In an exclusive series for Outpost, explorer and editor-at-large JEFF FUCHS reflects on the fascinating people and indelible moments of his extraordinary expeditions, and the role tea has played along the way. In this installment, he writes about one of his favourite teahouses on the planet, run by one of his favourite people ever.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs | Outpost Travel Media
Where: Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan
The Tea: Yet To Be Determined
Mei is puttering around in the little tea shop muttering to me, to herself, and perhaps to the tea that lies stacked and piled around us both. She sweeps the floor as she does every single morning, whether the floors need it or not. The still morning air here in Menghai in Yunnan province’s deep south, is touched with wafts of an overnight shower that is now being burned off by the sun. Mei’s tea shop has just opened, and I am alone, listening to morning’s little noises take shape in a corner of China that is laden with borders into Southeast Asia and further north into Tibet.
A kettle has begun to burble and rattle as it nears boiling point, while outside electric scooters hum past. I am fixated on this gentle bit of sensory activity as I do every morning that I am in this enclave of Puerh tea.
It is a gentler city than most, as though it has never really shed its rural roots. It is a place of ferments, sour-spiced foods, and a place where bamboo shoots and a dozen edible ferns can still be harvested in minutes. For over a decade, I’ve returned every year (sometimes once, sometimes multiple times) to Menghai, and to Mei’s little shop of leaves, as one returns to a place that is both kind and familiar.
I return here as a procurer of teas, as well as for more personal reasons. I return to restore part of myself, and I return to sip and learn within such teahouses. I’ve always had a vague fear that these little institutions and bastions of tea and gathering might disappear. Tea shop numbers throughout a decade of my living in China dwindled as coffee expanded its tight bean-grip, and as the old notion of tea-shops-as-gathering-spot waned.
And so, to arrive here to Mei’s still-standing shop which (still) bubbles with locals and their tales, stirs the blood and reassures. It is the first visit I make upon each arrival to Menghai — to this little shop where tea – the stimulant – and its drinkers come together in a huge, beautiful stew. “Race” might be a better term than “visit,” for I do race to Mei’s shop on every single return here.
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Mei finishes with her sweep — which is 80 percent discarded tea leaves from the previous day — and installs herself behind a lacquered slab of an unfortunate tree trunk. This tea table is 10-feet long and never have I seen it entirely clean. It is like a kind of altar to all elements tea: vessels of clay and ceramic, cups, cakes, bags and bricks of tea all lie in a beautiful, scattered disorder. It is a calming mess of an aftermath of joy and rampant slurping, and nothing less than a devotee’s dedicated space to honour and revere tea and its partaking.
Mei herself is an evergreen figure in my life, seemingly unchanged in all the years I’ve known her. Warm in spirit and slightly frazzled always, she is one of the world’s relentless givers, and she has long been one of my very favourite servers of tea. She is of the Aini ethnic group, and from their nearby mountains and heat-filled forests come some of the most coveted teas on the planet.
Mei asks a question that is as familiar as the leafy space around us is: “Have you eaten?”
It is a question that is asked every time I arrive to her shop regardless of the time of day or night, like some sort of obligatory question, though it feels and sounds more like a mantra. After an affirmative from me, a second question is asked (which is just as familiar): “What tea do you want to start with?” This is the question I long to hear.
These two questions help to (re)entrench the sense of informal welcome; they are unchanged in over a decade of my returned visits. They also hint at where we are and what we are close to. Within an hour of here in any direction lie ancient tea forests that have been providing precious tea to kingdoms, communities, and rulers, for centuries.
Tea here is an alchemic mix somewhere between an eternal commodity and panacea for all that ails. Here, the leaf has long reigned as a currency and as placebo. It is a place where a kilogram of tea might drain one’s resources by hundreds or even thousands of dollars, though there is more to tea than curated leaves that can age and increase in value with time.
Here on every street of this little city, there are tea shops that will serve tea to anyone who walks through their awnings and doors…for free. Here, tea (Puerh, specifically) touches upon aesthetic art, medicine, mood fixer, and boutique collectable, depending on who one speaks to. But it is also something simpler, and utterly common — it is a facilitator available to all. None are denied entry into a teahouse.
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For friendship, for business, for curiosity, and for education of all things local, there is no finer or more erudite space to be than a simple teahouse. This particular teahouse is fuelled by tea/cha/茶 , which is served by an alchemist named Mei.
The taking of tea (and its time) is a divine and very secular right of all and for myself at least, there is no place that I’d rather be than here right now. The teahouse scenario is played out across the world of tea, but for sheer and timeless dedication and intensity, this little corner of China is hard to rival. The notion that one can sit for free, chat, sip almost any tea at any price for as long as one wants, speaks to something that is utterly humane, and right.
Mei nods when I mention that I prefer that she choose something for us to sip. She rifles through sample bags of loose-leaf tea (all of which is freshly harvested sheng, or raw, Puerh), rattling off names of some of the mountains and villages that are sources of this ancient medicine and fuel. “Mengku, Bulang, Nannuo, Lao Ma E, Ba Ma.”
The list goes on until Mei pokes her nose into a bag and says, “We’ll start with Naka.” Powerful, and carrying a heavy vegetal bite, Naka is a mountainous area to our north and west known for teas that in Mei’s words, “Don’t hide.”
Bold and powerful, Naka is a tea that grips the blood and soul in the first few sips, though regardless of what tea Mei serves, she always prepares brutally strong brews. Getting a good tea sweat going in this little shop takes but minutes.
Preparing our first — and very needed — dose of the day is straightforward. Mei’s phone rings, and she deftly grabs it with one hand while dexterously grabbing a small bunch of leaves and dropping them into a flared gai-wan (a lidded vessel of about 180 millilitres) with her other hand.
She rattles away into the phone in the local version of Mandarin (which has a distinctly “un” Mandarin informality), while she pours a first infusion atop the waiting leaves. A brief five-second wait and this first infusion is poured into two awaiting cups to rinse and clean them, but not consumed. Another infusion of ten seconds or so, and we have our first cups of the day lying in wait.
As I heave in the nectar that gives hints of mushroom, wet soil, and something powerfully vegetal, another figure comes in from the small street front. And another. The tea-shop’s day is beginning.
Guests greet Mei and I with a vague wave, and Mei (who is still engaged on the phone) smoothly cleans and pours another two cups. Mei is suddenly off the phone and immediately into a conversation with our newest sippers. Both are locals and friends who come in every single morning on their way to work, and in her effortless manner she introduces everyone to everyone.
Context here is given to each and every individual that comes through the door. The conversations range from a discussion about lottery tickets to a gossipy little chat about a niece who has been dating someone “much, much older.” Not once thus far though, has there been a single mention of the origin of the tea that I am woofing down in neat inhalations.
For the moment, tea is a panacea and is offering more than any topic of flavour profile or harvest date. While tea and its flavours and its prices might at some point constitute the main staple of conversation, stimulation, and sampling — for now, it is a facilitator of communion and conversation. In this moment, Mei’s teahouse is much more about convening, about bringing people together, than it is about sipping (or judging) a tea.
Mei’s little shop is providing a space and a staple need within the community. While the leaves and generosity of our hostess matter, so too does her “个性” (“Gèxìng,” or “personality,” in Mandarin). In these tea-obsessed parts, one’s “personality” and character contribute as much to the appeal of a particular teahouse (and the business of tea) as the tea itself does. It is akin to an ancient etiquette that cannot be overstated with regard to relationships. A teahouse’s host or hostess has long been — and remains — a necessary and vital element to draw people in and to keep people both as clients and friends.
In this very teahouse years ago, a concept was presented to me by a fellow drinker that helped explain a teahouse’s personality. His words, roughly translated, came out as: “One cannot recognize a great tea or a great moment in a space that isn’t sympathetic.”
These words, for me, summed up an entire philosophy of sorts, and hinted at the inextricable link between a teahouse, a teahouse’s host(ess), and the taking of tea. I took it to mean that one would find it difficult to fully appreciate anything if one wasn’t afforded the space or energy to enhance that moment…or the tea. As another tea-obsessed one noted to me: “Argue all you want, but the same tea will taste better in a tea shop you feel comfortable in.” In this, Mei and her understated informality have long served as a kind of timeless adhesive.
Mei’s teahouse welcomes two more local friends in quick succession, and they are sipping from their own cups in little more than a couple of minutes. The chat becomes more of an expanded discourse that runs the gamut of morning topics of interest, then spans to most places I’ve travelled to myself: to spouses, complaints, friends, food, and the odd bit of meaty gossip.
I am multiple cups in (with a serious tea lather forming) when I realize that still not one of the sippers has asked what tea we are drinking. It is as though, that while the tea matters, it doesn’t really matter. It is Mei that matters, and she warms to her task, elegantly and seamlessly keeping the tea flowing while managing all the various threads of conversations with something close to mastery.
Still more locals pile in for chats, sips, and opinions, and soon much of our sprawling table is re-inundated with cups and new drinkers. Just as some drinkers leave, others arrive, and in time the day’s rising heat begins to coat each new arrival in a slight sheen of sweat.
Mei is at one point managing to pour three types of tea for eight of us simultaneously, remembering who is drinking what without fail. She is the master convener, and the relentless soul of this little bit of shop. Business will be done, but the point of the teahouse extends far beyond economics.
It provides a sanctuary of time and giving. It is a space and time to share words, moments, and maintain the traditional bond with the community. This will extend favourably into the business sphere as well. All is linked, and though the quality of the leaves is of vital importance, it is the relationships and trust built here that will influence business. It’s as though by not obsessing about business and instead focusing on the human relations, business is enhanced.
Somehow midday arrives, and I sit in a slightly blinkered state of delirious tea-joy, watching Mei, admiring her. All of the sippers have departed from our little enclave of leaves for their next destinations. I have counted 13 total guests and drinkers who came in this morning, and not one purchase was made, and not one bit of money has passed hands.
Some of the friends and sippers will return later in the day for more tiny cups of vegetal power and more chat. Some will return exactly at the same time tomorrow morning. I’m ripped on a relentless succession of cups and now a hunger develops.
Just as Mei and I begin to discuss a lunch of noodles at a nearby shop owned by friends, two tea buyers come in who know Mei. They want to sample specific teas and they want to sample the teas in a specific order. Lunch will have to wait. Finally, within this bustling little teahouse, tea is actually going to be discussed and possibly purchased.
I tidy myself up for another tea session and Mei puts the kettle back on. At long last the business of tea reveals itself. Mei’s magic hands reboot and clean a set of cups and it all begins again. ♦
Jeff Fuchs is an explorer who can often be found in the mountains retracing the ancient trade and pilgrimage routes of human history, where he always makes time to stop for tea.