Tales from the Tea Horse Road: A Conversation with Jeff Fuchs

Culture | by Amber Mizerak
Posted: March 13th, 2012 | Updated: August 10th, 2014 | Comments

Mark Twain's quote "Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great" sums up how I felt when I sat across from the adventurer, tea aficionado, photographer, author and climber Jeff Fuchs over a cappuccino in the lobby restaurant of his Shanghai hotel. I heard him speak days earlier at the Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS) about his extensive travels as the first Westerner to complete the 6,000 km (9,656 mi) Tea Horse Road. He traveled the ancient path through the Himalayas by foot, and needless to say, I was inspired. Jeff recently ventured from his home in Shangri-La to come to Shanghai and talk with students and speak at the 10th Annual Shanghai International Literary Festival about the Tea Horse Road and people that make it so special.

On Growing Up 

Jeff Fuchs

The first thing I asked Jeff was if he could recall the first moment he realized he was an adventurer. He explained that he had been a climber since the age of five, thanks to summers in the mountains of Switzerland with his Hungarian grandmother who lived to be 96. Her philosophy of living life to the fullest, not just sitting back and thinking about it, lives on in her grandson. Jeff grew up in Canada with his father, a mediator for the International Labor Organization and a Professor of Economics. He was the first person to tell Jeff that university was optional since it wasn't what life was all about anyway. Jeff had to find what made him happy.

Why the Tea Horse Road?

One way Jeff supports his adventures is with writing. Himalayas. Jeff believes these stories, not just about the tea but about the mountains, too, should be told to share new insights and understanding with those who haven't been. As recently as the 1950s, the route was rife with avalanches and bandits; now, cell phones and motorbikes weave their way into once far-flung villages, and the majority of young kids are uninterested in hearing their old granddad's anecdotes about trekking with a mule caravan thousands of kilometers on the Tea Horse Trail (uphill both ways in the snow, of course). As a result, these subcultures risk losing their identities, and this is one reason why Jeff is working hard to document the cultural dynamism, the cultural DNA and the linguistic links that can be traced all the way from China to the Middle East.

Sustainable Travel

Making tea

Jeff's passion for tea and the people who make and distribute it radiates from him and is an energizing force. He would love for the mountain cultures to remain as authentic as possible, but he knows change is inevitable. The Tea Horse Road has not gotten the recognition it deserves (unlike its neighbor the Silk Road), but it's only a matter of time until it becomes more developed. The bittersweet reality is that with tourism comes major cultural change and the need for quality long-term solutions. Sustainable travel is close to Jeff's heart and he leads small expeditions through Yunnan via Wild China, where guests stay with local families, eat local food and learn about the animistic rituals surrounding the ancient tea trees. Though he offers no sweeping solution to the problem, he feels NGOs and heritage institutes working to prevent problems are a positive step in the right direction.

Future Plans

Ancient tea trees

Jeff's plan for the future was shaped after showing a video of an indigenous group in the Andes to a very similar indigenous group in Tibet. He watched as the Tibetans looked on in awe as he slowly turned the volume up on the video—they were astonished that the Andes group looked and acted so similarly yet spoke a completely different language. One of Jeff's goals is to create a database that connects these mountain cultures to each other so they can have access to people who are quite similar. He's already done much on the southwestern frontiers of China and is planning a future expedition to Northern Canada and the North Pole, so stay tuned for tales from Eskimos and people from that part of the world.

Advice for Adventure Seekers and Tea Drinkers

I enjoyed hearing about someone who took adventuring to a whole new level, and brought back tales of all the lives along the way. As an adventurer myself, I plan to mark my 30th year with an Everest Base Camp trek and Jeff's advice was to bring a good sleeping bag, read The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and drink lots of tea (it helps oxygen absorb into the blood stream). If you'd rather just drink tea, you're in luck. Hand-sourced teas bought directly from small-town tea growers and certified families from Yunnan Province can be ordered on Jeff's Jalam Teas website. The subscription based site gets you not only the actual tea, but also provides a story to go along with it.

Here's some suggestions from the tea-lover himself:

1. Nannuo Shan, a Pu'er tea from ancient tea trees

2. Bi Luo Chun, a green roasted tea from the Dali Shu Company

3. Yen (stone) tea from Wuyi Shan

4. Oolong high mountain tea from Li Shan

5. Naka tea from Yunnan 

I tasted this one and it's legit (and contains more than 400 other stimulants besides caffeine!) You can keep in touch with Jeff by signing up for his newsletter and reading his blog, Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journals.

Tibetan man

As always, happy travels and happy tea drinking!

All photos courtesy of Jeff Fuchs

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