In a new series for Outpost, explorer and tea aficionado JEFF FUCHS reflects on the fascinating people and indelible moments of his extraordinary travels, and the role tea has played along the way. In this installment, he sits amid the planet’s highest mountains, where mornings are especially revered for a cup of Karma’s chai.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs | Outpost Travel Media
Where: The Kirti Glacier, Gangotri Glacier, the Himalayas
The Tea: Assam Black Tea, with Karma’s special chai blend
A dust particulate is wandering around in the cold morning air within my tent. My exhaled breath catches it and pushes it around in the air above me.
Morning is the time when all is possible again, and when the mind is pliant and vulnerable and has a touch of amnesia of all that came before. It is also the time when tea is most vital in my day — to make certain that the first bits of daylight time get steered in a direction of clarity and comfort.
Tea in this case will require a short walk from my small orange tent, which is wedged into a small gulley, and across hardened bits of ground vegetation, moraine, and a perma-frosted earth.
Everything in the world right now is “up.” Unzipping the tent unveils the shadowed south side of Shivling peak, resting high above. My tent, my feet, and my tea — my entire world of needs right now — are atop the Kirti Glacier, and the world above is a bakery of cones, icing, and layers that line a ragged and perfect horizon. What my world needs now, is a cup of Karma’s Masala chai.
Mountain air in this early and unmoving, deep cold version, is remarkable in how still it can be. To the east of where I walk, just over “there,” is one of the largest glaciers of the Himalaya, the Gangotri, and it too seems to waken quietly.
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The kitchen tent of my affections and the grand curative wizard of nourishment and restoration, Karma, rest just ahead. The tent, his tent, is a like a beacon of sorts. A taut, green canvas triangle — every morning, regardless of camp, mood, or body ailments, I hone in on that tent and that alchemist of mood-bending creations, Karma.
Already small strains of Bollywood music make their way through the windless morning hush. There is burbling within the tent and the hiss of a pressure cooker. These are all triggers that welcome and stimulate me, as they signal the first meeting of the day with my guru. Karma — and his genius, restorative powers — lie within, and it is around him that our entire camp is drawn.
Karma’s phone croons out tunes at a low volume, and I can now hear him humming along with it. This entire space is his; curated by him, designed by him, smelling of his spices. At every camp we set up, his tent is the first we erect. It’s our castle and sanctuary, where he seamlessly recreates an entire world of sustenance and comfort.
As we unravel our sleeping bags and unwrap our kit, he unveils his array of seeds, flour, rice, and pots. Karma is a provider of immaculate culinary experiences, even in the most remote of mountain enclaves.
Through the green heavy tent flap, I step. With that step, each morning, it is the same: it’s a step into an extravagant sensory world of heat and spices, and into the uplifting gaze of my beloved guru. There, on the right in a cross-legged position, Karma hovers atop an array of flames at various stages of readiness.
Those eyes register little but seem to know all, and crease just a little as they acknowledge my entry. I need that acknowledgement, as I need few other things. Over years and countless expeditions, it is to Karma that I (and others) have deferred to on matters way beyond the culinary.
His earnest and languid abilities extend seemingly everywhere. Knowledge of wind patterns, blizzard strengths, campsites, and his read of people, are all part of his rich menu of offerings. Of all his skills that I admire, there are two that forever stand out: an astute understanding of human psychology and relationships, and how these underlie all human interactions; and an utter mastery of creating ragingly-good masala chai.
Around him are head guide and recklessly handsome Puran; the quiet local trail finder, Sorab; and across the flames, tucked into huddled balls, Berinder “The Strong” and that dervish of energy, Kiran. Toward the back sits “Uncle,” an aging indefatigable man of the mountains.
All of us are focused on Karma and his bewitching eyes and tidy, rapid movements. We are all here awaiting our daily blessing. Once in the morning, one inevitable afternoon visit, and sometimes, for an extravagant bit of extra pleasure, a third visit before sleep.
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There are nods to one another but little else, as if we somehow all await a cue from our maestro to allow us to unveil our morning grievances and thoughts. It is this way almost every morning. Our other expeditioner, Debra, has still not risen from her tent. All have our own version of morning rituals.
“Good Morning. Tea is coming,” is the almost whispered voice of Karma, which has never been heard to rise. Like some sort of deity, it’s as though he has the power of projecting his voice directly into one’s ear, despite the soft tones and distance between us. Around his neck string blessings from his own Rinpoche before this expedition. A devout Tibetan Buddhist, Karma is known for three audible references: mantras, Bollywood classics, and words of wisdom. Nothing else, it seems, is important to utter.
Our camp mornings are not a time of chats and words, but of an unsaid understanding that we will all slowly and silently seep into our collective skins as the tea floods our system. Regardless of our team’s departure or intention, Karma is always up before anyone, beginning his tea making. His tea aids always, but particularly in the morning.
At this moment Puran is still thawing out, and Berinder, with his woolen pink tuque, is fixated on Karma. Puran, also a veteran and a mate from previous expeditions, once said, “I’m not sure what kind of a day I will have until I’ve had two cups of Karma’s chai.”
We are days into an almost month-long expedition to document the monumental and fragmented body of nearby ice, the 30-kilometre Gangotri Glacier. A feeder of Mother Ganga, the River Ganges, its body of stored water is ebbing within one of the most mountain-intense geographies on the planet, the Garhwal Himalaya.
From the outset of planning this journey months ago, Karma’s presence was vital, as his culinary and tea-making abilities (and his syrupy spiced chai) are the grand restorative elements of every day. It seems a kind of life-truth, to me, that the providers of tea are inevitably at the heart of most journeys, in some way.
Karma’s kitchen spaces are rarely still places, and they have been erected in some of the most unlikely of isolated bits of glory. Atop glaciers, carved into deep blankets of snow, clasped onto sheer rock faces; there aren’t many places where he hasn’t conjured meals and created teas. It’s as though the moment his tent is constructed, he can effortlessly conjure, create, and soothe.
His teas remain powerful fortifiers in part because of his own enigmatic abilities; but there are some fundamental preparation reasons as well.
His recipe has been honed from decades of mountain living and nurturing. His morning brews are slightly different in strength and intensity from his afternoon or evening offerings. Ethnically Tibetan, he was raised on the salt-butter teas of the nomads, but decades of living in India added to his range of palate, piquing spice options. He has expanded and honed his skills over years of feeding expeditioners with little but burners and an unerring sense of composing flavour profiles.
I crunch down next to the burners and pots and tuck into a small spot near the entrance of the tent to watch the magic show. It is a little bit of culinary theatre – and no small feat at close to 5,000 metres – to create flavours of such delicacy that they seem to bind into the very bloodstream.
A fistful of Assam black tea is boiled to a fervent strength. Malty, brisk, and full of punch, Assam teas derive some of their inherent power from their origin point in the hot and humid gardens and forests in the state of Assam, India. Assam is one of the only two geographies in the world (the other is southern China) where native tea plants have been found. And Assam tea seems to give the most significant backbone to the spiced world of “chai.”
Karma continues his moving mantra of hands, steam, and humming. Every time the tea comes to a furious boil, he briefly removes the pot to allow the mixture to settle, before once again encouraging another of the violent boils. He repeats this ritual four or five times, then turns the heat down for a few quick minutes. He then immediately drains the nectar of leaves, while whistling a little tune.
Every movement is done with an almost elegant flourish of the wrists, with barely of a drop of the fluid escaping his control. The resultant leafless tea has an addition of milk powder stirred in and brought to a boil once again. Then the heat is lessened and monitored by Karma until he sees what he describes as “a smooth rolling boil that doesn’t quite disturb the surface.”
An assistant once told me that Karma knows just by the sound of the flame and boil when the tea is ready.
Freshly crushed peppercorns, star anise broken into halves, some cumin, “sometimes some cinnamon,” and a touch of salt are then stirred in, along with a wallop of sugar. Of the sugar, Karma unapologetically says: “You cannot pretend that anything can take the place of sugar.” He points to his slight paunch as if it is evidence and a piece of willing sacrifice for a properly constructed offering of chai.
Then, one of the elements that for me solidifies the brilliance of Karma’s special brew is added in fresh irregular shavings. A ginger root, lovingly unwrapped from a small paper bag, is carefully shaved into the mixture.
“Fresh ginger is always going to give the chai some sharp bite. It is a must. Good for health and it plays with the sugar a little.”
Chai’s alchemic mixture of spices and other elements is suited to heal, fuel, heat, and fortify, and each master has his preferred ratio.
Wafts of spice get driven up into the air of the tent by the heat, and Karma stills his movements at last to let the concoction come to a gentle burble. Our entire tent’s occupants are sitting forward in their seats in a morning ritual of expectation and reverence. The day’s first portion of elixir is ready.
Puran’s eyes gleam, and I have my own internal glow going on. The tea and the mountains (and our efforts to be here) bring us this daily reward. Karma serves everyone, getting the necessary reverent nods (but no words) from each of us. He settles like the calm elder and creator of joy that he is.
With a small tin mug now cupped in my cracked and scorched hands, I wander outside with Puran to watch as the day just begins to touch the spires around us. Night and its stillness have yet to release their hold of our world. Puran and I share the moment (but no words), watching the line of morning light as it slowly rises.
It is our ritual most mornings on this expedition in the Himalayas, and I cherish it immensely. In time, Puran reaches for my empty cup and turns, saying only, “I’ll get us another.”
We have time, and Karma will oblige, as he always does.