Tea has been Asia’s beverage of choice for a thousand years, even as its origins trace back almost three millennia. For Jeff Fuchs—explorer, long-addicted tea aficionado—the journey into Yunnan province, China, is going back to where it all began.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
INthis heavy haze, absolutely nothing is obvious and the shadowy images become benign gargoyles that stoop and sweep through space. Sacred and ancient, these draped forms are tea trees that collectively comprise a forest whose contents have aroused an almost fanatical devotion—in others, and in myself. Tea has been harvested here for more than a thousand years.
In fact, tea’s blessed and rather humble origins can be found here, in southwest China, in an emerald region that is part of Yunnan province. Specifically, it was here, south of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau, that tea was born and from here that tea spread its potent roots and its addictive powers. Clippings and buds from these trees spread through China, as did legends of the curative powers of teas that originated in the southwest.
Tea in Asia has long been used as a cure-all: a deodorizer, a moderator of blood sugars, a liver and kidney cleanser, a diuretic, a detoxifier, a bowel cleanser, and a vegetable compound with more fluoride than any other plant matter on Earth. But tea has also been Asia’s beverage of choice for more than a millennia. For me—long an addict to the green—the journey here is a very willing step into nirvana.
This is quite literally a journey to the source of my obsession. I have come to see tea’s ancient home and its human minders.
I have come to pay homage to these most revered of tea-tree ancestors. And I have come to slurp back as much tea as I can manage in the next week. Two jolting and tea-less hours southwest of Menghai into the famed Bulang Mountains and my addiction and I enter one of tea’s venerated strongholds with an expectant glee. Stifling heat is kept at bay by cooling mists, which lock everything around into a soft-focused world of wet weight.
My comrade on this little tea-junkie jaunt is known simply as Xiao Di (little brother). A short bundle of energy, he has bright eyes and a shirtless paunch belly that he is constantly massaging. Two broad little feet remain unconstrained by shoes. He is, like myself, unable to resist tea for more than an hour and this mutual dependence bonds us as addictions do the world over. In perpetual motion, his restlessness isn’t at all nervous or strange. Rather, it is the kinetic activity of the perpetually tea-starved.
The two of us are being led through a sleek green world of swirling mists to a forest within a forest, a prized glade where the average age of trees is 700 years. Our guide is an intense and muscular local of the Bulang tribe, from the nearby village of La Ma Er. Leading us along a steep slope that disappears down to our left, he stops suddenly and points up. “Ahhhh,” he exclaims. The forest above is wrapping us in a tunnel of luscious, green foliage.
We are literally cloaked in tea—ancient tea. These tea trees are beyond old; they are, in the words of locals, gu shu, or ancient trees, and they create brews that are (at least to their proponents) nectar for the gods.
I stand in blue-hued beauty at just over 1,200 metres, staring at a forest of tea trees that range from 300 to 1,300 years old. I feel an overwhelming sense of awe that renders the body still.
My own addiction to the green came a decade ago, in Taiwan, when I accepted the invitation of a local friend to a tea-date—a date that would last seven hours, take in six litres of Oolong tea and introduce me to my first full-blooded tea high (interrupted by several desperate runs to relieve myself). The traditional teas of Asia are not the coloured dust favoured by the West. The tea that cemented my obsession was loose, twisted and curled and tasted of the very land—pungent, green and potent.
The people of the Bulang, along with their distant cousins the Wa and De’ang tribes, share similar dialects and are considered by many to be the fathers and mothers of tea culture (and for this alone are instantly beyond any kind of reproach in my eyes), having picked and perfected tea for 1,300 years.
Tea leaves grown in this corner of Yunnan, south of the Mekong River, will be produced and consumed as a raw, green Puer, a tea known for its bitterness. The village of Puer was, in the past, a tea hub, where buyers came from afar to buy tea from the south. In tea’s ancient days, the Mekong provided an unofficial northern border beyond which legitimate teas weren’t grown.
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Puer tea is essentially a green tea of the big-leafed assamica family that has been either fermented artificially (black, cooked tea) or left to ferment and age on its own (green, raw tea). In the case of the artificially fermented black tea, the moulds aspergillus and penicillium, are often introduced, working much the same way moulds enhance cheese.
But in this part of the world, tea will only be produced and consumed in its green state—no rushed fermentation, no manmade marinating in moulds. Puer is known within tea culture today as the ‘tea that gets better with age.’ As a Puer naturally ages or ferments, it loses its theine (stimulant compound), but gains in flavonols and tannins. It is the timelessness and simplicity of this production process that makes these teas and their ancient hosts so precious.
There are older trees and there are bigger trees in this tea mecca, but such consistently spectacular teas are the reserve of the Puer. For a Puer to be a Puer, say tea purists, there are three musts: the tea must be grown in Yunnan, it must be a leaf of the assamica species and it must be sun-dried. An absence of any one of these three qualifications constitutes a kind of fraud in the Puer world.
So precious are teas from this region that buyers (from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China) drive the often impassable rain-soaked roads to pick the tea up themselves. There is a huge counterfeit Puer market and many don’t trust the middlemen tea sellers, preferring instead to travel direct to the source.
Historically, those teas stubbornly made their way along trade routes heading to all points on the compass. Fearless caravans hauling bamboo-encased teas even made their way into the highest spires on the planet, the Himalayas, as early as the sixth century. It was tea grown in this (then-independent) region of Yunnan by minority tribes that made its way northwest through Burma and into the mighty Himalayan folds. (Tea would play an understated but central role in the relationship that Tibet would have with the Chinese dynasties for centuries being a vital component of any negotiations.)
In fact, the often overlooked Southwest Silk Road linking southwest China with Burma and finally Assam had at one point seen tea from southwestern Yunnan being planted along its route. Indeed that final destination, Assam, inspired the name of the tea genus: Camellia sinensis assamica. The word tea, actually a derivative of the Fujian dialect, tay, can still be heard in nations that received tea from that southeastern Chinese coastal province of Fuji.
Conversely, the teas that made their way overland by caravan would retain a semblance of the Mandarin word for tea, cha. So, tea in India, Tibet, Mongolia, Russia, Persia and beyond became cha, chai, jia, tchai or something phonetically similar. In many ways, tea’s cultural legacy has remained through a linguistic link to its ancient travel modes and embarkation points.
Still, while Sri Lanka’s hybrid version of Camellia was deliberately planted and produced for markets in far distant lands, China still keeps its most prized teas for domestic enjoyment.
The barely visible path in front of us dwindles until it too seems to lose itself in the clammy gloom of the dense tea-filled mists. Xiao Di has shimmied himself partway up a tea tree, giving those bizarrely capable feet of his a chance to temporarily steal the limelight. He fondles sacred, yet-to-unfurl buds, garnering another of his curiously erotic sighs. I sense his contentment and, more than that (or because of it), his need to imbibe.
The trunk that holds his gaze is almost a thousand years old, the leaves sumptuous, elegant and enormous. When one of these precious tea leaves is picked, it is about 75 percent water and when finally served as desiccated tea only about five percent of its moisture remains. Slow, natural drying best retains the complex tastes of a tea and, since nothing here is anything but slow and natural, this area is sacred ground for tea lovers.
In the wonderful Chinese lexicon that relates to all things consumable, there are two descriptors that deal specifically with tastes. Ko gan and wei gan eloquently explain how a flavour hits mouth and throat, respectively. The tea served to us in the simple, thatched hut of our host, Pe, redefines both terms. We have come in from the shrouded forests for a deserved taste of the famed Puer tea that, according to local vernacular, “cuts and releases.”
Pe grabs a handful of loose, dried leaves from a sack and throws them into a scarred and pitted tin pot that burbles atop a fire fuelled by twigs. The informal preparation is conspicuous for its lack of ceremony.Water, crucial in the tea world, will feed, enhance and ultimately reawaken the waiting leaves for their first and only performance in a pot. Tea and water are constant and necessary partners and where one is present the other is, by necessity, nearby.
Left for only a minute, the well-used tin pot is pulled off the fire and left to rest on the wooden floor in casual disregard of more well-known tea rituals. Elsewhere in Asia, much fanfare was made over tea-serving rituals. Ceremony was of massive importance and the minutia of that serving ceremony was dictated by place, time, company and, of course, the type of tea to be served. Not here. In this dizzyingly green homeland, southwestern Yunnan province, tea ceremonies and tools played only a minor role.
Tiny glasses are filled with a clear apricot-coloured tea and delivered into our sweating hands after the first servings (a whetting used merely to rinse glasses) are unceremoniously flung aside. Nothing stains the clear fluid of China; no additions of milk or cream, no sacrilegious sweeteners find their way into a cup. To this day, a Chinese tea sifu (master) will view any addition to tea leaves and water as either an attempt to cover some error in processing, or an inferior tea.
“Real teas don’t need a fuss,” explains Xiao Di. “Here, there is nothing to hide with ceremony.” His eyes hold the fire and conviction of the addict. I can feel the all-too-familiar ache in my molars that belies a need for a decent fix. It has been a full three hours since our last infusion of green.
Before my greed consumes me, Pe points out a slight oil stain on the surface of the tea—one that is only visible from a slight angle. A good tea, he says, will have this distinguishing characteristic. I tip the liquid into my mouth and a bitterness rips through it in a surge that almost burns. This initial bitterness is followed by a strange and rather pleasant second phase that seems dedicated to convincing the tongue that the bitterness was in fact a misunderstanding.
The ko gan is the first impression that hits the tongue. Textures, bitterness and sweetness all affect the tongue’s sensitive spots and in this case the bitterness runs rampant, somehow holding enough back from its assault to finish off with an almost fragrant departure into the throat. That departure constitutes in large part the wei gan, the finish.
In a kind of delicious irony, the best tea on the globe comes from the youngest leaves on the oldest trees—curled, infant shoots dusted in light, miniscule hairs. They are the source of some of the most restrained and fragrant flavours, and buyers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Japan (who pay homage in prayers to the honoured trees) are drawn to these damp, green mountains in search of tea harvested from these ancient leaves.
So valued are these teas that the leaves are clipped painstakingly by hand. Where many teas are harvested in the traditional “two leaves and a bud” formation, here the buds or leaves are often clipped as singles. Root systems plunging dozens of metres into the earth act as conduits, transporting minerals and essences up into the tea leaves and shoots through stems (which themselves contain many elements, including tannins and phytochemicals). One great danger for the Camellia species is flooding of root systems. For that reason, tea trees thrive on slopes and mountainsides just like this one.
Leaving our host’s small hut in a delicious state of tea high, Xiao Di and I are loose-limbed and sweat-ravaged. A brat sun has reappeared briefly to burn up the mists and offer up an entirely new landscape of tea. Everywhere in the tiny village rooftops, porches, streets and steps are covered in woven bamboo trays containing tea leaves in various forms of dehydration. Platforms of bamboo sitting high and protected by domes of plastic wrap allow leaves to be dried by the square metre. It is nothing less than a complete and utter tea town providing an irreplaceable source of much-needed income. In towns like this throughout southwestern Yunnan, tea is both an economic and social necessity, treated with a kind of animistic worship.
Five mornings later, I awake to the smell of rain-soaked wood and a horde of heckling hens rifling through the air. Xiao Di and I have travelled west, through the mountains, in our now dirt-caked Jeep seeking yet another sacred forest. Though my room is small, my setting simple, I am waking up in the town that produces possibly the most venerated tea in all of Yunnan and, some say, in all the world. Lau Ban Zhang. To even say the words within earshot of the tea-informed is to gain an eerie kind of respect. Raw Puers (unfermented) from this mountain bastion outside of Menghai are rare (and thus pricey). “To know a Lau Ban Zhang is to love a Lau Ban Zhang,” say many in the know.
I exit my room to a morning sky of soft peach hues. Subtropics and tropics alone boast these mornings: still, humid and fragrant. A forest dripping with last night’s rain surrounds the town and tea trees, some enormous, crane their necks while others seem to sit in a kind of deep meditation.
Here, the Hani tribes swoon over their ancient tea trees. Much like the Bulang’s teas further west, the tea is bitter by most standards, but has floral hints, subtleties that catch the tongue and (in the words of one local expert) “transport one into the very soil.” My host, a headman of the town, is lean and eerily handsome in a way that many of the indigenous men are. Glowing, tawny eyes and a pair of monumental cheekbones sit above an almost vulpine mouth. His manner is neat and his movements spare, but in him I sense a huge strength and an unending understanding of his environment. No unnecessary motion, no unnecessary words.
As the household around us quietly comes to life, his soft voice issues two commands in rapid succession. “Oo Sa Sa,” the melodic order to “eat” and then “laba dow,” “drink tea.” I immediately comply.
Tea leaves in this part of the world often end up being pickled, chopped up with chili’s and eaten, added as garnishes on dishes, or used as compresses for fevers and skin ailments. Here, there are no adjectives beatifying the otherworldly properties of tea, no references promising eternal enlightenment. Tea here is something entirely tangible, alive, its longevity being the only necessary accolade.
My fine-boned host, known simply as Lin, and I ease through the Lau Ban Zhang forests as the day’s heat increases. Beneath the shadows of the tea trees, the mid-morning temperature is mounting and with it humidity inundates the air in a sunny fog. After almost an hour of silent travel, Lin looks back at me, his muscular arm pointing to a ridge of dark green off to our left.
Climbing up we see a carnival of branches and exposed roots. Massive ancient tea trees, a thousand years old according to Lin. He carefully studies the leaves, the branches and the soil as he gently walks around the wide base, hands almost reverently clasped behind his back. This tea, Lin rasps, will be sold to a few select buyers and roughly an eighth of the take will be consumed by the village. In all, maybe a couple of dozen jin (1 jin = 0.5 kg) will be harvested in any one year.
We stand there in a kind of comfortable silence, looking up at this spectacle of vegetal longevity. Lin, for all of his knowledge and experience, has the face of a newly converted subject. His eyes shine in what can only be described as rapture and his mood seems to rub off on me. Eventually, he looks at me with those tremendous eyes and hisses that order I have been longing to hear: “Laba dow.” **
- Jeff Fuchs is a longtime Editor-at-Large for Outpost. He lived in the Himalayas for almost two decades and explores the ancient trails of human history (the Wool Route, the Salt Route, the Silk Road) and led our In From the Outpost PERU team across the Andean highlands in search of the spirit of ayni.