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An Impression of an Ancient Tea Mountain - Hekai

Author: Yang Kai

After leaving Menghai, we followed the highway for approximately ten kilometers. We then traveled a dirt road, which later made its way up the mountain. The road was bumpy and rough, jostling us about. An impressive tail of yellow dust followed in our wake. We frequently encountered ethnic Bulang women along the mountain road who had traveled out of the mountains to market and were returning home co the south face of Bulang Mountain. They tied their baskets on their backs to their heads in order to reduce the burden. These women were not the targets of our trip, however. Our destination was Hekai.

In the past, Hekai fell under the territory of the Menghun Tusi (hereditary headman). It was also one of the major tea mountains of Menghai County. Han Chinese came to Menghai around 1910 and began to engage in the tea business. This sharply stimulated tea growing activities of the inhabitants of this border region. Han Chinese residents subsequently arranged for a new local chieftain, and Menghun transferred administration of the area to a Dai scholar named Dao Dongcai. He was educated in both the studies of the Dai people as well as written Chinese, and he valued both industry and public works.

At the time, Menghai's economy was primarily based on tea and camphor. In his territory, only Hekai was suitable for growing tea. The ethnic Lahu-inhabited Hekai became Dao Dongcai's tea growing base. Due to the fact that these barren mountain areas were not well-suited for farming, after the 1949 revolution the area's tea forests suffered only the smallest interference. As a result, the most beautiful tea forests and tea growing mountains in Yunnan Province are preserved here. Today, Hekai encompasses approximately 8000 mu (~1330 acres) of old-growth tea mountain area. The tea trees are relatively high density, while at the same time still in their prime growing years. The production capacity of the old tea trees is impressive.

We parked the car on a mountaintop and took in the sight of the luxuriant, large tea trees. The white lichen on their bodies identified them from far away. The tea trees were growing together among other large trees. The trees were not too tightly packed together, and their tops suggested the shape of umbrellas. The delicate green fresh leaves intermingled with deep green older leaves in clearly delineated levels. Young girls accompanying us excitedly climbed up the tree trunks. The thick umbrella-like crowns of the trees quickly obscured their shoulders. They picked tea at lightning speed. Their happiness as they picked tea was clear from the expressions on their faces, which were exposed through the tops of the trees.

Although Hekai Mountain is not far from Bulang or Lao Banzhang, Hekai tea is not as distinctive as that of Bulang. Its bitterness and astringency are fairly low, and its tea liquor is relatively gentle and sweet. Our visit took place as winter was approaching. It was not tea-picking season, so we did not buy any new tea.

We followed the very dusty dirt road toward the nearby village. Tea trees grew all along the hillsides and mountains along the road. These tea trees were relatively young, but were most likely still 30 to 40 years old. My attention was drawn to a young boy alongside the road. He was barefoot and wearing open-crotch pants. The exposed skin on his legs and face was tanned a beautiful bronze color, and he appeared very healthy. He was puzzled by me, this outsider and my camera left him Feeling helpless. He started crying loudly.

We found a young man in the village who said his family's tea growing area was extremely beautiful and offered to take us see it. We climbed the mountains, making our way through the dense tea forest beneath large tropical trees. Parasitic plants grew on many of the trees' branches and were blooming with all sorts of attractive flowers. Locals refer to this as a flower garden in the air. In the tea forest we also frequently came upon grazing cows and children playing freely in the outdoors.

After half an hour we arrived at the tea forest of our guide's family. Indeed, their tea garden was exceptionally lush. Very small parasitic plants known as "crab's feet" were growing on some of the tea trees. Piled on the empty ground between the family's tea trees were a few trunks and branches of tea trees that had been chopped down. They appeared to be used as firewood. As it might be impolite, we did not ask.

Our stomachs rumbled with hunger as we drove back, but there were no restaurants in the mountains. Menghai tea seller Bai Yongchang, who was traveling with us, made a phone call to announce our arrival in die old village of Hekai. A meal was waiting for us when we arrived. We sat in the dark room taking turns using the few sets of bowls and chopsticks available to cat unpolished rice. I somehow believed the canned luncheon meat cooked with pickled sour vegetables was instead potatoes cooked with sour vegetables and ravenously devoured it. To this day, I am, still not sure how I failed to taste the difference between two things with such different flavors.

Later I heard that these issues with food and lodging on Hekai mountain were about to change. The local village committee was in the process of planning an agricultural market. Following the ancient principle of "every five days a market," they decided that every Saturday would be devoted to trading tea and agricultural products. They also planned to build a cafeteria and a hotel for ecological tourism. This would allow businesspeople and visiting tourists to be able to conveniently purchase tea and Chinese style tea sets experience the undiluted local culture without going hungry.

Preservation of the natural environment is an extremely important aspect of the local village committee's planning. That is to say, they will not be putting in a paved road or building a five-star hotel. It is important they allow the original natural environment to develop under hygienic preconditions.