Jeff Fuchs is an award winning Himalayan tea explorer, entrepreneur, author, mountaineer, ambassador of The Ancient Tea Horse Road, ambassador of The North Face, Asia traveller, documentarian and ‘the pursuer’ of rare teas grown in the ancient, remotest routes on the planet. In an exclusive conversation with LoveforTea Jeff talks about his intimate relationship between mountains, indigenous cultures and tea and the experiences that have fuelled his purpose to search beyond. Recently named one of the top ten “tea influencers” in the world, Jeff’s most awaited work with award-winning filmmaker Andrew Gregg,“The Tea Explorer”, that experts are calling the “documentary of the year” airs on CBC documentary channel, on 23rd of July, at 9:00 pm EST.
1. Jeff, tell us about your journey from an entrepreneur to an award-winning explorer of far-away lands. Where, when and how did it all start?
JF: Not sure I can point to a beginning point so much as a pathway that has continually led me from one mountain world to another, from one character to another, from one tale to another…and of course from one sip to another. Mountains and tea have long held me and I cannot imagine being without or away from them for any amount of time. My father once said to me when in my mid-teens that he didn’t expect me to do anything I didn’t care about, and these words coming from an ex-professor to my ears at a very impactful time in my life lit up the fires even more and allowed me to wonder about a life of wandering and following paths.
The idea of exploring the trade routes and trying to find the last travellers and traders of these routes was important to give some context and lifeblood to their vital influence on culture, economics and the world of faith. It was like a kind of karmic circle where each thing led me back to the other. These journeys that traders and pilgrims took, required weeks and months and the characters along the routes have in many cases maintained their oral narratives and tales of the life. From my perspective documenting these tales and characters (which remain one of the least told aspects of the Himalayas) is vital to understand the mountains themselves.
JF: There is a wonderful saying on the Tibetan Plateau about travel and life, “There are no straight lines through the mountains”. This sums up my motivation: to participate in this movement and record how life is/was lived in such landscapes and spaces. Mountains are nature’s editors and through them, one must pass – and survive – in order to thrive. My wish has always been to track as many of these great routes as I can to access the stories, the precious people and the landscapes and spirit of the heights. What struck me was how little was written or taken down about the old trade routes of salt and pashmina and tea, and so interviewing people and finding them became the journey itself. I realized when interviewing these wonderful characters that they too needed documenting. Once there was a vision to seek out these routes, it was a question of engaging with the “ancients”, the remaining traders and muleteers and travellers who remember still when the only way to move was by foot.
With deciding on the routes, came through discussions with the elders. Once recalling their journeys, they would point out another route that they had travelled hauling yet another item. I remember one old grizzled trader in Tibet explaining that he did seasonal work and often shifted what it was that he traded and sold. “One year I only traded salt and the next salt and tea. Then I traded pashmina and tea because of the value. But always tea was the most valued of all commodities”.
3. What specific routes have you explored so far? Please share some tea experiences that you’ve had which are memorable.
JF: One of the beautiful aspects of the trade routes is that there was seldom a set finish point. Lifetimes would be needed to find the ultimate destinations of every wandering trade…and it seems fitting that way. These routes were in large part only found out about through repeated visits I made to interview elders or old traders.
The Tea Horse Road (known to the Tibetans as Gya’lam, or ‘wide road’), has long occupied me with its various strands. Some of these strands completely leave the main trunk and act as access routes for valleys, regions and even different cultural hubs. A decade was spent travelling as many of the passages of it as I could track down. Another of the great journeys I was part of was a 40 days trek following a long forgotten salt route in southern Qinghai (Amdo) Province that was used by nomads. It was simply called ‘Tsa’lam’ or Salt Road, and though there were many such routes, this one was particular because of two vital elements. It circumnavigated the sacred Amye Maqin mountain range and thus was a also an important pilgrimage route, and secondly, it cut through the lands of the fearsome Golok nomads, who, even for the hearty and strong were a risky threat to risk encountering.
Most recently there was a trade route I followed that hauled tea through the magnificent kingdom of Mustang along the Nepal-Tibet border. These trade routes were lifelines and news-pipelines rolled into one. Post, migrants, villains, armies, pilgrims and commodities all followed these paths, while culture and traditions, as well as DNA, all found their way from leagues away. Nothing though would have any colour or vibrance without the elders and their oral narratives and memories of such journeys.
4. Tell us about your most awaited documentary ‘The Tea Explorer’. What do you plan to share through your film?
JF: The film is peek into the journey tea took from the tea bastions of southern Yunnan province onto the Tibetan Plateau – a journey that must rank as one of the great underrated adventures of the world with its passage through the Himalayas and beyond.
It also delves a little into some of the magnificent characters of the Tea Horse Road. The film too seeks to shed some deserved light upon the odysseys that tea was part of on the overland trade routes. The tea that travelled by schooner from India and China to western Europe is relatively known, but the great routes through the skies and the endeavour necessary to make those journeys are the stuff of legends. I suppose the film is immersed in tea’s origins, part re-tredding along the routes themselves and part mountain lore of one of the great unknown routes of history with a delicious little bit of time with an old trader.
5. Tell us about your book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’. What experiences inspired you to write about the oldest trade route in the world?
JF: The book is a kind of combination of journaling and a leap back into history of this great trade route. One huge driver for the book was to introduce the Tea Horse Road to a wider audience, and the vital role it played in building not only the Himalayas but to Asia broadly.
The book is largely based on my own 7.5 month journey along the route and the characters who filled my ears and heart with their tales. Woven into this narrative is some of the experiences with the origins of all tea, Yunnan. Ancient tea tree forests, wonderful tea-stained and tea-fueler characters that served and preserve so much of the tea culture….all of them fill the book.
Lastly, the journey and book focus on the last generation of traders that we could track down and speak with. Their memories are the lifeblood of the route and without their words, and thoughts there would be very little flavour to the stories. A book of mountains, memories, and a green leaf.
6. Tell us about your recent exploration in Nepal and what teas have you brought back home this time.
JF: Journey was along an old trade route along Mustang’s eastern flank. Extraordinary isolation and a space very much consistent with so many of the landscapes along the trade routes, with nature ruling with her moods.
One of the pleasures of the journey was based on a promise I had made to an old tea trader two years previous. I had me this man, Konga, when we were filming the documentary and I loved his spirit and passion for the days of trade. We ended up filming him speaking of his past days of trading and of the risks of travel along these routes through the sky. He became like a kind of uncle to me. When our trek finished in northern Mustang I tracked him down and we had time for tea, to reminisce and of course to present him with a brick of tea I had brought from China. It was a very warm reunion for me because he personified so much of what made the traders and muleteers special.
I brought back some Jun Chiyabari tea, which is wonderful….though I’m a happy slave to my raw green Puerhs still.
7. How do you prepare yourself to travel at such high altitude?
JF: These routes are all about the land and the precious souls who live upon them and within them every single day. Preparations are wonderful segments of time. Training is usually an enjoyable thing with weighted packs and ascents with the odd bit of up hill sprints. Ascending anytime is something delicious as it forces the tendons and lungs into a kind of enjoyable stress.
Living well is a training of sorts and I don’t really change too much before a trip other than to make sure the tendons and joints are stretched well and mobile with isometric exercises and long easy stretch sessions in quiet places. There are some visualization exercises that I’ve started that I’m enjoying as well as much for to prepare the mind for long slogs.
Most of my journeys are around a month or more so what one needs is an ability to “enjoy the experience” as a whole. Living 24/7, where one is sleeping, eating, day-in-day-out requires some passion and love of elements rather than just being outside for temporary bursts.
A lot of Tibetans refer to the idea that they see the mountains not necessarily as barriers and walls and challenges but as guardians and corridors. They don’t force themselves on or through the mountains and I try to be very mindful of that philosophy both when in the mountains and when in preparations for them.