Yak Milk Chai in the Himalayas

Sonya Dutta Choudhury

A journalist at Mint, an Indian business newspaper, Sonya Dutta Choudhury is used to going the extra mile for a story. Her newfound passion of long-distance multi-day racing often has her going more than just an extra mile. A recent race led her to submit this entry to Chai Diaries.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury, a journalist for Mint, pushed herself to the limit when she participated in the Himalayan Race, a 100-kilometer multi-stage run organized by The WindChasers. Luckily, when the going got tough, a cup of yak milk chai saved the day.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

It was cold in the mountains that September, more so than was usual. There was  rain, and with it mist, that made our progress difficult. We found ourselves stranded. Day 3 of a five-day 100-km race, and we couldn’t go on. Our group of 10 was in a small lodge in Sandakphu, a tiny village on the border of India and Nepal. It had been raining all night, endless streams of water that poured down the mountainside. So when it cleared at 2 pm, without pausing to consider much, we donned our caps and coats and mufflers and our rain gear, and set off running on the trail towards Phalut.

A brief drizzle began, but we ran nonetheless. The mist had cleared and the views of the dark green conifer covered valleys and the mountains were magnificent. Which one was Mt. Makalu, which one was Mt. Lhotse? And in the distance, race director Ram Sethu and guide Pemba Sherpa pointed out, was the highest  mountain in the world Mount Everest.

Running back to the lodge a few hours later, exhausted, breathless at 12,000 feet, we made a stop. Leaving the trail behind, we climbed up, and up. The hut that emerged, on top of the windswept grassy knoll, was a simple one. Outside a little boy ran circles around a yak. Inside was cool and dark. Cooking utensils hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a bed, a fireplace.  Carl, Nancy, Sunita, Priya and I sat inside, while Ram, Pemba and the other guides walked around outside.

“You must have tea,” our village woman host smiled and put a saucepan on the stove. So wonderful was the prospect, that we just smiled happily. We didn’t protest, not even a tiny token,  though it is polite to do so. At least the first time. Instead we watched in fascination and in happy anticipation, as the water in saucepan boiled, with tea leaves and sugar and thick yak milk. The prospect of a cup of tea had never seemed more alluring, even life affirming. When it was ready, glasses of the steaming hot chai were passed around. It was different to any other tea I’ve ever drunk – hot and sweet but also a little salty with the unusual flavour of yak milk.

“Come out,” called Ram, “the clouds have cleared.” So clutching our tea glasses in both hands we each stepped out, onto the mountainside. The sky outside was a rosy pink, and in the distance were revealed the mighty Himalayan peaks. Standing there, drinking in the chai, and the view, I knew for sure, that this was the most wonderful cup of tea I would ever drink.


Bollywood Chai: Behind the Scenes with a Legend

As we entered the gates of Mumbai’s massive Film City, security guards descended upon us demanding to know what business we had there. Just a few yards in front of us was Kareena Kapoor Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest names, makeup artists fussing over her face. But we weren’t there to see Kareena. We had come to meet another legend of India’s booming entertainment industry – Balwan Singh Negi, who has worked as a spot boy for the past 40 years, serving chai on the sets of upwards of 200 films.

Balwan Singh Negi, who goes by the name Bahadur, has been serving chai on Bollywood sets for the past 40 years.

From behind the scenes, Bollywood’s spot boys keep the industry going. They move equipment on set, keep gawking crowds out of shots, perform odd jobs as needed, and of course, make and serve the chai that gives actors the boost they need to film the same scenes over and over.

When we told security we had come to see Mr. Negi, known affectionately as Bahadur, a guard replied, “Oh, that is a very senior man you have come to see!” We were whisked past Kareena’s entourage and beyond a table with a thermos labeled “VIP Tea,” to the side of a film prop warehouse where Bahadur was stirring a pot of boiling milk.

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A Hidden Treasure Among Jaipur’s Palaces

Fiona Caulfield

Founder of Love Travel Guides, Fiona Caulfield believes that "Falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses become more engaged and you simply feel more alive."

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from reader Fiona Caulfield, founder of Love Travel Guides. Fiona’s criteria for what makes it into her guidebooks is simple: “Does this entry help you fall in love with this destination ? If yes, then it is in; if no then, it is out.”

Fiona’s favorite chai can be found in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s Pink City, famous for jewels, leather, and now chai wallahs!

Sahu Chaiwalla

365 Chaura Rasta (adjacent to the Shah Bldg). Daily 5 am – midnight.

The search for the best chai took some doing, but early one morning I found this small stall, which has been run by the same family for over 40 years. Their chai secret is the slow cooking of the milk on a coal stove and a cup costs a mere R10. Many regulars spend double the cost of the chai to travel here to have their morning cuppa. Stand on the street near the stove or step down into the café, which has a few tables.

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Academic All Nighters at the Tea Stall

Raman Sharma

Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Midterm exams are beginning in colleges across the globe. ‘Tis the season for students to pull all nighters and to procrastinate. What better way to procrastinate than with a philosophical debate over a cup of chai?

Raman Sharma, a graduate of the prestigious and hypercompetitive Indian Institute of Technology, knows this as well as any. Currently a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he took a break from advising clients to share this memory of his favorite campus chai wallah.

Wanted to share a very special chai place which will always be memorable for me and a lot of other people from my campus. I did my undergrad from IIT Kanpur, where there is this small marketplace called ‘MT’ which has a couple of chai shops along with 2-3 paan and cigarette shops, a bike repair shop and a general store. In the middle of the compound is a small temple beside which there is a bit of an open area and a raised platform. The place has been a hub for morning tea and breakfast, cigarette supplies and evening snacks for ages. It’s the first eating place that opens in the morning on the campus and is often the final destination of a long all nighter for all students. At the same time, you’d find a groups of professors enjoying their morning tea after the morning walk. 

The place had such a charm that people even had loyalties to their particular chai shop based on the type of chai they liked. People would come in groups but would get chai from their preferred chai shop. Like a typical chai shop in Uttar Pradesh, the shops also had jalebi with curd, pakodas and namkeen to enjoy with chai. Not to mention the shops entertained credits, which would be cleared once or twice a semester. One would often spend hours debating various topics ranging from curriculum, grades, professors, research topics, hypothetical extreme ideas to politics, elections, music and even some campus gossip over several cups of chai and devotional songs playing in the background.  It’s a one of a kind social hub. 

Recent scenes from Delhi University, where famous chai wallahs are a gathering space for students. The campus plays host to many sorts of wallahs, from bike rickshaw wallahs shuttling students to scale wallahs who weigh them.

Riding High on Chai

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

Few people have visited more chai wallahs in India than the members of the Free Souls Rider motorcycle club. The Delhi-based group consists of 900 bikers who ride by the motto: “Biking is the way to nirvana. We live to ride longer and ride longer to live longer.” Their Harleys and Hondas have covered the country, recently completing the Himachal circuit with its hairpin turns through the Himalayas.

Of course the journeys would not be possible without chai. “We stop for chai every hundred kilometers,” said Ved Prakash, one of the group’s administrators. “It keeps us going and gives our butts a rest.”

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A Friendship Forged in the Alleys of Connaught Place

It’s a pretty common sight at Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi – western tourists warily walking, bags clutched tightly to their chest, trying to speed past beggars and touts. Shouts of “Which country? Which country?” and “Come look my shop” fill the halls of C.P., as the complex is known, a magnificent circle of commerce built in 1933 to replicate the Royal Crescent of Bath, England.

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Special Treatment in a Paper Cup

Shandeep Sharma

A product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up.

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from Shandeep Sharma, a product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up. Life would seem pretty good for Shandeep. But there’s one thing missing from the Silicon Valley — chai wallahs. He sent in this memory of a favorite chai wallah from his childhood.

During winter holidays my family and I would visit our relatives in Gwalior. We would take trips to the city center (“Sudder” street) and have Kashmiri chai. This chai never tasted as good in Singapore where we lived, and I would rarely have it there since it was too hot for the temperate climate. Plus my parents didn’t want me developing a caffeine addiction.

The great thing about the chai wallah we went to was that he was my dad’s primary school friend and would give us “special” treatment. I’d get my chai in a white paper cup with extra pistachios because he knew I enjoyed the added texture. I would sip it very very slowly — savoring it as much as possible. As we drank our chais by the roadside, I would hear stories of my dad when he was my age while he reminisced with his chai wallah buddy.

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge