We arrived in Yunnan on June 28th with a special feeling. China is the mother country for tea production and culture. This is where everything begun thousands of years ago. Tea history is directly linked with Chinese history from where it has been spread around the world. Today, China is the world first tea producer.
Did you know ?
An old Chinese motto assumes that tea is one of the 7 staple products together with wood (for fire), cooking oil, rice, salt, soja sauce and vinegar. Tea is, by far, the most popular drink in China.
We land in Kunming, capital of Yunnan and one of the most famous tea areas. The region is the home of the oldest tea trees in the world and the production place of a famous tea called Pu’er 普洱, which can reach incredible prices all over the world.
We are dazzled as soon as we start walking around the city: 3.5 millions inhabitants, it has nothing to envy to the modernity of big American or European megalopolis. With high number of skyscrapers, it seems to conquer the sky and its big avenues help the cars, the scooters, the bikes and the pedestrians to run together in harmony. All scooters are electric and the streets are constantly cleaned-up by an army of public employees. The city is definitively cleaned, which is quite far from our first idea of the Chinese cities. At the bottom of each building, famous international clothes brands settled in and share the streets with local street food stands. The contrast is quite unique. The people are trendy, well connected… And tea drinker! In every backpack, there is a hot tea bottle ready for the day. During our first lunch when we tested the local specialty (i.e. “the rice noodles accross the bridge”), the waitress brought us a teapot with two cups.
We learn quickly the chinese symbol for Tea (茶). We can find it everywhere because Kunming is the main hub of Chinese tea trade. For our 2nd day, we go to the Jinshi Tea Market, north of Kunming. There are thousands of tea shops, gathered in some kind of open-air mall. More than 10, 000 m2 only dedicated to Yunnan tea. Everything sold here has something to do with tea: loose tea of course but also Gong Fu Cha tools, teapots, cups and furnitures. The shops are wholesalers and deal with people coming from all over China. Their products will be found in tea shops or restaurants in the world. The place is huge and the choices infinite. Honestly, we are a bit lost !
We really want to do some pu’er tasting. Based on the boutique design and the attractive tea tasting table, we have our heart set on a very nice shop. Yes, our criteria are objective and professional. The owner is preparing several pu’er for the tasting. First difficulty, we thought that there were only one kind of pu’er tea. So we are quiet surprise to discover that there are actually two: the Shou Cha 熟茶 and the Sheng Cha 生茶. We decide to try 3 different Shou Cha : two from 2010 and one from 2005.
The pu’er looks like a cake and it is stored in packages of seven usually wrapped up in dried banana tree leaves. Each cake is encircled with very thin paper cover where we can find the main information: origin, production date… everything of course in Mandarin which creates some difficulties for us to decode!
We sit down around the tasting table to begin the Gong Fu Cha (功夫茶). It is a specific way to drink tea, invented by the Chinese, to explore the entire flavour palette of complex tea such as pu’er or oolong. It implies several very short infusions at high temperature.
We start the tasting. The cake is broken with pu’er pick to tear off the leaves. The tea shop owner is using a gaïwan. We really like the first tea at the very first slip. Our first impression is confirmed by the following infusions. The owner tells us that we can do as many as 12 infusions for pu’er tea. The second cake is bit disappointing with less flavour. After only 3 infusions, nothing left in the liquor. And the 2005 cake… maybe due to our lack of pu’er experience and expertise, but we find it common compared to the first one we tasted although the price is almost the double! We choose the first one with no hesitation. We will keep the cake in a dry place between 25°C and 28°C to ensure the development of the flavours for the next years.
Similar to wine, for pu’er, the older the better! We wander among the equipment shops… It is very hard not to buy everything! Teapots, cups, full Gong Fu Cha service etc… The choice is huge and the prices are really fair. But we still have 3 months on the road and our backpacks are already quite full. We are reasonable and only buy a bamboo pliers and pu’er pick.
Kunming was definitively a good start but we want to know more about pu’er. We decide to keep investigating and to go in the south of Yunnan, closed to the Chinese border with Lao and Burma: Xishuangbanna also known as the Dai autonomous region. It is an excited area where 12 Chinese minorities live (out of the 56 living in China). Indeed, when we arrive in Jinghong, the capital of the province, we are surprised by the diversity of people and faces: the hans (normally the majority of people in China) live together with the dai, the bulang, the yao or lisu, all having Burma and Tibet origins!
Did you know ?
When we talk about trade roads in China, everyone think about the Silk Road. But another trade road has been important in Chinese history for goods trade and ideas expansion: the road of tea and horses. Under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), in 646, princess Wencheng got married with a tibetan prince and her dowry included tea. For the first time, Tibet discovered tea. In 756, a real trading relationship was set up between Tibet and China. This lucrative trade lasts during the next dynasties. Tibet, more and more tea consumer, proposed to sell horses versus Yunnan tea. The road which was already linking south west of China and Tibet for centuries became the main path for tea and horses trade. The caravan were leaving the jungle of Xishuangbanna full of tea (more than 1 000 tons a year) and were coming back from Tibet with horses (some years it was more than 20 000 horses). In the 18th century, the Chinese ceased to import horses from Tibet and this trade road slowly declined.
We decide to go trekking around Jinghong to discover one of the 6 tea mountains: Nannuo Shan. These 6 tea mountains are famous to have been the first production area of the pu’er tea.
Nannuo Shan (南糯山)
In the morning, we leave with our backpacks and a map in Chinese. We have found very few information: we only know that Nannuo Shan is the most accessible tea mountains from Jinghong; it is around 1,600 high and we can find there lots of traditional family tea workshops and also the “king of the tea tree”, almost 800 years old. But how can we find it? We have no idea but we are curious to go on an adventure in the Nannuo Shan. The start is pretty easy. A bus drops us off at the bottom of the mountain where we start to climb up on a very little road in the middle of the forest. But quickly, it becomes slightly more complicated. First, all the workshops are closed due to the rainy season (in fact, we have seen more rain in 4 days than since the beginning of our travel, 4 months ago) We also observe than producing pu’er is a good business: the villages which are located in the mountains are full of big houses and expensive cars are parked in the alleys. The people here can indeed claim that they are producing pu’er from tea tree of more than 300 years. And for pu’er, the older the better! The demand is high and the price can be crazy. It is now easier to understand all these brand new properties. The Nannuo Shan is the home of the Akha minority (also called Hani). People of “high lands” (opposite to the Dai, people of “low lands”), they have been growing tea for centuries and became rich thanks to its trade.
It is now time to find the famous old tea tree of Nannuo Shan. It is called the “king of the tea trees” or Wang Cha Shu in mandarin. We face a major difficulty: there are very few signs and all of them are in mandarin. With the help of our dictionary, we ask some people to show us the way for “Lao Cha Shu” (I.e. « the old tea tree » in chinese). All of them try to help us with a lot of explanations but it is really hard to understand. Finally, after the use of body language and almost an hour of research, we find a little path going through the forest. 500m later, we finally flush out the king of the tea tree! It is surrounded by fences to protect it. It is almost 6 meters tall and several ramifications start from the trunk. We learn that its leaves are collected each year to produce tea but impossible to buy it on the market as it is booked years in advance by rich buyers from Beijing or Shanghai. All around it, there are also other centenary tea trees. Their shape is knotted and tortuous. They are almost wild, meaning not prune. It is far from linear and well-organized tea plantations from India or Africa. Here the tea trees are kings: they grow as they like in the middle of the forest. There is no, as such, tea garden. Closed to the “king of tea”, we meet two Chinese tourists from Guandong and they propose to drive us back to Jinghong. We accept this very nice proposal as the day has already been quite long.
Back at the hostel, we plan our next adventure. Far from being satisfied, we are contemplating a new trek, a bit deeper in Xishuangbanna, among the jungle and the minorities villages of south Yunnan. We target two days of hiking where we would like to stay and eat with local families from minorities which kept their traditions. We don’t know yet but it will be an amazing experience and unexpectedly full of tea!
Trek from Xiding to Bada
We have gathered some information on internet related to this trek which goes across several small villages. It starts in Xiding and ends in Bada, 30km from the Burma border. To start with, we need to reach the city of Menghai. On the road, our bus is stopped by the army for an passport control. Here, the controls are quite common as the province, closed to the border, is considered at risk by the Chinese authorities. Indeed, the rebels from the ouighours minority are trying to escape using the less controlled borders of the country. As foreigners, our passports are carefully checked and we have a lot of questions to answer…which held the entire bus. We are finally allowed to continue our journey but we know that there is a risk for new control later during our trek.
In Menghai, we take some time to have a look at the local and daily market. The people from the area come down the mountains to sell their products. Here mandarin is almost never used…it is rather a mix of local dialects. The old women wear colorful hat and have wonderful toothless smile. The butchery put us literally in a different world: it is a deafening cacophony between chicken, duck and goose’s clucking whereas women are cutting the throats of the chickens and another one removingt the nails with a pliers from a dead dog! One of the butcher proudly show us a beef head that he is preparing… what a show! We buy some new exotic fruits as well as a bit of smoked ham for our trek. We take another bus which drives us up into the jungle to reach, at the end of the morning, the very small village of Xiping. After a solid lunch, we leave. Today it is going to be 12km mainly downhill so not so hard but a nice warm-up! We are quite surprised… tea bushes are everywhere! Smaller and better prune than in Nannuo Shan; they cover the main part of the cultivated surroundings. Here the people produce black tea ( known as Yunnan black tea) and pu’er tea.
The houses are smaller and the people have kept their traditions both from an architecture point of view and from a clothes point of view. We meet some grand-fathers dressed up in a fun « Mao way »: dark blue trousers, longue sleeves, black shirt and a dark blue local cap! Lots of temples spangle the landscape: Buddhism is the main religion and the architecture remembers Thaïland. By the way, the region nickname is mini-Thaïland as it has more similarities with Thaïland than with China. Another example is that the alphabet commonly used is also Thai. At the end of the afternoon, we arrive in the village of Zhang Lang, little place isolated in the hollow of an amazing valley. The modern houses stand next to more traditional buildings. The barnyard is the ground floor of the house whereas the big room on the 1st floor is used to host the entire family. We start to walk around the village to find an accommodation for the night. The people are ready to host us but they ask for such a incredible amount of money that we have to politely reject their offer.
It starts to rain heavily when we decide to try our last chance with a house, slightly outside of the village. If it is a “no” again, then we will have to sleep outside, under a shelter that we have spotted already. Surprise…it is a family tea workshop and house. The owner sadly tells us that he has no solution for us tonight. When we are about to leave, he asks us if we wanted to taste his tea…of course, we do! Thus, we start a Gong Fu Cha tea tasting with him whereas we have nowhere to sleep and it is raining cats and dogs! He produces Zhang Lang Gu Shu Cha. It is a nice tea which we really like in this particular moment. The owner does not speak a word of English but with a bit of body language and lot of online dictionary we manage to learn a lot. Yan Kan San explains that it is a family business created couple of generations ago. He is leading the workshop with his father and his brother. The factory is quite small and it is more a workshop but he exports to Korea and Hong-Kong. Quickly he invits us to stay at his place for the night…we are so lucky and so happy. We found a place to sleep and all the more, it is a tea factory.
Yan Kan San has to leave as the daily plucking is over and the workers are coming back with their harvest. They are hidden behind big poncho. One after the other, they put their tea bags to register the weight and being paid afterwards. The fresh leaves are then directly placed for the withering in big rooms with fans. The weather being rainy and humid, it is going to take quite some time for the withering to be finished. All the women are wearing an elegant black and short jacket with a long black skirt with colorful stripes. The oldest ones are also wearing a black turban and when they smile… surprise! They teeth are all black.
Did you know?
The women of this village chew betel nuts to protect their dentition. The black teeth are also a beauty criteria for the Bulang. As described by Yan Kan San, the mountains that we are crossing during our trek are the heart of the Bulang country in China. But they are also present in Myanmar, North of Thailand and Vietnam. They have been one of the first to grow and produce tea. People from the mountains, they live from agriculture and elevage, they are also Buddhist. Similar to the Bulong men, Yan Kan San has got traditional tattoos on his arms.
Yan Kan San shows us his factory : the woks were the tea leaves are “cooked” to stop the oxydation and the glasshouse where the leaves dry. The entire building is full of the smell of fresh and dry tea leaves. We do not know yet but this is just the start of the night. Around 8pm, he drives us to the house-warming of his cousin. The big hall is full. Almost the entire village is here having a good time. We are now the main attraction of the night: kids are laughing when they see us and the other guests are coming to our table to cheer-up. All the men are having dinner, smoking and drinking whereas at the same time their wife cook, serve, clean and take care of the children. We are the only couple to have dinner at the same table! We try all the dishes while everyone wants to offer us cigarets, food and drinks. Corn wine (locally distilled) is quickly coming out in plastic bottle from under the table. Tired from the trek, we wanted to go to sleep early… I think we failed! We finally come back home around midnight but Yan Kan San wants to show us another tea from his production. It is a delicious and perfect black tea before going to sleep after a long long day. The main room of the house is full of individual camping tent where everyone sleeps. It is a bit strange for us but of course we do not say anything. As we are going to sleep, the rain is still going on outside. We are really grateful to our guest and his family.
The day after, it is time to leave… the plan is 25km of hilly trails. Yan Kan San says goodbye and offers us a big bag of black tea leaves. So nice from him! We do not know how to tell him “Thank you”. At the end of the village, we meet with a women who is « cooking » the tea leaves in a wok. We keep the nice smell for the first kms of the day. The 2nd day is also fantastic. At the start, the mist makes us feel we are walking in clouds. After that, the landscapes are amazingly green covered by jungles and terraces for agriculture. But also tea of course. Women are plucking by hand with their big straw hat. The day is hard and the constant up and down trail does not help. After 25km and 5h30 hours of tough efforts, we reach Bada, the last Chinese town before the border, quite happy but tired by our achievement.
According to our pre-reading, there is a bus which leaves in the afternoon but in fact, we learn that it left at… 8am! Hmmm! Disappointed, we decide to take a break and have lunch… Are we going to stay one more night here in Bada? It would kill our schedule! Two Chinese men invite us at their table while we were ordering. It is not the first time for us. The Chinese are really good host and like to share their meal. Here again, we talk with hands and dictionary. And again the luck is with us. They are going back to Jinghong after lunch and ask us if we want to join them! Funny enough, they are two tea professionals. We will not know more as the communication is a bit chaotic.
After two days of adventure, full of sceneries, nice people and amazing memories, we are now back in Jinghong. Tomorrow we are heading back to Kunming by bus to catch our 36H train to Longyan. 2,000kms further will start the next step of the Tea Travelers journey in China.