Travel diaries

Report from the Company of Tea Devotees’ expedition to remote parts of Tibet.

Probably everyone knows that tea is drunk in Tibet. You can find teahouses on almost every corner. Black tea with yak milk and butter is, after tsampa, the second most important staple in the diets of the inhabitants of this beautiful country.

In Tibetan teahouses only this one type of tea is served, and it comes in large thermoses. It is drunk salted, sometimes alternatively with a sweetened version. The usual price for one thermos is one yuan, which is just under ten cents.



Tea can be bought either pressed or loose leaf from many street vendors together with yak butter, which is stored in yak stomachs and sold by weight.




The most commonly sold tea is a Sichuan brick wrapped in yellow paper.




Loose leaf black tea is not entirely common. For it, you have to go to a specialty store. The sight of a mixture of sticks, twigs, and leaves, however, is not too enticing. It too is imported from the neighboring province of Sichuan.




We were more interested in the bags of green tea with labels in Tibetan, which we learned truly do come from a plantation lying directly in the territory of Tibet. Considering its location on a high plateau with a minimal altitude of over 3,000 meters above sea level, the search for the Tibetan tea plantation became a challenge for us.



None of the local tea merchants, however, could tell us where the plantation was located. Aleš, Tea Devotee, therefore decided to set out on the search for the mysterious Tibetan tea garden. His steps led directly to the office of the local agriculture secretary in Lhasa. Here he found a framed photo on the wall and understood he was on the right track.



The chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Tse-Tung himself visited the lovely valley near the Tigong Lake, created by a tributary of the sacred Brahmaputra River, and decided that the place was suitable for cultivating tea. It was from his impetus that the first tea seedlings were planted here in the early 1960s.



The place itself was so romantic that the chief of staff of Mao Tse-Tung’s army built his summer home here. In 2001, however, the area was hit by an earthquake which caused major landslides. Masses of displaced rocks barricaded the valley. Within a few days, a lake was formed here which flooded the tea plantation, tea processing facilities, and the dwellings of the local farmers. The only building left standing was a communal dining room on the hill, to which the residents were forced to move.



Roughly three months after the earthquake, however, the natural dam burst under the weight of the accumulated water, spilling into the valley and taking with it a 40-kilometer-long local road, the only access road. The place became completely cut off from the outside world for several years, and even today it is only accessible with all-terrain vehicles with double fuel tanks. What’s left of the lake is visible in the photo. The tea plantation is girdled by a rock wall, which serves as protection against free-ranging yaks.


The tea plants are overgrown with lichen. This phenomenon testifies to the absolute anomaly of their altitude some 3,000 meters above sea level.




It was incredible luck that on the very day of Aleš’ visit, which also happened to be his birthday, i.e. April 23, 2007, was the first day of the tea leaf (to be precise – only the tea buds) harvest. The fresh young shoots, however, were not abundant, and so the gatherers sufficed with little bowls, and in some cases even the fronts of their sweaters, instead of classic tea-collecting baskets.



After a full day of gathering, the tea is placed in bamboo baskets, where it is left to wither for several hours.




A little after midnight the fires are lit in the renovated workrooms.




Burning logs of wood from outside are placed in the furnaces over which metal pans are heated.




The work night has begun for the processors. The tea is stirred and shaped by hand.




The final step in processing tea is to finish roasting it on electric cookers. That moment comes sometime in the early morning hours.




The resulting tea is called Mao Jian and is intended only for local political leaders. For that reason, the price is impossible to determine. Its flavor reminded us of the famous Chinese Putuo. The name “Mao” is not, however, derived from the great chairman’s name. In Chinese, it means “downy,” while “Jian” means “top.”

It just so happened that A. Devotee’s visit to the Tibetan tea garden was the first ever visit of a European! But even considering attempting to establish any business cooperation was out of the question. The local Mao Jian drinkers’ condition for doing business was to first show our good will by investing in the damaged road. Reportedly around 30 million yuan ($3.98 million). After that, we could start talking about tea… Considering that the Company of Tea Devotees does not have the above-mentioned amount at this time, we can take solace in having good contacts for a producer of black loose leaf tea for the Tibetan market in neighboring Sichuan.


Experienced by A. Devotee

Written by J. Devotee