Article and Photos: Rong Ba
When I stepped into the realm of collecting Puerh in 2008, I knew that I was making a lace start, old tea prices were cloudy and a hayseed such as I would not be able to esteem teas for collection. So for the past three years, I have dedicated myself to researching Puerh tea, both buying and receiving tea as gifts, I have drunk between three and five different varieties of Puerh each day, to a tune of less than a thousand, but more than five hundred teas!
A freshman, I stepped foot into the hinterland with no specialist knowledge, no master to light the way, and no means to decipher between right and wrong information. Fortunately, information about Puerh tea was plentiful: Chinese language publications Teapot and Puerh Teapot magazines were important sources of information, I made a point of reading a wide range of new and old sources, including looking at advertisements (an area I specialise in). Another important source of information was the internet) as relevant knowledge may be found online, especially articles penned by Taiwanese authors discussing the fiscal value of teas, as well as teas that were anticipated by Taiwanese collectors. This was a great source of knowledge, as authors openly shared their tea knowledge: 1. Journals of tea making experiences; 2. Tea drinking customers taste tests; 3. Collectors' experience (the collector 'Urumqi' for example); 4. The masses of self-ordained professors online (T4U for example). I spent a long time reading these sources, digesting what I read. In honesty, it matters not if our interests lie in new or old Puerh, it is useful to obtain a preliminary understanding of the market background.
If one does not pursue a systematic enquiry into Puerh tea, it will be hard to obtain real knowledge, if our knowledge takes the form of recycling information passed on from others, we will never garner a deep understanding of our subject. On the T4U forum, we can often see tea enthusiasts engaging in heated debate concerning a variety of topics, even losing it and getting angry, with no truth shining through, it is hard to tell who's right and who's wrong! So, from the start, I decided that my path of study would follow tea plants, picking, withering, heat processing, sun wilting, steam pressing of tea cakes. By carefully examining these elements, one might not gain the complete picture of Puerh, but it is indeed a complete beginning.
Heading to Yunnan province to study Puerh, where might one start? Perhaps by visiting Nannuo and other mountain villages to see ancient tea trees, or the popular destinations of Banzhang village, Yiwu, Menghai tea factory, or Xiaguan tea factory. As it happened, I found myself in Mengku, the birthplace of tea: perhaps this had a deep significance!
In the beginning of April, at the kind invitation of Mr Zhan from Nanzhen tea, I made my way to Yunnan to stay in the Nanzhen tea factory in Xiaguan. This was an opportune moment, as Mr Zhan was about to begin business in Mengku; he is a confident man, open in his dealings, unperturbed by me following him and studying with him. On the first evening, I made it clear that I wanted to be put up in a tea grower's household, I did not want to sit on the fence and observe: I wanted to get stuck into the work! Mr Zhan organised ail of this for me, and in those five days of study in Mengku, I really felt satisfied with what I learned, later publishing my experiences in instalments to share them with other tea lovers.
Wild Tea Kings Mengku Bangma Daxue Shan (west side of the mountain)
At 7pm on April 9th, I took the sleeper bus from Xiaguan, sleeping in fits, until at 2am we arrived at the renowned Puerh district of Lincang. The signboard of destinations served by buses departing from Lincang bus station illustrates its central location: Nanjian, Yunxian, Yongde, Gengma, Zhenyuan, and Mengku town, a three and a half hour journey away in Shuangjiang county. The high street of Lincang was crowded with shops selling maocha (rough tea).
Getting off the bus in Mengku, I wore a suit of fresh road dust. I telephoned the Dao family, and the fifth sister came and picked me up by motorbike. As a youth, I never rode pillion behind a hot lady, at my age now, riding behind a Blang hottie, I felt pretty cool.
April 10th Lodging with the Dao Family in Gongnong
The five sister Dao family deserve their celebrity.It was dusk by the time we arrived, people were gathering in maochu that had been drying in the square, and the men were getting ready to heat process (shaqing) some tea. The tea gardens in the vicinity of the village were planted in the early years of the twentieth century, and are purposefully stunted trees, seeing so many 'beheaded' tea trees made me feel excited.
Mengku is a remote place, Gongnong is located on the west side of the mountain, Bangma Daxue Shan: ethnic minority settlements pepper the mountainside, but the Dao household stands out as a particularly civilised enterprise. Not only was all of the bedding washed before our stay, the environmentally friendly toilets (separate holes for separate functions) were something that I'd never seen before. In the evening, in a room beside the pig sty and the chicken coop, I settled down to enjoy a fine night's sleep.
The Dao household produce a lot of tea. In a single day, they may harvest six tonnes of fresh leaves in two separate pickings. They use large scale wood fired heat processing machines for the shaqing process, and half moon style rolling machines, all of the tea picked before lunch is heat processed in the evening, the leaves picked after lunch are spread outside overnight, then heat processed the next morning. After seeing the tea making processes of several mountain villages, I was able to discern between the differing qualities of processed maocha in the Mengku area, and the difficulty in creating uniform teas. This difficulty stems from the different periods for which the teas are left out in the cool night air, furthermore, there are differences in technique, and the relatively primitive wood fire heat processing machines are not able to maintain stable heat. It is also difficult to cope with the sorting of coarse and fine leaves in each batch of maocha.
April 11th on the road to Bangma Daxue Shan
Yunnan has many mountains called Daxue Shan (Great Snow Mountain) I don’t know why this is the case, but apart from Lincang's Daxue Shan, Yongde has a Daxue Shan to the northwest of Bangma. Unlike Mengku, which is renowned for having the highest number of wild, ancient tea gardens, Daxue Shan has the world's largest most concentrated group of wild, ancient tea trees, first discovered on this mountain in 1997. Tea tree no.l had a wider trunk than the previous "King of Wild Teas" in Qianjia village, and stood only a fraction shorter. It is recorded that the tea tree in Qianjia village is 2700 years old, while the age of Bangma tree no.l has not yet been established, presumably there is no real means of finding out its true age... (The base of the trunk has a diameter of 4 metres, in the centre, the trunk measures 3.5 metres, while the width of the canopy is 15.8 x 15.3 metres, the tree is nearly 20 metres high. Source: Zou's Enquiry into Wild Ancient Puerh Tea Trees, Volume 4).
9am; off up the mountain
We arrived at Xiaohu Village before eight o’clock, originally our driver had suggested us to come up the previous evening, but the considerate Dao sisters had reckoned that our delicate skins would have proved irresistible to the famed Xiaohu fleas, and had silenced the driver, saving us from the fleas' mouths. As luck would have it, our guide for the day did not materialise, and in the end, we patiently followed a herd of water buffalo up the mountain road.
Xiaohu village and Dahu village are both located at an elevation of 1800 metres above sea level. The majority of people interested in wild tea trees go to Dahu village because the roads leading to it are relatively wide and flat, so there is a control point, the entrance gate to the Daxue Shan wild tea forest. Actually, Xiaohu village is relatively close to Daxue Shan, the road leading there is smaller and steeper, without a checkpoint, more like coming in through the back door.
After following the call of the herdsman in front of the water buffalo for a while, suddenly, from behind the car, a form appeared from nowhere, a figure with the serenity of a monk, emerging with the same natural grace as the wild trees on the mountainside, this was our guide for the day, Mr Tie. Bom in 1960, similar to many of the other Lahu people of his generation, he is illiterate and can't speak great Chinese; presumably be seldom leaves Xiaohu village.
We were to ascend from 1800 metres to 2700 metres. In the mountainous regions of we would probably have had to drive about of mountain road, but here the roads are very steep (20-30 diegrees)... Huffing and puffing our way up the mountain, we entered the dense forest at approximately 10:30am, following the aqueduct that supplies the mountain villages with fresh water, its end, lies the source of the mountain's water, after this lay a steep path, hard to make out under pie fallen leaves. Signs for conservation of the aqueduct dot the route; this is the source of disking water for the inhabitants of the mountain villages, and a notable scenic spot.
Raising livestock in the forest
On the way up the mountain, the herdsman had told us that there were cattle and sheep owned by different families roaming free in the forest, these beasts are fed once a week. I asked if it was possible to find them after they had gone off into the forest, and the herdsman replied most of them are found, but the odd one goes back to nature and slips away. I mused that such beasts are wise, living such a joyous life on the mountainside, why return to be slaughtered! He also mentioned an important thing: if you eat the local beef, mutton, chicken and pork in Mengku, it really tastes good by cast iron tea sets! This seemed to be the case, the cows. sheep and chickens I saw were roaming free in a healthy forest environment, getting ample exercise and were of fine breed and wild vigour - good eating too!
11am; up from the aqueduct
Leaving the secluded aqueduct, the path steepened abruptly, as we reached an altitude of 2200 metres, we were forced to walk at an even slower pace, and traces of human settlements grew fewer. We often found ourselves losing our way, time and time again we were called back to the narrow path by Mr Tic. Without him, like the errant livestock, we may have never returned from the forest, starving to death in some lonely hovel in the mountainside.
At this point, we began to sec the finest of things, indeed what we had come here for: wild tea. Mr Tie pointed out the first wild tea on our journey, a group of 2 metre high plants he referred to as taicha. It was then that Mr Tie's occupation came to light, as soon as he saw the plants, he commenced picking, looking for mushrooms on tree trunks, chopping the odd piece of fruit from trees, he seemed busy, remaining constantly attentive to us, correcting our mistakes if we picked tea in the wrong way or strayed off the path. From such a utopia, it would be a shame to return empty handed, so I followed Mr Tie's lead, but he kept telling me I was picking the wrong tea! What looked to me like the finest young buds were not true tea at all!
After picking from the wrong plants several times, I learned to determine the wheat from the chaff as it were, handing over all of the tea leaves for Mr Tie to confirm that they were, actually tea leaves, and my apprenticeship had begun.
Penalties for picking tea in the forest
Picking wild tea is prohibited: lower down the mountain at the village head's house, there were notices from the village committee declaring that picking, researching and photographing tea are all illegal, and that offenders are liable to fines of RMB 1000, The previous week, Mr Zhan had taken a group up the mountain, and they had been fined RMB 3000 for taking photographs, so the warnings are for real. Nevertheless, I observed that wild tea plants near the villages had been picked, so I asked Mr Tic about this. He replied that the yield from far away wild trees is insufficient and that people make medicine from the trees around the village. Later on, back down the mountain, I asked others and they confirmed this, people use these tea leaves for medicine and personal consumption. For centuries, the locals have coexisted with the mountain forest, their understanding of the wild tea trees is very different indeed from the Han Chinese tendency to want to take as much as possible from the precious (Although, Daxue Shan wild tea sold down the mountain has certainly been picked by locals). But, it must be said that the village committee notice written in Chinese characters is there to warn Han Chinese. For Mr Tie, busy picking tea, this sign is something from another world, of no concern to him at all. The records of "Farmer Zhang" from 1997 also had Han Chinese in their crosshairs: in all of history, these tea plants have never been picked in such a voracious manner.
On the T4U forum, a thread had been opened regarding the issue of wild tea, quoting an ’expert' who claims that wild teas are universally toxic and unfit for human consumption. Again, we can observe another rumour regarding Puerh - mho knows if this is a real expert attempting to protect the wild tea plants, fearful of businessmen's greed, purposefully spreading a white lie...
Middayi our first tall wild tea tree
At an altitude of 2500 metres, Mr Tie said "taicha" pointing out a three storey tall wild tea tree. I was surprised by this huge tree, it was actually tea, and we continued up a path veering to the right. By this point, I was plum tuckered out!
More tea trees appeared along the way, and we saw less evidence of humanity, wild mushrooms grew abundantly. After we climbed a little further, we came to a small area of level ground, and clusters of wild tea trees appeared before us, in this forest there were several thick trunked tea trees, some broader than the reach of my hands. The atmosphere here was exquisite, the other trees of the forest grew in unusual tangles and angles. This, however was not our final destination "nearly there" Mr Tie told us, as he had already said several times during our arduous climb, presumably to urge us two panting Taiwanese to step on it! We had longsince stopped heeding his calls of "kuai dao le" (nearly there) but this time we were, indeed, nearly there, seeing an empty wooden station, constructed for the purpose of keeping watch on this group of old trees.
1pm; arriving at Old Tree no.2
After passing the lookout station, we took another small path, finally arriving at Old Tree no.2. This area was heavily populated with thick trunked large, old wild tea trees. Old Tree no.2 was not clearly larger than the 25 other tea trees, in truth, I was a little disappointed. After climbing for four hours, we finally had a chance for a breather, to sit down and eat the glutinous rice wraps that we had brought from Xiaohu village, large rice wraps with a slab of stewed fatty pork on top. It was strange, because Mr Tie hadn't taken a sip of water along the way, now he did not eat, or accept our offers of food, he only tried the pineapple cakes that we had brought with us from Taipei, and even these, I had to practically force upon him. He sat, expressionless and ate the cake, not commenting on its flavour.
Pushing on a little further up the mountain, we reached our destination: Old Tree King no.l. This tree left us speechless, it had a thicker trunk than other trees, the crown of the tree was broad and exuberant, it really possessed a powerful presence; a powerful presence; the tree was probably more than 3000 years old: at this point I felt that our trip had been worthwhile. Old Tree no.1 has long and narrow medium sized leaves, by far the finest leaf we had witnessed on our Journey. We also found smaller tea plants with large-leaf type oval leaves that had bright, waxy surfaces.
2pm; back down the mountain
We took a different path back down the mountain, also dotted with wild tea trees, Mr Tie mentioned that there was another copse of wild tea trees, enquiring if we wanted to go. In our exhausted state, we declined. Indeed, we had already seen the grandfathers of these smaller trees, we could skip the grandchildren! We were amazed, seeing Bangma Daxue Shan's ancient wild tea trees, in number and density, they are the pride of Yumnan.
The indigenous people live off the mountain
Several times along the way, we had witnessed the ways in which the Lahu people live off the fruits of the mountain. Alongside the path, we saw a piece of land that had been cleared of vegetation, all that remained were hollow tree trunks, I asked Mr Tie the purpose of this. He replied "Cutting the trees to feed the cows." In the past, the cows were not brought weekly fodder, the trees were cut low to give them leaves to eat, a centuries old practice that possibly merits further discussion from an environmental perspective. Unsurprisingly , many people say that quitting the wild tea trees for ease of harvesting accords with the indigenous approach to forestry, so if one is against this cutting of tea trees, then buy less wild grown tea. On this trip I saw the picking of tea, but not the dead remains of trees that had not survived the trauma of being cut.
I also observed two bamboo baskets lying beside the path, containing several varieties of mushrooms, tea leaves, honey comb, ferns fronds and other treasures of the mountain. The mountain has bountiful food resources, pure water and fine meat and vegetables, and they are free! Abundant food, sweet water, a pure environment, a heavenly reception!
6pm arriving at the Tie family residence in Xiaohu village
We staggered downhill as the sun lazily set afar. Observing the scale on which the village looks after the old tea trees: they grow alongside the footpath, continuously for about 2km, with a concentration of older trees nearer the village, and a concentration of even older, larger trees beneath the village. Actually, the entire Lahu village was encircled by old tea trees, while other tea trees deeper in the forest are harder to locate often covered in vegetation. The day's journey took 9 hours by the time we made it to Mr Tie's house. We were given tea and wine, and Mr Tie (who still didn't seem to require food) rewarded himself with a glass. After food and booze, we bade farewell to Xiaohu village, sincerely thanking our host for the educative trip up Daxue Shan.