Elizabeth Knight - Tea with Friends - Afternoon Tea New York, High Tea, Tea Tours in New York


The Potala Palace dominates the city of Lhasa.

The Potala Palace consists of 2 main sections. The White Palace was built in 1645; the Red Palace was completed in 1693.

Colorful prayer flags and tufts of wool are tied on trees as votive offerings.

A traditionally dressed mother and her jeans-clad child spin prayer wheels clockwise to send their prayers to heaven. Thin rolls of paper, printed with written copies of a sacred manta, are wound around an axle in the metal container and turned to invoke blessings from Chenresig, the “embodiment of compassion.”

Tea can remove worry as well as thirst is an old Tibetan saying. Our host family took the worry out of brewing enough hot water, without wasting fuel, by using a solar panel to heat the large kettle.

A smiling grandmother wears the traditional Tibetan full-length dark dress, bold striped bangdian (apron) and bright red embroidered boots.

Four generations preside over the tea table set up in the house’s main room used for sleeping, eating and lounging.

Butter bocha tea is traditionally churned in a wooden Jhandong.

Tibetan tea-time treats included home-made cookies that looked like fat noodles, toasted barley, dried fruit, seeds, hard candy and dried yak cheese which tasted a bit like aged pecorino.

Adjacent to the all purpose sleeping-living-dining room, this family had erected a shrine complete with images of saints, butter lamps and a traditional teapot.

Even if you’re not invited to a private home for tea, some hotels have tea house cafe-bars. It’s also easy to find dozens of exotic teas in small shops and street market stalls.

Tea can remove worry as well as thirst

One sweltering hot summer, bored to tears with my eighth-grade life, I escaped Dayton, Ohio by reading James Hilton's Lost Horizon.  I was enchanted by the tale of stranded travelers who found sanctuary at a hidden Himalayan monastery, called Shangri-La. Years later, I discovered that the first novel published in paperback had been made into a movie directed by Frank Capra. Munching popcorn in a darkened theatre on Manhattan’s upper West Side, captivated by a revival of the classic, I never dreamed that I’d ever  visit Tibet.

But last spring, a friendly Boston-based importer, whom I’d met on a tea tour of Darjeeling and Assam, told me about a China Tea tour hosted by Dan Robertson, owner of The Tea House in Naperville, Illinois. Delighted to discover that the tour included a side trip to the legendary “Land of the Snows, ” as well as an opportunity to sip butter tea with a local family, I signed up.  

Tibet shares a border with Sichuan and Yunnan, two Chinese provinces that cultivated tea as early as the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC).  Although Tibetan troops had captured tea, and other luxury goods, in numerous border wars, legend tells that tea from Sichuan was introduced, along with medicine, vegetable seeds, textiles, and the calendar when Princess Wencheng married Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo (617-650 AD). The dainty Chinese bride supposedly drank tea to dilute the powerful taste of yak milk. Later, she mixed tea and milk adding pine nuts, and ghee (clarified butter) to make a nutritious drink.

Tibetans traditionally ate meat and dairy products because the cold climate and thin air of the “roof of the world” made it difficult to grow fruits and vegetables. Princess Wencheng’s new beverage acted as a stimulant and fortified nomadic mountain dwellers against the fierce cold. Tea also aided digestion adding much-needed vitamins and minerals to their spartan diet.

Getting tea to Tibet proved to be a problem, however. Under pain of death, the Chinese Royal Court ordered that no tea plants, seeds, or even processed leaves mixed with seeds could be exported to other countries. Eventually, a network of trails was laid out over the treacherous, icy mountains. Caravans of Tibetan horses, medicinal herbs, wool, fur, feathers, and turquoise were traded for highly taxed “border tea.”

The processed tea leaves, especially those that came from Yunnan, were pressed into bricks to make them easy to transport.  People broke the bricks, soaking crumbled, dried leaves overnight in water. Next day, the infused tea was churned in a wooden cylinder with salt, yak butter, and sometimes goat milk. The salt helped prevent dehydration; yak butter, with twice the fat of cow’s milk, provided energy. This buttery broth-like brew, called bocha, was poured into a copper or silver teapot kept on a low fire til ready to serve. After the tea was drunk, the butter residue, left behind in the cup, was spread on chapped skin.

The Tang Dynasty, and all the Chinese governments thereafter, used tea to control the border countries until 1949 when the policy came to an end. In 1951, The People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet forcing the ruling Dalai Lama to flee to India. Once the region was firmly under Chinese control, tea seeds and plants were shipped to the territory and technicians helped develop tea cultivation. Today, Tibetans grow their own organic green tea and also drink black Nepalese tea or pu’erh.

Long before ships shuttled tea from Asia to Europe, the Tang-Tibet Road and The Tea-Horse Road were the main trunks of the tea trail which wound through Nepal, India and Russia into Europe. Modern highways, and the world’s highest railway (16,000 feet above sea level in some places) shadow the tracks of these ancient roads, but our tour group flew cross-country from Beijing to Lhasa, the spiritual and cultural capital of Tibet.

My adventure began on the plane when the director of Heifer International’s China-Tibet program happened to be my seat mate. Delighted to use his English, Dr. Huosheng, who has a degree in animal genetics, was thrilled to discover that my husband and I support Heifer’s global programs to end hunger and care for the earth.

Flipping open his laptop computer, Dr. Huosheng shared photos of various projects. Many poor Tibetans still live a nomadic life following their herds of sheep, yak and dzo (a hybrid yak-cow) to steep mountain pastures. The Tibetan Autonomous Regional Heifer Programs focus on improving animal breeds, disease prevention and raising animals in ways compatible with the environment.

Participating families are given animals and taught how to keep them healthy. The gift is passed on to others in the community when the animal reproduces. Boys as young as ten are expected to care for goats, but the government is trying to enroll children in boarding schools to learn wood-working, sewing, reading, writing and math. As a weekend bee-keeper, I was especially interested to learn that bee hives have been introduced to replace the income lost when chicken and ducks were eliminated to prevent the spread of bird flu.

Every single photo showed rugged mountains sharp against an impossibly bright, blue sky. “The sky in Tibet is horrible,” Dr. Huosheng exclaimed. “It is so big and we are so small.” When I replied that I was looking forward to sunny skies after a week in dusty Beijing, he warned me that in Spring, the oxygen in the thin mountain air is 1/3 less than usual. To combat altitude sickness he advised moving slowly, eating several, small high-calorie meals, resting often and drinking lots of liquids. Chinese Red Flower and Tibetan tea would be readily available, he said.

Spring winds made for a bumpy landing, so the doctor stowed his laptop, but I was enthralled by glimpses of snow-covered peaks poking through the clouds.  On the ground, our tour group was met by Tibetan guides who draped silk prayer scarves around our necks and helped haul our mountain of luggage onto a bus.

Dr. Huosheng was right, the effort of climbing just a few steps left many of us struggling for breath, but the view was even more breathtaking. Turquoise rivers snaked through stony ground staked with wind-blasted trees. Turnip-shaped, white-washed stone chortens, containing the ashes of spiritual leaders, were crowned with flapping prayer flags. An old woman patted yak dung on a stone wall to dry it for cooking fuel. A man criss-crossed a plowed field, dipping his hand in and out of a shoulder bag, sowing barley seeds. Black and white yaks, tufts of red wool tied to their horns, watched me watch them as the bus poked along behind a huge caravan of Chinese army trucks.

At last, we reached Lhasa.  The name means “the habitation of supernatural beings" and it has been Tibet’s capital since the 7th century. The city, spread out over a stark desert plain, herded by mountains, is dominated by the 13 story Potala Palace. Set on the highest hill, the 1,000 room palace was once home to the country’s secular and spiritual leaders. You can still see the private quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama, untouched from the day he escaped the invading Chinese army disguised as a Tibetan soldier.

After years of suppression, religious ceremonies are held here again. Prostrating pilgrims approach the complex clockwise, bowing and praying even before they enter the inner chapels. Many of the faithful tote plastic bags filled with yak-butter used to fuel lamps flickering before the images of their saints. Even though I’m not a Buddhist I felt that I was standing on sacred ground.

Given the altitude (12,139 feet), the crush of people, and the smoky rooms, hiking up and down the steep stairs was dizzy, thirsty work. I was more than ready for a relaxing cup of tea. Our guides drove us to the entrance of a narrow street edged with whitewashed stone and cement block buildings, many with elaborately decorated iron-work doors. A short walk led to a courtyard where we were greeted by a smiling grandmother wearing the traditional Tibetan full-length dark dress, a bold striped bangdian (apron) and bright red embroidered boots. Opposite her in the courtyard, the family had gotten a jump start on tea heating water in a large metal kettle positioned over a “butterfly-fold” solar panel.

Inside, four generations presided over the tea table set up in the house’s main room. Beds are pushed to the walls during the day and low banquettes and stools are used for seating. The family offered plates of home-made cookies that looked like fat noodles, toasted barley, fruit, seeds, hard candies and dried yak cheese which tasted a bit like aged pecorino. Strong, salty, milky black tea was pre-brewed, and served from a Chinese-style metal thermos, but our hostess demonstrated making tea the old-fashioned way, in a wooden Jhandong churn, with a little help from her grandson.  

We learned that tea is called the “water of long life.” Red-tinged tea, symbolizing good luck is served at festive occasions. Young men and women traditionally exchanged gifts of tea when they announced their engagement. In Tibetan monasteries, novices are responsible for preparing tea and serving it to monks while they pray. Lamas hold a morning prayer ceremony at which tsampa (roasted barley), is mixed with the tea to make gruel. This porridge is sanctified and served as a holy “tea offering.” 

Tea is still drunk with every meal and enjoyed as comfort food at any time. Once upon a time, people carried a personal tea cup with them wherever they went. The cup was a wooden bowl, but our hosts were proud of their Western-style ceramic cups. Etiquette suggests that guests sip only half the tea in their cups leaving the rest to signal the host that they would like more. It is still considered hospitable to top off visitors’ cups every time they take a sip.

After tea we were generously invited to take a closer look at our hosts’ home which included an entire room set up as a religious shrine complete with holy images and butter lamps. The family embodied the Buddhist precepts of patience, compassion and respect for all forms of life as they patiently posed for numerous photos and answered the group’s many questions.  The only question left un-answered is when can I go back for bocha?

May you be filled with loving kindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy.

The Western-style Lhasa department store, near the Potala Palace, has a large tea department stocked with loose and packaged teas and pots with a variety of price points. Cash only!

Tibetan women wear their wealth braiding coral, amber, turquoise and silver beads in their hair.

The Barkhor is one of Lhasa’s most interesting neighborhoods. Pilgrims burn juniper bushes in the stone sangkang (incense burner), at the entrance to Jokhang Temple.


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