In search of the perfect cup of tea


We are deep in the tea mountains of Xishuangbanna Prefecture inChina’sYunnan Province. Villages inhabited by the Dai, Bulang, Lahu, Akha, and other ethnic minorities lie across ravines or leer out from the forest. Glancing up a hillside, I declare folks perched in the uppermost branches of some tea timber.

Our driver pulls over, four of us climb out of the automobile, and then we hike up a slim course to be triumphant in the workers. The ladies wear scarves—some handwoven, some embroidered, and a few adorned with silver balls and other trinkets. The boys’s faces are cragged and as darkish as saddle leather from lifetimes spent in the solar. We pepper them with questions: How outmoded are these tea timber? What number of generations has your family labored as tea pickers? Attain you assignment your earn tea? These folks don’t seem too a good deal surprised to ask us or to hear our questions. It’s tea-picking season in Yunnan’s tea mountains, and at some level of the final few years more and more guests, together with myself, maintain plan in quest of Pu’erh tea—the Most mighty and picked up of the total enviornment’s teas—and to explore the birthplace of tea.




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The tea plant originated in forests in and around southwestern China. Whether rising on timber in the mountains of Yunnan or bushes on terraced hillsides in Sichuan, leaves must be delicately picked by hand.

Tea is the 2ndmost in vogue drinkin the enviornment after water. It used to be learned in 2737 B.C. by Emperor Shen Nung—furthermore identified because the “Divine Husbandman”—when some tea leaves unintentionally blew into his pot of hot water, or so the legend goes. For more than 4,700 years, tea hastraveled the enviornment, so that on the present time it’s grown inIndia, Nepal,Japan, Kenya, and other mountainous worldwide locations between the Tropics of Most cancers and Capricorn. Tea takes many forms—sad, green, oolong, darkish, white—but all of them plan from an evergreen plant referred to asCamellia sinensis.For centuries, tea has been dilapidated as a salvage of cash and to pay tribute. It has furthermore been taxed as a precious commodity. (Any American fifth grader can uncover you relating to the dramatic fair tea performed inBostonHarbor in the years main up to the Modern Struggle.) Tea is furthermore central to China’s three mountainous faculties of philosophical opinion. Confucius taught that tea would possibly per chance per chance well motivate folks value their interior tendencies. Buddhists catch that interesting tea is with out doubt one of the four ways to listen the tips—along with walking, feeding fish, and sitting quietly—to motivate link folks to the geographical regions of meditation. Taoists order that tea, which they settle for as an ingredient in the elixir of immortality, puts you in concord with the natural world. In other phrases, tea interesting is infused at some level of every facet of lifestyles in China. It’s half of on each day basis and for every level of society.

Many folks open up the morning by dropping a handful of tea leaves precise into a thermos to raise with them and top off with more hot water at some level of the day. On factual about any nook, men would be learned sitting on upturned crates or at modest commence-air retail outlets, interesting tea from glass jars and reading newspapers. Towns and cities across China maintain tea retail outlets for the on each day basis man and lady—with shelves lined with rattan-covered thermoses, gaily colored tins stuffed with different sorts of tea, and broad pots over commence flames for heating water. Many clients aloof wear their outmoded blue Mao matches or green militia jackets. In broad, successfully off cities, there are tea emporiums with interiors designed by Hermès and other internationally identified designers, where the clientele sips brews value hundreds of bucks from tidy cups and poured by ladies carrying frail silkqipaos.In offices, so-referred to as tea ladies pour unique brews for file clerks and billionaire bosses. For the country’s elite, tea is considered as a standing symbol, an funding different, and the precise reward to cement ties or developguanxi—connections. Even a low-grade tea would be precious to the proprietor. Sharing it plot sharing a like of taste, welcoming, and friendship. At dwelling, when company solution to seek recommendation from, the foremost inquire is always“Ni chi le ma?”—Rep you eaten yet?—that can be answered with a yes or a no. The 2nd inquire is“Ni he cha ma?”—Attain you drink tea?—that can be answered handiest with a yes.

I’m a lifelong tea drinker,but I’m hardly ever an expert, that plot that I need steerage on this outing. Many vacationers move on special tea tours or tackle at accommodations or guesthouses specializing in visits to the tea mountains. Others trip by themselves, relying on fair precise fortune to meet tea farmers, processors, and sellers. I’m traveling with Linda Louie, the proprietor ofBana Tea Firm, a little online company centered onPu’erh; tea importer and vendor Jeni Dodd, who does tea displays; and Buddha Tamang, the proprietor ofHorizon Bardu Valley Teaplantation and factory in Nepal. They are tea mavens, while I’m factual a author. As low woman on the totem pole, I scoot on the bump in the center of the motivate seat for many of the outing. Aspects of our trip were in moderation deliberate, with appointments along the plot, but a sexy decision of our encounters are the final consequence of serendipity: pulling up to a dwelling on the forest’s edge to focus on to a tea farmer who urges us to pattern his tea; walking thru a town, peeking precise into a tea factory’s courtyard, and being invited in; or wandering along a facet street, seeing what appears admire a tea store, and starting to focus on with the proprietor, who soon kills a rooster for our lunch.

Linda, Jeni, Buddha, and I first meet up inGuangzhou, where we seek recommendation from the Fangcun tea market, an awfully mighty in the enviornment, overlaying several sq. blocks. Then we hover thru Kunming to Jinghong, where we’re greeted by Li Lin, a retired schoolteacher, who now works as a driver at some level of tea-picking season. He’s exceedingly careful in the motivate of the wheel, telling us, “If I salvage in an accident with foreigners, it would possibly per chance really per chance well be very complex.” Soon we reach Menghai, a little town that serves because the launching level for guests to the tea mountains. Even when it’s leisurely, our hotel and the one across the street are aglow with lights and noisy with revelers. It’s tea-picking season, and these are tea enthusiasts, collectors, and sellers, who’ve solution to make enterprise and, it sounds as if, celebration into the wee hours.




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At Sichuan’s Mingshan market, customers can pattern different sorts of bamboo green tea
(zhuyeqing).

The following morning, after a frail breakfast of congee and a bowl of warm, unique soy milk, we move to the lobby to count on the arrival of Tea Master Chen Guo Yi. He sweeps in with the total charisma of a broad establish. He wears free pants that billow about his legs and an untucked denim shirt. He travels frivolously across the ground in kung fu slippers. All eyes are straight away drawn to him and his entourage. Other folks query of if they would possibly be able to settle photos. Tea Master Chen is that illustrious. Later, I’ll survey billboards with his likeness drawn 10 toes wide.

He first takes us to his Guangzhou 88 Qing Dry Store Tea Firm, where his partner, Mr. Liu, leads us thru a tea tasting. He warms agaiwan—a sure form of covered cup dilapidated for tea tastings—and little teacups with warm water. Then he mounds the gaiwan with free tea leaves. This tea is from the village of Laobanzhang, identified because the dwelling of the king of Pu’erh teas, that are prized for their musky, masculine qualities. Tea from this region can price as great as $8,000 per kilo, yet there’s a form of carelessness to the plot Mr. Liu pours it, permitting it to slosh over the sides of the cups, symbolizing abundance. Here’s no doubt the most costly and scrumptious tea I’ve ever tasted, and I’m extremely lucky to be a guest. Even our driver will get to take a look at out the tea, even though he takes a moderately sad ogle of the extravagance. “In Two decades, if the authorities changes,” he warns, “I’ll be OK, and all of you’re going to be in fret.”




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Teahouses enliven a street in Luocheng, Sichuan, where clients play cards or chess, change tales, and rap their knuckles on the desk to value they’d admire a top off.

Tea Master Chen asks me to ogle thehui gan—returning taste—that is intelligent to Pu’erh. As I sip the tea, taste rises from the motivate of my throat and fills my mouth with a minty, refreshing sensation. Here’s now not your grandma’s Lipton tea. Most tea comes from tea shrubs that are grown on terraces on gargantuan plantations. As a consequence, the leaves maintain a fixed taste. How they changed into Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, or English Breakfast tea is a subject of processing and post-processing. Pu’erh, on the other hand, comes from the feeble tea timber that grow wild in Xishuangbanna Prefecture. Among the timber are moderately a couple of of years outmoded, with many more than a thousand years outmoded. No person has watered, fertilized, or sprayed them. Since they’ve survived on their earn for see you later, the taste of the leaves from every tree is intelligent. Now not like other teas, Pu’erh would be brewed more than one instances. The first brew lasts handiest a couple of seconds, while the Tenth and even later brew can settle as long as 5 minutes. With every infusion, the flavour changes, coming from different aspects of the leaf and invigorating different aspects of the tongue. But what makes Pu’erh in actuality intelligent is that its nature changes with age in the same plot that backyard leaves change into mulch. (Pu’erh can age naturally or thru synthetic accelerated fermentation.) And, admire wine, its price grows over time. Other folks catch and indulge in Pu’erh teas that are 10 to 50 years outmoded. The tea can sell for $10,000 and up for a couple of grams.

Tea Master Chen takes us to the Tea Horse Former Avenue Scenic District, in Menghai County, which functions demonstration tea terraces, re-creations of tea warehouses, rooms for processing tea, areas where men and horses slept and ate, and the total paraphernalia that accompanied tea caravans. For over a thousand years, men carried 150-pound packs of tea on their backs thru rain, snow, warmth, and humidity overland in different instructions: to the capital, towardHong Kongand Guangzhou, toVietnam, Myanmar, India, andThailand. The excellent route used to be to Tibet, where the tea used to be traded for war horses, therefore theTea Horse Avenue. The change routes were active till the outbreak of the 2nd Sino-Eastern Struggle, as soon as they were repurposed to incorporate transferring troops and clinical supplies. By the time World Struggle II ended and the civil war started, the usage of the Tea Horse Avenue to transport tea had changed into ragged.




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On this Yunnan tea store, as in other locations in China, folks settle their tea straight with out together with any sugar or milk.

“Tea reminds us to decelerate and salvage away the pressures of standard lifestyles,” Tea Master Chen expounds as we plug thru the reveals. “It enables the newly successfully off to flee the poverty of the past and the unhappy to admire the finer things in lifestyles. Our residents would be cautious of what the authorities would possibly per chance per chance make, so tea is furthermore a unswerving solution to speculate our cash. I build in tips Pu’erh to be a drinkable antique. Tea is alive, and every sip, thru the mighty senses of taste and scent, opens our hearts to be conscious family, fancy, and hardships overcome.” While these sentiments would possibly per chance per chance very successfully be in particular factual for the Chinese, folks in other cultures furthermore survey in tea an different for respite, consolation, and calmness.

A pair of days later,Mr. Li drives us to Nannuo Mountain. Chen Xin, the proprietor of the Fujin Ji guesthouse, welcomes us with a tea tasting. The lodging is rustic, however the compound is dapper, and the views are magnificent. Chen Xin’s daughter and a chum create dinner the usage of ingredients mostly grown on the property: snow pea and fish soup, pork with mint, unique bamboo shoots, sautéed green beans with chilies, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes. After dinner, beneath the flickering light of oil lamps, Chen Xin leads a advise-along for his company, featuring in vogue Chinese songs to boot to Akha and other ethnic minority fancy songs.

Undoubtedly one of our prearranged meetings here is on the dwelling of Ahtu, who’s the patriarch of an Akha family successfully-identified for the usual of tea they grow. (TheAkhadon’t maintain surnames. As a replacement, the closing syllable of the daddy’s establish turns into the foremost syllable of the son’s establish, continuing for generations.) Ahtu’s village, as are all Akha villages, is easy to search out. The entrance is marked by a gate adorned with carved wood figures: a lady with engorged breasts and a particular person with his genitalia in proud, exuberant salvage. These sculptures, along with carved spirit animals across the gate’s beam, provide protection to the village from execrable spirits.

Ahtu’s sister, Ahbu, serves as our hostess. We take a seat in the family’s tea pavilion, tranquil of 4 bamboo posts with a roof made of thatch, while she pours teas, the usage of local spring water. When she speaks, she tucks her legs delicately to the facet along with her palms clasped in her lap. She tells us she picks between 10 and 20 kilos of tea leaves a day at some level of harvest season. “I’m gradual and careful,” she says, “ensuing from tea is a reward from God.” As we sip the liquid, she explains that tea from Nannuo Mountain has intelligent floral notes with hints of rock sugar sweetness. She reminds us, “You’re interesting history.” I query of relating to the changes that maintain transpired in the tea mountains at some level of the final decade. “We were fameless in the past,” she solutions with a smile. “We always needed to work. We walked in all locations. No person used to be paunchy. My family began to be less unhappy 12 years ago. That’s as soon as we bought electrical energy and equipped our first television.” She dilapidated her earn cash to clutch the family’s first washing machine.




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On mist-shrouded Mengding Mountain, an archway outcomes in the Royal Tea Backyard, with its Seven Tea Bushes acknowledged to were planted by Wu Lizhen, “ancestor of tea planting.”

Ahbu and her sister-in-legislation exclaim us every step of artisanal tea manufacturing: the answer to pluck tea buds between the thumbnail and elephantine facet of the forefinger, catch them in a basket, and later lay them out for their sunbath, which enables the preliminary wilting to open up. “We desire the leaves to take in the solar’s scent,” Ahbu explains. We every maintain an different to “assassinate the green” by tossing leaves in a giant wok positioned over a roaring fire. The aroma is intoxicating. The leaves crackle. It’s tough work, shoving gloved palms along the heated wok’s ground, then lifting and tossing the leaves, however it’s now not as tough because the next assignment. The hot leaves are positioned on a woven bamboo mat and kneaded admire dough to extract even more liquid. “When you don’t fancy tea,” Ahbu says as we lay out the leaves to relaxation overnight, “you would also’t create fair precise tea.”

Then it’s time for Mr. Li to power us down the mountain to Menghai and then up one other street toward Yiwu, one of the feeble assortment products and services for what were as soon as referred to as the Six Abundant Tea Mountains, a starting level of the Tea Horse Avenue, and the dwelling of the “queen of Pu’erh teas,” that are identified for their female, alluring, and shapely flavors. This day the town is in transition. Most of the fashioned structures on the foremost street were changed by concrete storefronts: beauty salons and barbershops, cafés, and little enterprises selling dry goods, create, and meat. Building noise and dirt absorb the air. That acknowledged, our hotel is standard and trim. It’s been in-constructed a pretend-Chinese palace vogue and caters to folks who’ve plan in quest of Pu’erh.




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Yunnan and Sichuan provinces are the foremost sources of tea in China.

On our first morning, we like at an commence-air stand, where fiery broth boils furiously in a broad vat and then is poured over freshly made noodles. An aspect desk supplies condiments in an effort to add to our bowls: unique chilies, cilantro, hot sauces, and a diversity of pickles. We take a seat on kiddie-dimension chairs around a low desk precise on the street. The opposite clients are admire us—men and ladies searching for tea. Most of them are Chinese, but there are a couple of Koreans and Eastern, too. Many of them are on the 2nd-messaging machine WeChat, planning to seek recommendation from farmers or talking to sellers relating to the volatility of tea prices. There’s a gold bustle atmosphere to the goings-on, a sense of folks making an strive to fetch an unknown vein, of procuring for their solution to data. Each person appears to be to be making an strive out the other clients: How affluent are you? Can I compete with you? Can I beat your value? One man sheds his caution, opens a valise tucked between his toes to level to us bundles of hundred-yuan notes, and asks, “The effect are you happening the present time? Who make you specialize in will maintain the handiest tea this year?” We’re obscure about our solutions, factual as he’s coy thru responding to our inquiries.

Yiwu is dwelling to 40 tea factories—now not counting the total mom-and-pop establishments—and every family picks and residential processes tea. We drink costly teas that maintain “hints of apricot” and cheap teas that price about 5 bucks a kilo and leave the mouth as puckered as sucking on an unripe persimmon would. We power on grime roads that seem to lead to the center of nowhere, however it appears we aren’t moderately as great in the center of nowhere as we specialize in.

Someday, bumping along a slim grime street that runs thru a tea terrace, a van comes at us from the reverse direction. It’s stuffed with tea tourists from Japan. While the drivers negotiate the answer to salvage the two vehicles past every other, the guests from the United States, Nepal, and Japan stand together on the hillside, change tea tales, and settle images.




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Under portraits of Communist leaders, chums catch at a teahouse in Luocheng, an feeble Sichuan town identified for its frail teahouses where generations maintain sipped and savored excellent cups of tea.

On our closing day in Yiwu, our foursome veers off the foremost chase to accept as true with for the historic starting level of the Tea Horse Avenue. It’s as if we’re stepping motivate in time. Many fashioned properties—moderately a couple of of years outmoded, made of unfired clay brick, with upturned eaves—stay. As we stride thru the serpentine pathways, we survey wide rattan trays stuffed with freshly picked tea leaves stacked on backyard walls, lying on patios, or perched on verandas so the leaves can maintain their sunbath. Earlier than every dwelling and in every courtyard, ladies—moderately a couple of whom wear the frail dress of their ethnic minority—take a seat around other wide trays mounded with processed tea leaves. These they style a leaf at a time, in accordance with grade and color. It’s unbelievably time-interesting, yet in all locations I accept as true with, the ladies are chatting, gossiping, and in most cases singing to while away the hours of meticulous work.

We reach the clearing that marks the open up of the Tea Horse Avenue. Large camphor timber provide colour as they maintain to maintain in the past. The road itself is made of cobblestones and is set 5 toes wide. It’s easy to think horses neighing, the bells that adorned their halters jingling, men shouting orders, meats being cooked over commence fires, and teams of laborers grunting as they hoisted the heavy packs onto their backs to affix their caravans. This day the clearing appears a tiny bit of lonely. Some children play in the decrease branches of a camphor. An outmoded man—toothless, bent with age, and supported by a selfmade walking stick—takes a day stroll along the storied street.

There are folks who order tourism has ruined Yunnan. Kunming has changed into too modernized. Dali has misplaced its appeal. TheTiger Leaping Gorgeand Lijiang are too crowded. But Xishuangbanna Prefecture’s natural wonders and deep cultural experiences are aloof mostly pristine, and tea supplies a sure solution to explore both. Some tea aficionados will uncover you that tea requires a lifetime of look for and dedication to completely indulge in it, however it would possibly per chance really per chance furthermore be skilled at its commonest level. To plug any street, seek recommendation from any kitchen, or move to any marriage ceremony in China is to admire the adage “Drink tea, create chums.”

This memoir used to be published in the April/Would possibly per chance per chance well well also merely 2019 fret of
Nationwide Geographic Travelermagazine. Practice author Lisa Seek on Twitter
@Lisa_See. Wife-and-husband describe group Tuul and Bruno Morandi are basically based in Paris. Practice them on Instagram
@bruno_morandi.

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