Sips at the 2017 International Tea Conference in Hubei

Tea covers and stretches across entire hillsides of the province of Hubei and yet I’ve never been. While I’d heard of the teas, none I had sipped had led me to come to this east central province. One of the origins of the Han people, and lodged in the mid-levels of the Yangtze River, Hubei is a place that has long been a collection point for practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Botanicals abounded in these spaces in nooks and pockets and the far west of the province was once known as the ‘land of the barbarians. Around the year 760 AD in the Tang Dynasty, the tea saint Lu Yu wrote of the regions teas glowing about its offerings. It has long been considered sacred ground in the world of tea and it now lies sprawled out in tidy rectangles along the horizon.

A ‘tea-line’ near Yichang, Hubei

Now finally, I am here wandering through a field with tea bushes carpeting the entire floor of the land around me. There is a whole squadron of us being led along a path with Tujia people dotting the fields harvesting. The lands are marked by karsts that shoot skyward and rolling hills that are cut into small parcels. The land’s sanctity is only enhanced when I learn that there are ancient tea trees not so far away.

Kevin of Camellia Sinensis and tea legend Nigel Melican (at right) at the Yichang train station…in mid flow as we race from transport to transport…and then onto fields

Friend Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis, a master sampler of teas and unrepentant seeker of great brews is ahead of me heading upwards and towards a tea station with his loping strides. Our group is part of the 2017 International Tea Forum, which is split between Enshi and Yichang and the tea regions in between. A dozen languages can be heard and it only enhances tea’s calling to so many. Historically, habitually, and those who are new to it…they are all here. There are few leaves an indeed few vegetal matters that can draw so many. A refreshing ball of energy in the form of several of the Tea Masters Cup members traipse about infusing the tea world with something it needs: fresh, unpretentious, reverence.

hands and tea leaves

Leaves get a light panning on low heat creating sweet easy drinking green teas.

In these regions, there are delicate red teas and easy sipping green teas using the small leaf cultivars of Camellia Sinensis Sinensis. Almost a week in with rampant late night tea sessions in hotel rooms with new compatriots of the leaf and a few old friends, it has been an altering experience. Altering in that new Tea Masters Cup participants have injected their own feral and very young energy into the culture of the ancient herb.

Fields of tea leaves near Yichang

More of the providing fields

My own obsessive interest in the leaf has been augmented and enhanced by those seeking to mix the leaf in with other elements and medicinals…a thought I would have once considered a kind of great ill. These Tea Master Cup-pers are baristas, mixologists, samplers, and blenders rolled into a collective body who will bring the leaf forward in many ways. My own view of the leaf has grown and I’ve fed off of the energy that so many have brought with their very own views on serving it, sampling it and simply enjoying it.

Hands and Tea

The hands that judge, feel, manipulate and handle the leaves

As on every journey I’ve taken in the past 14 years, I have my own stash of tea and serving tools. A small gai-wan is wrapped in a sock (clean) and filled with rolled paper towel. As much tea as has been offer in the past few days, I still enjoy disappearing once in a while and fixing a serving or two of my own Puerh (in this case a Pa Sa old tree raw offering that is floral, rampantly fresh and grabs the enamel just barely before disappearing down the gullet). It is also a long held tradition that tea folks will gather in the later hours and share brews, tales, and opinions…all while sipping still more of the leaves. It isn’t ever a question of whether too much stimulant leaf will keep any of us up. Generally we care not.

Black Tea from Hubei

The red that took my palate from Wujia Tai

These tea lands that we’ve been cruising through offer up yet more committed communities both joyfully and economically dependent upon the leaves. It is yet another world with similarities and wide swaths of difference in preparation, and preferences. Here, pans are still used to keep the delicate flavors and though there are industrial sized components involved with tea production, the hands are still vital and so too are the relationships that locals have with the leaves. Teas here are – palate wise at least – various shades of ‘delicate’ with reds (black to the west) in warm nutty tones, and some greens that are more than vaguely styled upon the famed Long Jing’s of Hangzhou further east.

Green Tea from Hubei

A decent green based upon the Long Jing in both structure and palate ‘hit’.

Astringency or vegetal power are not welcomed in the local teas. Instead smooth and easy flavours seek to please the palate. One particular gem (enough of a stunner to have me preparing it independently on many days in my room trying to find fault with it) is a gentle red that seems to flow along like a soft carpet is from Wujia Tai. Sumptuous little leaves with slight curls and plenty of end buds unleash themselves softly to the palate and finish every single time (regardless of my deliberately over and under steeping) with something quite long and sweet like a freshly baked loaf of bread. These are teas for immediate or semi-immediate consumption with very limited life-spans.

Tea crew

Some of the late night sipping crew (left to right): Eliot of Mighty Leaf, Kevin of Camellia Sinensis, Josh of Rishi, myself and Kelly of Allegro.

Whereas my beloved Puerhs run the gamut of inconsistency and brilliance (which makes them very special in my own sphere of reference) as many of these locally sourced teas as I can get my cup into reveals consistency through and through. As much as it delights that there is a tea that hits the palate with pleasure, it is just as crucial to actually ‘feel’ that a tea has been produced well.

I get some time at the mic speaking of source and story in the tea industry. Photo courtesy of Rajiv Lochan

It reinforces that there are hands out there that still curate great teas in spaces I’ve never been. I cannot help but compare flavours that I’m more familiar with, but the object isn’t simply to find teas that I ‘like’; it is more an exercise to find teas that are well made, interesting, and hitting different palate points. Kevin will always travel with Darjeelings, Josh Kaiser of Rishi travels with a bevy of his own preferences…and so on. These teas act like panaceas and trippy comfort journeys so that we can ensure some familiar joy at the end or beginning of each day…or simply some random blasts.

A Tujia elder near Yichang…standing within his tea fields

As our tour is whisked to a conclusion a small mob of us sneak towards a pair of tables where a tea stand of sorts offering the local brew sits waiting. With a week in us of serious drinking of the leaf, daily thermos loads of tea, and the ensuing onslaughts of offerings and samples…we all reach for another cup.

A small homestead near Enshi surrounded by the only crop that matters here…tea.

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Feature Article: The Great Gangotri – Feeder of the Ganges

Gongotri Glacier – Great Feeder of the River Ganges

One of the great moving river bodies of the planet, the mother Ganges, is fed by the Himalayan Water Towers; glaciers that ebb slowly at greater speeds. We know the river itself but not necessarily the epic bodies that feed it. They are revered and worshiped…and they do ebb. The Gangotri is one of those feeders, lying in India’s stunning Uttarakhand State.

The article in September/October, 2017’s edition is based on a month long expedition made the end of 2016, traipsing under some of the climbing world’s great peaks: Meru, Shivling, Bhagirathi…but we went not to ascend the spires but to travel horizontally to the Gangotri glacier which acts like a great funnel that feeds the Ganges.

My feature in Outpost on one of the prime feeders of the Mother Ganges

The article focuses on the great glacier and the feeder glaciers that rest in some of the most worshipped landscapes in the Himalayas. It focuses too on a wonderful team of porters, my guru Karma who creates the pungent masala chais that feed and nourish us, and upon a space that needs a little more attention: The Third Pole, the Himalayas which feeds so very much of Asia with precious fresh water.

Glacial water that will pass beneath the Gangotri Glacier and into the Ganges River

A glacial stream within the Kirti glacier burbles its meltwater way down towards the greater Gangotri. This water will take will end up in the Ganges and in perhaps couple of days arrive to the Bay of Bengal.

Big thanks to Outpost Magazine’s editors who continue to reel me in while making everything read and look just that little bit better…and in this case plaster a huge shot myself on the cover (taken in true blue steel surroundings by great friend, Michael Kleinwort).

Enjoy the read and look forward to hearing your thoughts on water and the precious mountains.

Glacier meltwater flows towards the Gangotri Glacier

With Shivling in the background, water from the Chaturangi Glacier flows towards the Gangotri.

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Tea Explorer Extended Run – On CBC’s Doc Channel

We’re delighted to announce that our documentary film The Tea Explorer film is getting an additional airing on Sunday Sept, 10th at 9 pm ET/10 PT on CBC’s Doc Channel in Canada. Best taken with a cup of leaves and water in close proximity to the hand. I’ve been hearing from people in the US about the film being shown on AWE tv as well.

Below a couple of the inspiring characters when telling the story of the Tea Horse Road.

Mother of Ajo of Litang and known to many as simply as ‘Ama’ (mother)…it was her fiercely potent churned butter teas (and tales) that helped to inspire a journey along the great Himalayan tea routes.

Tea Explorer within a nomadic yak wool tent

Upon that clay stove out of the winds in a yak tent, many a churned tea offerings were sipped. That wonderful woman prepared teas with a particular zest that fuelled many a journey for me.

We’ve been excited that many who’ve written us have expressed their joy at the story-telling, adventure aspect of the film and how that old ‘art’ of listening and passing on tales is emphasized. Tea’s ‘adventure’ and its journeys are the stuff of odysseys and the human touch along those journeys was vital. That seems to be coming through in the film and we are stoked.

The Tea Explorer visits with some of the last remaining tea traders and muleteers

The irrepressible Konga, trader of Lo Manthang in northern Mustang…a legend in the true sense of the word and a huge part of our film. During an interview I sit next to him as he waxes about the days of trade and of tea…I could listen for weeks to his tales and memories.

Let us know if you’ve seen the film and your thoughts. We’ll continue to update as the film travels, and expands its viewing options. It goes without say that we’re thankful of the support (silent and otherwise) that the film has received. Much much more to come.

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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.

Aged tea leaves up close

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.

Bada Sheng Puerh Tea ready for a sip

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 about our upcoming Tea Explorer documentary film.

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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