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The long walk to a tea house (Slovak style)

My dad always told me that you don't need to leave the house to travel. He may not have used those actual words, but when he told me 'read this book' I knew what he meant. When I was 10 or 11 we had one of our regular 'read this book' moments. The book was called The Long Walk, and told the story of Slavomir Rawic, a Polish army lieutenant imprisoned by the Russians following Stalin's invasion of Poland, and his remarkable escape from the gulag . He and six others walked to 6,500km from Siberia, through the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalaya before arriving in British India in 1942.

One part of the book has stayed with me for the past 35 years - it involved the men drinking yak butter tea somewhere in the Himalaya. The butter was rancid, the tea was disgusting and they drank it, forcing themselves to keep it down, in order to not offend their host.

Twenty years ago I found myself in a similar situation - not on the run from the Soviet state obviously - I was in Ladakh, aka Little Tibet, breaking bread with a farmer and about to be served yak butter tea (just to define Himalayan farmer: this was a man and his family who scratched a living at over 11,000', with a few animals and pits dug around his house to catch the starving wolves who came down from the surrounding hills during the winter. Said wolf would then be stoned to death and the pelt used by the family or sold. Not the Cotswolds then).

Back to the tea. I have to be honest and admit to a certain reluctance based on my memories from the book, but I was cold and tired and this man and his family, who by any standards had very little, was sharing what he had with me. The tea was wonderful. Warm and salty and malty and shiny - a Himalayan version of Ovaltine and I couldn't get enough.

All of which brings me to the Guru Tea Shop in Ennistimon. The town itself is typical of small town Ireland, all the shops you might need on the main street (often called Main St), and like every other small town in ireland it has seen tough times in the past six years, and if good times are not quite around the corner they seem to be making an appearance on the distant horizon. Ennistimon is not a pretty town in that gloopy, twee, Tidy Town sort of way but it has a real charm. It also has an art gallery, a fine second hand bookshop and the Guru Tea House.

Brainchild of Tomas and Luisca, the Guru is a reflection of the teahouses of their home country Solvakia, where teahouses were the place where people came together to chat, spend time together, relax and drink tea. Traditionally they opened between 3pm and midnight and didn't serve food. It's a big ask to come to a country like Ireland where tea is spelt two ways, Barrys or Lyons, and convince people to try something new. I've been coming here at least twice a week for three months and I never varied my order for the first few weeks - black coffee. One visit I decided this was crazy; here was a place selling over 100 loose leaf teas from across the world and I'm the only person drinking coffee.

I put myself in the hands of Tomas and Luicsa. They would happily drag half a dozen large jars of tea of the shelves so I could smell the leaves and the story of that particular tea. There were teas from Brazil and Argentina, China and Japan, the High Himalaya and Sri Lanka, green and black and fruit. There were teas that would help with digestion, colds and blocked sinuses, various aches and pains, in short there was a tea for what ails you.

Over the past few weeks I've had a Matcha, a green tea (oh, so green!) from the Gyouokuro leaf, served in the Japanese tea ceremony; I've had Mate, a South American 'all day tea'. it's brewed in a calabash or large gourd and topped up throughout the day with boiling water as the leaves do not lose their flavour. It's traditionally drunk through a straw called a bombilla, that acts as a filter for stray leaves. At the Guru it's served in a mini calabash with a straw. The tea is incredibly hot and slightly lip numbing. But in a good way. I've had nettle tea (nice with a little ginger), mint tea, Tea of the Pharaohs (rooibos, apple, peppers, lemon and basil) and King Monkey tea a spicy, warm concoction of rooibos, cinnamon and ginger.

The tea menu runs to a dozen pages or so, so it's not surprising that I missed Tibetan tea. Anyone who has ever spent anytime in India, Pakistan or Nepal will remember the milky street chai available on every street corner and railway station. In appearance, the Tibetan tea is very similar but has that extra buttery thing going on. Literally, not everyone's cup of tea, but for almost an hour I was back, cold and weary, with that farmer and his family in his small, dark and smoky house surrounded by wolf pits and enjoying his hospitality. It's difficult to put a price on that (€5.90 for a pot if you're ever in the area and want to have your very own Long Walk moment).

My time in Clare comes to an end tomorrow, when I then head to my Cavan bolthole. There are loads of things I'm going to miss: people (no need to name names), the unique landscape of the Burren and places like the Guru Tea House. For a land of emigrants, Ireland, in my experience, has not always been as welcoming as it should to people travelling in this direction. In Tomas and Luicsa, Ennistimon is definitely the winner and the teahouse celebrates it's second birthday in a few weeks. In a week or so, their website will be up and running and by the end of the year an e shop should be operating. So they must be doing something right. I look forward to getting back there, settled in a window seat watching the world drifting by.

(For over three decades The Long Walk has stayed with me. In 2006 the BBC released a report based on former Soviet records, including statements written by Rawicz himself, showing that Rawicz had been released as part of the 1942 general amnesty of Poles in the USSR and subsequently transported across the Caspian Sea to a refugee camp in Iran and that his escape to India never occurred! In May 2009, in a further twist to the story, Witold Gliński, a Polish WWII veteran living in the UK, came forward to claim that the story of Rawicz was true, but was actually an account of what happened to him, not Rawicz. Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer in wartime India interviewed three emaciated men in Calcutta in 1942, who claimed to have escaped from Siberia. Mayne always believed their story was the same as that of The Long Walk - but telling the story years later, he could not remember their names. I don't care whether the events happened or not, it's still a great story).

Posted by johnward 05:18 Archived in Ireland

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