Bamana’s travel book explores the nomadic pastoralism of Mongolia through its residents’ relationship with tea.
In his debut, Bamana sets out on a journey with the single-minded purpose of seeking out the Tea Road—the trade route between China and Western Russia that passed through Mongolia beginning in the 17th century—and visiting locals along the way, thereby soaking up traditional Mongolian culture through the lens of its tea practices. The book bumps along with him, dusted with some sketchy, impressionistic Mongolian history and sociology and musings on the country’s globalization. He presents some compelling insights into the nomadic culture of Mongolia, and, of course, tea. For instance, the matron of the family typically starts each morning in the ger, or yurt, by boiling milk tea for her family and offering a delicate libation to honor the deities of nature by sprinkling tea in the four cardinal directions. It’s an elegant concept, but Bamana’s lens overexposes what he sees, and readers are left longing for a more grounded experience. The guiding principle of the book is metaphor—tea is catalyst, symbol and vehicle—but the abstraction leaves readers never feeling quite anchored, never fully present, which is crucial for a travel narrative. There’s an adventure in there somewhere, but the author mostly glosses over it to get to the parts about tea. It’s also difficult to get over Bamana’s tendency, in certain instances, to present his observations or casual interviews as hard fact. There are some moments of inspiration when he loses himself in the sublimity of his surroundings—an enchanting description of the unique bounding of time and seemingly endless space on the steppes; a reflection on Mongolian spirituality, of nature as a portal to the sacred. He should allow himself to become distracted more often. In general, Bamana’s devotion to his theme takes him on a roundabout path that ends by describing the prosaic with unnecessary complexity.
An outsider’s infusion of significance and structure into a world that would be beautiful, if only he allowed it to speak for itself.