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Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center has been around for nearly four decades now. It started its tea production with small gardens in Panchthar and now their tea reaches worldwide customers.
Even though the words make the journey seem succinct and easy, four decades is a long time. The factory, that I’m told hasn’t changed for over decades, has witnessed a lot of changes. They haven’t been all good, but they sure haven’t been all bad.
Tea went from being practically unheard of in the majority of regions to a the top 5 exports of the country.
The white-washed, seemingly forever humming, factory tucked in the mountainous foothills has quietly been growing all thanks to those who stayed and walked the rocky terrains of Nepali market throughout the years.
Without them and their sturdy belief in the power of tea, we cannot imagine the fate of Nepal Tea Collective. It is because of their contribution, Nishchal had the kernel-ish samples to bring to American tea markets and festivals as a small taste of what Nepal had to offer. Without their faith, we wouldn’t have grown, we wouldn’t have had the courage to believe.
I wouldn’t pretend to know their entire life because people and their multitudes are beyond what a few happenstance can capture or comprehend and because I was there for a week.
But their legacy is impossible to ignore and difficult to hide.
I spent a week in Eastern Nepal and three in Phidim where Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Center is based. There I witnessed the ethereal ways of tea, which up until that point I had only read about.
And in the middle, or maybe I should say in the traveling, of this tea world I met Chudamani Subedi.
Chudamani jumped into the tea world for his strength. He helped around the factory with loading and unloading and little tidbits of work that was available for almost six years. For the last four years, Subedi’s driving skill has delivered hundreds and thousands of pounds of tea. Every morning, without fail, Subedi started a tractor that carried nothing but empty bags.
For the days that I was there, the tractor took me and my companions along. He expertly maneuvered the rocky terrain that can’t quite be deemed a road yet.
If you’re hitching a ride with him like we did, he’ll position you, kinda like a director does his actors for framing purposes, with utmost comfort in mind. His instructions turned the tractor traversing hills still being carved into a transportation-worthy-path into quite a snug commute.
He warned us, his passengers, of difficult turns and bumps ahead as if he’d memorized every single detail of the distance between from the factory to the gardens.
One by one, we passed the tea gardens where tea pluckers awaited his arrival and the empty bags. Throughout the day, the empty bags collected on average 20-25 kgs of fresh tea leaves from six different gardens located in the one of the slopiest terrains I’d seen in my trip.
When the clock struck 4 PM, Subedi turned keen to head back to the factory. Understandably so, it was after all a two hours ride back to the factory and everything depended on his swiftness. If something caused a delay, the fresh tea leaves would start to roast under the evening sun.
But that rarely happens.
On the outskirts of Phidim, tea feeds many mouths. So the entire community seemed, to me, electrifyingly synchronized to support Subedi’s journey back to the factory. Manual laborers carving the road one hammer strike at a time paused their work to help Subedi make difficult turns.
They seemed to wordlessly agree that everything and everyone was on the clock when it came to freshly plucked leaves.
Subedi thanked everyone for their help and once all the difficult paths had passed, he seemed satisfied with the day’s work. As factory workers unloaded the bags upon bags of fresh leaves, Chudamani stood watching as a different kind of magic began inside.
When the tractor was empty, it was his time to rest for the night.