The Tea Explorer documentary brought two great obsessions, mountains and tea, together into a wonderful stew with the relentless force of story-telling that is filmmaker Andrew Gregg. What came about was an idea that we weren’t sure would ever work, involving a keen skeleton crew and a timetable of places, people, and spaces that we wanted to access. Basically, a wish list of all of the ingredients we felt would make something relevant and compelling based on my book, written years earlier about my own journey(s) along the Tea Horse Road. It would trace the route and some of the wonderful lifeblood characters, but it would also emphasize a less formal view of tea.
We needed permits (some of which came through), we needed the fates to smile upon us, and we needed that great luxury: a window of time. 90th Parallel Film and Television Productions and CBC Docs graciously came aboard to fuel and fund our journey (and what would end up becoming an award-winning film by Andrew) along portions of an unheralded 1300-year old trade route that I'd spent (and still do spend) much of my life wandering upon. As with everything within the tortured and magnificent realm of the Himalaya, permits and permissions would come into play, but most would come good and there would be those moments where I would come to realize that I wasn't alone in wondering why this daunting and articulated mountain route had remained off of the the world's cultural radar for so long.
The "window of time" we ended up having to film and journey within, amounted to a little more than a month, starting where it all began: the source of Puerh tea in southwestern China's Yunnan Province. From there we moved north up through my old home in Shangrila ('Zhongdian' and 'Gyalthang' before that) in the northwest of the province, from where we shimmied west into Mustang, Nepal, to end up in the great animated market and spiritual capital, Kathmandu. Not much time to tell a tale of a legendary highway through the sky that hummed with trade, pilgrims, and migrants for a millennia, nor much time to honour all of those who were involved with the production, consumption, and transportation of the eternal fuel, tea, across the top of the world.
The film fittingly wound down with a serene butter tea with a Prince (a real one, who also happens to be a "prince of a man" as well) and one of the legends of Himalayan trade, Kunga. Then another few teas further south in the gentle chaos of Kathmandu, amidst the still-vibrant realm that is Boudhanath Stupa. It was fitting as it was here at the Stupa during times of caravan trade that traders, muleteers, and the devout alike would gather to give thanks for safe months' long passages. It would be too, where our team would go to pay homage for the opportunity to be a part of telling a tale of a grand ‘route through the sky’ and a stimulant leaf.