Snow Tea – The Highest of High Mountain Teas

Here in Shangri-La (aka Zhongdian) or Gyal’thang as it was once known to Tibetans, the mountains bask in high mountain bolts of sunlight and in the altitudes that have long protected and to some degree isolated all beings and things. My home for most of every year hosts winds that shriek as they pummel their way east out of the Himalayas. In the summer, monsoon rains that pound, and a vibrant bio-diversity that exists on the mountains every slope has been happily been maintained.

My thrice yearly runnings into the tea regions of southern Yunnan which lie almost 500 miles south of my mountain sanctuary have long yielded kg’s of gorgeous green stimulant, which inevitably comes back to my loft in the old town here in Shangri-La. I sip these teas daily and when there is a supply shortage I know that in mere days a shipment can happily make its way up to me, even here. There is no way around the fact that the teas which stimulate and ease my days, do not (and cannot) grow here. The 3,200 meter heights are not conducive to that which needs moderate ‘everything’ to coddle and feed the camellia sinensis plant.

Apparently during tea’s heydays along the tea caravan routes and the Tea Horse Road, an intrepid Tibetan businessman and trader tried unsuccessfully to plant and cultivate Pu’erh tea along slopes of the Himalayas and its extensions. The idea, which bursts with noble intentions (at least in my green-fed way of thinking) was to cut the times it took to transport the precious teas by caravan into the high mountain markets of Lhasa and Nepal which long craved the green-leafed gifts.

Ancient Tea Horse Road

Ancient Tea Horse Road

Tea that the world has come to know needs a bit of sweltering heat, good slopes, a lot of mists, and some shade. It also needs certain soils to thrive, and this highland region is simply not kind to that which is known as tea.

Locals though – hardened mountain men – will speak of a tea called ‘White Snow Tea’ – or simply ‘Snow Tea’ – that does grow even higher in the mountains, above 4,000 meters. It is a particular tea that has long provided healing properties to those that dared to pass through the realms of the mountains, and as expected it has never been cheap, nor plentiful. Old tea caravans heading to the market towns would barter tea for the highland medicines to take with them upon their journeys as a part of a traveling medicine pack, and of course to turn a coin and resell.

This tea, rare though it might be, can be seen and purchased in any number of ‘mountain medicine’ shops in our Old Town. Though I’ve had it in blends before I’ve never actually prepared it nor have I ever really paid it much attention. No flavors have ever embedded themselves upon my tongue from the tea, so in many ways I still have no firm impression of this ‘Snow Tea’.

White Snow Tea

White Snow Tea

Called ‘snow tea’, the white worm-like strands are in fact a kind of high mountain lichen that grow and wind their way through the floor of high mountain’s lands. For obvious reasons trying to sell the health-giving properties of a lichen commercially would not work, so tea it is. Also known as ‘ground tea’ the tea resembles silvery gray sprouts and in the local shops bits of earth still cling to the ‘tea’, giving it an authentic appearance.

Local Tibetans, who first used and discovered the lichen, refer to it as ‘gong ja’, (snow tea) or simply as ‘shar’wa’. My walk through the cobbled streets along a portion of what was the Tea Horse Road doesn’t take long to yield an upright rectangular container full of the little specimens. It sits inside shop selling high mountain medicines and declares itself as just such with three languages emblazoned upon sign outdoors. The shop I decide to purchase from is nothing less than a complete and utter repository for cures of maladies that run the spectrum (and some yet undiscovered maladies no doubt). Shops dealing in medicines in China often refer to “Himalaya sourced”, “high mountain”, “from Tibet”, and labels will often depict the grandeur of snow swept mountain peaks shimmering above a picture of the advertised ‘cure all’. It is clear that the heights and what comes from them are viewed with a kind of idolatry and awe.

Many buyers of medicines will travel up to these places so that they will not be – in their own minds at least – conned into buying ‘fake’ medicines. Alongside the ‘White Snow Tea’ supply lies various fungus, dried mushrooms, and powders that declare bluntly of their potent abilities to solve all manner of problems. Everything from aiding circulation to clearing lungs up of phlegm is promised. Easing joint pain, and strained eyes are also promised in quick order.

I’d recently consulted a man I simply refer to as Doctor Mountain, a friend’s uncle who in his time has cured people, created medicines from herbs, and expounded eloquently about the powers of natural medicines. In my little quest to learn more of the natural abilities of the lichen, there were no better reference points than Doctor Mountain. When I have doubts or questions that need allying about ills, cures, or just general interest, I head to the good Doctor. A night previously, we sat around a humming wood stove while he spoke of medicines in general and in particular, the snow tea. No discussion would be complete without a meal and a drink of the alcoholic variety – homemade and fortified by either he or his wife. This alcohol, he frequently told me, was also a kind of medicine.

Doctor Mountain

Doctor Mountain

In his words, the ‘gong ja’ is in fact legitimate and helps with heart issues, blood pressure and aids in cooling the body down in times of fever. “Any coolant, helps with the three key organs: kidneys, liver, and gall bladder.”

It is also, he tells me over a shot of whisky, something to help induce sleep when people are suffering from nervous disorders.

Herders who take their yak high into the mountains often collect the Snow Tea and other medicinal delicacies to help supplement to their income. When they return with their mules and billowing bags of mountain products, they can sell the goods for huge profits.

In the case of ‘gong ja’ or Snow Tea, he explains that it grows best on ground that at least for part of the year, is encased in snow which preserves its healing properties. Both this fact and the altitudes of 4,000 meters and higher are the reasons behind it being known to those that know it, as Snow Tea.

When another shot of alcohol is proffered to me – and accepted – by the doctor he speaks of the old trails that striate through the mountains being used by caravans. These mountain ‘highways’ would usher fungus, resin-heavy pine, and various funguses, mosses and the white Snow Tea from the heights. He also confides that the tea was used to counter alcohol’s potent properties when taken in too intense amounts. In my own days wandering through the high corridors I’d marveled at the bags of goods I’d often seen coming down with the mountain’s residents. I’d long assumed these little items – wood, mosses, weeds and plants – were simply for kindling or spiritual use.

Having finally left the doctor’s home, I was at least armed with a sense that this ‘Snow Tea’ had some legitimacy.

My decision to buy some of the white tea from this shop of high mountain medicines is to both keep some on hand, and of course to sample it. I’ve been told (and have a vague memory of) that the tea is mild with a slight bitterness. The seller in the shop will not budge on the price, which is 15 Rmb ($2.35 US) per gram until I casually mention that I’ve seen bigger ‘lichens’ at another shop. This ‘tactic’ of mine was suggested to me by the Doctor, when he told me that “size doesn’t matter and any good seller will not fall for this”. The seller does not which secures my mind that she probably has a legitimate product. She tells me straight that the size of the lichen means nothing whatsoever to the quality or potency of the ‘tea’ and I immediately purchase 5 grams which fills up a surprisingly large clear plastic bag. Like all good ‘real teas’ the size of a leaf means little, and in fact the smaller leaves (also the case of the lichens) the smaller the form, the younger; and the younger species often come laden with the most nutrients.

Home in my loft, the gentle preparations begin to finally prepare some of this ‘tea’, study it, drink it, and try to feel its effects – if there are any. Caffeine and the usual suspects of stimulants in a good green tea will be absent so there will be a little faith necessary on my part. No pungent kicks or wonderful rushes can be expected. My Kamjove kettle by the window is filled and water rumbles to its boil. Though called ‘white tea’, the ‘tea’ is neither white, nor a tea but rather silver, rubbery strands with the odd little bits of vegetation or green moss hanging off of them.

I’ve been told that the infusion water needs to boil to break up and release the essential elements of the lichen into the infusion, and that the infusion time should be at least three minutes. Outside my window, beyond a temple, dark skies shoot from the west, reminding momentarily where this precious white substance is from.

After a long soak, the infusion – which is unlike tea leaves in that the strands of lichen simply stay float atop the water – is ready and then sipped down with little more flavor than a slight metallic tang and that is it. Five infusions later, and still there is little more than that ever-so-slight tinge of iron taste and green before it is gone. Unlike so many of the ‘real’ teas that nicely pulverize my taste buds and gratify almost instantly, this tea requires more of a ‘have faith and it will help’ kind of attitude.

If the doctor says it is so, and it comes from the heights, it must have something special. Words from the doc and being sourced from the mountains cannot be denied. Immediately following the little sips of the ‘Snow Tea’ I prepare a potently bitter cup of a favorite green Pu’erh which has long comforted. I do this just to activate the cells and taste buds…after all; a little balance is always necessary.

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