Author,Zeng Zhixian Photos, Li Jun
This was once an isolated utopia, a village where work began at dawn and ended at sunset. But due to the fact that this area contains a large 10,000mu (1 mu = 1/6acre) ancient tea forest, the surge in popularity of Puerh has brought great changes. Twenty or thirty years ago the occasional arrival of a group of observing scholars was a large event for the entire county, However, today, much like one of the six famous tea mountains such as Yiwu, every day brings visitors involved in tea as well as an endless stream of tourists. New tea factories are also continuously being built. Tea dealers and other tea professionals and scholars from all over China as well as Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other areas come here one after another. With the explosion of interest in Puerh, this otherworldly utopia has followed the six famous tea mountains to become another sacred place to visit.
This place has a resounding fame and is never far from the minds of Puerh tea fanatics. This treasure chest of natural tea is not Yiwu. It's not Yibang. It's the Jingmai ancient tea forest. It is located in Huimin Township of Lancang Country, Simao. It lies 78 kilometers from the county seat of Lancang. In recent years, Jingmai Ancient Tea and Crab's Claw tea have become well known brands whose fame reaches far beyond Huimin. People are much more likely to know of Jingmai than of Huimin, leaving the residents of Huimin to sigh at this twist of fate.
To reach Jingmai, one can catch a ride from Simao (today called Puerh) to Lancang and, then from there, on to Huimin. Another route is to go from Menghai into the mountains, following windy roads for two to three hours. Jingmai Mountain is another 21km past the Huimin administrative center. The arduous mountain roads are rugged, steep, and bumpy. It feels like riding in a bumper car, jostling about for nearly two hours before finally arriving, I still recall in 1994 when a large group of people from manufacturing, government, academic, cultural and tea circles arrived here en masse. They arrived nauseous and exhausted, but all of this travel weariness disappeared when they saw the welcoming of the locals. People of all ages filled the fields, the paths, and the trees, wearing their finest Dai ethnic attire and welcoming the visitors with bamboo pipe song. Today ten years have passed, but I can still clearly feel the excitement of that day. My mind still subconsciously lingers on "hearing the bamboo pipes, the soles of my feet itching to dance."
This is a Dai village. The first things we saw were the Dai style bamboo houses with their roofs, which resemble the feather hat of Zhuge Liang (famous 3rd century military strategist). Located on a mountain-top beside a small path and pool, the village seamlessly blended into the surrounding old trees and other natural scenery. Mankind and nature combined harmoniously in this village, which possessed strong ethnic minority characteristics. Dai houses are normally two stories built on stiles. The first level is empty and serves as the home for chickens, ducks, pigs, and other livestock- Without the slightest boundaries separating them, the animals here arc free.
The second floor is the living space for the entire family. This includes the fire pit in the center, which is used for cooking and boiling water and also serves as the source of light for the home. At that time this area's isolation meant that electricity was in short supply, and residents relied on the fire pits in every house to extend daylight. Even late into the night, smoke from the wood fire served to keep out mosquitoes. Beds are laid out on all sides in a connected line with no space separating them. A balcony occupies the front of the second level of the bamboo houses. The entire family relaxes here, bathes here and visits with neighbors. I accidentally caught a glimpse of our host's daughter on the balcony combing her long, beautiful hair. This relaxed activity blended with the natural scenery. The Dai people are naturally this free and unrestrained.
That night happened to be the final night of the Dai New Year Water Splashing Festival. We had the good fortune to join in the all-night festivities, drinking homemade rice wine and lighting locally produced "high soaring" fireworks. Gathering in circles, everyone danced traditional Dai dances. Tea brought these people from all over the world together. Everyone held hands and danced in unison. Although we did not understand each other's languages, the music brought us together as one.
When the party ended, we found our way back through the dark to the Dai home where we were staying. We slept in one room along with the four members of the family. I slept with a cotton blanket covering my whole body and all of my possessions close by. I was a bit tense. After all, I was surrounded by strangers. The night was filled with the sounds of frogs, insects, and birds. After drinking Dai roasted tea by a stainless steel tea cup, I immediately fell asleep. The next morning we cook a long walk through the villages. The traditional settlements inspired a feeling of having walked through a tunnel in time. Having long lived in the city, I could not resist taking a few extra breaths of the fresh air. I really wished I could store some in plastic bags and bring it back with me to Taipei.
Before I awoke, our host and his wife were already out on the balcony slaughtering a chicken. One chicken prepared three ways — we were able to enjoy this bountiful Dai breakfast. This was the kind of meal that money cannot buy. Today, I can only write about it here in order to express my thanks and appreciation for their hospitality. I also still feel regret at my own nervous reaction.
This turned out to be a rewarding trip to an ancient tea forest. We were able to taste Dai barbeque in the forest and at night watch a special Dai style performance in the village. Even rarer was the opportunity to stroll through the endless ancient tea forests. This was also my first time seeing the parasitic "crab's claw" growing on old tea trees, which were not at all small in number. Shortly after returning home, I discovered that they had also become objects of financial speculation. Because of the great age of these tea trees, they appeared to be declining and to have fully experience the changes of time. Their branches were covered in moss, vines, wild mushrooms, and other parasitic plants such as wild orchids. The parasitic "crab's claw" are an even more common sight. It is said that crab's claw can only be found on tea trees approaching one hundred years old. Locals said that they possess cooling, detoxifying properties. If drank they can also prevent hardening of the arteries. If you see crab's claw when buying tea, you can be assured you are buying pure tea from Jingmai Tea Mountain.
Jingmai Ancient Tea Mountain appears to be an endless expanse of old tea forest. Fifteen years ago when it was first investigated, experts estimated that it had approximately 800 years of history. Not long afterward, it was argued that this age is actually over 1000 years. Recently, experts and academics have placed the origin of the area's tea with trees planted at 696AD. This means that the area possesses over 1300 years of Puerh tea growing history.
In 1994 Japanese, American, and Taiwanese tea authorities first stepped upon this stretch of earth. It was as though in the darkness this isolated area was already destined to become linked with the international community. This was especially evident when everyone praised this stretch of "10,000mu ancient tea forest" as a valuable "natural tea tree museum" of humanity's earliest efforts to utilize tea leaves. My own article "Reason for the Squares and Circles — Exploring the World of Pressed Tea" also served to enter it into the list of Puerh tea "national treasures." In this way, how could it possibly be lonely? As expected, the area soon exploded in fame.
Historically tea produced in Jingmai was shipped along the Ancient Tea Horse Road. It was shipped in a steady stream by horse caravan to Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. For hundreds of years this has been the prime economic activity supporting the "Bulang family, Dai bamboo houses, and Hani riverside."
Today the Jingmai Tea Mountain is divided into Mangjing and contains ten natural villages. Its residents primarily belong to the Dai, Hani, and Bulang ethnic groups. They do not share the same language, housing, or clothing styles but are all strongly connected by an economy based on tea.
Jingmai contains over 8000mu of old tea gardens within its borders. Dai people make up the largest portion of the population. The ancient tea mountains within the borders of Mangjing occupy approximately 3000mu, and are primarily inhabited by Bulang people. On the tea mountain, ancient tea trees grow mixed among other old-growth trees. Some old tea trees grow near the houses, forming the natural scenery of the villages.
According to local residents, the northwestern pan of Jingmai lies at a higher altitude, while the southwestern area is lower. The highest point is 1662 meters above sea level. The lowest is approximately 1100meters. When I first visited, only these old tea forests were dominant. However, this situation has changed following Puerh's rise to prominence and rapid price increases. The country road between Huimin and the ancient tea mountain is more than twenty kilometers long and passes by mountain after mountain. Today many of these mountains have been turned into connected tea plantations. The area's unique bamboo houses have also been replaced by concrete or Western style buildings. New tea factories are also continuously being built. Living conditions have improved considerably. Modern equipment and modes of transportation such as motorcycles, cars, and small trucks are now all available. The villages are bustling, but their original flavor has changed.
The first time I stepped into the ancient tea forest, I saw these substantial five to six meter tall old tea trees. Along the mountaintops and stretching to the horizon, these ancient trees reached toward the sky, a magnificent sight. But there were some that had dried up and died due to old age and others that had been cut short by the locals to facilitate harvest. Also, some trees had been cut down to make a road and the surrounding trees and branches were severely trampled. At the time, all of these things caused me to feel deep concern. Today the situation has changed completely. With the economic changes, these trees have become the objects of frenzied and competitive buying. Economic value can bring on another level of destruction, however, causing this pure and natural utopia to completely vanish. This should be cause for warning.
Based on investigation, Jingmai tea is special because of its soft yet thick leaves, substantial buds, ample white fine hair, and high levels of internal materials. It is an outstanding example of Yunnan large leaf tea. It has been described as having "strong chaqi and good kougan." In recent years it has become a tea that Pucrh lovers rush to purchase. Ancient arbor tea has become an especially well known trademark. Walking through the Kunming and Guangdong Fangcun tea markets, you will find tea cakes with this label everywhere. Fakes are mixed in with real cakes, so it is best to search out a few trustworthy sellers so that there is some guarantee of quality.
The ancient tea forests of Jingmai are the same as other members of the six famous tea mountains such as Yiwu, Yibang, Jinnuo, etc - today all have made their own name. This natural ancient tea forest museum has undergone Chinese and foreign expert observation and verification and been declared a "Chinese folk culture tourism heritage district." This has introduced the fog-shrouded villages and charming scenery of Jingmai to the world. Highways, hotels, and other construction has also rapidly followed in preparation to promote this cultural tourism route. This construction phase needs to avoid making the area too civilized and destroying this otherworldly utopia.
When tea lovers taste tea using a cast iron tea set from Jingmai ancient tea forests, they think of this place on the other side of the horizon. They think of the scene of the simple Dai village located in the forest of ancient tea trees. Only this sort of old tea forest has stories to tell. Only this sort of natural tea museum can continue to flourish over the long term.