At around 3 am, he wakes up and walks towards the Mardi view camp. Walking fast, he surpasses the hikers on the way. On his one hand is a 15-litre water gallon and, on the other, a big bag of tea. When the hikers reach the top of the view camp, a hot cup of tea awaits them. This is how the day of Tanka Prasad Gautam (46) or Chiya Kaka, his alias, goes every day for the better part of the past eight years.
The high camp is the last point with an accommodation facility you get during Mardi trekking. From here, trekkers walk for two hours and reach the view camp before dawn whereas the Mardi base camp is another one-and-a-half hour ahead of the view camp.
From the view camp, one can see nine mountain peaks. When you reach the base camp, you get the opportunity to get close to the mountains, but they are not visible properly. That is why tourists return from the view camp itself, he says. At present, it is not foreign tourists but domestic tourists who throng there.
In the last two years [due to the Covid-19 pandemic], tourists have seldomly trekked to Mardi Himal. The business seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. But this year, the trekking culture has flourished back. So is his tea business.
His name is the brand
Everyone calls Gautam ‘Chiya Kaka’ (the Tea Uncle); it has now become his identity. Before he started selling tea, he was Tanka Prasad Gautam. But now, even Gautam answers his name is ‘Chiya Kaka’ when anyone asks what his name is. “Even those who have not met me in the past call me Chiya Kaka. Many, in their first meeting, leave a lot of love and compassion. I am happy to be able to serve [tea to] everyone.”
Sometimes, many tourists who reach the Mardi view camp to see the mountains up close return sadly after the heavy fog. But, they always get to have tea at Chiya Kaka’s place. “Many have tea here and take photos of my tea stall.”
But, how did he become Chiya Kaka?
His newfound identity can be credited to Sudeep Gautam, a pioneer businessman from Mardi and Chiya Kaka’s nephew. He also takes the credit for making Mardi a popular trek in a short time. Any tourist or trekker who reached Mardi stayed at Sudeep’s hotel. Tanka Prasad would be at the view camp in the morning and frequently seen in Sudeep’s hotel in the evening.
An uncle of one became the uncle of all. Then following his new tea business, people added ‘chiya’ (or tea) and called him ‘Chiya Kaka’ that stayed with him as his new identity.
When he first started the tea shop, no one was there. But, then with increasing tourists, over time, he alone could not cater to all. Other business persons also set up stalls and, at present, there are five huts of tea sellers in the view camp.
Of the five, the first hut belongs to Chiya Kaka and many first stumble into his stall.
Wanted to be a shepherd
Chiya Kaka, who now sells tea and coffee at Mardi view camp, actually wanted to be a shepherd. Born in Siding near the mountain, his skill was to raise sheep and goats. His previous generation used to raise sheep on route to the Mardi trek and even had a shed there, shares Kaka.
There were no other employment opportunities in the village, neither starting a business was easy. So, like many other villagers, he also made his passport and went abroad to the Gulf countries for foreign employment and worked in Malaysia, Qatar and the UAE. “In the beginning, it was Rs 25,000, then I earned up to 35,000,” says Kaka. At that time, Rs 35,000 was a big amount for him, he started sending money to the family.
It was only a matter of time, and he returned home. Upon return, he first thought he would go to the village and raise sheep. But, then, he saw that the number of tourists trekking in Mardi Himal had been increasing. Tourists had to walk more than two hours from the high camp to the view camp, and there was no accommodation, nor a source to drink water.
A batch of tourists returning from the view camp talked on the way about how wonderful it would be to have tea at the upper camp. So, he took the opportunity and started selling tea there. After starting the business, he has never had to look back with a decent income from the start. “What I earned in a month in the Gulf country, I can earn here in four/five days now,” shares Chiya Kaka.
The worth of the work
Nonetheless, his business is not as smooth during the off-season for tourists. Yet, he is now happier to at least work in his own country.
For tourists who reached the mountains in the harsh cold winter, it was a great relief for them to be able to have tea.
“There was once a couple from Switzerland who reached Mardi. Sitting in my hut, they ordered two cups of tea. That winter was very cold and the tourists were shivering from the cold. Tears were dripping from the man’s eyes and had a runny nose,” Chiya Kaka shares, “I put their tea nearby but they could not hold the cup of tea. It was so cold that their hands stopped working. But, my tea was so helpful to them.”
There is no water in the view camp. He always carries water from the high camp in the wee hours every day. “In winter, the water freezes and I make tea by breaking that ice,” he says.
Moon is setting and the sun is red in the east. The mountains including Annapurna, Machhapuchhre and Mardi are covered with fog. As the fog leaves, the mountains are left glistening and the tourists start taking pictures of and with the mountains. When it gets foggy again, it covers the mountains and the tourists are disappointed. Then, they resort to sipping tea.
“Kaka, make nine cups of tea for us,” says a young man. “Tea or coffee?” asks Chiya Kaka, noting that coffee is also available as an alternative to tea. The young man questions, “How much does it cost?” and Kaka replies, “150 for black tea, 200 for coffee” and the young man orders nine cups of coffee.
Another team comes, “Kaka, make four cups of tea for us.” And, the process continues. So does Chiya Kaka’s business.