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Yunnan Tea Journey Day 4: Jingmai

None of us wanted to leave Jinghong. Xis-huang-banna!

As always with Ke Ke in the lead, we were in for improvisatory, itinerary-veering delight.

On the roads out of the Jinghong valley we were stopped at a checkpoint by the army. Our driver pulls to the side of the road. Zhuping explains that because we're so close to the Myanmar border, these are quite routine. A young soldier steps into the bus, he looks like he might be nineteen. Zhuping and Guo are speaking Mandarin (which to the untrained ear can sound inflammatory) to the soldier but he doesn't break his gaze from us. He asks to see our passports.

This soldier is about one of five, one of whom is carrying an assault rifle so comically futuristic it looks like a toy. We sit, for a while. We can see the soldier photographing each of our passports. He'll probably file a report later today with our information. Somebody cries out we were stopped because Raj (an Assamese Indian) is sitting shotgun. Everyone laughs, uneasily. The soldier comes back with our passports and we continue.

We arrive at the green, iron gates of a government facility: The Yunnan Tea Institute. A group of men descend the stairs to greet us. There's a golden statue of Lu Yu in the courtyard. One of Ke Ke's close friends takes us on a brief tour of the facility. It was established in 1938, the first in Yunnan with a bent on studying the cultivation and processing of green, pu'er and black teas produced in the region—their terroirs, histories and varieties. 

Behind the lab and office building up front there's an expansive set of gardens in the back with each variety planted in a single garden. Our guide talks to us, plant by plant: there's Yunkang 10, Zi Juan and even a Jin Xuan they have growing there. At the back of the facility there's a tribute to the Tea Horse Road including a recreated village from the era. Behind that: a Tae Tea pu'er shop.

We have lunch at an apparently nationally famous BBQ Chicken Shack. It's not even a shack, but a nondescript garage-door on a major highway that opens to reveal a table and chairs. I didn't have the chicken but apparently President Xi has eaten there. While we're chowing, a woman runs her scooter into our bus. This is a big deal because all accidents (even this minor ding) have to reported in China and our driver is responsible to his company for any damagers incurred. Sure enough, the police show up and take a detailed, photographic report of what is essentially a scratch. 

Winding through mountain roads, we climb to an elevation of 1,200 meters or so on our way to Jingmai Mountain Range. The highway streetlamps are made to look like tea buds. We get stopped by another army checkpoint. Once again, they ask to see our passports. Once again, they let us go. Now we've hit a part of the inner tea lands that's a familiar feeling from my time in Taiwan. You're in a place so remote, so quiet and misty that it doesn't feel like you're anywhere at all. The meandering mountain roads make even simple travel complex.

When we arrive at Jingmai there's another checkpoint—not military, only simply to see that we're not smuggling any tea leaves (or other plant matter) into the range. As we pull through the gate the paved road turns to cobblestone and we bump the rest of our way to the top. What's immediately noticeable about Jingmai, other than its remoteness and a few Eastern Chinese tourists, is that tea is everywhere. Half-wild plants cover the mountains. Not in neat terraces, but in overgrown groves. Actually, the first thing you notice is the smell. When you walk outside it smells immediately like wildflower honey.

Our small hotel is at 1,400 meters elevation. It's half modern tea processing plant and half resort-like hotel. The cries of half a dozen jungle birds I've never heard fill the wet, sweet air. The rooms are in the back and, if you were to screw your eyes up enough, you might think it was a cabin hotel somewhere in Washington state. There's a couple of Bulang (the minority people native to Jingmai) porter boys stoking a smoky fire. They're preparing to make Bulang Roast Tea, which I have to admit doesn't sound particularly appealing.

But the porters deftly pull hot coals from the pit with chopsticks, dropping them into a gourd full of sorted-out "yellow" mao cha leaves. They toss the gourd so that the coal roasts the leaves evenly and then, with the chopsticks, find and remove what's left of the burning coals. They then take these tea leaves and drop them into a large cast-iron teapot sitting on a fireplace trivet. The teapot is heated at a rolling boil for several minutes. The resulting brew is poured into a serving pot and poured into clay bowls, which we drink from. The result is unbelievably good. Brisk like assam, fruity (and toasty, obviously) but also full-bodied, with a character that suggests malt whiskey (without the alcohol.) Bowl after bowl of this is served and in goes right to your skull. All the languor of the day was gone. 

Soon, two larger than life presences join our tea party: Mr. Li, a senior local official, Bulang, to whom all tea farmers are answerable to. We learn very quickly he's no despot. The other is a Lahu prince and tea lover and, we are told, a sensational dancer. Lahu means "tiger hunter," they are the people from nearby Menghai. We drink through another pot of roast tea. Between that and the sweet mountain air, it felt like floating.

The Lahu prince offers us cigarettes. Dinner is laid out on two tables. No meal is without elaboration. That doesn't mean they're all fine dining occasions—just well-thought-out. Given with full intention. For instance, even though we were in the perfect light of the tropical forest, two candles were lit on each table. It's a small thought like that, like serving a cup of tea, that carries so much feeling with it. Also, they were mosquito repelling candles but just pretend like they aren't.

After dinner, we present gifts to Mr. Li and the Prince. They repay the favor by coming to our table and toasting us. First its the Prince and he accepts toasts. Almost everybody at the table proposes one, so he takes about seven shots. And, though he can't speak English, his comically dramatic facial expressions tell enough—he's blotto. Then Mr. Li comes over and takes a few, tablewide toasts.

A cadre of servers from the hotel arrange around our table and sing a traditional Bulang piece, followed by a drinking song. We toast together as two tables, the native Mandarin speakers and English. Out of nowhere, a guitarist and drummer appear and begin playing and get the whole place clapping along. When they're done, they point at our table and invite us to the stage. They want us to share a song. I guess they just assume we play guitar and drum.

Michael and I are nominated as cultural ambassadors. I don't really want to—but I would like to source tea from these folks, so what can you do? Better than cigarettes.  "Journey?" I ask, "Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix," he counter-proposes. We end up just jamming for two with him on guitar and me on the drum. I can barely keep a rhythm together I'm already soused enough. "That was a little number called... Midnight in Jingmai," I say. Silence. Zhuping translates. Roars of approval from the crowd. The band takes back over.

Soon, with the amount of rice liquor, tea and beer we've all consumed—people begin dancing. First the Prince (who lives up to his description) and Raj, then our whole table, then all but a very few are, then we start (writing this it's, like, weird to think that it happened) conga-line-style dancing around the courtyard. There's a video of this somewhere.

Mr. Li gifts us with mini tongs of old tree Pu'er from the mountain. I feel like Michael and I meet a mild slew of minor producers, merchants and local tribesmen. To be honest, I can barely remember. We went to bed full of Jingmai moonshine and the love that finds you again and again on nights like this when you make new friends through tea.

Yunnan Tea Journey Day 3: You Le Mountain

We drive out of Ning'Er early on a cool but humid this morning. Unlike our ride out of Kunming, we leave the city formerly known as Pu'Er and are in the mountains of eastern Yunnan in minutes. At a couple of points I check our elevation and on an otherwise unassuming pass, we're at 1,450 meters. For much of the ride along the Kunmo Expressway, we're driving through clouds.

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"Elephant crossing" signs appear sporadically. We're near the Elephant Valley Nature Reserve. Guo explains that elephants migrate regularly between here and Thailand. But nothing could have prepared us for Jinghong. Nestled in a valley on the banks of the Mekong River, the capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture is a glistening collection of white stupa towers and old Dai style rooftops. Buddhist and elephant statues fill the tree-lined streets. Birdsong is one of the loudest noises. It's a city that looks more Thai than Chinese. That's also not quite fair to say. The Dai people are the primary ethnic group here, accounting for 70% of the population. 

Porters dressed in bright satins and silk stand ready at the hotel archway. We're all curious about Jinghong, but have to leave abruptly to make our way east to You Le mountain. We arrive and are given a light (just kidding) lunch cooked in a Jinou village restaurant at the base of the mountain courtesy of our host, the farmer and tea master Yang Guangqing. Zhuping explains the legend of Zhu Ge Liang, the great Sichuanese general who taught tea cultivation to the Jinou people in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280AD). As late as the 1960s, the Jinou people didn't have print currency and used the Tea Horse road as a commercial route.


We drive a ways up the mountain and the van stops on an otherwise unmarked part of the road. We climb out. What is so awesome about Yunnan is that you feel like you're in the land before time. Massive ferns and palms dwarf you, trees are carelessly old. Except for a narrow trail the jungle vegetation is impassably thick and overgrown. It was still overcast when we reached the trees, nestled across a pond on a hill. The hill was covered, not terrace style as with cultivated tea but wild-grove style. 

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Every plant in this grove is at least 80-years-old, most are older. Ke Ke (the elder Mr. Chen) explains that many tea companies might label trees like this 400 or 500 years old. But based on his educated (doctoral) guess, they're more likely 150-200—definitely planted sometime in the Qing Dynasty. The tea plant, for all its merits, is a stubborn little evergreen. Even sexually propagated plants grow very, very slowly. A fifty-year-old plant is a glorified bush. The oldest tea plant, before this point I have seen was maybe 100 years old and it was a ten-foot tall tree. The sun breaks out while we're at the garden and, like most tea gardens, it gets hot fast. Maybe because of the break in the weather or the awesome, reverential feeling of being in this grove the Staples Singers "Uncloudy Day" gets stuck in my head.

Most years there would have been two flushes already, but because of drought conditions there has only been one partial plucking of new growth—four days ago. It's estimated there won't be enough mature growth until mid-April. Drought conditions have been persisting in some way or another since 2008. Our producer, Mr. Yang explains that last year their was a slight respite from the drought but that this year its worse than ever.


We take a quick drive up the mountain through the Jinou village and up to the cake-pressing, shu aging facility. We're shown a warehouse where the Shu process has been underway for a couple of days. With new developments, partially thanks to the Chens, digital equipment is monitoring the humidity, temperature and moisture content of the leaves, with periodic samples of bacteria taken making sure the fermentation process is going well.

Keke then takes us to the sheng processing room. There's a giant bag of mao cha sitting on the table. Old, giant stones are sitting on a wooden bench. After demonstrating the process in front of us we're allowed to press our own cake. Mao cha is taken, placed in a tin open on one side, set ontop of a steamer, flipped upside down into a burlap sack and then tightened by knot. It's put under a giant stone with an impression in the shape of a cake. A person stands on top of this stone and jostles it around with their feet to compress the cake into shape. The stone is then lifted, the cake removed from its burlap sack and left on a shelf to dry.

Some of us Lao Weis had a hard time getting our big feet on the relatively small, incredibly heavy stone to start gyrating. Start to finish, Mr. Yang and his fellow master can create a bing in about an minute. We were a lot slower. There was also quite a bit of moisture in the leaves when they gave us back our cakes so we continued to let them air at the hotel. 

We go a ways down the mountain, to Mr. Yang's house—a newly constructed two-storey on the mountainside in a tiny, rural village. He serves us Mao Cha and new process tea from the garden we saw today. The Mao Cha is four days old. Generous infusions are served all around and this very sweet corn, whose name I forget, is served on the cob. The tea service attracts the locals, who begin to filter in.

The Mao is sweet and smooth and the new process shu is fascinating (albeit still a prototype), familiar old wood aroma with a tart tinge a lot like a lambic beer. By Keke and Guo's admission the shu is not yet ready for commercial sale. The fermentation process is still being refined. 

We exchange gifts with Mr. Yang and his wife. And get a photo on his beautiful rooftop, with You Le in the background. With our new personal bings in hand and a gift of mao cha from the garden we visited, we head home. 

We got back to Jinghong just as the sun was sinking below the horizon (which, because of the surrounding mountains is admittedly pretty high). It sets the city aglow: all its white and gold towers shimmering. Xishuangbanna means "Twelve Valleys" and the area that Jinghong occupies is one of them. We're all left to fend for ourselves for the night and most of us can't wait to take on the town.

Michael and I don't get ten feet before we stop into a tea room: Mei Huan. The two younger women working there ply us with the sheng they have steeping. They don't speak a word of english. What happens next isn't necessarily worth relaying but Michael picked out what was then quoted to us as over $400 USD worth of Pu'Er and teaware, found out his card isn't accepted, two different English-speaking friends were called on WeChat, we walked to an ATM, both got money out (I had to loan him the amount over the daily limit) and paid. Now imagine all that being done without a common language. I actually left while he was in there, took a walk around the nearby streets to the night market and came back before they'd even managed to get payment.

We ate a midnight dinner at one of the last market stands that was open. Michael got two oysters and I had a superb grilled eggplant. We drank the tallest glasses of beer we could order in broken mandarin. A nearby folk ambassador (every town has one) spoke to us through an app. "These two beauties would like to take a photo with you," he said, straightfaced of his market stall companions, causing said beauties to hit him profusely with their hands and run away shyly. Unsurprisingly he wants to know everything about why we're here and where we come from. He concludes by welcoming us to the Dai territory (he himself is Dai) and tells us anything can happen here. Beautiful things will, if we're open to them. He then has us cheers with him Xi-shuang-banna!

Yunnan Tea Journey Day 2: Pu'er

Our first taste of Chinese traffic. Pulling out of Kunming early this morning we ran into two lanes of nearly stopped highway traffic. One canvas-covered truck had veered off the road completely, a few workers were unloading cargo from it. Drivers paced the line of stopped trucks and cars, smoking cigarettes. Our driver turned off the air because it was only blowing road fumes into our van.

It took hours to escape the length of Kunming, a city of 7 million. Five and six-of-a-kind high rises in every direction, with more being built. The other thing we noticed, once we started moving again, were the vast sweeps of greenhouses, some extending to the horizon—flower producers. Slowly, the land changed. High rises were replaced by mountains, hoop houses by rice and lotus paddies. Soon we were winding through mountain roads half a mile above sea level. The mist obscured jagged peaks, the sky threatened rain all day.

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At the Tropic of Cancer, we stopped at a rest stop. The scent of blossoming trees pummeled me as soon as I walked out of the car. We ate another customary massive lunch. This place had bundles of freshly-picked greens in a fridge where customers could walk up and point at which they'd like. The vegetarian in me appreciated this. We ordered a (literal) bunch of bananas and persimmon from a small market stall on our way out. 

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We checked into our hotel in Ning'Er before making our way to see a Qing Dynasty era customs house. Because of traffic and delays we were losing daylight and proceeded straight to our last stop: Na Ke Li village.

The village was one of the important stops on the Tea Horse Road. The millennia-old several thousand-mile long series of paths that connected Myanmar, Sichuan, Tibet, Bengal and Pu'Er. The village seems to have stood still in time. An old footpath leads through the center of the village and up into the mountains. The village belongs to the indigenous Hani people, who call the surrounding region home.

Mr. Chen (Ke Ke) gives us a brief lecture on the tea horse road, which took the region's famed Pu'Er fermented tea, pressed into cake and brick form, out of the green hinterlands of Yunnan into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, more than two miles above sea level, to parts further—including Assam. The road was incredibly perilous. Raiders, mudslides and impassable snow and elevation meant the journey took six months to a year to complete (if it could be completed). These brave porters hauled bricks of tea to the city in the clouds, where it was a staple part of Tibetans diet (lacking vegetables). In turn, Tibetans traded the Chinese horses, which they desperately needed to rebel the nomad hordes to the north.

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We walked through the village, across a bridge where we came to a courtyard under blossoming trees. There was lighting equipment and cameras set up around an open-air restaurant. Apparently they were filming a commercial. A few of the Hani men and women were in full traditional garb. Before we knew what was happening, we were invited to sit—at the table—in the commercial. We pantomimed eating (then actually ate) and the Hani girls took selfies with Michael and I. Everyone was laughing, which must have looked great in the commercial.

Afterwards, Michael and I noticed some Pu'er bricks and stoneware gaiwans sitting on shelves in the back of the restaurant. He inquired if they were for sale and the restaurant owner, a friend of Zhuping's, who was ecstatic that we had showed up, insisted we each take a gaiwan as her gift. We adamantly refused, at least without paying, but they insisted and we insisted on giving them both some yuan and USD.

Afterwards, we crept along a stone path up the hill, near the village mill where a man was slicing cured meats and grilling in the open air. We were invited to stay for dinner, where bottomless local Sheng (called "Sun-dried green" here) Pu'Er and clear corn liquor was served, alongside a dinner of pickled cabbage, traditional chicken soup, charred beef, bamboo shoots and bean curd.  

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Just as we were wrapping up dinner and trading conversation a hard rain began to patter against the bamboo roof and down the footstones of the trail. We ran through the Yunnan deluge down the Tea Horse trail to our bus, positively soaked. For still not having visited a tea farmer, we are learning so much more—why tea is here, who the people are behind its care and about the beautiful, rainy mountain lands it sprung from. 

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Yunnan Tea Journey Day 1: Kunming

I've been telling people this isn't a business trip, nor is it a vacation. Many tea drinkers must feel it. Yunnan has tantalized me for years. If anything, the trip feels most like a pilgrimage. Yunnan is the cradle of tea, where humanity first made use of the tea plant, it is also its biological origin. There are trees in this province reported to be thousands of years old. Wild forest groves with canopy-high buds and heirloom species of Camellia found nowhere else on the planet.



There's also a mystery to Yunnan—there are many languages spoken here. It's primarily a rural province, many regions didn't have print currency until the 1960s. It's also one of the poorest. There's endless questions of "authenticity" surrounding its products, especially Pu'Er, which has fought counterfeiting since its resurgence. With twenty six recognized ethnicities Yunnan is far and away China's most diverse province. Tucked under the Tibetan Plateau to the north (the name Yunnan means 'South of the Clouds'), Myanmar to the west, and with Laos and Vietnam to the south it is the literal end of China. To truly taste Yunnan tea, you have to go.

I landed in the province's capital Kunming last night after about 20 hours of travel from Chicago. I stepped out of the airport into a cool, misty rainfall. It stormed through the night and into the next morning. Our ragtag tour group assembled in the lobby that afternoon: a collection of professionals, scholars, producers and the tea curious compiling our resources to properly see the region. Our tour is guided by the sagacious Zhuping Hodge.

 


We went to the Old Town for bowls of Crossing the Bridge noodles, an iconic local dish. Then made our way to Pinyuan, a Pu'er tea house whose courtyard footprint dates back to the Ming Dynasty. It has since been painstakingly restored to its original specifications. A calligraphy scroll hangs in the store which says "The whole house is full of jade and gold." I ask Guo, a young local tea business owner (and regular) who the artist is. "We usually don't tell people this" he says, "But it's Peng Yiluan" First Lady of China. 

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In the teahouse, our friend Dong Li plies us with a selection of Yunnan lots: a Lin Cang Old Tree black, Jing Gu Shu Pu'Er 2014, and a 1997 Sheng Pu'er Yung De. A Yunnan coffee also sneaks its way in. Mr. Chen is there, a traveling lecturer, microbiologist, botanist and one of the first minds behind the revitalization of Pu'er culture. He watches as tea is poured and patiently answers our questions about sunlight, fermentation, caffeine and mao cha. As with all things in tea, it only breeds more questions. That's ok because he'll be joining us on the tour.

We walk through the old town at sunset. It's warmer now, with the same heavy aroma—a mixture of incense, gasoline and frying meat. The market stalls are alive. We browse shops and walk through a lane of flower sellers. These are some of the most vigorous succulents I've ever seen. Over dinner, we eat the customarily behemoth assortment of local dishes. The twelve of us take turns introducing ourselves and we talk about the trip—the rest of which veers headfirst into the forests and mountains, rivers and lakes. We fill ourselves up on bamboo shoots, orchid root, sticky rice and get drunk toasting cheap beer and rice liquor. We haven't seen a tea field and it's already starting to feel like a homecoming.

 

 

-TC