This is a blazing heat which welcomes us when we arrive in Fujian. 36 hours of train were necessary (included 2 nights) to cover the 2,000 km from the Yunnan province. As soon as we arrive in the Xiamen station, one of the main cities of the province, we are eager to stretch our legs! And we will need them as Fujian is overflowing with cultural wealth. We spend couple of days to visit the tulu (traditional housing) and to roam the port city of Xiamen and the islands nearby.
But as you can imagine, we will not be fully satisfied without any tea plantations. Fujian is one of the main places in China for tea, ranked number one for tea production and represents 20% of the Chinese production. It is also very famous for the large variety of teas which grows in the province (white tea, oolong, black tea, green tea…). After a bit of researches on internet, we have decided to focus our trip on two interesting areas: the Anxi district and the Wuyi Mountains (Wuyi Shan) which both have got very famous oolong teas.
Did you know?
China is the first tea producer in the world with around 1.9 million tons a year, far in front of India with 1.2 millions. However, 2/3 of the production is dedicated to the local market. The Chinese consumption might seem quite low with “only” 560g per person per year (compared to the first one… the Turkish with 3.1kg per year) but in fact it hides a different use. Chinese tea drinkers brew many ties the same tea leaves. If we were talking about the amount of liters drunk by year… Then the ranking would be very different !
Anxi is the self-proclaimed tea capital of China. The city does not really have any touristic interest but it has the luxury to house in its hinterland one of the best (and most expensive) oolong in the world : the Tie Guan Yin.
Tie Guan Yin history is full of legends and stories which encircle it with mystery. Legend and tea are deeply linked in China and the Tie Guan Yin is a perfect example.
Did you know?
Guan Yin is the goddess of mercy and one of the main divinities in the Chinese Buddhist pantheon. With her 1,000 arms and her 4 heads, you can find her in most of the temples throughout the country. She brings protection and benevolence. The legend says that a poor farmer from the village of Xiping, closed to Anxi, was looking after an old temple dedicated to the goddess despite his paltry resources. To thank him for his devotion, Guan Yin offered him a tea tree. He created some cutting to give to his friends. The tea that they obtained from this cultivar was so wonderful that it made him rich quickly. The word “Tie”, which means “iron”, might come from the place where he received the gift closed to an iron statue of Guan Yin.
To try to unravel this mystery, a visit of Xiping was needed. When we arrive at the village which is 2h from Anxi by bus, we are quite disappointed. The surrounded hills are indeed full of tea plantations but the electric pylons and the roads ruin the sceneries. We are not discouraged and we take a moto-taxi to reach the place where everything started, the place where Guan Yin would have given the 1st tea bush to the farmer. We sit down behind the driver on his motorbike. No helmet under a strong sun, here we go to the top of the hill overlooking Xiping. The place is under construction. We should have thought about it but with the Chinese nothing can really stay as it is. They are building statues and concrete terraces and it seems that it will become a “touristic center” in the middle of the mountain. Some builders are working behind us. A statue of the farmer is already proudly standing here.
A bit further, a statue of Guan Yin is waiting for further refurbishment. Finally a huge stone with Mandarin writing explains where the “first” Tie Guan Yin tea bush still stands. Is that really the original one? It is really hard to confirm the legend. Unfortunately, the view is not as nice as expected… Still roads, big buildings and pylons everywhere… Using our basic Chinese, we manage to explain to our new friend with the motorbike that we would like visit a tea factory in the area… And after a lot of body language, it works! We are now in front of “Junchen Tea”, a very small oolong tea factory. The owner, Lin Rong Puang, welcomes us at his tasting table. Still absolutely no English but we now can use the local google translate in order to communicate easily. We get to taste a first Tie Guan Yin using the Gong Fu Cha method. The very low oxidation level for this tea brings it closed to a green tea. We love it from the first swallow. Sweat and mellow with flower aroma, it has a long-lasting taste. A pure delight!
Lin Rong Puang appreciates our enthusiasm and proposes a visit of his factory. He is very energetic and explains us all the different steps of the process while we are walking around the different empty rooms of his factory. Here, this is not the right season for production. Fortunately, based on what we have seen in Indonesia in Harendong , we easily understand the bulk part. The Tie Guan Yin is famous for its cultivar and its terroir. The production method is classic for a oolong tea with a very light oxidation.
The different steps of the Tie Guan Yin processing
After the plucking (which should happen once the leaves and the buds are well open), the fresh leaves wither to lose part of the water that they contain. Then the oxidation happens when the leaves are brewed in a bamboo tube. The tube is manually turned a lot of times so that the leaves wind and the oxidation enzymes are released. To stop the oxidation (which is supposed to be light for the Tie Guan Yin) the leaves are heated in an oven. The leaves are then placed and squeezed in a bundle to be rolled by a machine. The bundle is opened to separate the leaves and this step is performed several times until the leaves become nice small balls. The balls are then dried to remove the remaining moisture. For certain Tie Guan Yin, the final stage is used to bake the leaves once dried. This delicate step is to expose the tea to very high temperature of 100° to 120°C and to improve his aroma. Most of the time, traditional wood ovens are used.
After the factory tour, we come back to the tasting table. We try two new teas: a classic black tea and another Tie Guan Yin. We really want to buy some to bring it home but the price of this tea is really high due to his success and the small production area. But here, without any intermediary it is affordable.
On top of our purchase, the owner offers us a lot of sample of various teas to round off our collection. We spend some time with him in his gardens. Now we do understand why these sceneries are so famous. No more buildings, only small hills covered by tea bushes. They are aligned by row on terraces. The sun is slowly going down and we enjoy a slight breeze on top of the hill which overlooks the factory. It is now time to say goodbye to our hosts… But our adventure is not finished yet. The brother-in-law of Lin Rong Puang lives in Anxi where our hotel is. He proposes to drive us back. When we arrive in Anxi, he invites us to the restaurant. We are now having dinner with his wife and daughter. The meal is full of local dishes! We end-up drinking Oolong tea in his small tea shop nearby. And again, we receive as gift a lot of tea samples.
The day after is slightly different. We are going to the tea wholesale market of Anxi, which is one of the biggest and most impressive in China. We have already visited one in Kunming, Yunnan but this one was much more than the series of small tea shops. Here on top of this, the wholesalers sell directly loose leaves in a large hall. Huge tea bags are open and anyone can come, look at the leaves and smell. You can even taste a small sample by going to the dedicated place where someone is taking care of the open tasting area. If the buyer is interested then the bargain can start. Of course, the main product available for sale is the Tie Guan Yin but we have also seen some black tea and other oolongs. We are collared by a lot of women who want to sell us their tea but unfortunately our bags are full enough. Next to the big hall, women are sorting the Tie Guan Yin manually by removing the small branches from the leaves while others are wrapping small tea samples. Everything is stamping and we leave this place stunned.
Wuyi Shan is a city located closed to the Wuyi Shan national park. Huge rocks stand in the middle of a wonderful forest and in the middle of these rocks flow “the 9 bend river”. Wuyi Shan is touristic place well-known both for its hiking trails but also for begin the place of the « rock tea ». This specific Oolong tea is also quite famous outside of China. The gardens are really small, squeezed between the rocky walls, sometimes on the side of the rocks. Here the climate can be arid and the ground full of rocks is poor so there is only one harvest a year…the tea is being sold at very high price. It is nowadays one of the most expensive teas in the world.
Before starting our investigation on this new tea, we drop off our luggage at the hostel and start to collect information about the best way to reach these famous tea gardens. And once again, we are very lucky as in the hostel there are:
– The receptionist is an absolute tea fan and her parents own a tea shop in Xiamen. She knows all the Wuyi Shan tea gardens like the back of her hands.
– A group of 4 young guys who were living in Shanghai and working in media/marketing related jobs. They are doing a road trip around China for 1 year listening to people “stories” and doing some blogging on them. They are in Wuyi Shan for tea and stories.
At the end of the night and after a lot of tea cups, our planning for tomorrow is already full:
– In the morning, the receptionist shows us the trekking path among the tea gardens.
– In the afternoon, we are invited to join the guy’s team to take part of their shooting in a tea factory.
How cool is that?
Did you know ?
Wuyi shan tea has been famous for centuries. Under the Tang dynasty (618-907), the rock oolong won its spurs and during the following dynasty (the Song dynasty from 960 to 1279) it was used as tribute for the emperor. It became very famous when the mother of the last Ming emperor (around 1630) has been cured from a fatal disease thanks to a cup of rock oolong from Wuyi Shan. As a thank-you, the emperor offered large red veils (Da Hong Pao in Chinese) to the Wuyi Shan farmers to protect and honor these tea bushes. Thus the Da Hong Pao legend was born.
The tea trees that we see are all originally coming from a Da Hong Pao cutting. By the way, we just arrive at the well-guarded place where the 6 tea bushes which cured the emperor mother are carefully kept. They are located slightly high up to avoid wandering hands from visitors. Since 2006, the leaves have not been plucked to protect the plants. From these original tea trees, lots of other tea trees have been created using the cutting methodology and their names are quite evocative: Bai Ji Guan, Shui Jing Gui, Tie Luo Han… And as nothing can be as simple as this for Chinese teas, other cultivars have also been introduced in the region such as the Shui Xian Lao Cong or the Rou Gui. The oolong diversity is unique in such a small place!
Every tea tree is different by its size, its color and the size of it leaves. Every tea garden is tiny and fitted between two massive rocks. The local terroir allows the development of strong aromas, woody and caramelized… Sweat and mellow but also a long lasting taste.
During 4hrs, our path crosses tea gardens in terraces, spans sleeping rivers and bumps into Chinese tourists’ umbrella. In a nutshell, a wonderful hike!
For lunch, we are invited by our Chinese new friend. Here hosting is a tradition and this is again another perfect example. We are 9 around the big table: the hostel receptionist, the 4 guys from Shanghai, a tea producer, a tea professor (his wife) and us! We use a nice mix of Chinese, English and body language. We try with lots of curiosity all the local specialities without knowing their names. During the discussion, we learn an anecdote about the Da Hong Pao. In 1972, Nixon, the US president, has come to visit Mao Zedong to warm up the diplomatic relations between the two countries (we are in the middle of the cold war). As a welcome gift, Mao offered him 200g of the original Da Hong Pao. The US President seemed surprised and even offended when he looked at the size of the packet. Mao answered him that he was holding 50% of the annual production of this very famous tea. Despite internet research, we are not able to confirm the truthfulness of this story but for sure, it is part of the myth around Da Hong Pao !
After these explanations, we have the chance to taste 3 of their teas: Hong Guan Yin, Fu Shu Zù and Rou Gui. The Fu Shu Zu is our favorite. Straight after that, it is again time to go for dinner ! Same people and same great atmosphere. One of our host has brought a huge jar of homemade rice wine. Despite our reluctance at the beginning, it is quite nice and the jar will be finished by the end of the night! This night will be outstanding between amazing foods, good laugh and of course improvised karaoke session.
The day after, after a last hike and a shooting session with our new photograph friend, it is time to leave Fujian… This province was amazing for culture, for sceneries and for food of course! We are looking forward to seeing what the next step will be… It will be a mix between green tea and clay pot.