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.
"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.
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!