I’m standing outside a Hani guesthouse, on my first road trip to Xishuangbanna, the home of tea. I turn my gaze slowly across the sky towards Nannuo Mountain. The location: about twenty kilometres from Menghai, a county in Xishuangbanna in the far southwest of Yunnan between the Lancang (Mekong) River and the Myanmar border.
Day One in the Home of Tea: Getting the Lie of the Land
Tea history and drinking tea becomes more real when you are parachuted into a tea estate or find yourself at skyscraper elevations face to face with evergreen tea bushes and large old tea trees.
In Xishuangbanna there are six famous tea mountains situated to the east of the Mekong River: Youle, Yibang, Mangzhuan, Gedeng, Manzhi and Yiwu. To the west of the Mekong there are nine: Nannuo, Pasha, Hekai, Bulang, Bada, Mengsong (Jinghong), Mannuo, Mengsong (Menghai) and Jingmai.
That’s an astonishing amount of tea. And there are many more tea mountains and ancient tea gardens scattered across southwestern Yunnan. I reflect on the crucible of evolution, tea evolution that is, and feel that I have finally arrived at the wellspring of tea on the planet.
The ancient tea gardens here in the home of tea are often referred to as “tea gardens under forest canopies.” Wild or planted tea trees have grown under natural forest canopies for thousands of years. The Hani people have been in Xishuangbanna since at least the eighteenth century, when they migrated from the Red River region in central Yunnan. Like the Bulang, Jinuo and Lahu peoples, the Hani are well known cultivators of tea and have an intimate knowledge of tea plants. They are also well known for the management of rattan forests, using the material to build houses, and among other things, to make coffins.
In the forest of trees on Nannuo Mountain there is a symbiosis so tightly bound, a crowded metropolis of biodiversity that could be aptly described as one gigantic superorganism. These old tea gardens are less exploited than conventional terrace plantations, and while some of the trees grow tall and others only a few metres, they all express their growth uninhibited.
The canopy trees protect the soil from erosion. They are home to a variety of spiders, birds and wasps that control pests. The denizens of the tea gardens have gathered into communities of considerable complexity. I am introduced to a spider colloquially called “flower girl” because of the colorful markings on its back. The spider, I later discover after talking to a postgraduate at the Institute of Botany in Kunming, is none other than a jumping crab spider of tropical seasonal rain forests across Xishuangbanna.
Everything is interconnected: the trees, the wild plants, the soil, the sun, the mist, the insects, the shade exposure, the elevations, all playing their part in nurturing the distinct flavours of tea from this region.
Three of the world’s oldest tea trees are found in southern Yunnan. One of them is here at Nannuo Mountain, over 800 years old. Another is at Bangwei Village in Lancang County, over 1,000 years old.
The Bada ancient tea tree on Big Black Mountain in Pu’er dated to 1,700 years ago. The Bada tree tragically perished in 2012, and I recall reading some eulogies of the tree such as “Long Live the King.” Numbers aside, these old tea trees are a testament to what I would call the “genealogies of tea”: the migration of people, of tea seeds and tea knowledge.
I am accompanied by a local Hani folk singer called Zhuo Wu who works at a Hani Heritage Cultural Centre not far from my guesthouse. The guesthouse is run by Zhang Ge and Li Jinmei, retired school teachers. They have opened their doors to foreigners who wish to learn about the intricacies of making tea: picking it, washing it, pan-frying it, rolling it, and drying it. Jinmei is passionate about Hani embroidery. She and her husband have spent over a decade collecting embroidery patterns from Hani villages in Menghai and elsewhere. Jinmei also buys Hani garments worn by men and women, some of them going back at least two generations. She proudly displays several of these heirlooms in her embroidery shop downstairs.
Zhuo Wu and I have left behind our small party of climbers who are posing with the old tea trees. There seems no better place to begin a tea journey than walking among hallowed trees.
“Each of us,” writes Simon Garfield, “stands as an individual at the centre of our own map worlds.” My own map world has become increasingly tea-centric. Tea, in all its dimensions, has become my compass, and its needle is pointing southwest to the home of tea.
Day Two: Getting Hands-on
The next morning, after eating congee cooked in fermented tea leaf water, we begin pan-frying freshly collected tea leaves that have been washed and dried.
We use a large wok placed over a fire burning with tea branches, turning the leaves constantly to avoid burning. The pan-frying process halts oxidation and deactivates enzymes. Once we get the right temperature, we place the tea leaves onto a large flat willowing basket to be rolled briskly between the palms of the hands. The rolling of the tea breaks its cell walls, releasing trapped moisture and eventually shaping them into thin strands. The smell of freshly rolled tea and pan-frying fills the room, my palms covered in a fibrous, richly coloured mulch.
It is my first truly physical interaction with rolling tea leaves and I’m sure it won’t be my last. It’s almost as if the warm tea strands are saying: “I’ll take care of you, and you’ll take care of me.”
By ten in the morning we are on the road to Menghai before heading off to another tea mountain, Jingmai. The name Menghai means “a sea of Meng.” “Meng” referred to areas under the dominion of Dai chieftains or noblemen, and today “Meng” is still one of the most common Dai place names in Xishuangbanna.
As we reach Menghai, we come to a roundabout and notice several large stationary semi-trailers carrying what looks like large dinosaur fossils. They are transporting aircraft wings to Myanmar. As we head off to Jingmai Mountain, we end up behind a huge semi-trailer on a winding mountain road, stuck behind it for a good half an hour. Once it’s safe to overtake the vehicle we see what now looks like a gleaming white dinosaur’s tooth. Yunnan has its own oddball attractions: “Yunnan’s 18 Oddities.” We all agree we’ve just seen “number 19” as we slowly make our way to Huimin village and Jingmai.
Jingmai reaches elevations between 1,100 and 1,570 metres above sea level with annual average temperatures between 16.5-19 degrees Celsius. All tea mountains and gardens are in my estimate natural tea tree museums. Here at Jingmai there are 27,000 hectares of them. The villagers are predominantly from the Dai, Bulang, and Wa peoples.
The Bulang are said to be descendants of the Pu people, the earliest indigenous people in Yunnan, and the first cultivators of tea in southeast Asia. While Jingmai has tea trees over a thousand years old, the tallest tea tree in Pu’er, climbing some 27 metres, is in Menglian on the Myanmar border. The second tallest tea tree in Pu’er, in Zhenyuan, measures 25.6 metres.
We met some locals at Jingmai eager to show us their teas and treat us to dinner. As we had to be in Lancang by the evening, we ended up taking photos as the orange glow of sunset covered the mountain. The local government has obviously spent a considerable amount of money developing Jingmai Mountain. New roads, tea cultural centres, multilingual signs, all to attract more domestic and international tourists.
I didn’t have the luxury to visit villages and sample teas. But I was able to try a black tea harvested in spring 2012 which to my taste was rather “thin” but still very pleasant. Later, back in Pu’er, I was able to taste a number of teas from Jingmai at one of the most unlikely places: the Pu’er Tea Product Quality Supervision Inspection Centre. (What began as a social call ended up a two-hour tea tasting marathon. All the teas I drank–black, ripe and raw Pu’er– were all from ancient tea trees from Jingmai Mountain).
We arrived in Lancang around nine in the evening, ready for an early start the next morning to visit Bangwei village and an ancient tea tree said to be over 1,000 years old.
Day Three: On the Road to the Majestic Bangwei Tea Tree
It had now become customary for me on this trip to have a bowl of thick peanut soup for breakfast. My travelling companions preferred breakfast offerings of beef rice noodle soup.
The Lahu are the principal ethnic group in Lancang. The hotel where we stayed had gourds of all shapes and sizes on buildings and on the grounds of the hotel. The Lahu believe that the first human being came from a gourd. In Lahu creation myths, Zha Di and Na Di were conceived from a gourd. With the blessings of the deity Esha, they fell in love and eventually married. A Gourd Festival, launched in 1992, is held every April in a large open arena called Calabash Square.
Apart from this annual Lahu festival, Lancang is also known for an earthquake that devastated parts of the county in early November 1988. It killed at least eight hundred people. Known as the Lancang-Gengma Earthquake, it measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. What particularly interested me about the earthquake was not the tragic loss of lives, but what transpired the day before. Many animals, the story goes, were tipped off about the impending catastrophe. Oxen jumped off mountains, snakes appeared on the streets, dogs cried, and one mountain made strange whistling noises. Dogs and snakes figure large in Lahu mythology, and Lahu people don’t eat them.
We topped up the SUV’s tank before heading out for a two and half hour drive to Bangwei Village. I had already become used to passing sugarcane and banana plantations, but stumbling across a small Christian church in Zhutang township, we stopped for a closer look. The church was not open, but we were fortunate to meet a Lahu girl who had a set of keys. She kindly opened the front door. The pastor had gone home to his village for lunch.
Back in our SUV, we serpentine through mountain passes on our way to higher elevations, having much of the road to Bangwei to ourselves. Oceans of tea above 1,500 metres under the vast lapis lazuli dome of sky.
Arriving at Bangwei village early afternoon, we walked about a kilometre towards the Bangwei ancient tree. We passed school children finishing class for the day, and Lahu men and women, several barefoot, carrying rattan baskets filled with vegetable leaves to feed pigs. We waited to have a wooden padlocked gate opened before entering a garden and the ancient tree.
Coming to Bangwei was not only to pay homage to a grand old tea tree, but to source the wellspring of tea among the Lahu people, and its most revered totem, the Bangwei tea tree. My trip had started in Simao, visiting some of Na Mo’s tea plantations on Big Black Mountain. She has close to seven thousand acres, and her four factories produce 30,000 kilograms of her seven high-quality organic teas a year. The antecedents of her tea, or to be more precise, the tea seeds, journeyed from Bangwei where her grandfather originally grew tea and travelled along ancient roads as far as Tibet and Sichuan. He exchanged tea for medicines, pelts, and other goods.
Na Mo enumerated the seven mountains that surround Bangwei and seven mountain springs. The largest of these springs is in fact the mighty Mekong River which stretches some 4,200 kilometres. It rises in Tibet, passing through Yunnan, the Myanmar border, Laos and Thailand before discharging into the lower Mekong delta in Vietnam. Seven mountains, seven mountain springs, and the seven teas.
This trip southwest was as much about further delving into the home of tea, as it was about developing deeper relationships. There were four of us driving around southwest Yunnan: Na Mo, her husband, one of her tea shop employees, and me. If you spend that much time talking that much with four people over a ten day period you find out a great deal about each other.
At the end of the journey, I discovered I was even more passionately in love with tea and with the people who have helped me discover it.
Shen Peiping (editor-in-chief), Zoujin chashu wangguo (Entering the Kingdom of Tea Trees), Kunming: Yunnan keji chubanshe, 2007.
Yang Zhongming, Xishuangbanna Hanizu Jianshi (A Concise History of the Hani People in Xishuangbanna), Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 2010.