Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Pilgrimage, of Sorts

I recently got a break from the cold Beijing weather and made my way to Menghai County, in Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Prefecture, right next to the Burmese border. It's home to our tea factory, and a cultural/bio-diversity hotspot.

The county, in the southwest part of Xishuangbanna, lies well into the tropics, but at an average altitude of 1200 meters. It is one of the powerhouses of puer tea cultivation, and one of tea's original natural habitats. The rolling mountains around Menghai valley are interspersed with vast tracts of tea plantations and old growth jungle, dotted here and there with Akha (ch- Hani, Aini), Bulang and Jinuo villages. Most of the inhabitants of the valleys are Buddhist and Muslim Dai (Northern Thais).

Having finished my company business at the factory, I requisitioned a jeep and headed out with some coworkers to Bada, about a three hour drive up into the mountains. As we set out on Saturday morning, the entire region was enshrouded in a heavy fog. At some points the visibility was less than ten meters; temples, bamboo stands, people and villages would emerge from the nothingness as we worked our way up.

This is the famous mist of southern Yunnan that descends on the region every morning for much of the year. It immerses the forests and plants in a soggy mist before burning off in the afternoon, when the the canopy is bathed by intense tropical sunlight. The phenomenon is caused by the confluence of water-bearing Typhoon and Monsoon winds from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This, plus the combination of altitude and low latitude, is what endows Yunnan with such a rich and complex natural environment, and it's also what nourishes some of the world's best tea.

We first stopped off at Menghai Tea Factory's Bada plantation. This is a massive plantation consisting of older tea plants that are prized for their unique flavor and aging properties. The plantation takes full advantage of the winter fog, and is surrounded by rich forests that provide abundant spring water for the trees. When we got there, wild cherry trees were in bloom all over the farm, as were the tea plants themselves.

This is the time of year to prune the trees to induce branching and new leaves for the spring. Most of this was done by hand, with the farmers opting for machetes over clippers.

We spent some time with a farmer family, sampling their crop and chatting about their lives there. We sampled some summer tea, somewhat mature leaves that were picked after the first summer rains. Though pretty fresh, they weren't at all bitter, and gave off a rich, smooth flavor that stuck to the chest like molasses. These leaves had caught a smokey flavor from the hearth in the middle of the house, but the right amount of that can add character to a well aged tea. They gave me a big bag of the stuff to take home.

After lunch, we set back out for our real goal, the 1700 year old King of Wild Tea Trees, deep in the cloud forest atop the mountain. The abundance of ancient wild and cultivated tea trees in the region has led many experts to believe that southern Yunnan is tea's ancestral home. Sure enough, we came across a lot of younger wild tea trees in the forest along the way.

Our car could only go so far, so we met up with a local friend at the end of the road, and hiked in. The forest was so dense that it grew dark as soon as we stepped inside. Living in Beijing, it had been a long time since I'd heard so many birds calling. Ancient trees were everywhere, covered in orchids, vines, mosses and other stuff that I don't know the name for. This is definitely one of the most biologically diverse places I've ever been to.

We had just missed a rare bamboo bloom. Bamboo blooms are extremely rare, occurring in a given variety only once every few decades. When a variety of bamboo blooms, it all does so at the same time and promptly dies out. The forest was littered in bamboo carcasses. Who knows when I'll get my next chance to see this rare spectacle. If I had only shown up a week ago...

I must admit that it felt a little anti-climactic when we reached the King of Wild Tea Trees. When it was discovered in the seventies (our driver was part of the first expedition), the tree was over thirty meters tall. As is all too often the case with the world's cultural heritage treasures, the tree's first modern custodians didn't know much about how to protect ancient beings, and took various measures to 'protect' this tree. They tried things like cutting down nearby plants to let in sunlight and erecting a fence around the tree. The best way to take care of an ancient tree like this is to leave it alone. Many of the things they did disrupted the delicate balance that this tree flourished in for almost two millenia. The fence posts around the tree have surely causes a lot of root damage, and some assholes even carved their names into the tree's trunk. The tree has now lost almost half its height, and from the looks of it, may not last the century.

A little bit of silent contemplation next to the tree allowed me to see the tree in a different light. It was host to a thriving community of mosses and creepers, and ancient holes in the tree have probably been home to countless generations of critters. Though the tree was tiny compared to its neighbors in the forest, there was no mistaking that this was an ancient being.

The real depth of what I saw is still sinking in. This plant slowly evolved in this back corner of the world and was discovered and nurtured by an obscure and forgotten people. Somehow (check out the caravan entry) this little plant sired millions of offspring who went on to become one of the most economically, socially and politically important plants in the world, shaping cultures and markets, playing decisive roles in massive historic events from the Opium Wars to imperialism, the American Revolution and Indian Independence. Now a newfound interest in the most traditional of teas is reviving local traditional cultures, whose men can now earn as much money at home than they did when they traveled to far off cities as migrant laborers. These little leaves are also at the forefront of worldwide trends to return to traditional, natural and healthy ways of life. And it all started with an unpretentious little bush growing slowly and quietly among the clouds...


Pilgrimage - 朝圣 Chao2 Sheng4
Tea - 茶 Cha2
Ancient Tea Tree - 古茶树 Gu3 Cha2 Shu4
Primeval Forest - 原始森林 Yuan2 Shi3 Sen1 Lin2
Akha People (a branch of the Hani Nationality) 埃尼人 Ai1 Ni2 Ren2
Hani Nationality - 哈尼族 Ha1 Ni2 Zu2
Menghai Tea Factory - 勐海茶厂 Meng3 Hai3 Cha2 Chang3
Tea Plantation - 茶园 Cha2 Yuan2


chris said...

Hi Jeff- I think I saw your name a few months ago on a Pu Er newsgroup, and read your story about working for Menghai/Dayi with great interest. I live in Kunming, and am starting up a tea/accessories online shop from there as well as studying. I might be flying through Beijing in a few weeks on the way back to Yunnan-- if you're in Beijing in the first week or so of Feb. and had a spare aft. I'd love to meet up.


Jeff Crosby said...

Sure thing Chris. I might be swinging through Kunming before that as well. drop me a line at


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