You would think that trekking in the Himalayas and drinking tea would go together. Walking through misty forests above green swirling swathes of tea gardens is just the kind of picture that unfolds. You imagine that a hot steaming cup of golden brew awaits you. The reality is not quite that. Trekkers are generally not fussy, after all they’ve agreed to go without a bath for days! Strongly brewed milky tea is the rule. For someone who drinks only greenish black leaf tea, preferably high grown, even more preferably freshly plucked, you might as well suspend drinking for a while and find joy in… soup!

The truth is that getting a satisfying cup of tea on a long trek is similar to expecting a first time trekking enthusiast to be okay with the possibility of leeches. I should know. I’ve just come down from a trek in Sikkim, through the Kanchendzonga National Park. Leeches abounded at 5,000 ft as we clambered down in the driving rain, fastening themselves to our faces and feet and even burrowing through parts not mentioned in polite company. But there was nothing coy about the way we leapt around as we tore them off. We had forgotten to carry salt, an oversight that made us curse heartily.   

I digress. This is an article about Tea, with a capital ‘T’ because good tea deserves to be spoken about reverentially. The kind that makes the memory of leech bites fade. That warm, golden brew that tastes of fresh green leaves and brings to mind chilly mountainsides, nestling below snow capped peaks. The kind you long for after eight hours of relentless ascent; the kind that needs a few minutes of undisturbed steeping to unlock its heady fragrance.

On my first trek in Uttarakhand, more like a strenuous walk in retrospect, I did the obvious: I waved a regular tea bag above the steel mug of tepid water handed to me by the kitchen boys. The result was an awful brew, flavourless and cold. The sun went down and so did my hopes of a good cuppa for the coming week.    

The author and her tea, on a recent trek.
The author and her tea, on a recent trek.

Good tea at all times starts with ‘good’ water. Often on treks, the only water is boiled flat or chlorinated for safety from ecoli. The most robustly flavoured leaf / dust will be boiled to a viscous muddy liquid – the kind you see coming down a jagged mountain along with big boulders, heralding or following a landslide – to overpower the flat water. The first sip of such a brew is not for the fainthearted, just as a week-long trek ascending to 4,000m is not for the unadventurous or those who are used to shorter, low altitude hikes.

On a trek, when truly desperate, I can sip delicately at a sweet, milky ginger tea that promises to get the marrow in your bones to melt. This is the tea that the cook is most happy to serve as there are many takers, and any number of reheats is possible. My long time trekking companions can put away two large steel mugs of the brew, and be ready an hour later for more. I stop at half a cup, possible only when scalding hot.   

On my next trek, I wised up a bit. I bought Darjeeling tea bags, hoping for a miracle. When the water in the flask was really boiling, I got a whiff of flavour before it turned bitter, the kind of bitter that leaves a taste of woolly steel in the mouth. Given this, I was somewhat excited when I spotted the odd tea shop, proclaiming on a small board outside: ‘Lemon Tea’. I know from experience that Lemon Tea is a good option, the sugar drives out the bitterness of the strong decoction and the lemon lightens the flavour. However, trekking in national parks means there is no habitation as the villages have all been resettled outside, so no lemon tea either.

It’s taken me multiple treks to finally crack the code: how to successfully brew a cup of leaf tea when there are no teapots or small saucepans that don’t smell of milk or garlic. To begin with, you befriend the cook. In any group there are always one or two people who despite the altitude inspired headache, have the energy to direct the menu, in other words those who can boss the cook around a bit. I qualify, even sending ahead a list of local raw food stuffs that must be carried, and flinging the tinned food and refined flour over the hill before we set off. I abhor poor quality food on a trek, favouring local grains and greens whenever possible. But that’s another story.

Having once been a school teacher, I chat up the cook and his minions by asking them how many years they have been at school and where. I chide them gently if they have left too early. I tell them what I teach and show them pictures of my students. I establish what all teachers do – a moral high ground that allows you to bully! Meanwhile I keep a beady eye on the pan of water coming to a boil. Once I have the boiling water in a mug, I drop my tea leaves into it and cover it with another mug. While the leaves are steeping, the other mug is warming, a stroke of sheer genius that delivers you tea that stays warm longer! Once my tea is steeped, I carefully pour it through a clean strainer into the warmed mug. And there you have it: freshly brewed, hot tea on a chilly mountain top. The far away peaks look magical and as the comforting brew steals into your cold innards, you look forward to another day of meditative walking.  

A certain harmony seeps into me: Quiet, spiritual hours of slow climbing are behind me as I am lulled by the undisturbed peace on the mountain. The stretched, sore muscles settle into a gentle ache, and even the sudden biting wind that wraps around my ankles fails to bother me. I feel only happiness. A long, deep glug of fine flavoured leaf tea does it for me, every time.

Featured banner shows the author and her trekking companions with the Kanchendzonga in the background.

Photo courtesy: Author

 

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PRITI DAVID
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5 Comments

  1. gowri mirlay achanta Reply

    Great going Priti ! You have blended the tea and the trek very well and we get to savour a refreshingly well written piece on both ! Keep brewing more stuff !

  2. Loved the agonising over the perfect cuppa…struck several chords there!! Oh yes, and what about buying tea straight from the gardens.

  3. I still remember the cup of tea at Himalaya. Your article brings me back to that time. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Trekking can be pretty challenging for people who are fussy about food and they’re stay, if one is going for a trek, they have to be prepared for various challenges that could come across without making a fuss about it, because that is what trekking is about, adventures. I really like the way you have posted this article, keep it up.

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