High Tea in the Himalayas
On a remote mountain in the Indian Himalayas, right at the mouth of the Chanderkhani Pass, there is a teashop that sits on top of the world. It’s not much more than sheets of plastic secured to a rock wall, propped up with the odd stick, but if every man’s home is his castle, then Narendra’s tarp is his teahouse. Six months of the year, you’ll find Narendra up on his mountain, alone except for the passing donkeys and the tour groups that come through to rest and revive. He is stocked with chocolate bars, stale biscuits, maybe some hot 2-minute noodles (with the ever-present masala spice) – and, of course, chai.
Chai is not a drink or even a pastime in India – it’s an institution. Chai is to India what the 1970s girl-next-door was to Australia: hot, steamy and available whenever and wherever you want it. It’s a national symbol of free love and generosity. It’s the milky incarnation of a reflexive hospitality that views leaving a visitor without enough sugary tea as an insult to honour, pride and family akin to being called a cow-eating-monkey-fucker. Even in places where there is nothing else but mountains and big sky for two days’ walk, you’ll find someone like Narendra, and you’ll find chai.
A few days before I met Narendra, after all the agencies in Manali had told me that trekking from the valley was “not possible madam, very much snow”, I had been losing heart. Nepal had kicked me out with a violent shake, other plans had gone to shit, and I needed to get on a mountain somewhere and walk, indefinitely. When I needed it most something in the universe sent me Matteo. He had a roughly Googled semblance of a route over the mountain and an Italian accent that made me feel like I was talking to a Super Mario Brother. I was sold.
By dusk, on our first day, several hours trekking straight uphill had been enough for us to question the wisdom of our plan and start believing all those warnings that we’d find nowhere to sleep in the mountains. We finally stumbled into the tiny, unmarked town of Pulag, with 41 households (we were later told), 23 cows (we saw) and very little else (we could tell). All dignity and inhibition erased, we began what we were sure would be a long campaign of sign language begging for somewhere to stay, all the more confused by our broken Hindi.
Whether they pitied us or thought we’d sabotage their livestock if they refused, it only took 10 minutes for us to have a roof and a room in a partially-constructed new house with mattresses, a lamp, and of course, hot chai. We played with little kids, took some touristy photos of picturesque cows, and as it got dark migrated upstairs where a crowd of local men were gathered around a crackly TV watching the IPL. It was a world usually reserved for males, of this I was sure, but the novelty of my presence coupled with enough basic knowledge of cricket to rub Australia’s world cup win in a little further seemed to be enough to win me a seat.
The Malana area is world famous for its hashish, and the stuffy room, moustached men and fuzzy miniature cricketers gradually blurred in the cloud of smoke coming from various corners. Through the haze chapattis, diluted rum, conversation and home-brewed liquor frequently emerged and were thrust towards us. We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us, but no one minded. No foreigner had ever stayed in the village before, but there had never been a question of turning us away. In the morning we left early, offering money for our food and the room and politely declining more chai. He refused our money, so we left it in the room and departed from our little haven for the wider heaven outside.
The landscapes of Himachal Pradesh are to trekkers what its hash is to stoners, and in winter their splendour will make your head spin just as hard. With the snow on the mountains melting away to pine forests that stretch on forever, you can walk for days without seeing anyone but a couple of shepherds competing with their goats over who can look more startled to see you. We passed our first trekkers in the early afternoon: two guides with their five wealthy Indian tourists in tow, on their way to a pre-set up camp an hour or so down the hill. It would take six hours to reach the pass, they told us, and then we’d need to negotiate our way over the top and start the steep descent on the other side. We asked how they made it here, they told us they’d come from a different direction and had other guides setting up camps as they went – they’d only done a couple of hours walking that day. “Don’t you have a guide?” they asked. We couldn’t say we did, but we assured them that we weren’t worried. “It’s a long way to any shelter and getting cold, do you have a tent somewhere? Do you at least have some food?” Again, not so much. Certain we would die of exposure on the mountainside, they made sure we wouldn’t do it on an empty stomach – that’s India for you. Laden with pistachios and mango chews, we left them stumbling through the snow, ourselves setting off blind towards what they told us would be the only possibility of shelter – the vague idea of a “canteen” somewhere near the top of the mountain. There were no tracks, no signs. Our footsteps were alone in the snow.
When at last from a distance we found the teahouse, Narendra could have been an apparition, a barefoot and beanied concoction of our frozen, desperately hopeful brains. His tarp and tent seemed to be clinging impossibly by their nylon fingers to the ridge of the pass. To the left of it, and of us, was nothing but freezing air, a spectacular drop crowned by the peaks of distant mountains on the horizon. There was hot chai going though, and noodles. As we sat drinking chai, wondering where we would sleep, one last group of straggler tourists made their way past us to another of these mythical set-up camps we’d heard about. Narendra was unsure about us and what we wanted as we tried to ask about shelter, and as the temperatures dropped way below zero we were less sure that resting there was what we wanted either.
He let us stay, giving us some blankets to fend off the chill as we piled on every layer of clothes we had. He told us about his wife and son down in Pulag as we made dhal and rice and chai on his little stove. (Unexpected but logical side-note: food cools quickly in sub-zero windy tarp-tents at 3600m). We swapped questions, experimented with peeing at altitude in an unbroken landscape of white, and watched the mountains change colour in the sun set. This world was Narendra’s life, sitting precariously on the edge of that giant bowl of sky, and for this little sliver of time, it was ours too.
At dawn we woke up, buried deep into our blankets, improbably un-frostbitten, to calls of “Chaiiiii! Helloo? Chai chai chai!” Narendra had decided to help us navigate the pass. “Very danger for you – much snow,” he stressed with wide eyes, eager to get back in time to serve his first customers. It took nearly two hours, filled with cautious steps, slips, stomach-churning glances over the never-ending drop and a lingering rain. Narendra was constantly scuttling back and forth stomping out for us footsteps with his skinny legs. He left us at the top of Chanderkhani – snow on one side, steep grassy rock on the other – with a many-times-repeated promise that if we ever visited Himachal again we would stay at his house, eat his apples, meet his family and (I have no doubt) drink chai.
It was a long day ahead. Hours of half-walking, half-falling down the steep hill, crossing ice sheets that burnt our hands, trying to see through the now torrential downpour. We knew this time though that there was a town at the distant bottom, where there would be people and warmth. And where there were people, there would be chai, and where there was chai, we would be welcomed. Because that’s India and its illogical but irrepressible hospitality, open skies, open arms, and full cups.