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." The First Lady of China.
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.