I left for Kolkata three days ago, and today I am in Jorhat, in Assam, a region still considered dangerous until very recently. The situation here has greatly improved and, at the moment, it finally seems possible to visit this state in the north east of India, near Myanmar.
In India, whether you are a follower of Vishnou or Shiva, it is common to ask for the blessing of a priest before you undertake such a journey. This is the face of a young Shivaite priest who practices every day near the Darjeeling temple. Just don’t ask him to smile: he makes up for his tender age with an unwavering impassivity.
I was in Nepal recently and accepted an invitation I had received on numerous occasions to enter a house, often a farm. And I have had many opportunities to admire these strange forms hanging above my head like laundry on a line. It is difficult to know which is more incongruous, the electric bulb or these sticks.
But what is this stuff the colour of fresh butter?
In fact, it is cheese, drying out until it becomes as hard as rock. When it comes to cutting it, no less than a pair of pincers is required. Chewing it is no easier: even just a tiny piece left to soften for ten or twenty minutes in the mouth is still inedible. It requires enormous patience to actually chew it and extract its minimal flavours.
Last month a strike affected all of Nepal’s tea plantations, and for more than ten days the tea trees were left to grow undisturbed. This explains why, in this photo taken at Kuwapani, the delicate yellow colour of the new shoots reflects the light of the setting sun in such abundance. Over on the right of the fence, the grass is so closely shorn because the region’s many stags and roe deer have not joined in the movement, and show no signs of stopping work.
I have just spent three days in the region of Nepal where the country’s best teas are produced. It is a valley to the east of Kathmandu from where, on a clear day, you can see the fifth highest peak in the world, Makalu.
The tea in this high valley is produced by just three plantations: Kuwapani, Guranse and Jun Chiyabari, all equally prestigious. They are situated right next to each other, at an altitude of around 2 000 metres, and this is the village of Hile, opposite.
In three days, I have only enjoyed such a clear view of this village twice, despite it being just a few hundred metres away. So I’ll have to come back another time to see Makalu!
Yes, the firefox! For those who use the well-known web browser of the same name, you’ll have seen this long-tailed mammal every day, curled around the icon on your computer screen.
For the rest of you, this is what the panda looks like. It is much smaller than its Chinese cousin and, fortunately, a bit less endangered. It can be found in Darjeeling and throughout the Himalayas.
I didn’t just stumble across it while walking in the forest though. I’m not particularly keen on zoos, but I knew that one lived at the Darjeeling zoo, along with some mates, and I wanted to see it. It has beautiful fur you want to stroke, like its neighbour in the next cage, the snow leopard. I certainly wouldn’t stick my hand between the bars surrounding its other neighbour, a fearsome looking Siberian tiger whose mouth is so big I could fit my whole head inside, right up to my shoulders.
If you are in the area, do pay a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute , which honours those who have climbed Everest, starting with Tenzing Norgay, of course, who was from Darjeeling.
Some regions produce their best teas during the period from March to May. So this is a good time to meet the farmers and planters and see them at work.
I have left China for Nepal, which has been producing excellent teas in the past few decades. While here, I am visiting tea plantations in Hile (Kuwapani, Guranse, Jun-Chiyabari) located in the district of Dhankuta in Eastern Nepal, the most prestigious in the country.
You can tell when the tea leaves are ready for harvesting by the colour of the bushes. When the tea plants take on this yellow-green shade it means the new shoots have reached a good size and it is time to get out your basket and start plucking.
Here, you can see the difference in colour between the leaves that have not yet been harvested, in the background, and what remains on the plants after a visit from this Chinese woman, with her agile hands, in the foreground.
Processing Taiping Hou Kui is incredibly labour-intensive. Each leaf, after firing, is hand-rolled lengthwise and placed on a cloth. The leaves are carefully spaced out and then pressed with a small roller, leaving them flattened and larger.
Taiping Hou Kui is harvested for just 25 days a year, generally between 20 April and 15 May. For the rest of the year the tea plant is allowed to grow without having its leaves plucked. This concentrates the harvest on the best season.
Mrs Zha has a pretty plot of land on the edge of lake Taiping. She is very busy during this plucking period. Taiping Hou Kui is one of the most expensive teas in China, and its price can reach thousands of yuan per kilo.