Author, Photos: Luo Ying Yin
Just how many ancient tea mountains are there in Xishuangbanna? To this day, there is no common agreement. People living on the east banks of the Lancang River all know there are six great ancient tea mountains: Yibang, Wuyi (Mansa), Youle, Gedeng, Mangzhi, and Manzhuan. Over a decade ago, scholars suggested that the western side of the Lancang River also contains six great ancient tea mountains: Nannuo, Hekai, Banzhang, Bada, Mengsong, and Jingmai.
This past April, I traveled to Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain, I was overwhelmed by the ancient tea gardens covering the mountain and surrounding the village, pondering why the ranks of the twelve great tea mountains on the two side of the Lancang River do not contain the name Pasha. Searching through books that introduce the Menghai ancient tea mountains, I learned that Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain was considered to fall under the bounds of Nannuo Mountain.
By chance, I had traveled to Nannuo Mountain last year, and the memory is still fresh in my mind. Comparing the two ancient tea mountains on a map, Nannuo Mountain lies on the boundary between Menghai County and Jinghong City. Pasha Mountain forms the boundary between Bulanghe Township of Menghai County and Menghun village. After inquiring, I discovered that Nanuo Mountain and Pasha Mountain are separated by over 30 kilometers. Two rivers flow between them separating the mountains. This led me to wonder how Pasha Mountain could be considered part of Nannuo Mountain.
Ancient tea gardens estimated at over 2000mu
Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain lies within the boundaries of Bulanghe Township. It is approximately 30km from the Menghai county seat, The name Bulanghe comes from the Hani language and means happy and auspicious. The tallest mountain in this happy and auspicious place is Lunan Mountain. Pasha is drawn on the map of the administrative area as a village committee, which controls five Hani villages. The largest of these villages is Pasha Old Village, with nearly 100 families. The smallest new village contains 30 families. These villages are separated by approximately one kilometer. The villages face one another and are essentially within yelling distance, Each of the villages old and new contains ancient tea gardens. Ancient tea trees connect and link the five villages. No small number of large tea trees stand beside the village houses. Remaining ancient tea growing areas in Pasha are estimated to be over 2000mu (1 mu = 1/6 acre) in size.
The Pasha old village is said to be over 500 years old. It has been split off into seven or eight other villages. Bulang Mountain's Lao Banzhang was also created by splitting off from Pasha. Pazhen village residents explained that there is an ancient path from Pasha old village leading to Bangpen Village of Hekai Mountain. Walking along this path for several hours, one is surrounded by ancient tea gardens the entire time. In this way, one can travel to Hekai Mountain's Bangpen and Bulang Mountain's Banxhang.
The road to Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain first passes by a beautiful embankment. The Bulanghe township government is located here. Behind the administrative center is a small, clear emerald take, This is the widely known Black Dragon Pool, In the Dai language, it is called "Nuolang". The wooden buildings of the village on the opposite bank are reflected in the tranquil water. On this lightly breezy April day, the sight of blue sky overhead, the spring wind, the beautiful water, and the black buildings — isn't this why the Hani named this place "Bulanghe (happy and auspicious)?"
Trying something new Looking for the flavor of large tree black tea
The secluded and quiet scenery inspired feelings of contentment. If I were lightly sipping a fragrant cup of Yunnan black tea, wouldn't the moment be even more pleasant? Wasn't the point of this trip to find black tea produced from large trees?
I traveled to Bulanghe Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain, because the vice president of the Changtai Tea Group Chen Wei had on a whim decided to try producing black tea using large tea trees. As far as I knew, Changtai was originally only involved in the production of black tea. Only after 1998 did they switch to primarily producing Puerh tea. According to vice president Chen Wei, he was very interested in using large tea raw material to produce black tea. He felt that since people frequently praise the flavor and aroma of Puerh tea created with large tree tea perhaps a unique flavor and aroma would result if large tea trees were used to produce black tea. This is much like their early large tree Puerh, 99 Yichang Hao, which today is still widely acclaimed.
In order to satisfy my curiosity about black tea made from large trees and a desire to catch a glimpse of the scenery of Pasha Ancient Tea Mountain, I followed Chen Wei here to search out the original large tree flavor of Yunnan black tea.
Passing by the dear emerald waters of the Black Dragon Pool, we arrived at Pazhen Village. We met a Hani man named Sisan. We asked him three times before figuring out this simple name (Sisan is "4-3" in Chinese), His son is named Sanbao. Names of Hani people begin with the end of the father's name. He led us to an attic in his village to see black tea being wilted. He indicated that this tea was picked the day before. They picked the tea a day earlier so that we could see the tea as it was drying. At this point it had already been wilting for 15 or 16 hours. It was laid out on the floorboards. On one side was the tea picked from large trees, while on the other was traditional Yunnan black tea picked from bushes. We held the tea leaves in our hands and felt their softness and very faint prickliness. We were able to compare the different types of tea leaves throughout the production process, from the wilting stage, to kneading the leaves, to breaking them apart, and on to fermentation.
Yunnan black gong fu tea is a new star among Chinese tea. It stands out for its plump and fleshy exterior, fine golden fur, and strong aroma and flavor. The head of Chang Tai's technology division Kong Deming is a master producer of black tea. He explained that the craft of producing this gong fu black tea is complicated. It is time and labor-intensive and is highly technical. It is essentially broken into two stages: initial processing and refinement processing. It hinges on appropriate control of the wilting and desiccation process and of the fermentation temperature.
He described in greater detail the production process for black tea. First, black tea demands fresh leaves with consistent distribution of tender and tough leaves. If tough and tender leaves arc chaotically mixed together, the initial processing will be much more difficult. If the tender leaves dry slowly, kneading them tends to lead to tight strips, while fermentation will tend to result in red leaves. Tough leaves dry quickly. If kneaded for the same length of time, they do not easily form strips. They also will not easily change color during fermentation. Lack of uniform distribution of tough and tender leaves also causes problems such as differing moisture content.
Wilting is the first step in black tea production. It is also a fundamental part of producing quality tea. The objective of wilting is to cause brittle leaf stems to soften and to increase the resilience of leaves and buds. This facilitates kneading the tea into strips. Also because the moisture content is eliminated, internal substances undergo changes, which bring about the special color and aroma of black tea.
Kneading the tea also relies on the level of tenderness of the withered tea to determine the amount of pressure needed. Normally, tender leaves are best suited to brief kneading with light pressure. Tougher leaves are kneaded longer and with higher pressure. Other factors, such as the level of wilting and the temperature, also require consideration. The actual condition of the tea determines the time and pressure applied to knead the leaves.
After kneading the leaves, I watched the tea master loosen the cover of the machinery. It continued spinning. After another three to five minutes, he shook the tea out into the bamboo basket below. Tea master Kong explained that this was necessary to control the pressure of the machine that kneads the leaves. At the very start light pressure is applied. Once the leaves are completely softened, the pressure is increased in order to cause the tea to form into tight scrips. This process causes tea juices to be extracted from the leaves. When these juices show up in the rubbing pan and the strips of tea arc tightly rolled together, the pressure is again reduced. This causes the strips of tea to slightly loosen and the juices to be reabsorbed into the surface of the leaves. Only then can the tea be removed from the machine and broken apart to cool.
Truly, this ten minute performance requires ten years to master. The master casually operated the kneading machine. This requires the ability to judge on sight the toughness of the wilted tea leaves as well as the degree of wilting. It also requires a feel for the increasing and decreasing pressure over the course of a few minutes' time. After breaking the kneaded tea apart and cooling it, comes fermentation.
Fermentation is also known as "sweating" the tea. Its primary purpose is to create black tea's unique red leaves and liquor. It generally requires careful temperature control, normally going from low to high and then gradually dropping back down again. At this point I became of aware of the color changes in the tea leaves. The light green wilted tea leaves turn a dark green after kneading and, undergoing fermentation, go from yellow-green to a yellow-red color. The fragrance is also transformed to a faint aroma resembling that of ripe apples. The original fresh grassy smell completely disappears.
The final drying process follows. Mr. Kong further explained that the drying process is usually done in two passes. The first is known as "hair flame" and involves relatively high temperature, while the second is called "ample flame." I curiously asked, "How is the temperature and time determined?" He patiently explained that "hair flame" is best when the tea is uncomfortable to hold but the stems are still difficult to break. "Ample flame" is best when the tea is difficult to handle and snaps when force is applied. It may also let out an intense tea fragrance.
At this point I remembered the pleasure of the earlier beautiful scenery. I had personally watched as large tree tea underwent various stages of processing, as the fresh green leaves changed to yellow, red, and then dried a reddish-black. It was as if my pleasure followed the black tea's transformation, slowly heating up and becoming thick and rich. We casually brewed up a cup of just-processed black tea by a Chinese style tea cup. Although not as romantic and refined as the Queen of England's tea, I don't think many people have experienced this rich pleasure.
While waiting for the black tea to ferment, we took advantage of the opportunity to travel into the village. We quickly arrived at the Pasha New Village. The moment we got out of the vehicle, we smelled the fragrance of tea. It turns out that this village is also involved in producing black tea. Vice president Chen Wei explained that they wished to try large tree tea picked in the different villages and compare the resulting black teas. Consequently, they instructed villages in several areas to try producing black tea. In addition to Bulanghe, Yiwu is also experimenting with producing black tea. The goal is to produce the best black tea possible.
Palpitations The happiness of the Haiti people
We continued up the mountain road. After traveling less than five minutes, we saw ancient tea trees one after another swaying gently in the forest. Fresh green spring buds leapt from the old branches. Stepping into the ancient tea garden, we caught sight of a mother and son eating lunch from a lunchbox. Beside them sat a bamboo basket of freshly picked tea leaves. The mother and son shyly smiled at us. Looking in the lunchbox, I saw slightly yellow rice but not a bit of other food. Only the young boy's bowl contained half a boiled egg. At this moment, I could faintly sense my heart beating more quickly. Perhaps this is what is meant by the happiness of being content with what one has.
Following the mountain path through the ancient tea garden, we arrived at another village known as Pasha Middle Village. An old tea tree that must have been seven or eight hundred years old sat beside the village. This village was built right in the ancient tea garden. The ancient tea garden watches over the old, new, large, and small villages. I was told this ancient tea growing area stretches all the way to Banzhang and Hekai.
I had made this pilgrimage to the Pasha ancient tea gardens and stared at the ancient tea trees covering the mountains and surrounding the villages. I had experienced the mountain village tea processing and seen the unique skill involved in producing this large tree black tea. Full of new experiences, I looked forward to the return trip down the mountain. As the flames of the sunset crossed below the horizon, my frame of mind reflected the bright red liquor of black tea: Humans, tea, and nature harmoniously combined in symphony.
Sitting in the shaking car, I don't know how many mountains we passed through. The sky gradually grew dim. Less than five minutes from the city of Menghai, we suddenly came upon a scene that looked like an oil painting. Everyone in the car opened their eyes and looked, crying out in unison: "What a beautiful village! " We got out of the car and tool advantage of the last remaining daylight to snap pictures.
Entering the village and inquiring, we learned that, in order to preserve Dai ethnic buildings, the government built this planned village in 2006. It is called Manban Village. Forty-five houses were built on the sloping hill. Each of them had a garden, providing every family with flowers and plants. Old people were sitting in the doorways chatting. Children were playing in the alleys. The fragrance of food being prepared floated out of each of the homes. What a paradise on earth! This pleasant surprise added a beautiful overtone to my Yunnan trip to experience the flavor of large tree black tea.