A Tea fit for a Trek

When selecting a tea for a mountain journey – and for every mountain journey there must be a tea – there is always a moment, a question: “which tea(s) for this particular trip?” The final selection signals not only a love for that particular tea, but it infers that I can live without all of the others that sit in chunks, cakes, and tight little nuggets within my treasure chests (which are simple cardboard boxes) here in Shangri-La.

One of my precious boxes of tea - an organized bit of happy green chaos

In the haste and anticipation of an upcoming journey (which begins on Feb 15th), there is often a tendency to overlook items – even after years of mountain departures. Seldom, though, has there been a time when a tea hasn’t been selected with care and perhaps a bit of neurosis.

The tea that will join for two weeks of mountains...

With most items that are packed for the mountains there is a well-honed system of ‘must haves’ which borders at times – to outsiders – as privation. Equipment, clothing and gear that ‘works’ (and has worked again and again) is unthinkingly rolled, coiled and folded into the rucksacks. Simplicity and precedent are two keywords in any of my selection decisions. Mountains are the perfect editors for those that observe its forces. Mountains and their almost schizophrenic sways between reckless beauty and stirring peril are the perfect (and unsympathetic) determiners of what can and does and what won’t work. They, in their severe and entrancing ways, demand that simplicity, respect and a good tea are taken into their corridors.

When selecting my little portable pleasures for a journey – and for me there is but one – there are always a few moments of almost neurotic deliberation on my part. That moment inevitably comes with the selection of a tea (and in some cases ‘teas’).

The challenger to the Bang Po...unsuccessful as it turned out

In the wonders of the above, of the heights – shale, scree, granite and white, there needs to be something that hits, that wakes, that inspires not only the taste buds but the entire body. This is where the selection becomes something almost clinical.

Every cup begins with it...a little water to reawaken for a first cup and a last time

Within my boxes of ‘collected works’ there are old teas that are treats, there are potent, pungent blasts that pleasantly annihilate anything else upon the palate and there are those go-to teas that are simply good. What is needed is a pleasurable fuel.

For this particular expedition – a rare unsullied portion of mountain route that bends northwest from here in Shangrila (Gyalthang) along a long-unused portion of the Ancient Tea Horse Road – we will be on a course of perpetual ups and downs. We will travel through the hot valleys and up into snow passes to a point below the north-face of Kawa Karpo. Tea’s underrated ability to sate thirst will be as important for the trip as its abilities to stimulate and force the blood and – by extension – the rest of the mortal form into dynamic action.

A fermented Puer, black, smooth and good for empty stomachs and indeed any digestive track that is under duress will join for certain. Nothing ‘special’ is required, no aged teas needed here with qualities that are professed but not delivered. What is required is something well made where I know the producers, the pickers and the source…always these three ‘musts’ haunt my tea-world.

In this case a Bada Puer will do. Both Bada’s green unfermented form and its dark artificially fermented brethren have long been a kind of go-to tea for me. Naturally more mild than some other Puers, it can be revved up and intensified with increased steeping times or amounts of leaves to give the system a jolt.

This tea in its fermented dark form is less of a reviving tea than it is a calming and soothing tea with its bit of earthen nuttiness.

Amidst the various boxes of tea – every tea labeled in my fuddled scribbling with producer, date of harvest and exact harvesting locations – there are a few green unfermented teas that (for this trek at least) sing to me. I am looking for something that will shake the tongue with a kind of predictable power, something with some reckless energies. My eyes are looking for a very simple ‘Bang Po’ old town (there are two towns) – a small ‘un-exclusive’ village tea from the Nannuo area of southern Yunnan near Menghai. My recall of this tea is that it is inundated with raw power, simple virtues and a nice buzzy umph without stripping the tongue of its functions. Poking through I find the largely untouched remnants of the ‘Bang Po’ tea cake from early 2010 – my last pecking of it was about four months ago. It is lightly wrapped in a simple cloth-like white paper. No writing, none of the usual calligraphy or graffiti, no logos; nothing adorns the paper. It was purchased along with several others in the town from the growers and there is no need of elegant scripts on a good tea. Every family within the town picks from designated areas and to know the family is to know the region from where the tea comes.

The Bang Po's leaves are whole, not chopped or cut...it is always more difficult to hide a bad tea when the leaves are entire and whole

I put it aside and continue to scan through the box of delights. Shifting some cakes to the side I uncover a yet to be touched 250 gram ‘tuo’ or nest/ball of unfermented Puer from the Dali-Xiaguan area. There are three such ‘tuo’s’ tucked away in here and all were purchased in 2004, which was the year of harvest. During a tasting with a friend who recommended I buy the tea, he commented that this tea would never lose its ‘force’. It was vegetal and powerful with a long lingering cut in the mouth. I pick it out of its wrapping and decide that it is time to do a ‘taste-off’ to see which of these two teas will be taken (the slightly ‘off’ part of me is set on the fantasy of taking both).

 

Even with a couple of errant leaf pieces at the bottom, the Bang Po's colour is true and clear and free of any dreaded 'cloudiness'

The tasting doesn’t take long…the Bang Po destroying the Xiaguan Puer both with the strength (it is a younger more astringent tea) and with a taste that is at once comforting and ‘of the trees and earth’.  While the Xiaguan Puer still has bursts of goodness there is no chance of it going.

The resultant ball of Bang Po

This little selection complete, I put the Bang Po tea aside and nestle it into my other more traditional mountain needs. The moulded leaves from the ancient trees wrapped gently in the paper fit nicely within the hard lines of aluminum, the pastel coloured gortex, and the various materials not of the earth; but it remains as crucial to this traveler as any other imaginable piece of equipment. A tea thirst is not something to be trifled with.

Some of the very necessary necessaries for the trip, which includes a ragged cake of Bang P

 

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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2 Responses to A Tea fit for a Trek

  1. Humans have such a complex capacity to select this over that. It is a pleasure to be taken on your journey through choice.

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