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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Glaciers’ Breath ll – Ganges Gangotri Update 3

The line is uneven. Random dark and bright spots lie along a long diagonal path that at times is nothing but some smudges in the sand. Our team is spread along a kilometer long portion heading south further into the Gangotri Glacier, but the concern now before us is a pathway that passes along a ledge of shale, sand, and that shoots down at a 50-degree angle into a plunge.

Gangotri

Some of the team has moved on ahead and some lie behind. Myself, Saurabh, Berinder and Uncle (everyone knows him as Uncle) wait for Debra. Berinder and Uncle both carry double loads so Saurabh positions himself behind them both as they slowly make their way onto the perilous route, ensuring that they find their grip.

What we've come for...to see first hand the grand glacier that is one of the prime sources of the Ganges River. The entire 'floor' is glacier and moraine and each strand of colour represents a different feed tributary glacier's stone contributions.

What we’ve come for…to see first hand the grand glacier that is one of the prime sources of the Ganges River. The entire ‘floor’ is glacier and moraine and each strand of colour represents a different feed tributary glacier’s stone contributions.

Kirti Glacier lies ahead; a short but intense series of straddling maneuvers for the team and we are keen to lodge ourselves further into the body of the glacier and camp. Saurabh and I wait for Debra and Purun before negotiating our way along the little crazy path. It is a journey that we plot carefully and Debra takes the walk in slow careful increments with Saurabh and Purun stationed like honor guards in front and behind her. At one point a small avalanche looks to become a bigger slide, before ebbing away. Our main goal is to simply pass this risk zone as fast as possible and not dally too long. Debra has been a remarkable force, given that this is only her second sojourn along such routes. She is entirely focusing on moments and never gets ahead of herself.

Karma - wise, calm, and inevitably one of the leaders on any of my sojourns in the mountains. He is also the tea master, which adds to his utter role in all journeys.

Karma – wise, calm, and inevitably one of the leaders on any of my sojourns in the mountains. He is also the tea master, which adds to his utter role in all journeys.

The porters do what they have done throughout the journey…plod and grind through any and every terrain with remarkable speed. Their technique is to take frequent breaks in between their near racing speed and they take delight in challenging eachother in short bursts as to whom has the most direct line when the pathways disappear. It is one of the risky games that they partake in only once in awhile as though to keep their ‘idle’ days from dragging them down.

A small but every increasing number of glacial lakes swell with meltwater. To the left are the 3 Bhagirathi Sisters' Peaks.

A small but ever increasing number of glacial lakes swell with meltwater. To the left are the 3 Bhagirathi Sisters’ Peaks.

Kirti camp, when we do reach it, is a little valley-pocket where glacial spring water gathers in the early months of the year. Now it is silt and sand surrounded by boulders. Karma’s kitchen tent is the first tent to be erected followed quickly by Debra’s toilet tent in its dull red canvas. Once the kitchen tent is up, tea is made and Karma can be heard singing and muttering his mantras in a kind of earnest joy. Everyone convenes around the tent as it is the place of joy and warmth and food…and his famed tea.

Crevasses will open and close in the course of a day

Crevasses will open and close in the course of a day

Our first morning an avalanche bursts down early morning across the valley. It is an ugly mix of dust and ice that creates thick clouds. The rumble is startling to us all and lets us know that we’re not simply in a grand expanse of beauty, but risk as well. Kirti Glacier is another landform that seems to deliberately deceive with stunning preternatural lines and while crisscrossing the ‘narrow’ span of the glacier tracking inwards, Saurabh and I pile up and down chunks of ice and massive stones for most of the day.

Glacier water runs towards the Gangotri Glacier

Glacier water runs towards the Gangotri Glacier from within the Kirti Glacier

Below there is a faint vibration of a deep river channel below us in the ice reminding us that though the ice is riven dark with stones and dust, we are trampling upon ice. Crevasses yawn and groan in the sun and we keep eachother in close view, well aware that these rifts in the ice can often disappear dozens of meters.

Rivulets tinkle past and from where we eventually end up on Kirti we can see Shivling’s exquisite south facing slopes, along with patches of ice which cling to sheer wall faces.

The incorrigible Berinder doing something he's not particularly fond of

The incorrigible Berinder doing something he’s not particularly fond of…

Returning to camp, Berinder can be spotted (his pink wooly still acting as a beacon) on a rock nursing a cup, and there is ever so slight a hint of relief that we have arrived intact. His pack is safe.

Debra has spent the day learning how to make one of Karma’s specialties. At night the moon’s light touches clouds as they race above us, though not a trace of that rushing air above touches our little encampment.

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Glacier’s Breath Expedition – Gangotri Update 2

Berinder, with pink wooly marvellously intact.

Berinder, with pink wooly marvellously intact.

Berinder is his name. Tiny, unsmiling, and topped off with a vibrant pink woolen cap I’ve locked onto him and his intense energy. These porters can take the breath with their abilities to pirouette on little more than rubber soles, while hauling crippling loads. There is a not-so-secret adoration I have for them and I’ve long been fascinated with their balance of sinuous power and clairvoyance on ‘all things mountain’. Our porter team was assembled through a lottery system with porters choosing whether they take a single or double load and Berinder quietly but immediately stepped up for the latter. It is the last journey he will shepherd this season. The cold has already whispered its coming in the mornings and shadowed valleys, and our four weeks will take us late into the season .

The 6500 + metre peak of Shivling be the seen of tragedy two weeks after this photo was taken

The 6500 + metre peak of Shivling will be the seen of tragedy two weeks after this photo was taken

Little Berinder unhesitatingly took on a full double load, though he himself cannot have been much more than about 55kg’s himself. As we head east into the valley I use his pink woolen hat and, a yellow rucksack that he carries, as a kind of beacon.

A place of pilgrims, a place of ice.

A place of pilgrims, a place of ice.

Gomukh (cow’s mouth) and its snout of gracefully disintegrating forms appears as a series of vertical shards packed together. Specked with layers of stone it looks like crumbling marble. As we pass sharp cracking jolts can be heard as the sun’s sustained heat causes crevasses to yawn, and solid forms to crunch. We have heard (and Debra has read somewhere) that this great body that feeds so much of the Ganges is retreating by a dozen metres per year. Gangotri is very much alive and struggling, regardless of what anyone might say.

Our team in bits of colour slowly coming up and onto Tapovan.

Our team in bits of colour slowly coming up and onto Tapovan.

Beyond, our path wanders through a pillared section where ice and stone temporarily etch themselves into a pathway that varies according to the mood (and melt) of ice. Under such intense sun, this ancient pilgrimage route seems to move with the ebb and flow of not anything ancient, but rather with the ever-increasing melt and change of the great bodies of ice. Little figures of pilgrims can be seen traipsing in colours throughout the ice, stone, and etched out valleys.

Meru's appeal is entire in early morning sun

Meru’s appeal is entire in early morning sun

Swami’s tread barefoot in their light coloured fabrics and beside them, passing them, are our porters who tread in tight unified pods. They are there for eachother, and there for us (at least to the extent where we treat them well). Finicky, utterly tough, and entirely at ease with one another and the terrain, they are as close to physical icons as there are in this big space of heights. They are absolute vitals and if one listens to them and their observations, one can learn much detail about mountains, life and camaraderie in the mountains.

Gangotri

A Polish climbing team has also entered into the space. A quiet group that is fit, they will attempt a summit up the sacred 6500-metre Shivling and another peak further further up Gangotri. That attempt at Shivling will end in tragedy, though no one can guess this as the elegant peak comes into view for our team. The brooding shape of Meru lies at the head of the moraine just to the west of Shivling’s exquisite lines. Up from Tapovan and our camp, the furrowed stretch of moraine of the Meru glacier and the nearly dried up Neer Tal (Neer Lake) lay hidden from us.

Inevitably it is the kitchen tent that our camp life migrated to. Here 'Uncle', Parkash, and Karma begin the magic meal making

Inevitably it is the kitchen tent that our camp life migrated to. Here ‘Uncle’ (forground), Parkash, and Karma begin the magic meal making

My own thoughts (and at one point words) about the absolute value of the region’s water stores is met with a comment from local guide Sourabh that seemed to neatly sum up so much, “It’s all important”. Here the world of impressions becomes interspersed with the tangible mountain world. Tucked into an enclosure of stone our camp is set buffeted from the winds and gusts. Karma brews up his magic fluids with cloves, nutmeg and ginger and the world of stars and cloud streaks. Peaks under the moonlight are pale smudges and a couple of foxes yip.

R to L: Debra, Purun, and myself with Meru directly behind us. Photo courtesy of Debra Tan

R to L: Debra, Purun, and myself with Meru directly behind us. Photo courtesy of Debra Tan

 

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Glaciers’ Breath ll – Gangotri Update l

First steps towards Gangotri Glacier involve words from an impeccable source. For six decades Swami Sunderland has climbed, wandered, and worshipped the great bodies of ice and stone from his simple home in Gangotri. He arrived here and was held by the silences, and the divine mountain gifts. Whatever the reasons for the great bodies of ice to recede, they do recede and Swami is as wise and observant as a family member.

Swami Sunderanand - A man who's soul belongs to the mountains and ice bodies

Swami Sunderanand – A man who’s soul belongs to the mountains and ice bodies

While visiting him for thoughts upon the plight of the mountains, the future of conservation and care for the heights in general, he uttered the words “When the ice disappears, the gods will disappear”. Prophetic and direct, there was little doubt as to his meaning. We need water and we need to care for the great Himalayan Water Towers. Locals understand the inextricable link that mortals and water have, but there is a feeling that this intuition isn’t shared beyond the mountains. In the cities where faucets are turned, there perhaps needs a greater connection to the sources of the fluid that passes through them.

Chai is served thick, fast, sweet but with variations

Chai is served thick, fast, sweet but with variations

The entire region is a place of devotion to Shiva and it is from his locks of hair that the Ganges springs, it is said in mythology. In fact it is the Bhagirathi River that we’ll follow upstream in amidst tea breaks and conversations over tea. A veritable transporter of glacial and spring water to the Ganges, it is the Bhagirathi that is at the very source of the source, so to speak. Our journey will head upstream, up and onto the glaciers that feed so much of the fresh water into one of the world’s great waterways, the Ganga.

The rivers are what we have come for but the rivers are fed by spaces far above their banks

The rivers are what we have come for but the rivers are fed by spaces far above their banks

We’re here to document, to see, and to simply be amidst a world that is devoted to water at every level. The National Park theme works here it seems as much as any ‘system’ can, keeping people and people’s clutter at bay. The Himalayan layers have forever been fascinating platforms by which to ‘see’ and feel, and here in Gangotri it was no different. Temples, pilgrims, ice winds that embrace and find all surfaces line this little hub at the cusp of the world of ice.

Light disappears on Gangotri Temple

Light disappears on Gangotri Temple

Shots of masala chai, a meeting with the team that will aid Debra Tan and I ascend and wander, and a last edit of kit and we are off. Nepali porters, friend Dilip Talekar’s detailed notes upon his last journey to the region and recommendations, and little bits of that wonderful narcotic mountains air are with us as we slowly press west into the great valleys that will lead us to the second largest glacier in Asia.

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Nothing ever happens without a team and this case it is a coming together of sorts with new friends, old friends and a plan to ascend onto ice.

It is a series of ice bodies that act as diminishing tributaries to the great Gangotri Glacier.

...always time for yet another, last last tea.

…always time for yet another, last last tea.

Pilgrims battle altitude and cold, swami’s tuck away in silent retreat huts, and the rare Blue Sheep abound in this tunnel of ice and worship. To our right torrents of thick glacial water with its telltale green opaqueness roars. We are in the land of Shiva, and the land of Shiva points upwards….

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

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

The are of that we travel into

The area we travel into

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To approach mountains, one must navigate glaciers

To approach mountains, one must navigate glaciers

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

More updates to follow

 

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The Glaciers’ Breath ll Expedition – The Ganges’ Source

Preparation Notes…and Tea

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

Tea = Fuel

Tea = Fuel. Even in the realm of the glaciers

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

Glaciers: Temples of Ice

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

Every major water source is a journey 'up'

Every major water source is a journey ‘up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That which feeds, rests on high

That which feeds, rests on high

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

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He Kai Ancient Tree Puerh – A Long Walk

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

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

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

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

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

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

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

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

After the first infusion - Puerh

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

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

 Tea Cake

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

Puerh, Pu er, Pu erh Tea Cake

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

 Puerh - A first cup

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Puerh – The ‘Sort’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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