Goomtee

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Darjeeling Chronicles 1 (of 2) – To Jungpana Slowly

An act that will repeat itself again and again...the great pour.

An act that will repeat itself again and again…the great pour.

A joy is sometimes not having a huge frame of reference nor expectation. There are no cues, limited preconceptions, and there is that wonderful feeling of slight ignorance. It is in this ‘not knowing’ that there is some room to simply listen, observe, and take it all in. ‘Easy to please’ could be one way of looking at it, but I much prefer the attitude that at times the senses know far better than the intellect. What hits the senses can mesmerize if there if there are fewer references.

My own experiences with Darjeeling’s have over the years been slightly suspect, except for a few rampantly good teas that one would be hard-pressed not to enjoy. A Jungpana comes to mind and a particular Makaibari given by friends in minute quantities. Both rattled the palate and hinted that there was far more to explore in the machine made teas of the acclaimed mountainous zone of Darjeeling. Never have Darjeeling’s been vital enough in my day to day sip-sessions that I’ve spent much time with them.

Darjeeling town and the magnificent Kanchenjunga in the background

Darjeeling town and the magnificent Kanchenjunga in the background

My head and palate have been filled with the hand-crafted teas (at times awful) that had in them a kind of signature or one-off feel. These small yield hand-crafted offerings that had a story and an explanation beyond simply a bulk offering…but of course in thinking this, it was bound to change.

The world of Puerhs and Taiwan’s Wulongs have inundated my life for years and Wulongs were my first luscious experiences. Complex, ridiculous, and often created in batches that would scarcely fill a satchel, they were the special bits of someone’s efforts that I strove to find. The palate has learned what it likes in those realms and living in Yunnan has been a great instruction in Puerhs in particular. There is hype, mystique, ferociously bad teas, and there are wonderful classics, which swim around under the surface. These teas that were difficult to find and that added to their allure.

Glenary's Restaurant with their signature and superb tea pots, is a must in Darjeeling.

Glenary’s Restaurant with their signature and superb tea pots, is a must in Darjeeling.

Times change, the intellect changes, and the palate sometimes requires an abrupt ‘re-introduction’ to something to re-charge and re-calibrate the head, blood, and palate. Recently, have completed an expedition to the stunning Himalayan Ice Towers, and glaciers of Gangotri in Uttarakhand, there was time (plenty of it) to stop in Darjeeling and finally – over the course of weeks -unhinge a little with as many cups as I could find. No better or more tangible way exists to immerse into tea than to simply immerse in the space and people that produce the leaves. Not about criticizing or ripping apart teas by impression, this was to be an informal instruction and conversation with each and every cup. An immersion into a region where the precious offering is common rather than rare, where it is breathed in and consumed in heaps, rather than hidden away and treated as a treasure. An irony with Darjeelings, is that most of the Indians I’ve met do not actually consume Darjeeling, preferring instead the headier and provocative spices and sweetness of prepared masala chai, a stiff Assam or fragrant Nilgiri.

Lands that bleed green. No shade cover or at least minimal compared to much that I'm used to in Yunnan and Taiwan.

Lands that bleed green. No shade cover or at least minimal compared to much that I’m used to in Yunnan and Taiwan.

Darjeeling’s legacy has always been one of finding its way into long-distant ceramic cups across oceans and seas, across borders and through various ports. Now I’m here at the fringe of Himalayas, between the dusty hills and the enormous clear skied heights. Year’s ago, I had raced through the region sipping ravenously on the way to track down the remnants of the Tea Horse Road in Gangtok, Sikkim. At that point in life, teas were offerings and a kind of air to breath.

This return was to come and sip and learn and chat.

My wife Julie gets into the action at a roadside restaurant where the leaves were flowing everywhere

My wife Julie gets into the action at a roadside restaurant where the leaves were flowing everywhere

A series of tea gardens were on the wish-list, and a series of teas to consume. Formal tastings are vital but so too are the discussions with the makers and managers in their spaces, in their fields, in their seats. Of equal importance is to be able to sip the teas alone without any hype or words, first thing in the morning. Since ‘home’ would be tea estate bedrooms and little hotels, it was then vital to have the necessaries: a kettle, good water, and a ceramic tea pot serving vessel ….and that gorgeous luxury of time to take tea whenever I could. Over-steeping it, under-steeping it, steeping it twice….to do it all.

Not a good way to start anywhere, by being late….but here I am at the legendary Makaibari tea estate and I was entirely late (and admonished). Sitting with the provocative and philosophical and mildly outrageous Makaibari tea estate owner, “Raj”, as he is called, Rajah Banerjee there is bound to be tea and provocation. Owner and brilliant pusher of the first major biodynamic tea farms, Raj prefers speaking about people and culture – and Rudolf Steiner’s views of all things – than getting too much into tea…at least at the beginning. In 2014 he sold off much of Makaibari and the world’s first factory, but he remains very much the irrepressible and controversial spirit of Makaibari. He is in many ways like a beautifully preened rock star who prefers to speak about bigger concepts than simply his teas which have become such sumptuous treats the world over.

Darjeeling is not simply about cups....here a spittoon for discriminating drinkers and samplers slurp in ounces, only to get rid of much of it.

Darjeeling is not simply about cups….here a spittoon for discriminating drinkers and samplers slurp in ounces, only to get rid of much of it.

The tea he serves us is luscious and even more luscious are his conversations about earthworms, space and time, and poaching. Provocative, utterly irreverent in many things, the present overseer of Makaibari is imbued with charisma…ironically the softest tones he speaks in are about tea. Hated by some, copied by many, and a curious piece of showman to almost all, Raj sips back tea in fast-flowing litres. He knows his tea and he drinks his teas, and speaks not as a salesman but as a ‘needer’ and believer in the leaf….the way it should be.

Sitting with him and his ancient photos, artifacts, and bits and bobs of a life spent hosting guests from every point of the globe, it feels as if decades of experiences and folks are imbued in the place and in the man who sits elegantly folded behind a cluttered desk.

Raj holding court

Raj holding court

We sip a summer harvest which has been made to a strength that verges on being gnarly, but doesn’t quite make it there. A second cup and I’m convinced it should be only served at such a strength. Such is what a maker of great cups can do, and the maker is a beautifully clad woman who wafts around outside Raj’s office. Night cramps in and the plumes of dust and airborne sediment disappear. Raj tells of the days of tigers, of mystics and proudly, when he was the first of the big gardens to push bio-dynamic organic tea. Pride is etched in his face but only briefly as he issues a gentle command for switch-up in the kind of tea we are consuming…it flows in rather than arrives.

Raj holding court and I putting in a rare point

Raj holding court while I put in a rare point and possibly even disagreeing

With me is Rajiv Lochan who has conversations with Raj raging in silky English with the odd peppering of glorious Hindi. Having known eachother for long long years, their discussions are a series of questions, some answers and the odd wonderfully coated slights directed at eachother. Raj tends to spend much time shaking his head, while Rajiv enjoys provocation resting his hands upon his belly. Rajiv asks about the tea I drink, and I simply nod and smile saying something glorious about those who know not simply the tea, but the method of preparing a great cup. More to follow as Jungpana and Goomtee Estates loom…

An outtake...when in Darjeeling, the demonetization of the Rupee hit. Here a shot of some Thai monks in the local post office trying to change money...along with a mob of us trying to offload our big bills.

An outtake…when in Darjeeling, the demonetization of the Rupee hit. Here a shot of some Thai monks in the local post office trying to change money…along with a mob of us trying to offload our big bills.

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Glaciers’ Breath ll – Gangotri Update V – A Descent

Berinder is impatient and staring in his mournful way at Saurabh and I to hurry. He wants to move and it is our day to make another incursion into the Chaturangi Glacier valley and then head south up a smaller feed valley. The three of us for much of this journey have been a party of wanderers while others wait in base camp. Berinder has had his tea and stands like a shy gunslinger with hands at the side, ready.

Some of the multi-hues of Chaturangi Glacier

Some of the multi-hues of Chaturangi Glacier

We chug tea down in huge quantities and once again tea’s grip and binding power plays into the mountains’ spaces. Solitary geographies need mornings where tea, bodies, and the sun gather to usher in new light. Tea and mountains are, not for the first time, the perfect companions, fuel and inspiration.

Every single break consists of tea passing through the lips

Every single break consists of tea passing through the lips

Nadanvan Camp sits at the end of the Chaturangi Glacier, a multi-hued length of ice, stone and moraine fused into layers. On this morning at there is a chatter as all of us stand waiting for the slow ascending sun to touch us and grace us with a bit of warmth. Morning chatter comes in two forms here with this team. One is what the day will hold for various members of our team. Laundry, playing cards in the tent, a lot of tea, or simply wandering for short walks around camp. The second subject of chatter usually begins with a ‘target’ of the day. Sometimes an incident, sometimes a person…whatever the cause, it will become a kind of point to return to throughout the day with humour, mirth and a little relentless ribbing.

Deb has continued to grind through each day and each new ascent in her simple and plodding way, and Purun is her faithful escort on every little blip, turn, and sip along the way – an honour guard of sorts to ensure that risks are kept to a minimum. He mentions several times with a smile (and faint look of pride) that “Deb is doing much better than last year” (a referral to another month-long expedition that tested Deb’s resilience to the extreme).

One of the few pleasures of the porters besides tea and companionship: the clove cigarette.

One of the few pleasures of the porters besides tea and companionship: the clove cigarette.

Once we have our packed lunches, Berinder is almost pleading in his looks at us. He gets his wish and we are off east into a sun that still has yet to settle into the shadowed lands of morning. As on most days that the three of us are together, there is little chat, and when there is, it is minimal and meaningful (at least to us). Comments and observations about weather, about what might be on the horizon, and about what we hope to see. Today, the object is simply to wander at will to a smaller tributary glacier.

Some of the views when one descends into the glaciers. These ice tunnels can span metres in width and travel for kilometres underfoot.

Some of the views when one descends into the glaciers. These ice tunnels can span metres in width and travel for kilometres underfoot.

Berinder has the telltale odd-looking walk of someone who is used to hauling enormous loads, so watching him shuffle and almost levitate along the route is as much fun as it is looking down into the Chaturangi mottled toned glacier. Powerful beyond words, it as if Berinder doesn’t know what to do with all of his spare strength without the restraints of his strapped loads. Saurabh glides forward, and below us to the north red stone, green pockets of glacial ponds, and striating rock shelves and ice lie along the Chaturangi. The ‘little’ lakes and ponds below us are supraglacial lakes and can be far wider and much deeper than an interested set of eyes might suspect. They can also have a further warming effect on the glacier as they attract more of the sun’s warmth. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods are one of the possible results of such ‘lakes’, and the Himalayas entire span have tales of these vertical tsunamis that explode out of stunning coloured lakes.

That which disappears. Smaller glaciers and tributary moraine flows often tell a more concrete story.

That which disappears. Smaller glaciers and tributary moraine flows often tell a more concrete story.

Packed light, Suarabh, Berinder and I are geared for speed and ease. Saurabh leads checking on us all with little peaks to see that we’re all still with him, though we are spread apart in a wide formation as each of us has learned that we all tend to weave and wander. The concern is that afternoon storms have made a habit of coming in with force. We are late in the season; the end of it really, and though the bolt-blue sky hints at nothing, the air currents do. Every few minutes a body of wind will carry sharper, colder air through the valley around us.

Meru's headwall in early morning light

Meru’s headwall in early morning light from Nandanvan Camp

Above us to the right is Bhagirathi 2 peak and its 6512-metre chunk of summit. Travel with Berinder and Saurabh, and indeed the entire team, pushes home the idea that the altitude really doesn’t matter much beyond the normal restraints and limits that less oxygen bring. Sacred peaks, as it has long been explained to me, are living things to the locals. Forget this piece of information (regardless of one’s beliefs) and one is in peril; peril of taking oneself too seriously, peril of forgetting that the essence of the Himalayas rests in horizontal lines not the verticals, and peril too of simply getting caught up with numbers. In the Himalayas, practicality and the world of deities and goddesses is remarkably simple and collaborative. For locals they find little contradiction in the fusing of ‘facts’ with ‘beliefs’, and I love this about the world of heights. A scientist client years’ ago, had gently prodded and questioned a local guide about ‘facts’ and beliefs, and I worried the normally gentle, but immensely strong tracker and friend would tear a limb off of the city-dwelling doubter. In fact he just nodded at the questions and comments, looked at me (as if to say “watch while I maintain complete control”) and then stated simply, “It is interesting what you say and maybe true. What we think is also interesting and maybe true”. Beliefs inform living and in many cases locals I’ve encountered will point to their ‘ways’ as being more sustainable (though they rarely if ever use the word sustainable), and intuitive. They also point out often, that it was not their ways that brought about so much destructive and rapid change with the natural world, but rather the outside world of greed and speed.

A tributary glacier valley that feeds the Chaturangi

A tributary glacier valley that feeds the Chaturangi

At one point – as the mountains frequently do with brilliant and often brutal power – the air changes entirely and there are suddenly tangs and whiffs of snow in the winds coming down from the Kalindi Pass further east of us. Winds pick up and the air that is blown in carries with it the unmistakable sharpness of lands and spaces higher up where the temperatures plunge.

Bishan and I slogging up, down, into and around some of the glacier's space

Bishan and I slogging up, down, into and around some of the glacier’s space. Photo courtesy of Kapil Negi

Above, the skies are swirling as well with hints of grey. This also marks a point where Saurabh will head further on his own to assess what the conditions are. Berinder, our tea, some little bits of chocolate and some almonds will await his return.

After 25-minutes, with Saurabh having disappeared down a steep pathway only to ascend once again on a distant ridgeline, Berinder starts getting his now familiar look of furtive impatience. Try as he may along this journey, he has never been able to rest still for more than a few minutes, even when exhausted. His energy and force is remarkable. The storm continues to gather into the valley and now the sky is more grey than blue. We both lie on our stomachs chewing on nuts watching Saurabh’s tiny figure hurtles upward along little line of a pathway. The he simply disappears. Within minutes, Berinder is itching to go and follow motioning me with those dark pockets of eyes of his to move. He doesn’t even try to cover up his intentions or fears or whatever it is that is driving his passionate impatience. It has been the way for the entire month-long journey. The great thinker Seneca once said about passions that it was better to “make an exhibition of my passions than brodd over them to my cost: express them, vent them, and they grow weaker; it is better to let hem jab outside us than be runed against us”. (Seneca, Epist, moral., LVL, 10). It seems a fitting thought for Berinder who is unable to restrain himself. There are some little bits of English, a lot of bits of Nepali, some shakes of the head from me and some deep nods of the head from him. In the end, I relent and we scurry ourselves down to follow Saurabh’s path, and Berinder is content once again.

The valley we pass down into and out of is one of the reasons we have ultimately come. It is a stunning and hidden rivulet-lined sheet of concave ice that plunges towards the Chaturangi Glacier behind us. As a tributary glacier it is as vital a witness (and victim) to what ails the mountains as any river or mountain-top. Berinder hurries on with only little care doing moving quickly in little darting motions. He is driven to keep our unit together and to re-bond with Saurabh. The sooner we are three again, the better. For me the mountains are a place of divine isolation and that is part of the reason I return, whereas for many of the people who live and were born within the spires and valleys, the mountains are a place to find and adhere to a community. Berinder and I slow down at last and stop to take in more of this ice-body witness, that we are literally straddling.

I lay out solar panels while ever-present Berinder waits. Porters would charge their phones and listen to Bollywood music...little luxuries.

I lay out solar panels while ever-present Berinder waits. Porters would charge their phones and listen to Bollywood music…little luxuries. Photo courtesy of Kapil Negi

As we hit a vertical ropeway, the sun is eaten up by a surging cloud bank coming from the northeast, and there pops up Saurabh smiles as he quickly rappels down to us in a couple of easy springs. He shakes his head at the notion of continuing further, looking up at the sky’s energy. He mentions too that his sense is that “two storms are coming together”, looking down valley. Another cloud front is being whipped behind us in a froth as it moves towards the storm ahead of us. The two are set to join up it seems.

Berinder hasn’t changed…and he will follow us both (not one, but both) anywhere. Somewhere, there is a rumble that shakes everything briefly. Though it feels as though it is deep within the earth itself, it is from the ‘earth above’, the mountains. We turn our heads upwards. Now the snow is beginning to fall, and then it stops and at present all things are in flux.

When we hit camp, Kapil and Bishan have turned up and tea is had while snow does finally start to come in earnest. The snow and wind are taking the day – our last – and imposing a curtain upon it. Sightlines are brought in from tens of kilometres into a short span of just metres. Flakes like leaves shoot diagonally as the ‘second’ storm from far up the greater Gangotri Glacier takes our entire camp into its arms.

left to right: Bishan, Debra, myself, and Kapil in a moment of tea-inspired warmth in Karma's divine tent

left to right: Bishan, Debra, myself, and Kapil in a moment of tea-inspired warmth in Karma’s divine tent

Friend Kapil and his story-telling and compassion for the mountains are welcome and the tea begins to flow as we all stuff ourselves into the famed kitchen tent. Karma is like a proud grandmother with all of her flock around her. Deb has spent part of the day learning recipes from Karma and Karma has the glow of someone greatly appreciated. I sit half in and half out of the tent in a little fold-out chair.

Inevitably the conversations turn to the health of the mountains (as they so often do). One cannot spend any amount of time within these bastions without being blitzed with worry about the intense change brought on by distant forces. Locals never seem to need nor see much data but they can tell a story about a fading glacier’s range, they can show a photo on their little Nokia phones taken a few years ago of a very different snowline.

Saurabh and I before Chaturangi Glacier's mouth

Saurabh and I before Chaturangi Glacier’s mouth. Photo courtesy of Kapil Negi

Many forces are already in play in conversations about the mountains. Temperature change, fading ice, lakes that swell and threaten centuries old communities….much is needed to combat what many say is inevitable. What stuns me constantly is how rarely mountain people themselves are consulted about their own very specialized habitats and geographies. Intuitive, completely invested, and wise (though perhaps not ‘formally educated’) it is they who have much of the know-how and tales about what is needed to care for these water towers we call the Himalayas. It is their existence that is inextricably linked to the health of the ‘hills’.

A little snow action while we take tea.

A little snow action while we take tea. Photo courtesy of Kapil Negi

Within the tent, cups of tea in hand there is already discussions about the next journey back. Tomorrow we descend and with that descent comes all of the inevitable worry, warmth, and wonder that last days in the hills bring.

We will move through those huge stones lugging our packs, past the shredded ice wall that is Gomukh and past the disintegrating caves of cold.

Berinder

Berinder

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Glaciers’ Breath ll – Gangotri Update lV – Nandanvan (Paradise)

“These silences are good for the whole body”, says Saurabh and it has been, though it marks a great contrast to our team’s scurrying around as bodies line up kitchen gear and bags, weigh up loads, and madly chirp at one another.

Prakash the elder (foreground), Purun (left) and Sarah at Kirti Camp with the Bhagrathi Parvat in the background.

Prakash the elder (foreground), Purun (left) and Sarah at Kirti Camp with the Bhagrathi Parvat in the background.

Departure days are something special and bring with it a special energy: “we are here, we are intact and still together”. Regardless of whether heading into the mountains, up the mountains, out of the mountains, or simply to another camp (as we are now doing), a task that for some would seem tedious is a kind of testament to the enduring bond and commitment we all have. Porters’ impatient bodies prefer days of movement…they’ve had enough days of playing cards in the tent, and using the solar panels to charge their Bollywood music. They want to move.

An avalanche pummels down the Bhagirathi valley across the glacier from our camp, reminding that danger lies in magnificent spaces.

An avalanche pummels down the Bhagirathi valley across the glacier from our camp, reminding that danger lies in magnificent spaces.

 Move we shall. From Kirti Glacier, we will head north again having had almost a week of climbing onto, and wandering through the ice of this sheet of ice directly south of Shivling. We’ll retrace our route back to Tapovan and spend a night, afterwhich we’ll cross the Gangotri Glacier heading east to Nandanvan camp beneath Bhagirathi 2 peak.

Our day should be a short one, with a sequence of ascents, flows and rumbles forward until an open stretch where the air, normally cool and ever flowing, seems to simply die. As our path swings back into the mountains base, Karma looks up as he inevitably is the first to hear or feel things. High above, virtually straight up, puffs of dust preempt the tell tale “clacks” as small stones bounce downwards, sending larger cousins downwards and before long a line of dust and rattling stones becomes our entire vista.

A porter from another climbing team stops at our camp to escape an oncoming storm. His sole joy...a clove cigarette and a cup of tea

A porter from another climbing team stops at our camp to escape an oncoming storm. His sole joy…a clove cigarette and a cup of tea

Blue sheep high above have set off a shower and our team stops dead to watch. At one point Berinder, myself, Karin and Karma race across a stretch lugging our loads like odd-shaped little beetles. Valiant Deb stares up at this mayhem waiting, and knowing she will not be able to sprint across this zone of plunging stones. She’ll need time and vision…and she’ll need help.

Karma and Karin decide to re-cross back to where Deb and her honor guards, Purun and Saurabh wait, and strap on their extra loads to assist with the efficiency. Purun and Saurabh’s sole role will be to manage Deb across a 200-metre stretch of plunging stones and careful footwork.

Myself and Debra at camp with a backdrop of deities and stone

Myself and Debra at camp with a backdrop of deities and stone

Our joyous little crew urges them on over the ‘route of peril’ and we are able to track back up a perilous bit of diagonal danger that we’d crossed a few days previous.

Camp back at Tapovan is a brief little reentry to our old campsite. Temperatures have plunged which has kept with its tradition of dropping quickly around 6pm before becoming a more still and quiet kind of cold later on. Kirti’s camps had been more enclosed affairs with little sound at all permeating into us. I prefer the odd sound as it keeps the reality of where we are, real.

Glaciers, in a friend’s words are “vast, clear, and blue things”. In my time in the mountains they were usually only half of that ideal. Here, the vast Gangotri Glacier with its dips and crevasses were smothered in black stone, silt, and all sorts of natural materials it had collected on its journey. It was in many ways a moving history of all of the elements it had touched, though it’s ‘intactness’ was something fleeting. In much of the Himalayas, it seems disputed that the great bodies of ice are in fact decreasing in size due to an apparent “expansion”. One local in Gangotri, though, stated his view in clear terms: “They may appear to be spreading, but their bulk is diminishing…this is easy to see for us who live here”.

A diminishing layer of glacier that is folding inwards.

A diminishing layer of glacier that is folding inwards.

Another day of gorgeous slogging over the ice and stone on our way to Nandanvan. Heading further south of the proposed route, I go entirely off course and only realize this when I see the flash of Berinder’s pink cap through my zoom lens, far to the north of me heading up another pathway, which is obviously not the one I’m on.

Pathways that appear one day or even for an hour or two can and do change at the will of shifting ice caused by the brat sun above us. Landslides echo randomly in chambers below us and rocks cascade into the numerous green lakes which grow daily with meltwater. Watchful is the word! Even the porters tie their loads looser so that if they do begin a plunge the at least have a better chance of releasing their packs.

Part of what feeds the rivers

Part of what feeds the rivers remains completely unseen by people

We move upon a living (and ebbing) landscape of frozen fluid matter. Ice axes are used by our team and the odd Nordic pole as so-called firm footing can whish away in seconds. The team of porters has broken into separate teams finding different routes to their liking. Uncle and young Parkash race through a lower section streaking across rivulets and dark folds, while Kerin, Parkash the Elder, and Berinder take a higher line that at times needs a complete retreat and a re-assessment of where the route is, before plodding along. These three carry double loads and have the tendon strength and split second judgements of mongoose. Twice I see Kerin go close to going over, and twice he languidly catches himself and his massive load.

Our team perches for a shot -

Our team perches for a shot – left to right: Parkash Elder, Parkash Younger, myself in the middle, Uncle, and Kerin

Uncle and Parkash the Younger mock the efforts of the team as they have stretched out on a rock on the other side, content (but concerned) that they have made it through an ice gauntlet. Their little jibes belie their apprehension as they franticly point and scream from their little post directions to us from afar, directing from their vantage point where we should

Camp Nandanvan (or “Paradise”) is the first of a series of camps within the greater valley that shoots northeast out of Gangotri. Gangotri is one of 4 “dhams”, or places of pilgrimage for Hindus. To the west, Yamunotri is where the Yamuna River is worshipped, Gangotri where we are is where the Ganga or Ganges is worshipped, Kedarnath where Shiva is worshipped (Kedar is another name for Shiva, who is considered not a god, but rather a yogi), and finally Badrinath where Vishnu is worshipped (Badri is one of the names for Vishnu).

A detail of Bhagirathi

A detail of Bhagirathi

Nandanvan camp welcomes with fierce winds and a temperature that seems intent on simply plummeting. Alongside and heading up into the valley is the Chaturangi Glacier (Chatu meaning 4, and Rangi meaning coloured)…it is indeed a glacier that is shot full of strands of colour, the most prominent of which is a dark almost rusty red.

Our camp at Nandanvan with a storm coming from up valley

Our camp at Nandanvan with a storm coming from up valley

Further into the valley the mighty Kalindi Pass, sitting at close to 20,000 feet lies in wait. One of my longtime heroes, the iconic wanderer and iron-made explorer Eric Shipton explored these regions in 1934. I had read about his unexpected appreciation of these areas, when he was fixated on Nanda Devi and just briefly I recall his awe, which mixes fluidly with my own.

Our team of porters are now friends…but still porters as well with their responsibilities, and as always Karma has them working and learning the finer points of camping, cooking, and all of the little items that need doing. Berinder is kitchen helper on this first night and Kerin with his surplus of power and energy has become a favourite for Karma as well. As always, Karma is able to read the various strong personalities of the team and knows precisely, as any good manager, how to wring the best from each member.

When the sun comes out, we all lay our gear out for a little hot fun. One of my luxuries is airing out my jacket and sleeping bag.

When the sun comes out, we all lay our gear out for a little hot fun. One of my luxuries is airing out my jacket and sleeping bag.

It is one of the great joys of these journeys that all we have is all that we appear to need. Foxes, as they have the for the entire journey, are evident in the scat that we find, but little else besides the Blue Sheep seem to leave a trace in these huge wide gaps.

One exception is the yellow-billed choughs that gather strategically at Karma’s kitchen tent as if on cue. They sit huddled on stone every morning close to our camp waiting (as we do) for the first lines of sun to hit making these little “caw caw” sounds, conversing about whatever it is that they converse about.

What we've come for. A wall of ice with glacier water burrowing through it as the sun etches itself into all surfaces. Beautiful and very finite

What we’ve come for. A wall of ice with glacier water burrowing through it as the sun etches itself into all surfaces. Beautiful and very finite

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