Nepal / Southeast Asia

Tea Tasting: Tea Houses of the Helambu Trek

The Helambu Trek we ultimately ended up climbing would take us one week to complete. Each night after a difficult day of hiking, we were overjoyed when the colorful paint of local mountain villages came into view and we finally came to a halt in front of new lodging. Each tea house was cozy and warm in its own unique way–the culture slightly different with each new mile and the food and style of the rooms changing alongside it.

a general map of our trek

a general map of our trek

KAKANI: The first tea house we reached was a small white building perched on a hill. After climbing straight up for 6-hours I teared up a little when our pace finally slowed and I exuberantly shouted “Namaste!” at the first person I had seen in hours besides Ellie and our guide. The only thing encouraging me to climb up even more stairs to our room was the promise of rest and refreshment. And after exchanging my sweat-soaked clothes for dry ones I stumbled back down the stairs for dinner.

Taking off our shoes before entering the dark dining room, we took a seat on cushions next to the wall and read the menu by dim candlelight. In this tea house our meals were cooked on a more traditional western stove and we couldn’t exactly see the cooking process on account of the electricity-less-ness, but were pleasantly surprised by the fresh food and refreshed by the soda at the end of the day. In the morning we sipped on black tea before continuing on to our next stop.

black tea for breakfast

black tea for breakfast

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SERMATHANG: Our second tea house was our favorite. After a slightly easier day of trekking we had some time to explore the town before setting up in our little cottage room off of the main building and ascending the stairs for dinner. Our food was made by a Sherpa woman wearing a long dark skirt, North Face vest, warm knit yak socks and a sparkly black cloth wrapped around her head. With the help of her two young daughters she sat on the floor next to the stove where we were drying ourselves from the rain that day and made us delicious finger chips (a.k.a. french fries) and dhal bhat (a traditional Nepali dish of rice, lentil soup, spinach and potatoes). We didn’t want to leave the warmth, unexpected for such a vast room, and ultimately settled on taking a quick nap before returning to the open room for dinner.

As we were eating dinner the father came into the big dining room wearing his cowboy hat–likely a gift from a trekker long past–and took a seat on the cushions on the other side of the room. As the rain pelted the roof like gun shots, we again warmed ourselves in the cozy kitchen, alternating between talking with the family and sitting in contented silence.

When we left in the morning, the mother bundled small white cloths filled with salt for us to use to detach the inevitable leeches that would find us throughout the day.

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dhal bhat!

dhal bhat!

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TARKEGYANG: We arrived at Tarkegyang in the afternoon and sat down outside the tea house because no one was home. For the next hour we didn’t see a single soul in the sleepy town, instead we spent our time with a cow grazing in the field opposite us while listening to the sound of bees buzzing in and out of a few wooden crates propped against the concrete wall.

Eventually the owners came home and let us into our rooms. We took a seat on the benches in the kitchen and ordered our meal as the sound of a baby crying in the next room penetrated the wooden walls. For the first time, the young husband was the one cooking our food instead of the wife or mother. The whole evening we noticed how progressive the couple was–sharing the responsibilities and defying some eastern gender norms (brownie points for them!)

In the morning we woke to the fog clearing over the mountains outside of our window.

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our cow friend

our cow friend

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MELAMCHEON: The following night we stayed in another lodge separated from the main building. We headed straight to the kitchen after our day of trekking where an older Sherpa woman made us boiled potatoes and veg fried rice for lunch. No longer sitting on cushions on the floor, we warmed ourselves on a bench next to the stove as the woman and her 11-year-old niece talked with us. At lunch we ordered our dinner as well so they could prepare it ahead of time and in the meantime we went to our room to journal about the week.

We laid down in the comfortable beds inside our little wooden room, already accepting that we would inevitably succumb to another accidental nap, when suddenly we heard French voices from outside and someone pulled on our door handle trying to get into the room. Our heads snapped to the door and we waited in silence to see what would happen next. Another tug at the door. We looked over at each other in confusion and giggled quietly–we hadn’t seen any other trekkers up until this point and honestly didn’t think we would. Not many are crazy enough to trek the Himalayas in the midst of monsoon season.

I finally decided to use the bathroom as an excuse to leave the room and see who was outside and stepping over the feet of several bearded French men our suspicions were confirmed and I had to fight back the desire to say “pardon” to them instead of “excuse me.” Just around the corner were two doors–one bearing a sign reading, “Eastern Bathroom” and the other, “Western Bathroom.” For a brief moment I was filled with joy at the thought of a toilet you could sit down on, until I noticed the tiny lock between me and my western comforts. Ah, well. When in Rome…

At dinner we met the French group, 11 men and women who were volunteering in the city for a few months and had taken a couple weeks off for a trek going in the opposite direction as us. We talked with one of the French men about their trek and he expressed complete shock that as Americans “oo ‘ave incredibly delicate stomachs” we hadn’t gotten sick from the food. We smiled and said we were being careful and I continued to eat the local black beans the woman had prepared for my dinner (one of the best meals of the trip). I don’t know if it was all the European cologne in the air, but that night we were feeling so adventurous we ordered dessert with our meal and slowly tasted our way through two bowls of rice pudding complete with a sprinkling of various nuts and other small, hard, sweet things.

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THAREPATI: Tharepati was our highest point on the trek at 3600 meters  (11811 feet) and after a day of only climbing up for upwards of five hours we were releaved to find a spot next to the stove yet again. We didn’t get to watch our food get made at this tea house and instead waited for our food patiently with the tea house owner’s young son (who had the energy of 20 children). When he wasn’t nearly hitting Ellie in the head with a wooden spoon or playing with Ellie’s sock monkey he was quite cute.

Our room was freezing that night–it’s incredible how significant the altitude change was–and we woke up with frozen toes in the morning. We simply had to buy the hand-made yak wool socks to warm them up before that days trek. The man said his wife made them by hand and that she was on a trip to town for more supplies and we had passed her with her heavy basket the day before. Leaving behind my walking stick from the ascent the day before we waved goodbye to our highest point.

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KUTUMSANG: The next tea house had tables. I can’t say we weren’t a little disappointed as our guide told us there would be no more floor eating from here on out. We were actually disappointed by how western the tea house was as we got closer to the city. Disappointed about the tables that is, but overjoyed by the sight of outlets. We were finally able to charge our phones and cameras for the first time in the entire week! And we had to compete for the space because a small group of Scottish trekkers followed us up the path to the same tea house.

Digby, Blair and Strewn were trekking without a guide, without a map and with a supply of Mars bars to last them a month. Digby told us they had spent the previous night in a barn they stumbled across. Ellie and I were more than a little amused when I pulled out my map to show him our path and he was shocked at how detailed it was. “In any case, the fresh mountain air really clears your head,” he said. “Don’t you think so? I mean we’ve been smoking a lot of pot too so that helps, but there’s just something about walking up here that helps you think through things.”

That night we sprung for chocolate pudding (a tiny porcelain bowl filled with warm chocolate and milk). It was so rich we only needed the one bowl for both of us to be satisfied.

In the morning we had boiled eggs and popcorn, Scooter (the sock monkey) took a picture with the tea house owner and we headed out to our final tea house.

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CHISAPANI: As we approached the final town we were excited. We could see multistory buildings in the distance–something we hadn’t seen since we left the city a week before and our guide even let us pick which hotel we wanted to stay in. I’m not saying I wasn’t grateful for the personal western toilet right in our room (because, believe me, I was pretty happy about that) but it really made us miss the quiet of the mountains.

When I saw a massive centipede on the wall later that night I wasn’t any more at ease.

Luckily we had some good company to pass the time. Westerners follow westerners and once again we led a group from the UK to the tea house we were staying in. This time it was a pair of men from Nottingham, England who were doing a short two-day trek as a tack-on from a business trip to India. They showed us some beautiful pictures they had taken in Kathmandu and we described the other tea houses to them in detail as we longed for a stove to sit by again.

But the food wasn’t bad and because we couldn’t decide on what dessert to get, Ellie and I got all three different puddings to try and with the help of our new friends we were actually able to finish them all.

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YUM. TEA.: In the end, the tea houses ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip. A little Sherpa culture at the end of every day with warm food, warm smiles and warm stoves. Although we always ordered the same black tea, we got our variety in the differing houses we stayed in each night.

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