By Rita Fong and Drew Taylor
The Tea Explorer is a documentary film written, produced, directed, and shot by Andrew Gregg that stars Jeff Fuchs, noted Canadian writer, photographer, explorer, and tea merchant.
It’s a film about some of the people whose lives have been touched by and are still entwined with the leaf along the 5,000 kilometer Ancient Tea Horse Road (Cha Ma Gu Dao). Fuchs spent more than seven months traveling the thirteen-hundred year old network of Himalayan trade routes used to transport tea, salt and other commodities (including Tibetan war horses) between China, Tibet, and beyond. The Tibetans traded ponies for tea.
Nothing stopped tea’s flow to all points down the valleys of the Himalayas until the 1950s when the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet. Then borders were delineated, closed, and trade stopped.
In this mystical forgotten land, with legendary cities of Shangri La and Kathmandu, it is the oral tradition by which histories, lessons, and life stories are passed on. Tea is not a fancy afternoon sip in this rugged and remote region of the globe — it is daily sustenance. Simple. No pretension. Yak butter and salt are added for nutrients a mixture of fuel and stimulants essential for survival in the mountains. Tea is a central part of the lives of muleteers and the remote villagers that welcomed arriving caravans. The work is a slice in time. Since publishing his book in 2008 and the making of this film, Fuchs says that 80 – 85% of the 50-60 elders he interviewed have passed away.
Five years ago, Fuchs first met Andrew Gregg in Toronto on the recommendation of mutual friends in Kathmandu. Upon meeting, the seed for an adventure film about the origin of tea was planted. Fast forward to 2014 and Gregg joined Fuchs on a trip to scout the region. Gregg joined Fuchs on part of the trek to take test shots and see if there was a bigger story. Fuchs said that he used this time to see if Gregg was the right person to help him tell the tale. Gregg made a ten minute short to show producers. Gregg, who stands 6’8” is formidable, but is skilled in getting people to talk and showed great cultural sensitivity. He wasn’t an ugly Westerner who went in and tried to take over.
It was during these two weeks that the coffee drinking Gregg converted to tea, and the film making team was established.
Fuchs: “We had a shared vision of how we wanted the narrative to play out. We wanted to introduce the origin of all tea. Southern Yunnan has the oldest tea trees, oldest cultivated region for tea, [we] wanted to introduce tea and the journey that tea took and of course, a little bit about why I wanted to do it.
We shared the vision. Then we waited, met, drank lots of tea. Gregg became a tea drinker, [and] gave up coffee. And waited. [It was a] question of time, budget, getting the right people interested. Three years where nothing happened, then all of a sudden…”
Gregg finishes, “the … CBC Documentary channel said ‘We love it, let’s go for it.’” They needed additional money to complete the project but eventually rounded out their funding. They plotted all the while until finally they were able to shoot for five weeks in October and November 2015 with only their sound man, Michael Josselyn making up the bare bones crew.
Film making is never easy and shooting in the mountains the film covers a lot of ground. The documentary is rich with beautiful cinematography and gorgeous portraits of unique individuals. It just takes a while to get there.
Fuchs is the conduit to bring the story of these people to the world. Himself a huge advocate of puer tea, the sole origin of which is Yunnan province in China, he begins in the temperate tea forests in southwestern China – the birthplace of tea on the planet (Camellia sinensis assamica). It is from here that tea traveled the world and was eventually grown elsewhere. Traditional tea shops are on the decline in fast-moving big cities and traditions are changing. Fuchs’ disdain is evident. Then, we follow him as he retraces segments and explores new veins of the Tea Horse Road that he traveled in 2006 while researching The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers.
As a young child, spending parts of his summers in Switzerland, his grandmother took him into the mountains and helped ingrain the love that drove him back. After ten years in the Himalayas he has faith in himself, and a deep respect for nature and those who live in concert with her. “These are lessons you can take anywhere. Lessons that can be applied anywhere,” he says. Being present and aware of dying has that grounding effect.
As a searcher looking to find purpose in his travels, he made promises to people who now respect him for keeping his word to record and share their stories when so many others came and went leaving only their garbage and taking whatever they could carry or ship out.
For one of the old traders who simply lives with the tea he can get, Fuchs gave some of his good tea as a thank you for the stories and guidance shared. That folks were willing to welcome him and offer him refuge and hospitality moved him and the necessities of survival in the mountains taught him to honor his body and his mind.
Ask Gregg to describe the high points of the experience he was so enthusiastic about this shoot he said all of it was a high point. “Traveling with someone like Jeff, who is not only a great subject but a great organizer, it was one of the greatest trips I’ve ever been on…and I’ve done a lot of adventure shoots.” Watching the film I was waiting for examples of his excitement to be captured from his viewpoint. High camera angles are a given due to his height, and many of the artistic choices and stunning subjects were extremely compelling.
After the first 20 minutes you discover many rich segments of a vital Himalayan history linking more than three dozen minority groups along the perilous route. The music and stories are more unified as the film progresses, coupled with riveting footage of glorious mountain vistas and tales of adventure. The discipline required to make and enjoy an always varying cup of tea during the arduous journey leads to daily infusions of whatever the travelers can get their hands on.
Some people in this film stay with you. They clearly affected the filmmakers with their old traditions and frank humility. Spanning ancient royal connections and lifetimes of trekking on foot, what is conveyed through their presence is a sense of that most basic of Buddhist principles, joy through suffering. Like a koan, the riddle of this film demands persistent attention and release of preconceived notions. What emerges is an abiding love of tea, mountains and people with integrity.
The Tea Explorer debuts on the CBC Documentary Channel, Sunday July 23 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time