Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Summary

Greg Mortenson


Three Cups of Tea, co-written by David Oliver Relin, is Greg Mortenson’s memoir, a book that recounts Mortenson’s adventures in bringing education to isolated areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The title is derived from an ancient saying that states that the first time you share a cup of tea with someone, you are merely a stranger. The second time, you become a friend. The third, and you are part of the family. Mortenson’s point was to get to know the people that some people might consider their enemies.

What started out as a promise to a small Pakistani village whose members had worked together to save his life after an unsuccessful attempt to climb one of the most dangerous mountains in the world (called K2), ended up with Mortenson creating a non-profit organization. Mortenson’s group sought to construct schools in Central Asia so that impoverished communities could educate their children. With a special emphasis on bringing education to Muslim girls who were often forbidden to go to school, Mortenson raised money and put together the Central Asia Institute to meet this goal. In the process, Mortenson’s life was threatened by local warlords in Asia, and he had to endure hate mail from fellow Americans who thought his efforts were misdirected. Muslims were, after all, enemies of the United States, were they not? Not so, thought Mortenson. He believed that education would bridge the gap that had developed between radical Muslims and the Western world. The first school was built by U.S. school children who made contributions to Mortenson’s cause through their collection of pennies: 62,400 of them. Fifty more schools would be added.

Three Cups of Tea has sold over three million copies and has been published in thirty-nine different countries. Robert Gates, U.S. defense secretary, has praised the book, and Special Forces troops deployed to Afghanistan are required to read it. Time magazine gave the book its 2006 Asia Book of the Year Award. Although some critics point out the flaws in the writing, most agree that the book is inspiring. Margot Hillel, reviewing for Reading Time, thought so and went on to discuss the book’s power. Maria Speidel, writing for People magazine, stated that the co-author, David Oliver Relin, never had to stretch his writing to prove Mortenson is a hero.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Summary

Three Cups of Tea was co-written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin and covers the details of Greg Mortenson's life, with a special emphasis on Mortenson's work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson, at one time, was a mountain climber as well as a part-time nurse.During his last attempt to climb one of the tallest mountains in the world, called K2, Mortenson lost his way and almost lost his life. He was rescued by a generous Balti tribal leader in a remote Pakistani mountain village. It is through Haji Ali, the village chief, that the title of Mortenson's book comes. Haji told Mortenson that there was an old Balti saying:"The first cup of tea a person shares with a Balti, he is a stranger. After the second cup, the person becomes an honored guest. But it is with the third cup of tea, that a person becomes a member of the Balti family." Meeting Haji Ali and becoming a part of the Balti village changed Mortenson's life.

Circumstances worked against Mortenson in his 1993 attempt to reach the summit of K2 and dedicate his victory to his sister, Christa. Christa had died the year before after battling epilepsy most of her life.Mortenson wanted to do something that reflected his strong appreciation of his sister's courage, so he tackled one of the most difficult mountains to climb. But he failed to reach the summit. And worse, he became separated from his mountain-climbing group and his guide during his descent. He had no water and only one protein bar left to eat. He was close to death when he wandered into the remote village of Korphe in the mountains of northern Pakistan. Although the people of Korphe were dismally poor, they fed and nursed Mortenson back to health. To repay them, Mortenson promised to return and build them a school.

Mortenson returned to Berkeley, California, where he worked nighttime shifts in a local hospital and lived in his car in order to save the $12,000 it would take to build the school he had promised the Balti village.During the day, Mortenson wrote letters, asking famous people, from U.S. senators, to television news anchors, to movie stars, to donate money to his cause. Out of almost 600 letters he mailed out, (writing many of them on an old typewriter because he had not yet learned how to work on a computer), Mortenson received only one response. After many attempts to publicize his project, the story of Mortenson's desire to build a school for the impoverished people in Pakistan who had saved his life, an article appeared in a newsletter published by the American Himalayan Society. The story caught the attention of Dr. Jean Hoerni, a physicist who had made his wealth as one of the pioneers of micro-processing. After Hoerni donated the money that was needed to build the school, Mortenson immediately returned to Pakistan.

Gathering the money, Mortenson soon discovered, was only the first in a long line of hurdles he would have to navigate....

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter Summaries

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 1 Summary


The setting is as beautiful as it is treacherous. It is the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan, where no one is there to see what Greg Mortenson sees. Here, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains stand watch over the barren terrain virtually untouched by either man or beast. The second-highest peak in the world, K2, is part of this treacherous range. It rises to a height of 28,267 feet and is considered by most climbers to be the most difficult climb on the planet. On September 2, 1993, Mortenson is unaware that he has wandered away from the rest of his party as they trek down the mountain. Instead of heading west toward a village fifty miles away, he is heading south into treacherous icefall territory and the inevitable fighting along the Pakistan–India border. His porter is carrying nearly all of his gear, including his tent, sleeping bag, and almost all of his food; Mortenson is lost in contemplation and fails to pay attention to his surroundings. He is thinking about failure as he touches a necklace tucked into the recesses of his coat pocket.

The necklace is Christa’s, his sister who was not supposed to live an active, meaningful life after her bout with meningitis at age twelve. The family was living in Tanzania, where the parents were missionaries. Greg was twelve years older than Christa, and he determined she would live a “normal” life in as many ways as possible. When they moved back to Minnesota, he taught her how to use the public transportation system, helped her get a job, and did whatever else he felt would make her an independent woman. Wherever he went, Christa came to visit her brother for a month every year. When Greg was an Army medic in Germany, in nursing school in South Dakota, studying neurophysiology in Indiana, or living out of his car in California, Christa came to visit. They experienced the grand things Greg knew his sister loved, like the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500, Disneyland, and Yosemite. Christa died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-three, and he had determined to scale K2 and leave his sister’s necklace at the peak as a tribute to her.

But he failed. Three months ago, at the beginning of this journey, thirty-five-year-old Greg was in high spirits and relishing the adventure ahead. K2 is called Savage Peak, and it provides “the ultimate test” for climbers. The mountain is so steep that snow cannot settle on its ridges, but that was not daunting to Mortenson, as he had climbed Kilimanjaro at the age of eleven. He had been so close, only six hundred meters away,...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 2 Summary

The Wrong Side of the River

In the morning, Greg unwinds from his thin wool blanket and is a bit disoriented. It is a beautiful but still deadly setting, and he tries to rub some feeling back into parts of his body. As the blood begins to flow through his body, the “details of his predicament” flood his mind. His circumstances have not changed, but everything appears more hopeful at the beginning of a new day. A carrion bird circles overhead but leaves as he sees movement below. Mortenson’s plan is to backtrack for a few hours until he runs into the trail, so he begins the journey to find his traveling companions. Several hours pass. Greg climbs over a small peak of the glacier and is blinded by...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 3 Summary

Progress and Perfection

Mortenson wakes up in the dark, snug beneath a quilt and serenaded by a chorus of snores, then falls back asleep. The next time he wakes up he is alone and it is daylight. The chief’s wife brings him some food and sweet tea, which Mortenson consumes hungrily. She is the only Balti woman ever to approach him, and she laughs as she watches him eat and drink. After she leaves he studies his surroundings, and he sees that though they are a poor people, they honored him with the best they had. When he leaves the house, he joins the rest of the village to watch a spectacle taking place over the river far below. Someone is pulling himself across the river hand-over-hand toward Korphe....

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 4 Summary


Berkeley Self-Storage stall 114 is Greg’s anchor after he arrives back in California. In addition to jet lag and culture shock, he is overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of things now foreign to him. He feels dislocated somehow, and this musty storage unit smells like Africa. As he touches and smells objects from his childhood, Mortenson is transported back to Africa.

Greg was born in Minnesota, but his parents impulsively moved to East Africa when he was three months old. After four years of working in a remote mountainous area, they relocated to Moshi (renamed Tanzania in 1961) and fell in love with the country. They lived in a sprawling cinder-block home with a giant...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 5 Summary

580 Letters, One Check

Greg Mortenson is typing letters to send to people he thinks may help him with his mission to build a school in Korphe. His calculations tell him he can build a school for one hundred students through fifth grade for twelve thousand dollars using local labor. He types slowly, both because his fingers are too big for the keys and because he does not know quite what to say. His first six letters are addressed to Oprah Winfrey, each of the network news anchors (plus CNN), and actress Susan Sarandon. He drops his day’s work into a mailbox and heads to his shift at the ER. One of the doctors, Tom Vaughan, has done some serious climbing; he once served as an expedition doctor on a...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 6 Summary

Rawalpindi’s Rooftops at Dusk

Greg sleeps with his money in a sack under his clothes: twelve thousand dollars for the school and eight hundred dollars for his expenses over the next few months. His journey takes fifty-six hours because he bought only the cheapest tickets, and he spends his entire first day in Rawalpindi sleeping off his jet lag. In his mind, every cent he spends is stealing money from the school, so he spends the night in a small glass room on the roof of a hotel. The hotel watchman asks about Greg’s plans. When he hears about the school and understands what Greg has sacrificed to be here, he promises to help Greg bargain for the building supplies he will need. As Greg listens to...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 7 Summary

Hard Way Home

Moving day begins early for Greg and Abdul. Greg puts on his old Nikes (on which Abdul obviously spent hours, trying to make them look more respectable) on this auspicious day. They stop at the call for prayer then head to Ali the architect’s shop. As the supplies are loaded onto trucks, Mortenson has a moment of panic at the thought that he has spent two-thirds of the money he brought with him. He has three thousand dollars for transportation, labor, and his living expenses. He is nervous. All forty-two of their purchases are making their way to the trucks, and a crowd has gathered. They are gawking at the spectacle of “an enormous infidel in brown pajamas” who is loading supplies...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 8 Summary

Beaten by the Braldu

Skardu is one of the last stops for those heading for the Karkoram and its giant, icy peaks. The city’s bazaar is full of color and life, a shattering contrast to the “deafening emptiness” of the journey across the Indus Gorge. Their giant truck is blocking the road as the driver asks Greg for directions. The supplies must now be taken to Korphe by jeep, eight hours away, and there is no easy communication to announce their arrival in Skardu. A decision must be made about where to go with the load now. Mortenson thinks of Mohammed Ali Changazi, the Balti agent who arranges trekking expeditions and tours, including last year’s expedition to K2. They pull in and are greeted by...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 9 Summary

The People Have Spoken

It is almost Christmas as Greg steps off the plane at the San Francisco airport. He looks around hopefully for Marina, though when they talked last he was unsure if she got his flight information on their hasty international call. He dials her home number from a pay phone and starts to leave a message. Marina picks up the phone and tells him they need to talk, that “things have changed” since he left. Greg hangs up and heads for her house; he has not showered in three days and is apprehensive about this meeting. He hopes Marina understands that he had no money to spare for calls home while he was away and determines to make it up to her and her daughters now that he is home....

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 10 Summary

Building Bridges

Greg is in Skardu ordering steel cable, his last acquisition for the Korphe bridge. He finally finds the contractor who has what he needs and can deliver it to the site. It is June 1995, and the bridge should be finished by winter. The following spring is the target date to begin the school. Jean Hoerni has been gracious about giving him another ten thousand dollars for the bridge but wants him to hurry and bring him a photo: he is getting older and wants to see what his money has bought. Greg is happy to be working with Changazi once again; the extra money the agent takes is worth the valuable contacts he has. He makes Changazi sign a complete inventory for the school materials he is...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 11 Summary

Six Days

Greg is back in his sublet apartment in California, working night shifts at the hospitals. He knows he is able to help people here, but he is eager for his bank account to grow so he can return to Pakistan and finish what he started. As he walks home after a shift at the burn unit, he sees a car parked in front of his apartment. A sleepy Marina has come to see him in person because he did not answer his phone all night. She confesses she made a mistake with the former boyfriend and makes an overture to resume their relationship. Greg tells her the opportunity has passed and walks wearily up to his miserable third-floor apartment. Now he sees his time here not as a sign of failure but as time...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 12 Summary

Haji Ali’s Lesson

When Greg goes to Changazi’s compound, he is denied access. Greg produces the inventory list for the supplies but is told the agent is not in Skardu and will not be back for a month or two. He cannot call because the phone lines are cut. As Greg ponders his next move, Ghulam Parvi, Changazi’s trusted accountant and a devout Muslim scholar, arrives. Greg makes his appeal to him. The inventory looks legitimate, but Parvi is puzzled because he has never heard Changazi mention this project, even though Changazi knows of Parvi’s interest in building schools in Pakistan. Because of this shared interest, Parvi agrees to help Greg locate his building materials. They locate the supplies...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 13 Summary

“A Smile Should Be More Than a Memory”

Peshawar is a busy frontier city, the capital of untamed western Pakistan and “gateway to the Khyber Pass.” It is the pipeline between Afghanistan and Pakistan through which Taliban forces (literally, students of Islam) head west, and refugees tired of the fighting travel east. The seventeenth son of a wealthy Saudi family, Osama Bin Laden is forced to leave his home country and he flees to Afghanistan and seethes in his hatred for Americans, the people he blames for his exile. While Greg Mortenson is in Peshawar pondering locations for the Central Asia Institute’s school-building projects, Bin Laden is calling for war against America. Greg is hesitant to...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 14 Summary


Back in Montana, Greg walks into his house with a sensation of disbelief that he is here and that this is his home. Tara is upstairs with Roberta the midwife. They have decided to have the baby here in this bedroom, a decision Greg readily agrees with after his hospital experiences. He has been home for a week after three months in Pakistan and is still getting used to the sight of his very pregnant wife. They do normal things and go for walks—it is the perfect antidote to his eight days of confinement as a prisoner.

After he was returned to his Peshawar hotel with almost four hundred dollars in rupees from the Wazir, he had phoned his wife in the middle of the night in...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 15 Summary

Mortenson in Motion

In the basement of the Mortenson home is the Central Asia Institute's (CAI's) office. Greg is on the phone with Ghulam Parvi in Pakistan. Greg learns that a village leader near Korphe has declared a fatwa against him because he plans to educate girls as well as boys. Parvi is outraged, knowing this move is about money and power, not religion or Islam. Although Greg understands the gravity of such a declaration, he is far enough away to react more calmly than Parvi. The plan is to find a more powerful mullah to deal with rather than pay the bribe that the offending tribal leader demands. Greg knows he will have to go back to Pakistan sooner than he had anticipated....

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 16 Summary

Red Velvet Box

A messenger is winding his way to Pakistan with a ruling from the Supreme Council tucked into his saddlebags—or at least that is how Greg Mortenson envisions it. The reality is that a red velvet box containing the ruling was mailed and, after several stops, is now ready to be read publicly in Pakistan. Parvi reports that government spies have been reported at the school founded by Mortenson, asking whether “Western-style licentiousness” or Christianity is part of the curriculum. Parvi himself is visited and questioned about the American. Does he ever drink alcohol? Is he a seducer of Muslim women? Parvi answers honestly and invites the agent to visit any of the schools Greg has...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 17 Summary

Cherry Trees in the Sand

Pakistan sees Kashmir as a “symbol of all the oppression they felt Muslims had suffered,” and India sees it as a line past which they will not be moved. It is an inhospitable place filled with glaciers and mountains as tall as eighteen thousand feet. Pakistan and India have each established outposts and a military presence in the mountains. There has been little actual fighting and few casualties as both sides have chosen to keep up the appearance of aggression and defense. But in the spring of 1999, fighting begins in Kashmir and continues into the summer. Greg Mortenson is losing sleep worrying about the Pakistani refugees who are on the move to Skardu in the Baltistan...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 18 Summary

Shrouded Figure

In a sports store in Minnesota, the Director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) is setting up chairs for a slide presentation in hopes of garnering donations from those in attendance. Greg has put on some weight and is sweating with his effort, but the organization’s funds are perilously low so these kinds of activities must be done. When he is not in Pakistan, Greg gives a presentation every week; it is something he hates, but even a bad night’s donations of a few hundred dollars could make the difference for the children of Pakistan, so he endures. When it is time to begin, he sees nothing but empty chairs. The posters on local college campuses and his morning radio interviews had...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 19 Summary

A Village Called New York

When Greg returns to Skardu, he is stunned by the ubiquitous presence of the Wahhabi, a “conservative, fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam” and the Saudi rulers’ official religion. The oil money has been used to build both walled madrassas (radical extremist schools of Islam) and mosques in an attempt to proselytize poor, young students and indoctrinate them into this religious and political way of thinking. Estimates of the number of such mosques, schools, and Islamic centers built in 2000 range from 1,100 to 3,800 at a cost of up to $45 million. In contrast, the CAI buildings and money spent was virtually nothing. Often when Greg goes to check on the...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 20 Summary

Tea With the Taliban

Suleman, Greg’s trusted taxi driver, meets Greg and Faisal Baig in Islamabad. He takes them to what he calls “the circus.” The city was designed for the rich, cosmopolitan travelers, and the Marriott Hotel is the five-star seat of luxury in the city. Normally it is rather subdued and fairly empty; today, however, in late September, it is a hive of activity. The “world’s press corps had arrived.” The hotel is using the opportunity to make money, gouging the reporters who are desperate for a decent place to stay and a place from which to film their stories. Although he has been to this hotel, Greg has never stayed there because he could not justify the expense. Kathy...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 21 Summary

Rumsfeld’s Shoes

The bombings continue, and Greg is heartbroken at the reality that many of the children who are casualties of the war are from his Central Asia Institute (CAI) schools. He continues to get hate mail as well as occasional letters of encouragement. He determines to speak when he has the opportunity, and in a small basement room with only six people, Greg impresses Representative Mary Bono. She says she learned more from him than in all the Capitol Hill briefings she has heard and invites him to speak before Congress when it reconvenes.

Mortenson returns to Pakistan in February and is encouraged that some of the cities that had been too dangerous to visit are probably now...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 22 Summary

“The Enemy Is Ignorance”

Mortenson, Hussein, Apo, and Baig arrive in the Karakoram. It is a familiar place for them, but Kevin Fedarko and his photographer feel as if they have been “dropped at the wild edge of the Earth.” Fedarko is about to be the first reporter to tell the story from both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict, and Greg does everything possible to help him do it. The Korphe villagers are ecstatic to see Dr. Greg again and begin sharing their news and progress since his last visit. A young woman, Jahan, steps into the circle and sits boldly in front of Greg. She reminds him that he told her he would help her achieve her dreams. She is ready for medical school and needs twenty...

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Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time Chapter 23 Summary

Stones and Schools

On a flight from Islamabad to Kabul, Greg meets Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan who has been exiled in Rome for the past thirty years. During his tenure, this man presided over his country during its most enduring peace in the modern era. Earlier, he had overseen the creation of a constitution that emancipated the women of Afghanistan and founded the first university of the modern era, recruiting teachers from around the world to help establish a strong academic tradition in his country. When he returned to the region a year ago, he was met with great enthusiasm as a hopeful sign that things would soon be peaceful and prosperous in Afghanistan. But the hope was...

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