The Alchemy and Art of TEA. In conversation with Jeff Fuchs, award winning TEA Explorer

I was introduced to the work of Jeff Fuchs early last year for a personal and academic research. I was reading a book titled Objects of Translation by Finbarr Flood. It entailed the plurality and complexity of exchange and narrative in the subcontinent – upon reading it I began looking up on the trade routes around the world – and the glory of their grounded and infinite contributions. Fuchs’ devotion to his subject ‘the tea leaf’ and his magnificent expeditions on the Tea Horse Road made me connect with him initially, last year. I requested for an access to his documentary film The Tea Explorer, for myself and specially for my M Phil Cultural Studies students as a resource for a course in South Asian Material Culture. Fuchs’ response was truly endearing and kind and as I reveled in the documentary last year I saw every intention, act, craft, step, etiquette and conversation in his work as art. It was art that lingered in my senses upon daily observations and conversations and it became inevitable to approach him again this year to share, discuss, exchange and question on tea, art and life.

SEHR JALIL: Your research and film walk us through your love for tea and mountains and how your father’s Hungarian legacy persevered for an ongoing devotion to tea in your home. Yet I was curious to know that there must have been some other motivation – something that pulled of the trigger for you to take that journey. Was it a certain revelation, a progressive decision or you just took the plunge?

Nomads prepare a last round of tea before they move their entire homestead to another camp. Tea is the great panacea and fuel in the Himalayas. Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

JEFF FUCHS: There are probably two categories of thoughts for the motivations. One was definitely the personal journey to follow this route. When I first heard about the route I knew that tea and mountains were important aspects of my life, I loved them but I was shocked that there wasn’t much historical information on the Tea Horse Road. The world has a plethora of knowledge on climbing, summiting the peak to the highest mountains but there’s very little to read about how the Himalayas were built, culturally, ethnically, linguistically from a DNA perspective. So the motivations were two fold, there was the personal side of me selfishly wanting to see what was left of this journey, also to understand tea more dynamically and engage with multiple curiosities; tea ceremony, cultivars, where and how its grown? What color it is? What the flavor is like? For me the derivation to this whole journey was something simple, it was the ancient world’s great commodity and currency – tea, salt, raisin, Pashmina wool; all this appealed me, deeply. The other side was the concern that why isn’t this story/history as well known as the Silk Route or the Spice Routes of the world? I’d been living in the cities of Hong Kong and Taiwan and I’d just taken a trip to Yunnan and heard about this route from a friend of mine, who had travelled the route. The west is always relentlessly engaged in understanding more about the east and different parts of the world but I took this as a chance and opportunity to understand things not just through the typical western viewpoint but a localised impression of how tea was traded within regions in Asia and the Tea Horse Road. It’s fascinating that it has a title and it is officially from South West China into Tibet but unofficially it extends far beyond Tibet. It goes all the way much further east into Northern Pakistan, in the ancient days by extension it reached Iran/Persia down to India and into Nepal touching multifarious cultures. It’s a story of how a commodity touched all the points on the compass. The two motivations included a newer perspective of a  journey through the mountains and the hope in a small way to expose this to more people – to bring forward a little bit of the story I ventured into.  

Long before the tea ‘cake’, tea was transported along land routes in a cylinder form. Large leaf Puerh leaves would be steamed and compressed into bamboo and then transported aboard mules, yak, and men’s backs. Courtesy. Jeff Fuchs

SJ: I’m asking this in metaphors and poetically as well – do you consider tea, its history and route a language or vocabulary in itself?

JF : What I observed, documented and loved about tea in many of these areas was that tea was a facilitator , it was a convener, it brought people together. Along my own journey and certainly with most areas that lie along the Tea Horse Road, tea is offered before a conversation, before they ask you where you are from – they’ll often just serve tea. For me tea is a language of a type of humility, of offering, of a sanctuary so in my own mind and through a lot of the translations tea was like an introduction. There is a wonderful quotation that I repeat often: “If a cup of tea isn’t offered a relationship isn’t offered”. I think that’s one of the most exquisitely perfect ways to describe the importance of tea. You asked about language, tea’s language is one of conciliation, I consider it one of peace, of enjoyment of the offering and making of tea, however it’s made, whether its complex, complicated with all kinds of beautiful ornate pottery or whether it’s simply pouring some leaves in a glass or garam chai, tea for me is a language of consolation, of offering, an introduction to bring people together. The people of the Himalayas don’t have a lot of luxury, if they didn’t offer you tea that means they wouldn’t waste tea on you.

SJ– Sounds like a symbol of camaraderie…

Tea remains informal in the villages and regions that cultivate and harvest the leaves. Despite the increasing ‘value’, tea remains something understated and necessary in daily doses, where it brings people together and fuels as much as anything else. Here, a tea grower sits down and prepares some of his freshly made offering near Nannuo Mountain. . Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

JF: That prevails in the Himalayas but also in parts of China where I spend a lot of time living in and resourcing tea. You can go inside a tea shop and sit for hours drinking the best teas for free – yes of course they hope that you will eventually buy some tea but the idea that you can sit down and drink tea for free for six to seven hours and just talk and meet people, it’s  a very welcoming thing. It’s an offering to the weary traveler, the person who’s come all the way, to sit down, stimulate, talk and also converse about the tea if you want. Throughout Asia, the subcontinent, Middle East and parts of Africa even Eastern Europe if you start with tea it’s almost inevitable that the conversation will be a good one. It omits some of the strangeness out of the ethnic, cultural, language divides. In my experience when tea is offered there is a community that’s instantly created.  A good community and from there you can debate, chat about things that are familiar , in many cases you are offered tea but you cannot speak the language yet you will enjoy each other’s company.

SJ. I feel that this prevails in South Asia and personally speaking the region where I live i.e the subcontinent. I live in Pakistan, the part in your documentary film where you mentioned tea with milk, it is the commoditized version that I am used to and is very different from the actual teas. Yet I feel that even with the tea which we find in packaged boxes in super markets – the etiquette, camaraderie, ritualistic part of sitting together and offering it to everybody when people visit our homes comes from the history that you are talking about.

SJ: You mentioned the importance of oral histories for the Tea Horse Road. Talk about tea stories and how much they live between fact and fiction, were you misled by some of the stories in the process, or were all of them completely true and helpful?

JF: Yes there is a lot of misinformation and I think that prevails with any commodity or trend. I’m not sure if tea is a trend in the west but it’s certainly growing in popularity – but just as in the history of the Tea Horse Road there was fiction – traders selling tea which was inferior quality, claiming it to be a higher quality.  Even now in the modern world there is lots of fake tea. And when we say fake tea specifically we are talking about packet made good tea, it’s not necessarily from the region that people say it’s from, I’ve had very good fake teas and I’ve not known. My tea expert friends in Asia informed me of fake tea through different times.  I am someone who loves tea but don’t consider myself a master of tea. They would defy the seller’s claim of which tea it was by sharing further on the leaf size, stems, taste – with any commodity, anything that reaches a zenith of popularity and is coveted since centuries, there is fiction – from qualities and prices that are hugely exaggerated to moments with tea and people where it doesn’t really matter which tea you are having. With the hype, types and exaggeration of certain tea sometimes we forget that sitting down and having tea, at a certain time with some people, that’s magic. We don’t have to know the price or the type; it’s just about moments of communion. I think in the west we have forgotten that. Of course we are interested in the names, the harvest but we must learn from the traditional tea drinking cultures to enjoy a moment that tea provides because for Tibetans tea is not something fancy, elegant or poured out of a hundred dollar pot, tea is leaves, its time and it’s a bit of a fuel for stimulation and energy. I feel we need to educate and promote the philosophy of tea which in my eyes at least is about making time, an offering, it’s about humility, when you prepare a cup of tea for someone, a guest, friend, family member, at least in my perspective its is something sacred and particularly with everything that’s going on in the world right now I think it’s an opportunity to figure out what it is that is really important to each of us. We don’t have the social ability that we once did. It’s an interesting time to self evaluate what’s important and tea for me offers a bit of that clarity, a moment of thinking and consideration.

A Bulang woman prepares tea leaves for preparation of ‘Am Mem’. Fresh tea leaves are boiled and put into bamboo husks and then sealed with clay and buried. The leaves are dug up after months (or even years) to serve at offer up a celebrations. It is a tradition that is fading amongst the mountain people of southern Yunnan province. Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

SJ: You have emphasized the making of tea and offering it to somebody – do you think the etiquette and the process can be called: art?

JF : For me one of the definition of art is that it is a consideration of time and effort – they certainly come together in the preparation of the tea. I’ve travelled a lot to the tea growing places and watched it being made and served; there is artistry to tea making in a lot of the places definitely because it’s about acknowledging the time – the teapot in some cases – and in the case of the Japanese Chado ceremony it is time to pay attention to the items beyond the tea itself. It’s about each single instrument and not just about the leaves. It’s the story of the pot, the bamboo measuring utensil (Chashaku), water, bamboo waterladle , who made the instruments, and how the tea sifu came into the world of tea. The art comes in with the time, the instruments and the offering.

A young Tibetan nomad offers tea within her family’s tent in Amdo. If tea isn’t offered, a relationship isn’t offered. . Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

In Japanese tea ceremonies they encourage you to ask about the artist, the shape of the bowl/cup and it’s not pretentious or meant to be complex – it’s made from honor and respect to each individual item of the serving not simply tea but the moment.

For instance Ikebana is a flower arrangement in Japanese tea houses and it is inevitable that flowers will be discussed along with the way the tea is served. The Japanese version is sometimes extreme in detail and in the respect of its artisans. There is also a reverence for the way everything comes together in that moment ‘around the tea’  In China you have Kungfu Cha , which is a little simpler but still complex. It’s not simply a pot and a cup and some leaves…here too there is a little ceremony and theatre, and there is also that aspect of the appreciation of time. I go back to the idea that art is about time and consideration. Coffee is quick, sexy, fast, caffeinated and strong, tea is about the moments of time invested in preparation – to enjoy it – consider it. Now I’ll I go into the Tibetan way of preparing it which is butter and salt, the artistry for the Tibetans is not in the preparation necessarily, they go into this intensive, physical, manual process to create a tea, time and effort as opposed to detail in the beautiful Japanese way. The etiquette of tea reminds us to be respectful of ritual. Personally I find ritual very important. In some respect the world is going at such a speed with no reverence for time, everything is about efficiency, that sometimes we forget about moments of reverence. I look at tea as a fuel, as a simple pleasure for my mouth but I also look at it as spiritual, of value and time. I’m a romantic with this. Every time somebody prepares tea for me it’s silent, quiet, I’m in reverence and awe of the preparation however it doesn’t matter how it is, whether its Masala Chai or a complex oolong or a simple bunch of leaves from some part of China, even if I don’t know the name for me the reverence for time and consideration makes it something beyond the realm of just a beverage.

One of the underrated skills involved in making a tea is the pan fry and the subsequent aeration of the hot rolled leaves. It is with the pan fry that the leaves are either encouraged to become a great tea, or have their potential ruined. Here freshly pan fried teas get separated and uncoiled so that they can dry naturally. Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

SJ: Would you call yourself a tea pilgrim and is tea sacred, can it be seen as a religion?

JF: Indeed it’s a provocative question. Yes I’m a tea pilgrim and tea explorer. I’m very much interested in the journey to discovering good teas and moments with tea and people – all over the world. Whenever I go home to my father in Canada one of the first things we do is prepare tea for him. It’s the tradition and then we talk for hours. I’m not ambitious or silly enough to call myself a tea expert but I’m interested in the eternal journey to find tea and tea moments. As for it being a religion I don’t know, but it’s a focal point of my life. Every morning it’s the first thing I do, I prepare tea after my breathing exercises. It’s a bit of a spiritual journey in a sense, also a physical, mental and spiritual need to prepare and have the tea but also in the preparation I’m aware of the origin of the tea and the pot, who made the pot, there’s thankfulness and gratitude to have access to this tea, I wouldn’t say it’s a religion but I would definitely say that tea people are people of the leaf – of the tea. We feel an attraction to one another as human beings; a lot of the friendships in my life revolve around the tea leaf. They are built, it’s a strong bond, between people of all ethnicities and languages, if we are interested in a common leaf there’s a strong commonality which transmits empathy and compassion – “you drink tea? Yea I drink tea”.

There’s a sense of complicity based on this attraction, this desire, this love of the people who make it, provide it and the feeling and clarity it gives us. As much as there is the spiritual element to tea and its taking, there is too (in me at least) the love of this leafy narcotic and fuel.

Kettles at the boil within a nomadic home and an offering of burned juniper are two sacred offerings to both guests and the deities that reside in the mountains. Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

SJ. There’s no last word to what the meaning of the word religion is – it resonates with faith, love and belief. Every religion has their own institutions, decorum and planning…

JF: When you spend time researching, studying living something, it’s always a pleasure to have another perspective on the topic so it’s not just about exploration or the tea culture, it’s about humanity, the history of sharing – of economics and trade , there’s so much that can be woven into it.

SJ: You’ve been an explorer and a pilgrim, what’s the essence of maps – physical versus imaginary or perceived?  How different or similar is it to be there physically in a space as opposed to observing it in a map?

JF: It’s a great question and something I think about a lot. I’ve studied maps for so many of the expeditions, I love maps – I like to hold maps however the more I travel and expedite to the Himalayas I reflect on the concept of perception particularly when I arrive in towns, villages, nomadic encampments or just our team irrespective of who the guide team is. I’ll give you a perfect example; last winter I was in Nepal on a route in the Himalaya and of course I was looking at a map and I remember asking one of the Sherpa, ‘Tibetan guide’ a question on the direction and the way he answered the question “are we heading west ?” he didn’t say yes or no but he explained to me the moss on the trees which is usually on the north face of the tree because the sunlight doesn’t hit at least on the northern hemisphere – he mentioned the direction that the tents were facing which is usually east because that’s where the sun rises and the heat can directly hit the entrance to most nomadic tents so the nomads can milk their goats – he gave me all of this information before he answered the question directly , “ this is west” and many times over the years I’m a little embarrassed sometimes about the way I refer to a map and the way, locals refer to their sense of space. Their concept of space is usually about natural world landmarks, a journey for me maybe 40 kilometers but for the locals it would be a journey of one lake, two snow passes and a small nomadic camp under the tree line. The way they refer to the landscape is much more dynamic, tangible and real than in my head which is about compressed numbers. Over the years I’ve heard similar answers to questions and I’ve learnt from them – I suppose I want to see the land in a more natural way then in the past. I don’t want to know about the altitude, I’ve been obsessed with altitude and latitude but borders are to a large degree political things. They’ve been made up by officials, I understand that’s what officials have to do, they’ve to create these delineations to say “this is mine and not yours” but when you travel to landscapes like the mountains, ocean and the great forest – these spaces are just themselves – when you meet somebody you start thinking about culture because of language and traditions, as humans we carry these designations of a culture – the linguistics are based on histories and tradition but when you go into the natural world I don’t think in terms of culture – I think in terms of a natural magnificence and splendor of the world and when I hear a lot of indigenous locals speaking of their land it seems that they speak in a very familiar way; reference points, trees, shadows in some way, mountains , meaning its 4 o’clock in the afternoon and in winter the sun will set between the two peaks. You asked a question earlier about ‘tea; fact and fiction’ in a way maps are there to get us to a point but they don’t give you the rich tangible sensory world that is travel ,no reference points on what’s going on here, no history, just the lines and that’s how you get there. What’s interesting for me is that the trade, pilgrim, migration routes of the ancient world were all the same. The trade route wasn’t just trade, it was migration, news highway, it was for pilgrims, there are lots of pilgrimage routes through the mountain to get to the sacred spot; mountain, lake, tree, town and they are fascinating because they are not on maps. You’ve to speak to an elder, someone who has a memory of a few routes and they cannot show that to you on a map necessarily. Borders have changed so much in the world. My father is Hungarian and in Hungary in the past 500 years the borders have changed so many times. So in a way the maps are a gateway but they are also a very limiting factor to explore or feel a trade route – a mountain – a culture.

One of the famed snow passes along the Tea Horse Road in eastern Tibet, Shar Gong La, or ‘Eastern Gate Pass’. Distances were often marked not by numbers but by landmarks, passes, and waterways. . Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

SJ: Talking about borders Pakistan is a region sliced out of an existing region. In the past hundred years the borders have changed rapidly – you are right, through text books and histories people choose and prioritize their own maps and it’s highly political at the end of the day.

SJ: Is material itself the surreal in the case of tea?

JF: I’ll answer in a yes and a no, I use specific pots with specific teas every morning, I know who made the pot, who created the tea, materials can be very important because when I use them I’ve a memory and mind palace, I know who’s made these things so it’s vital for me to pay a little gratitude in my mind. I often explain to people when I’m serving where the tea and the pots come from, I share who grew it, the altitude and soil it grew on. It’s not a politically correct statement but the materials are important to me. They represent bringing people together, time, consideration to a degree – so in some way the materials don’t really matter and they are surreal, they are the most important and the least important. I do appreciate the tools, the way the tea was made by a certain person, how they’ve imprinted their character on the tea or the way the soil is represented in certain teas. I’ve a lot of clay pots which I collect from certain time periods and certain makers; I’m slightly obsessed with and attached to them.

SJ: Talk about the Knowledge, literature, books, etc that stayed with you or the people who were like institutions for your journey:

JF: One overriding concept that I learned is that you can read a lot and it’s important to give due credit but through the expeditions you have to be willing to listen. One shouldn’t be aggressive in trying to dictate the conversation, some of the best most meaningful interviews have involved listening for days – for hours – one or two questions and the answers could be four hours to two days long. A Lot of the most important information on the Tea Horse Road I owe to the elders who were not literate, they could not read, write or even sign their name but they had travelled the route and could share the oral narrative – the history. We live in a time where science is considered fact, we now can prove anything we want and claim what is provable or not. We are in a day and age where everybody talks about facts – during the journeys I’ve taken, what has given my heart some warmth is that a lot of the stories that you hear, you have to take time to listen to them and not write them from your lens only, not reconfigure them, you have to talk to as many as you can if you want to get a feeling or a sense of an idea. When I began on the Tea Horse Road there was no knowledge in any language, English or French other than Mandarin. In subsequent years and definitely the last decades there are so many beautiful books, pieces of literature about tea, travel and the Tea Horse Road in Mandarin or in the memories of old travelers and they’ve been translated – I think things are opening up.  I wrote the book when I travelled the journey, one of the things that attracted me the most to the project was that there was very little written that I could access and the little pieces of information I found pre-journey ended up being totally in correct in many cases. I don’t know if they were deliberate fabrications but there are always many different versions of stories. There’s perception – the way we perceive and the way we tell a story tends to be different – for me it was very important to sit down and listen to the tales of the elders – if I had to credit anyone particularly, I would be crediting all of those traders – men and women, tea traders, tea accountants, the last generation of the people who travelled the route up until the 1950s and sixties – because they didn’t have a particular skill, they weren’t able to write their memories, tales or stories, they weren’t interviewed. In this day and age we are trying to prove we are the best, first, fastest person to do something most glamorous, it’s about speed and immediate satisfaction. My brave lesson was that satisfaction is in taking time to do things. To figure out your own methodology, you may have thoughts about a topic or an approach in your head but it’s on us individuals to figure out our own method of research, listening, understanding, interpreting and perceiving. There’s some great literature now but still there’s lots of misinformation about the Tea Horse Road because it seems to focus on certain aspects. One of the underrated aspects of the Tea Horse Road and the trade routes generally such as the Silk Route is that these routes were functioning or cooperating for hundreds in some cases over thousands of years and it was about constant communication because trade routes weren’t simply about a commodity or a currency they were about sharing information, news, they were like a news pipeline, information, DNA , luxury items, commerce and communication . I’d like to credit the people whose names will never be in light, they will never be famous , but they lived and survived the times and they didn’t just try but were able to live their life in an interesting time and conduct themselves with ability.

A last generation of traders who travelled the great trade routes through the Himalayas can be counted in the dozens. Tenzin, above spent four decades transporting tea and salt along the caravan routes, and remarked, that if “one had tea, one had wealth”. Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

There’s a couple of people I need to give credit to for not only the aspect of tea, but for the introduction to worlds beyond the tea but absolutely linked to it. An old Tibetan friend of mine Dakpa Kelden introduced me to the Tea Horse Road by way of a great long story. At the end of this incredible story of his life he just looked at me and  said “Jeff, we have to travel this route together”. As he said this, we were sipping a not so good cup of tea and watching the sun go down. He pointed out this little strip – a pathway through the mountains – and explained that it was the way he had come by foot from India back to his father’s home town. He mentioned that it was the old tea route that connected China’s southwestern Yunnan province to Tibet and further into India, Nepal and beyond. Dakpa on that day sealed my decades long interest in this great trade route, and inspired our journey along it, a book and a film.

 Another person that deserves heaps of credit, is Neddy Luo, for his sheer, immersive brilliance and palate. When it came to tea and its soils, its tendencies and loves and chemistry, there has never been an equal in my life of learning about the leaf. From the Yi minority, Neddy explained more in three minutes of unpretentious, deep tea education than any book I had read this far. He spoke directly about fact and fiction in the tea world. He was (and remains) as straightforward and educated a tea steward, as I’ve ever met and every single time I return to Yunnan, I try and take a few sips of tea with him.

Last few words on our conversation:

JF: Some of the questions you’ve addressed are on humanity, philosophy and psychology – traders are far more than snow peaks or trade, they are about the human condition and how different cultures have been linked for centuries based on a commodity and cooperation – beyond clichés of exploration or a mountaineering record time – it’s about the Human conditions of how we live and perceive.

Harvesting big leaf Puerh material often involves climbing into centuries-old trees to clip the end buds with a fingernail, like this in southern Yunnan Province. . Courtesy : Jeff Fuchs

Jeff Fuchs (Tea Explorer) in WhatsApp video conversation with Sehr Jalil, 26th May 2020.


Note: This blog and its publications can be seen as art, research and ongoing curiosities.

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