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!
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.
Plucking tea, practically leaf by leaf, is a major undertaking. In some countries, pickers carry baskets on their backs to hold the leaves. These baskets have an open weave to allow the air to circulate inside and prevent the leaves from fermenting, which would spoil the pickers’ hard work.
There are several clues to the fact that I took this photo in Nepal: the man’s attire, particularly his hat, which is the kind worn by many Nepalese; the house with its ochre finish halfway up the mud walls, and the white sections picked out by the darker lines; lastly, for those who’ve spent time on the tea plantations, the shape of the basket itself, which becomes square as it widens at the top, and exists only in this region.
This scene took place near Phidim, in the far north of Ilam Valley, in the easternmost part of Nepal (Kanchenjunga Tea Estate is nearby; the Nepal Green Tea Factory and the Himalayan Shangri-La Tea Factory are a little further away).
Nepal remains a largely rural country. Here, two hours’ walk from the nearest village, people obviously need to do everything for themselves. They weave in front of their homes, without becoming distracted by the stranger taking photos of them.
On the Terai plain (area straddling Nepal and India), I’ve seen them use strange crosses to mark the height of tea plants. The cross is stuck into the ground and only the shoots growing above the horizontal bar are plucked. It makes this cheerful plucker look a bit like a tea missionary.
In the mountains of Nepal, people still believe in the Yeti. I’ve not had the opportunity to meet the Abominable Snowman myself, but I’ve heard plenty about him from the villagers. What I do know is that he is not abominable and is not always the size that people claim. Around the Kanchenjunga Tea Estate (Nepal), the yetis, of which there are many in the region, are not even a metre high.
I wonder if the magic of the Himalayan landscapes might have a part to play in all this. The filaments of mist flanking the mountains, the trees that appear and disappear with the changing winds, which are so full of humidity they feel as thick as cotton, the paths that fade into the clouds… When the sky merges with the ground, it is easy to lose your bearings.
In some regions of the world, tea plucking is only done by women, while men are responsible for other jobs. It’s the case in India and central Sri Lanka, where men employed on the plantations tend the soil and prune the tea plants. Some people will tell you the reason for this is probably that women are more nimble-fingered and take better care of the fragile and precious leaves.
But most of the time, like here in the north of Ilam Valley, eastern Nepal, opposite Darjeeling accross the border, the village men and women do the same tasks, including tea plucking. It is also the case in China and Taiwan. And in Japan, it is not rare to see a man carefully plucking the tea leaves and a woman behind the wheel of a tractor.
Is there really a reason for these practices? Well, let’s say that where the British used to be and where there are large tea plantations, the roles of men and women are different and the work is not always shared out in a way that seems fairest to us.
In Ilam (Nepal), horses are still used to transport tea leaves. These two young men have walked for two hours to reach the place where the tea is processed, so they can sell their fresh tea leaves. Hanging against the horses’ flanks are sacks weighing around 20 kilos each. They try to avoid making this long journey on a rainy day, otherwise the cargo can get damaged as it begins to ferment.