The Event: Rare Stories and Rarer Tea with Jeff Fuchs

On Wednesday, November 7th I had to chance to see new art, have a chat with a rather incredible man in Shangri-La, and sample a tea that may never before have been tasted in Canada. . .

Tea and art aficionados mingle and taste tea on the lower level of the Ars Nova gallery.

This will come as a shock to you: one of my passions is great storytelling. I know, I know, I hide it well, don’t I? One of my other passions, which you may also have heard me talk about in person or on Twitter, is tea. Toronto is home to dozens of tea shops, each different from the last. Over the years, my palate for loose-leaf tea has become more and more refined. I admit it, I’m a bit of a tea snob.

I’m even part of a tea club, which meets all over the city to check out tea purveyors and taste their wares, try out different afternoon tea services, go to seminars, and just have all kinds of fun to do with tea. One of the places we often meet is the Tea Emporium, which features artwork by Canadian author/photographer/explorer/tea-freak Jeff Fuchs. Our group jumped at the chance to see Jeff’s newest photograph exhibit at the Ars Nova gallery, especially when we heard what else the evening had to offer: a talk with Jeff in Yunnan and the launch of a very special subscription service called Jalam Teas.

We began the evening by viewing the art itself: Jeff, who lives in Yunnan Province, China, recently recreated the trek along the Tibetan Plateau on foot from Shangri-la at the base of the Himalayas, through Shola Pass, and ultimately to the magnificent Kawa Karpo,  a snowcapped mountain over 22,000 feet high. Along the way (a way that is over 300 km long, if you were wondering), he and his expedition (including president and CEO of Zoomer media Bill Roberts), met and shared life experiences with people who live along this route.

Kawa Karpo, photo by Pseudois, posted on Wikipedia.

The evening’s photography showcased these people and described their stories. A few of my favourites (all words in Italics are Jeff’s):

“A Yi elder-woman contemplates the price that trade extracted from her family. A father and brother both lost their lives along the Tea Horse Road. At ninety-four her memories were vivid and instant.”

“The Long Wait,” © Jeff Fuchs

“Lashi has spent her entire life upon the highlands, living every single day within the blustery black wool of her tent. Known for their spartan lives lived under the full brunt of Mother Nature’s moods, the nomads have honed down their essentials to a few crucials that haven’t changed in generations. Lashi’s life revolves around the lives of her yak and her children and her days are filled with brutal repetition filled with spontaneous bursts of joy in the sky.”

“Lashi of Genyen,” © Jeff Fuchs

What struck me most about these beautiful pictures, some of young children, some of wizened elders, was the clear care and interest Jeff has taken in their lives. They aren’t simply objects of curiosity but human beings Jeff has broken bread with, shared butter tea with, traded stories with. I particularly enjoyed the attention paid to cultural groups. These aren’t simply Tibetans or nomads but people of particular tribes and groups and areas that are too often overlooked (if these people are considered at all) in the West.

As we circulated through the gallery, we were treated to two tea tastings. Each was of a different pu-ehr, or post-fermented tea. The first, Bada Tea, was a smoky, amber-coloured  tea that originates on Bada Mountain.

A cake of Bada pu-ehr tea. Photo © Jeff Fuchs

The final treats of the evening rolled out around 8 p.m. First, we were connected via Skype to Jeff himself, where he lives in Shangri-La, Yunnan Province. Jeff works as the Asia Editor-at-Large for Outpost magazine and has had his work published in a number of periodicals, including World Geographic and Kyoto Journal; he is the Global Tea Ambassador for Templar Foods; he is also an avid explorer and mountaineer; and he knows everything about everything about everything about tea. We got to have a chat with him in China, where we asked him questions about tea in general, about his latest trek through Shola Pass to Kawa Karpo, about his photographs, and about his latest venture, Jalam Teas (more on that in a minute).

Each of his photos, Jeff said, portray the people of the Tea Horse Road, an ancient route that was part of the Silk Road and connected various parts of Yunnan province with Sichuan province and central China, Tibet, Burma, and India and allowed for the trade in tea to cover all of that territory. These people, who are traders and tea-growers and nomads even today, formed the “quintessential human element” of his journey to Kawa Karpo. When he and his group happened upon others, they would often be invited in to share tea and to share stories: “Stories communicated by word of mouth,” Jeff said, stories that you needed “to take the time to listen to.”

Zoomer media president and CEO Bill Roberts, who undertook the Kawa Karpo expedition, and Carol Mark, who hosted the event. In the background is the photograph of Amdo Pomo, a young nomadic girl in southern Quinghai province.

Jeff Fuchs, live via Skype, at a cafe in Shangri-La, Yunnan, where he lives for much of the year and sources wonderful teas.

My tea group’s wonderful leader, Lisa, asked Jeff where his passion for tea comes from. Jeff credits his dad (who came in from Ottawa to be part of the event) for bringing many new flavours into their home when he was growing up, and to a young woman when Jeff first moved to Taiwan for bringing him to a tea house and introducing him to “seven tea junkies.” Together he and this group drank a a huge variety of teas all night long, “watching the sun come up, hallucinating on a tea high.” Jeff was hooked. He even learned Mandarin mainly because the language has so many specific ways to describe tea that English doesn’t have, including the way a tea “grabs” the tongue or the taste of tea against the side of the tongue by the teeth.

As Jeff travels through this vast area, he also sources tea. He goes to villages and sits with households as the tea growers bring different types to talk about and sample. He is most interested in sourcing teas that are as pure and unprocessed as possible, and these are often teas that are almost never seen in North America. At this point in the evening, the second tea came around for tasting: a pu-ehr from the Meng Song region that was light, ever-so-slightly sweet, and almost floral. Such a contrast to the first tea! And likely never (or rarely) tasted in Canada before that evening.

And this is how Jalam Teas was born: each month, subscribers receive a new 100-gram cake of a different rare pu-ehr tea that has been sourced by Jeff. Better still, the tea comes with stories and photos of the people who grew it, with care paid to who they are, who their cultural group is, how they harvest the tea, how the tea should be brewed, tasting notes, and so on. I was tempted. Fifteen dollars a month is a small price to pay for 80 cups of tea the likes of which I may never taste before and stories I may never otherwise hear. And when anyone who signed up that evening were promised a cake of the Meng Song to take home with them that night, well, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I’m now one of Jalam Teas’ founding members!

What I particularly loved about this event, beyond Jeff’s amazing passion for tea and his beautiful, very human artwork, was the ability the connect the art on the walls at the Tea Emporium that I’ve seen a million times with a real person, and the ability that person has to connect me to other people living their lives so far away from me and my own experiences. It’s not just about the tea. It’s about the people who make that tea possible for me to to taste, about thinking on who they are and what their lives might be like. Jeff loves tea because it brings people together. I couldn’t agree with him more!

“An Offering,” © Jeff Fuchs.

“One of the everlasting and understated offerings of the Himalayas: a cup of butter tea. For the nomads butter tea (known as Pu / Bu Jia) and the ingredients themselves—tea, salt, and butter—all represent commodities that are eternal and vital to their own lives. It is the offering of tea that they keep alive a time-honoured tradition of generosity and support.”

You can read more about Jeff at his website, the Jalam Teas website, and in his wonderful book, The Ancient Tea Horse Road, published by Viking Canada, now available in ebook.


You might also like:

Review of The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce

Review of The Water Rat of Wanchai,
by Ian Hamilton


Will Ferguson and the translators: IFOA 2011

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10 thoughts on “The Event: Rare Stories and Rarer Tea with Jeff Fuchs

  1. It delights me to know that Mandarin has words used specifically to describe tea! And the Jalam monthly tea subscription is such a great idea. This now makes you a card-carrying tea snob… you get to drink teas nobody else has even heard of!

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