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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.