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Forgotten Jewel Beyond the Four Large Tea Growing Areas Wuliang Mountain Tulin Brand Phoenix Tea

Author: Bao Zhuo Photos: Bao Zhuo, Luo YIng Yin

Tulin Brand Phoenix Tuo Tea at the Yutang fair

During the final days of the summer of 2000, as autumn approached, thin clouds floated in the blue sky and the sound of swallows filled the air. The strong fragrance of harvested rice floated through the fields. I could feel the satisfaction of a good harvest, and my mood grew relaxed. I invited my friend A Li to go with me to explore the farmers' market. My friend told me about the Yutang fair at the head of Erhai Lake. This is a large-scale agricultural market. I was excited, and we quickly set off to find it. After passing Eryuan, we arrived at a not very level but very active open area. I saw people of Han, Bai, Tibetan, Naxi, Dai, Lahu, and other ethnic groups. Some had set up stalls and were calling out to sell their wares. Others had come to make purchases. Still others were just here to stroll aimlessly. Although I had just come to check out the scene, I still hoped to find a treasure. My friend and I found several farmers selling fresh tea they had produced themselves. We learned chat it was picked from 50 to 100 year old trees growing in their own fields. One jin (1/2 kilo) was only 0.5RMB (-$0.07US), I was amazed to see such low prices. They said chat only because new tea plantations, new factories, and new technologies produce high grade green tea can it be sold for 20 or 30RMB (-$4.50US) or more. The mountain farmers could only make and sell rough tea. I thought of how these teas would be considered organic in Taiwan. If the tea were used to create Puerh tea cakes, it would sell for high prices. There would eventually come a day when tea would allow the farmers of this area to break out of their poverty.

Another tea-seller sold Tulin Phoenix Tuo tea produced by Yunnan province's Dali Nanjian County Tea Factory. The packaging contained two phoenixes on its cover surrounding the Tulin insignia. A 100 gram tuo sold for only 0.5RMB (approx. $0.07US). Because of the limited spending of people attending the market, it was not selling very well. Factory head Han Chaobiao told us that such low priced tuo tea could not possibly be made entirely from tea from new tea gardens. To save money, farmers picked tea growing near their homes. Speaking of this, perhaps tea drinking friends have in their collections 1998-2000 Tulin Brand Phoenix Tuo tea. These were all produced from arbor Puerh growing in natural old tea gardens and today ought to have a very good flavor.

Two or three trees at Gantong Temple remain of Dali's old tea gardens

I traveled to Yunnan in 2000, from Kunming to Xishuangbanna and then on to Dali and Lijiang. Very few locals knew of Puerh tea. Those that did looked upon it with disdain. Everyone drank new factory produced green tea, and only inferior tea was made into Puerh. They believed that only people with no money or understanding of tea or mountain farmers would drink homegrown "green" tea (also known as "earth" tea). I laughed and told them how Puerh was treasured in Hong Kong and Taiwan and of its high prices. They were silent.

I asked my friend A Li if there still exist thousand year old tea gardens. She is not an authority on Puerh, but said that historical records described a tea left behind from the Ming dynasty. Because the tea gardens arc located beside Gantong Temple, this tea was known as "Gantong Tea." Today Gantong Temple still stands. The only thing missing is the Gantong ancient tea gardens. Gantong Temple is not far from the Three Pagodas of Xiaguan and is located at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains. When we arrived at Gantong Temple, the head monk led us to a nearby forest and said that this was the site of the Ming dynasty Gantong ancient tea gardens. Today it no longer contains ancient tea trees. Only three tea trees remain in the temple, which arc descended from ancient trees. He also explained that the temple monks hoped to plant new tea tree seedlings every year and recreate the Gan tong ancient tea gardens. This sentiment touched me.

First visit to Dali's Nanjian County Tea Company

I planned to return to Taiwan at the end of autumn in 2000. At the time, I was still recovering from a business setback and was not ready to stare a new project. I wanted to exile myself to a place in Yunnan with thousand year old tea gardens. I hoped to see the ancient tea gardens and recreate the feeling of our ancestors discovering tea for the first time. Moreover, I had spent many years drinking and researching Puerh as well as promoting "Passing on the fragrance of Puerh," but I had never actually seen a tea tree. Consequently, I decided to make this trip to the areas where Puerh tea is grown.

I invited A Li and Wu Jian to travel with me to the Nianjian County Tea Company. The three of us first arrived at a small village in the Weishan area, located approximately 10 km from the Weishan ancient town. This was an important production area for tie-dyed fabrics. We first visited a factory run by Ms. Liu and learned how the beautiful tie-dyes are made. At lunch, a local friend prepared a sumptuous local Bai-style feast. Our meal was filled with pleasant conversation. Our hosts asked us many questions about life and customs in Taiwan.

I also learned many things by chatting with them. They regrettably did not realize that the tea they brewed and invited me to drink was the raw material used to make the Puerh tea popular in Hong Kong. Taiwan, and Guangzhou. The tea was picked from precious and ecological ancient arbor tea trees. Local residents had a very simple and honest perspective; Every year in the spring when the tea trees were budding. people willing to work went into the mountains to pick tea from the old growing areas, which had been abandoned for over fifty years. Their hand processing was also quite crude. They first laid the tea out in the sun. After the leaves softened, they placed them inside to cool. They then roasted the leaves in the same wok used by the family to cook food and boil water. Afterwards, they again took the tea outside and rolled it into strips and then placed it on the roof of the house to dry, This was the end of the process. The locals primarily produced tea for their own consumption or to give to friends. Only if they had extra would they sell it. I told them that they should take care of their tea gardens, plant and transplant more tea seedlings, and should carefully process the tea. There was bound to come a day when this tea would bring them wealth.

We then passed through the Weishan old town, which was the capitol of the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom. In spite of its age, among the desolation we could sense the prosperity of the Nanzhao Kingdom at the time of its founding. At that time, Nanzhao s economy was booming, and tea trade was an important element. It controlled a vast area under cultivation. Every year, horse caravans carrying tea set off from here. One can only imagine the impressive sight of 10,000 horses and 1,000 people.

We arrived at the Nanjian County tea factory just before closing time and Mr. Han, the factory head, was on his way out. After a bit of Small-talk, he arranged for a Mr. Zhao to entertain us. Over dinner we learned that the state of the company was not exactly ideal. They were in the process of looking for a solution as well as other business opportunities. They also hoped to find long-term cooperative partnerships, I immediately felt that the atmosphere was somewhat solemn. This was my first visit to Nanjian and also the first stop on my trip to mainland China to investigate ancient Puerh tea gardens. Because of the depressed atmosphere, I was left with no way to complete the journey.

Beyond the four main Puerh tea districts lies a forgotten gem

In November of 2007, Mr. Liang - Executive Editor at Wushing Publications - asked me to write an article investigating Wuliang Mountain Puerh tea. Seven years later, I once again returned to Nanjian. I had learned that Nanjian County Tea Company had recently come upon a very rare development opportunity. In the first half of 2007, by raising capital through an expanded stock offering, they established the Yunnan Tulin Tea Company, LLC. This company would carry on the "Tulin" and "Wuliang Mountain" brands as well as their technology and production. This time I chose to drive myself and was fortunate 10 have Tulin Tea Company's Mr. Xu accompanying me and making arrangements for my visit. My affinity with Nanjian County Tea Company had once again brought me here. Setting off from Kunming, we drove on the high-speed freeway the entire way, arriving very quickly in Nanjian. It only took five hours, compared to more than ten hours seven years ago. When we arrived, I asked to return to the Nanjian County Tea Company's old factory in order to refresh my memory. My memories were just that, however, as the site of the old factory was now the location of the Nanjian County government offices. Factory head Han had also been transferred to another position.

That evening Mr. Xu invited a newly hired young person, Xiao Mou, and master worker Zhao Jingjiang to dinner. Mr. Zhao is an important part of Nanjian Tea Company, responsible for production management and pile-fermentation technology. Over dinner, Mr. Zhao was talkative and confident. The pleasant conversation brought to mind my impressions from seven years earlier. He was the same Mr. Zhao who entertained us during our first visit to the Nanjian Tea Company. During these seven years he had stayed in this position, working to perfect the quality and technology of Tulin Brand Phoenix Puerh.

We arrived early the next day at the factoiy, and Mr. Xu led us around the modern new production building. The new facilities occupy more than 30mu (1mu = 1/6acre) and can output more than 3000 tons per year. The factory can operate under any weather conditions. In May of 2007, the development of the Puerh market experienced a crisis. Despite the depressed market, the Tulin Tea Company expanded their factory to deal with inadequate production capacity. Tulin Tea Company's development calls to mind a phoenix bathed in fire and spreading its wings in rebirth. Steadily and surely they are taking advantage of their available capital, talented team, and twenty-year-old established "Tulin" brand. They are succeeding through a combination of quality and price. Relying on steady and pragmatic entrepreneurial spirit, they are creating a new space in the Puerh tea market.

After changing into work clothes and shoes for the production area, Mr. Zhao led us into the pile-fermentation room. The entire workroom created a clean and relaxing feeling, carrying waves of intense fragrance. Mr. Zhao said that after another ten days or so the tea could be collected. At that point the sweet fragrance of the fermenting pile will attract large numbers of honeybees looking for pollen. Mr. Zhao told us with satisfaction that this phenomenon was the result of many years of hard work. The bees would be drawn here, because his dampened tea did not have an unpleasant moldy odor or a sharp sour | smell. This is a sign of proper fermentation and that the tea can be drunk immediately. This is a concept and practice that I have been promoting for years. Mr. Zhao's "bee attraction period" is similar to the "aphid stage" I observed in the pile-fermentation process in 2003 in Simao. Mr. Zhao continued optimistically, saying only pile-fermentation style ripe Puerh is a mainstream Puerh product. Hearing him say this, I thought of my trip to Simao in 2003. Old brother Li's father Li Xibai, lying on his deathbed, did not forget to write down: "Puerh will be number one." In 1973, he began researching pile-fermentation, and continuously proclaimed that ripe Puerh would be at the forefront of the future market, Indeed, research into pile-fermentation style Puerh techniques will continue to advance, resulting in stable quality that can be drunk immediately and possesses mesmerizing qualities. Assuming this is the case and production can reach levels similar to England's Lipton black tea, then Pucrh's status as number one will fulfill Li Xibai's unrealized dream. I am convinced this is also the hope and goal of Zhao Jingjiang, other members of the Puerh community, as well as Chinese people in general.

We learned that the main tea growing areas of Wuliang Mountain were located in Xiao Gude, which was a two-hour drive from here. We said goodbye to Mr. Zhao and, arriving at the initial processing factory, saw seedlings growing all around the 20-plus-year-old tea trees. According to Mr. Cha Hongxuan, the Yunnan Tulin Tea Company maocha harvest "head of raw materials," in the past this tea growing area contained scattered hundred-year-old ancient tea trees as well as patches of more than one-hundred-year-old ancient tea gardens. A member of the Yi ethnic minority, his home is located here, and his family has been involved in growing tea for generations. The Yi people have never stopped growing tea in this stretch of vast Wuliang Mountain. He pointed to a mountain range in the distance and said that there is a road that runs along the mountain ridge. On one side of the road is Jingdong County of Puerh Prefecture (originally Simao Prefecture). Passing over another mountain range on the right, one arrives in Lincang. At this point, Mr. Cha's son brewed a pot of tea with purple clay tea set and invited us to drink. This was a spring roasted green tea. Its flavor was still quite pleasant and sweet. Because it had been stored for ten months, it was lacking freshness. However, based on the leaves and buds and the flavor of the tea liquor, it was basically a very good green tea. No wonder it was given the "Golden Flower Award" at the Dali tea tasting conference.

Mr. Cha then brewed a mixed summer and fall sun-roasted fresh Puerh maocha. He said this was grade seven raw material. Its outward appearance was extremely uniform and composed entirely of mature tender leaves. They appeared plump and strong without many thick stems or yellow pans. This was evidently a fairly good level of picked tea, but perhaps Mr. Cha was influenced by green tea, which demands a greater number of inner buds. Summer and fall tea has shorter buds than spring tea and does not have a great flavor. It also produces relatively cloudy tea liquor. His says this is related to the rainy season. I invited Mr. Cha and Mr. to visit my company in Kunming and taste a "test" batch of tea. During the 2007 rainy season, I invited the former head of Taiwan's Pinglin Tea Museum Liang Xiangtian to travel to Jiujia Xiao Aijia and produce a test rainy season Puerh. The quality we achieved was quite high. Our indention was to start an exchange with local tea farmers regarding tea collection and processing techniques. We hoped this could improve the quality of rainy season tea and bring benefit to the farmers.

Mr. Cha proudly pulled down a paper bag containing one 357 gram and two 250 gram fresh Puerh cakes. He offered them to me as a gift and said that these three cakes were made from wild tea he had led local tea farmers to gather and produce. Fantastic! This was very exciting! Mr. Cha also excitedly said that the existence of this wild tea provides evidence that the Nanjian Wuliang Mountain area, along with the four major tea growing areas, is one of the oldest tea growing areas.

Soon after, we were finally on our way to check out hundred-plus-year-old ancient tea gardens. We slowly caught sight of the ancient tea trees. This ancient tea garden has been maintained by the Yi people for generations and is not like some villages in which tea trees have been chopped down to grow sugarcane, wheat, or other crops. Consequently, the tea trees in this garden have thick trunks and ages that are all over one hundred years. Mr. Cha said that this is the pride of the Wuliang Mountain tea growing area Yi people. They are proud because they have cared for this ancient tea garden for generations. The tea trees had been trimmed to resemble stalk after stalk of cauliflower. They resembled beautiful green spirits of Wuliang Mountain. Unless you bent down and looked closely, you would never know these waist-high tea trees were each more than one hundred years old. The treetops were flourishing, and, although they had been trimmed for the winter, the verdant fresh green leaves still shined brightly.

Mr. Cha went a step further and explained that the ancient tea gardens of Wuliang Mountain arc absolutely ecological. They use farm or sheep manure for fertilizer and spray a mixture of sulfur, lime, and water to kill insects and bacteria. These methods have been passed down by their ancestors. The most important ecological aspect, however, is that they have preserved the original forest and natural plant system, which provides moisture, shade, and nutrients for the tea trees. Also, the ancient tea gardens are laid out on this mountain one small block at a time, rather than as just a single enormous tea plantation.

Walking onward, Mr, Cha said, "we've" reached the Wuliang King of Tea Trees." I was walking trough the forest half bent over like a snail climbing a mountain. Listening to Mr. Cha, I lifted my head and looked up. It was too beautiful! I quickly reached for my camera to capture the sight. The sun reflected off the earthen wall of the old building, appearing to have a mind of its own. Beside the wall was a large tea tree. Its luxuriant leaves looked like emeralds, one per leaf. The entire tree was a treasure!

Walking into the building, Mr. Cha introduced the guardian of the ancient tea forest, Guo Wenxing. His family stands watch over this large mountain emerald. The elderly Mr. Guo did not say much, but his face preserved a youthful smile. He boiled water and brewed tea with Chinese style tea set, inviting us to drink. He then grabbed a piece of tile covered in burning wood and pointed to the western side of the ancient building, saying that the Wuliang Mountain King of Tea Trees was over there, We all immediately stepped out of the building to look at the ancient tea tree* Bricks were set into the ground surrounding this king of tea trees to prevent soil erosion. I don't know if it is due to the care of its protectors or the benefits of its superior location, but this several-hundred-year-old ancient tea tree was still flourishing with vibrancy and youth. Three relatively younger ancient tea trees grew beside it. They must have been its children and grandchildren!

After taking our photos and returning to the building, Mr. Guo pulled out a glistening yellow piece of honeycomb and invited u$ to cat. It turns out he pulled out that piece of tile covered in burning wood a moment earlier in order to smoke bees from their nest so that he could extract a piece of honeycomb. After chatting for a bit longer, we said goodbye to Mr. Guo, I once a^in aimed ray head to take in this mountain's ancient tea gardens It struck a chord in my heart, and I could not hold back the tears. Who says the world is declining and hopeless? Aren't these ancient tea gardens evidence of humanity cherishing its natural resources? Isn't this also a sign of the decency that still remains in peoples' hearts? The Xiao Gude tea growing district of Wuliang Township is a bright pearl. It is said that Ailuo Mountain and Wuliang Mountain arc like connected twin dragons and phoenixes on the two sides of the Langcang River and the Lixian River (upper Honghe River). Then Nanjian's Wuliang Township, Xiao Gude and Phoenix Mountain tea growing areas arc the two bright pearls on the top of the heads of the two dragons and phoenixes.

Goodbye Nanjian! On this brief trip I was not able to visit all of its ancient tea growing areas, This just means I will be back here again, doesn't it?