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.
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.
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.
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.
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.