Wuyishan Oolongs – Rock Teas and Red Robes

Hangzhou’s immensity is somewhere north of us as we move south and then east speeding through dark fields and villages. We are zipping on one of the latest high-speed train lines away from the coastline and heading inland into darkness and the murky smoke trails that seem to hover. I’m in tenuous touch with my contact ‘Cindy’ who tells me to get off the train at Shangrao and then grab a cab to her clan’s lands at one of the epicenters of tea lore, Wuyishan Mountain in Fujian.

A first sip when arriving of the local specialty tea is always vital. Here a cup of Da Hong Pao is served up.

A first sip when arriving of the local specialty tea is always vital. Here a cup of Da Hong Pao is served up.

We’ve left the stronghold of Long Jing, its three precious roasts, and the stooped and wonderful little figure of Master Ting and we are moving inland into old tea lands where the teas are darker. Wuyishan is where some of the world’s dark delights originate and where some of the most complicated Oolongs go through their various stages of manipulation and art.

A little sniff or two never hurt either...many teas may be made simultaneously.

A little sniff or two never hurt either…many teas may be made simultaneously. 

Frank and I are ready at the Shangrao station to hop out. Our dinner consisted of some peanuts, a beer, a piece of fruit and in my case some sunflower seeds. We are edgy and eager. Night has long taken over the sky and now we must hop in a “legal cab” (Cindy’s words) and drive the 2 hours to Wuyishan’s epic Oolong fields where we can then relax.

Cindy and Frank enjoy some moments with the precious Wuyishan leaves

Cindy and Frank enjoy some moments with the precious Wuyishan leaves

Our legal cabby, who is driving a green Volkswagen Santana – after having negotiated a price with us that is actually less than what I’ve been told to expect – stops on the outskirts of town and transfers us to his buddy who is driving a distinctly black coloured Mazda. He tells us that this will make our ride more comfortable. I growl and moan while the two ‘buddies’ do their best to convince us that they are arguing. There seems no choice and after dropping some carefully placed expletives about the “system” here I make a show of photographing their license plates, announcing that I will send these photos to my contact in Wuyishan to ensure no little mishaps occur before we’ve sipped from the source. Frank looks to me and I look to him imploring him to simply have faith. It is often the way in this part of the world. Big, modernistic cities, and the accompanying ‘ease’ are falling behind us and that means adventures increase tenfold.

 

Wuyishan is hallowed ground for any who cherish tea. Home to the ridiculously pricey original Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) roasted ‘stone’ Oolongs, we are entering into lands that are as fabled as they come when dealing with tea. One of the most expensive teas in the world when originating from a select few terraces cut into stone and produced by one of the heralded masters, it is a tea layered in multiple stages of flavor and nuance and multiple spectrums of production. Oolongs here are created with a series carefully orchestrated stages, each carefully crafted and manipulated according to what has been passed down and what is dictated. Mere grams of a good Da Hong Pao can go for hundreds of dollars. It is sacred, sacrosanct and at times slightly ridiculous, but then I’m game to this lunacy of the leaf.

Cannot get more explicit that a sign...we've arrived

Cannot get more explicit that a sign…we’ve arrived

Our arrival in the middle hours of the night is the only thing on the mind. Arriving to Wuyishan at night, even with lights dimmed, it is clear that tea’s symbol for ‘cha’, dominates storefronts, door panels, hotel windows and even signposts. Cindy, who I’ve never met before, is waiting for us patitently. She is in the midst of tea production season and the shift work (fresh tea leaves are impatient fellows) has left its mark on her. She is blearly eyed, clearly ripped on tea, but still as generous and welcoming as a family member.

Our morning fix every single morning while in Wuyishan.

Our morning fix every single morning while in Wuyishan.

We sleep the sleep of exhausted addicts: wiped out and keyed up simultaneously.  Much as the Da Hong Pao prices, legitimate rarity and ‘at the source’ beckon us from bed the next morning I’m more interested in another of the region’s beautiful creations; another in the roasted rock Oolong family: the Rou Gui.

Many say that Oolongs have found their ultimate expression in Taiwan where technique, art, and volcanic soil have contributed to something sublime. Difficult, detailed, and in need of master makers who understand the timings for each stage of production, Oolongs are perhaps the most complicated of teas to create …and some would argue, appreciate. Wuyishan is one of the true origins of Oolongs and it is in the very blood flow and genes of the locals. The Da Hong Pao, the Xiao Hong Pao (‘little red robe’), Tie Luo Han (Iron Monk), and my beloved Rou Gui go through similar processes with varying degrees of perfection.

The landscapes reflect the care to retain the sanctity of the place. Great tea-scales inevitably have great water sources.

The landscapes reflect the care to retain the sanctity of the place. Great tea-scales inevitably have great water sources.

Our first morning comes in with a bowl of noodles in a little restaurant across from our hostess’s tea shop. The whole town is afloat in Oolong teas and buyers. Locals are racing between the fields, their little production bases, and their tea shops. Mornings are spent watching the sky, as the leaves should be plucked in the morning after the morning dews have evaporated but before the sun’s beams hit the leaves – at least that is the ideal. There are other varying times of acceptable harvesting but for Oolongs and for those that follow and create the Oolong path there cannot be too many variations. Here, Oolongs rule and their every step of production is vital and practiced. Every stage has a master and every master has an overseer and that overseer is an overlord who ensures that the entire procedure flows in a way that is consistent and utterly predictable. With Oolongs, accidents don’t often lead to ‘miracle’ teas the way it can with others. Great Oolongs are entirely a ‘product’ of superb procedure, wonderful soil, and consistent care.

A quick morning visit to Cindy’s tea shop and some introductions to what this region’s teas are all about is made. First off some of the venerated classic: Da Hong Pao. Frank and I both have bags that have been unceremoniously stuffed under chairs in the little shop space. Cindy’s husband is a quiet and comforting presence who is at once provider and finder.  He is also a collector of purple clay tea pots and paraphernalia and one of his prized pots rests on the tea table just to my right hand. It is burnished from years and perhaps decades of use and it gleams like a little maniac. Oolongs, ‘black’ teas, post oxidized teas (Puerhs) can be served in the porous purple clay of Yixing with the informal law that “one kind of tea for one pot” being crucial to adhere to. Flavonoids and vegetal proteins lodge inside with repeated additions of fully boiled water and a tea will ‘cure’ or flavor a pot over time so that it becomes the ideal vessel to serve a particular tea from. On this morning Cindy uses a simple white ceramic gai wan or flared cup vessel for ease of examining colour and rapid fire infusions. Rapid fire they are, but with Cindy every serving is something fresh and perfect, though she in all of her modesty claims that she is “only someone who knows tea a little”.

Frank and I taking yet more servings of tea. This little tea session was taken at a little monastery within the Wuyishan protected area.

Frank and I taking yet more servings of tea. This little tea session was taken at a little monastery within the Wuyishan protected area.

Cindy is made of tea it seems. Rampant energy, talking of nothing else, she knows tea from the soil to the very skin of the leaf and through the various stages it is a subject that is part of her. Her entire family for generations has produced Rock teas (called ‘yen cha’ locally), named for the fact that the teas generally grow in small terraced plots amidst stone and shadows where the teas must struggle to find a root-hold in the soils. Those that survive are strong and those that don’t, ebb away to wither.

Action central in a tea kind of way

Action central in a tea kind of way

Our firsts sips are dark brooding cups that push the palate this way and that with its baked essences. Frank holds his tongue and comment until a few more cups are poured in. While a classic the Da Hong Pao hits my own very subjective tongue in a way that is simply too much. A gorgeous rich tea that seems a little too complex perhaps for my palate. My request for a quick nip of Rou Gui is an entirely selfish one but one I can at least defend as something for Frank’s palate education. It is another of the famed rock teas but perhaps a little less famed than the venerated Da Hong Pao. Slightly less complex it has hints of nut and of the baking/roasting process and for whatever reasons it has always been a kind of favourite of mine within this complicated realm of rock Oolongs.

Some of the fabled terraces in Wuyishan

Some of the fabled terraces in Wuyishan

Our sips reveal these qualities and the offerings of Rou Gui that we are poured are that which we could scarcely afford (even though Frank and I who spend frightening amounts on teas we deem good enough). Smooth, strong and a taste that is reminiscent of the soya bean powder of Japan, known as ‘Kimako’. Slight roasted hints of nut without any sharp edges nor overly complicated layers. If copper could be sweetened with a hint of sugar cane and enforced with baked nuts, my mind’s palate tells me that it would taste a bit like the Rou Gui. Might sound a little disturbed but that is where it is at for someone who lives tea. Tea’s flavor ranges are enormous. The soil, the oxygen levels, the process, the hands, the heat, the day, one’s own palate will all affect a ‘taste’ to varying degrees.

A man (under watch of a guard) brings precious leaves out of the Wuyishan Mountains...precious stuff!

A man (under watch of a guard) brings precious leaves out of the Wuyishan Mountains…precious stuff!

Sips and days later and we have taken in an ever widening assortment of teas; meals at all hours in houses, shops and fields and finally a day comes when the timing is right to see one of the homesteads where most of the full processing is done.

Stone teas struggle to find a root hold but when they do, they are the basis for rare masterpieces.

Stone teas struggle to find a root hold but when they do, they are the basis for rare masterpieces.

Old homesteads that were once within the actual Wuyishan Mountains were moved by government to nearby lands in past decades to ‘protect’ and preserve the mountains and their very vital leaves. Cindy’s family now occupies a complex of homes, and each family group has their role to play in the process of the annual offering of semi-fermented teas that fetch wondrous amounts of cash.

The soil at the base of the root system allows for oxygen to pass through and for moisture to drain...perfect conditions.

The soil at the base of the root system allows for oxygen to pass through and for moisture to drain…perfect conditions.

We enter into a compound where leaves lie on carefully laid out netting and sheets during the first of their withering cycles. Smells of food accompany the sight of the sleeping bodies of shift workers passed out on couches. Shift work is a 24-hour cycle during which the leaves rule.

Getting to and into the Wuyishan reserve is by pathway and pathway only.

Getting to and into the Wuyishan reserve is by pathway and pathway only.

We head upstairs to where another withering room for the second cycle lies tucked away and then wander into a special room that I’ve been longing to see. It is the room where fermentation (in this case partial fermentation) takes place. Here the smell is as close to a narcotic of baking and vegetal sweetness as I’ve ever encountered hits the system. It is a golden smell and a golden room in my frame of reference. Fermentation and its manipulation is what makes an Oolong, an Oolong. Known in China as a ‘blue’ or partially fermented tea, it is the tea that occupies the middle kingdom between green and red or black offerings.

Withering leaves for their first cycle lie outside the main house

Withering leaves for their first cycle lie outside the main house

Here, fermentation is encouraged with heat. Heat is generated by way of smokeless bamboo charcoal which is blown through a long pipe into a huge cylindrical silo, in which Leaves are piled high. The silo is able to rotate which thereby turns and ‘flips’ the tea leaves within to open up and allow equal amounts of heat and oxygen to interplay.

A second withering session in an enclosed and shaded room

A second withering session in an enclosed and shaded room

A master of this particular portion a heavy set young man quietly marches into the room to pull his hands through the leaves smelling them as they rest before his busy nostrils. He studies the edges looking for tell-tale signs of oxidizing and the slight red tinges along the leaves length that accompany this process. He smells (he explains later that there is a smell when the “leaves are moving from one stage to another in their process”), and he feels for a suppleness in the stems and skin.

Sipping later just metres from where all of this frenetic on and off activity of caring for the leaves is taking place, Frank and I marvel at the concentrated focus that applies to the creation of an Oolong. It is perhaps the most complex tea to create well, needing master hands and an absolute adherence to a system. It needs too a marketplace that appreciates and will pay for the privilege of sipping the exquisite  fluid.

Meals, love, family members and time are all needed in this process. Expertise is needed and a kind of fearless devotion and desperation almost are vital, otherwise traditions will simply be overhauled in favor of higher yield, faster production methods which seem to plague so much of Asian tea zones.

An ancient staircase built into a wall to access the terraces

An ancient staircase built into a wall to access the terraces 

For now at least it seems that the Rock teas are safe (though fakes and hastily created falsies abound) and the relationship between the hands and the leaves remains strong.

Purchasing a box of random and not quite so random leaves (in my case a good dose of Rou Gui from Cindy), Frank and I are off once again to the train station for yet another overnight journey north with a lot of tea and two bottles of red wine that ‘might’ be good. Yunnan’s Puerhs and my old home wait further west and south.

The young 'master of the fermentation' takes a nice snort of the leaves

The young ‘master of the fermentation’ takes a nice snort of the leaves

 

 

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Green Tea – Long Jing’s Three Roasts and One Roaster

 Long Jing - Jeff Fuchs

Amidst the green of the little tea garden in front of me I realize that it lacks some of what I love of further west. Here in Hangzhou’s perfectly sculpted tea bushes it feels curated almost and lacking in the slow-speed, slightly chaotic forests of tea trees, thatched roofs and 4 hour meals that my home of a decade has.  Also at present I’m feeling the effects of being ‘under-tea’d’. The morning is flat and not enough tea was consumed, so there still remains a slight edge in me.

Long Jing - Jeff Fuchs

I have some time with a master

Frank and I are on a tea sourcing-sipping-meeting of the tea and people voyage and right now in China’s south east we are amidst one of the old classics: Long Jing (Dragon Well) tea. Here, south of Shanghai this slightly organized journey is beginning and though I miss my old home of Yunnan with its sour spice, darker skins, and red-clay soils, I am feeling something that is akin to love. We are not after lore or fantasy; we are after the leaves, how-to’s, and the precious hands (and if not hands, the dreaded machines) of the green leaf. Drinkers of the legitimate kind speak of the vital need to see the source and to meet the creators before judging or buying a tea, particularly one which is so faked, manipulated and lauded.

A master works

A master works

Our itinerary is flexible but we are intent upon reaching three hubs of tea in China: Hangzhou of the Dragon Well green, Wuyi Shan of Oolong fame, and my haunt of haunts, Xishuangbanna of Puerh fame. It is in this way that we hope to dig a little deeper into how the teas are made, why they are special and of course to settle our own thoughts on them. Both Hangzhou and Wuyi are in the southeast where trains and planes rule and where the science and knowledge bank of teas and culture are huge. Far to our south and west Yunnan’s sub-tropical south and indigenous heartland await where technique is sometimes suspect but where the raw materials and occasional genius stirs the very blood and soul.

The 'Office'

The ‘Office’

Early morning air is cool and apart from my rude thirst all has gone well this morning. In front of me is one of the highlights of the morning. Bald, stooped, and bucktoothed, the figure hunched over the pan of roasting leaves is a character that has already become slightly iconic in the brief time I’ve met him. He is a master maker of Long Jing teas. His ancestors made tea and he and his clan cultivate, harvest, wither, fry, roast and dry teas that according to a local friend are “sold before they are made”. His teas sell for huge amounts and are anticipated because of an unerring adherence to consistency and procedure. He is in a way kind of a deity; a rarefied being in a world that so craves authenticity.

Long Jing post second roast - and a smell that cannot be taken except by deep inhalations

Long Jing post second roast – and a smell that cannot be taken except by deep inhalations

Master Ting sits handling a small artisanal amount of leaves (perhaps amounting to 200 grams) and answers a question I have. “How long do you keep the leaves roasting like this?” Without missing a beat he tells me ambiguously but poetically “My hands know when the leaves are done”. While I wonder at minutes and times he gives me an answer that is genuinely of the earth…or perhaps deliberately ambiguous. It matters not. I equate it with being a chef who’s enduring legacy is that they never reveal one crucial ingredient or stage in producing a masterpiece.

Nothing but Long Jing, near Long Wu village

Nothing but Long Jing, near Long Wu village

Long Jing’s green flat shape is faked to the point where genuine drinkers will only go to the source or to their particular dealers (who themselves go to the sources) to access the teas. Small green leaves withered, sent through a machine which gently dries and flattens them, then onto the first of three careful small-batch roasts on low heat and then ready. Frank, himself a dedicated drinker of all things ‘tea’ lets out the occasional sound of lust as that very particular kind of creamy green scent is released with the roasting.

Tannin stained masterpieces

Tannin stained masterpieces

Our master’s hands are a calm flowing movement of the leaves gently cupping them up and letting them slip through his fingers. The key here is the low heat, the timing and of course the grade (size) of leaf. Before us he is massaging a batch of end buds which will fetch upwards of $600.00 US for a kg. Whatever methods of consistency he is accustomed to, his eyes gently gleam and he treats the leaves with a caress rather than any piston like efficiency even after all these decades. It is this which is endearing me to him in quick time.

Long Jing - Jeff Fuchs

Our fixer Ling has left the little structure where our master works. The extent of this room is about 2.5 metres by 3.5 metres and every single item in the room is dedicated to producing or consuming tea. While nearby Hangzhou disconcerts with its immensity (somehow still attractive), this little village could be described as one of the leaf.

Gentle heat and a slight flattening before the first roast

Gentle heat and a slight flattening before the first roast

The production of tea stops suddenly and the little master scurries over to a corner to produce two simple water glasses which are filled with a few of the long flat Long Jing leaves. Water is poured (after being boiled and allowed to sit for between 6-9 minutes…he is absolutely detailed in this fact at least) into the glasses and our little light green leaves float and sink.

Loving the potent and vegetal forces of Puerh, I expect that somehow my palate will not be moved by the famed creamy grassiness of the Long Jing. Not so. Though entirely consistent with the almost bakery-like creaminess of the roast, the soft layers do hit the palate in nice soft waves and are distinguishable though there is that slight hankering for a jolting burst of something more encompassing. Not a big matter as within the vehicle that brought us here this morning I have a small tupperware of my sheng (raw) Puerh.

An end product ready for sips

An end product ready for sips

“It is light and should never be bitter. Bitterness should never be part of a Long Jing” we are told by the master who continues with another batch of roasting. Faked and forged, Long Jing’s are some of the most difficult teas to ensure are in fact what they claim to be.

I have been on that vaunted list of being duped and there is no better way to cleanse the soul than to go to the crucible of the stem, leaf, and cup. Now, here, just a meter away from the most legitimate Long Jing I will find, I feel somehow avenged.

Our little master at one point rises and assists in pouring two simple water glasses full of water that have in his words “been boiled and left to sit for 6-9 minutes”. On this point he is clear and without any ambiguity.

Leaves in water and nothing else needed but a cup

Leaves in water and nothing else needed but a cup

Pale yellow liquid remains after our leaves have sunk and sips are taken. The tastes reflect the smells I’ve taken in and our little master stands clearly waiting for the first bits of fluid to be taken. His little wizened figure is stooped but animated and he is like any creator the world over: expectant, sensitive, and competent with a touch of pure confidence in his own ability.

Light wafts of roasted grass come out of the glass. Good, creamy and light but…it lacks the bite I need of a tea. It’s vegetal tangs and strength are hidden somehow and though subtle the cream sensation isn’t enough. A masterpiece perhaps, but tea like so many other subjective elements is as wide ranging as there are mouths and palates and for myself I’ll simply sip back as much of the creamy sweetness as time will allow.

Delicious sweet touches and roasted grass soothes Frank and I but it will not sate. Our master seems content enough to allow us to take in as much as we can and there is that ever so slight urge to pocket some leaves.

Two 50-gram bags do make their way into both Frank and my packs for memories of this little artist and his long flat leaves.

Wuyi Shan’s potent and complicated Rock Oolongs await further south and until then I’ll still be pulling leaves out of my own stash of Sheng Puerh.

Thanking the master there is that desire to thank him for not only being so integral in the life of a leaf but also to thank him for taking the time after so many decades to continue to simply persevere and care.

What it is all about...at last.

What it is all about…at last.

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A Little More Winter

Winter in the Himalayas “Often leaves in small stages…but sometimes it simply leaves one night” says Kersang from her village near Deqin in northwestern Yunnan. It is still ‘spring’ of this year when she says this. Being Tibetan she feels the winter and sees it as something more than simply cold but rather as a time.

Winter - Jeff Fuchs

Spring this year is but a word as snow still lines the mountains and the north-facing valleys padding everything in white muted padding. Winds are constant and there is a tang of snow in them still but the snow itself appears immovable once it hits the ground. This winter has seen more snow than in previous years and the cold reminds Kersang of winters decades ago which pleases her. Winters for her are a time to shut down, get out of the fields and spend with ones who matter sipping tea near to a fire. It was a time when the temperature and risks enforced a slowdown in all things and all expectations

Winter - Jeff Fuchs

“Winters should be winter” she says simply and I couldn’t agree more.  The water-ways that flow out of the great mountains: the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween and all of their dozens of tributaries all run low, clear, and cold as they too slow down and reflect the heights’ health.

 Winter - Jeff Fuchs

Another season journeying in northwestern Yunnan with the cold still sitting deep in the earth has reminded me – and in many ways reassured me – that all places and people need winter to bring about a break, a change, a consideration of things and perhaps just a grand expanse of nothing.

 Winter - Jeff Fuchs

In the days of the Tea Horse Road, the idea of  ‘Gung’ka’ (‘winter’ in Tibetan) was a loose and flexible one, particularly when it applied to traversing the mountains.

Winter - Jeff Fuchs

“Snow could come anytime. Winter only meant that it would be colder” said old trader Tenzin years ago when speaking of the months’ long expedition to bring tea, salt, wool, and all things desired into the mountains. Winter was not a time of bleakness but rather of silences

Winter - Jeff Fuchs

Another sage trader of the route, Kalsang of the ancient Tibetan kingdom of Jol had another gem of eloquence about the seasons. “Seasons are simply times in a year. They are a measure, not a fact”.

 Winter - Jeff Fuchs

Eternal friend in most mountain journeys Sonam, tells me this spring that winter is once again beginning to assert and lengthen and intensify. He feels it in his bones differently than when he was young.  We travel together bound by memories of the same landscapes felt and seen at different times of year.

 Winter - Jeff Fuchs

For many – beyond even the Himalayas – the idea of change and of marking time and flow is based upon the seasonal ebbs at the end and beginning of every year. It is no accident that ‘losar’ (Tibetan’s New Year) begins when the temperatures drop to their lowest levels.

Sonam (aka Spiderman)

Sonam (aka Spiderman)

 When things are this dry and still, the structures of men seem more vulnerable themselves while the elements of the natural world take their time to issue shape and form. Roads are vulnerable, fence-lines hidden and snow obliterates many of the signs of habitation which I’m sure suits the elements fine.

Through the snow I go

Through the snow I go

Sonam tells me one day as we trek up a segment of snow covered earth that he thinks “The winter might last a little longer this year. It might remember itself”. I thought his words perfect.

A barren summit, pass, or pathway in winter for locals is in fact a negative sign like this one in northwestern Yunnan

A barren summit, pass, or pathway in winter for locals is in fact a negative sign like this one in northwestern Yunnan

A little more winter wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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Mountains and Their Precious Rivers

Rivers - Jeff Fuchs

Returning to northwestern Yunnan’s snow-clad mountains and their precious waterways. We’ll wander up the Salween River (pronounced Gyalmo Gyul Chu and written རྒྱལ་མོ་རྔུལ་ཆུ། in Tibetan) to the eastern extension of the Himalayas and a slow route south along portions of both the Mekong (pronounced Dza Chu in Tibetan and written རྫ་ཆུ) and Yangtze (Ma Chu at the source and written རྨ་ཆུ) Rivers.

Mountains - Jeff Fuchs

All of these waterways find their way off of the Tibetan Plateau and collectively they chart almost 20,000 km’s striating and convening as they journey to distant seas. Long coveted by the people within the mountains as living beings, the waterways are fast becoming the most coveted items to many beyond the ‘hills’.

Water - Jeff Fuchs

Tortured and utterly precious, the rivers are the arteries of the mountains, fed by glaciers and deep springs. Journeys that begin as begin as numbingly cold and clean descend to become barely recognizable. For centuries the rivers acted as not simply sources but as guides for the traders, pilgrims, and wildlife of the mountains.

Mountains - Jeff Fuchs

Winter’s snows are still atop the mountains that hang and feed the rivers – a perfect time to be there.

Water - Jeff Fuchs

As the nomadic Yi often say of the rivers, “As long as the water makes a sound, all is well”.

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A Brilliant Bit of Puerh Sampled…at Last

Almost ten years ago a particular Ban Zhang Puerh came gently into my life while sitting, ironically, in another tea town kilometres away. It wasn’t my first Ban Zhang experience but rather the first Ban Zhang experience that thoroughly impacted. This impact came not from the taste itself (for that was only to come much much later) but rather because of the generosity and tale of how the tea came to me.

An end view of the tea cylinder

An end view of the tea cylinder

 My annual jaunt to sample and procure in southern Yunnan had brought me deep into the Bulang Mountains to Lao Ma E village. At that point in time the village hadn’t quite yet gotten its consistency of tea production right, though it had stupendous raw materials in the form of its ancient tea tree forests. Its teas more often than not had remnants of dust, chicken feathers and all manner of goodies (some hidden, some not) within its teas. Goodies or not, the resultant state of tea-drunk that I was in, acquired over days of sipping had created a strong and not-unpleasant film in my mouth and across my teeth.

Meanwhile just ‘down the dirt track’ in Ban Zhang , its teas were already powering their way upwards becoming an astonishing village-artisanal-tea  (with the requisite astonishing prices for those special teas).

Sitting exhausted and absolutely ripped on days of samples and stimulant highs, I sat on the floor of a local family home along with another tea buyer, from Guangdong. I had met him a year previous in another town and in my mind referred to him as simply ‘Bamboo’ for his long bent body. He knew his teas and was one of the rare buyers I’d encountered who took chances with teas that he wasn’t certain of. Rare in the sense that not many mainland buyers take risks in sampling teas that aren’t going to necessarily ever sell. He enjoyed all teas for what they were and knew not simply the teas that sold but knew the people who produced almost every tea available in southern Yunnan. He had the requisite passion for people that some (though not nearly enough) within the tea world have.

A side view of the tea cylinder complete with the bamboo skin residue on the surface

A side view of the tea cylinder complete with the bamboo skin residue on the surface

We sat chatting comfortable in the knowledge that we weren’t competitors but rather fellow devotees of the leaf and the people behind the leaf. You tend to share more when there is that unspoken but entirely understood knowledge that our clients were never likely to be crossing over.

Discussions between buyers of tea often run the gamut of which tea’s from which villages and regions we had sampled, how we felt about production this year, and basically anything Puerh related. It is a time of equals or nearly equals and certainly of equal love of the leaf that involves gossip, guess-work, and notes on flavours.

An end wedge broken off reveals the inner leaves, which often gives a better idea of a tea's legitimacy

An end wedge broken off reveals the inner leaves and bud content, which often gives a better idea of a tea’s legitimacy

It was at this point that he unfurled a long rolled up towel of various tea shapes – all meticulously labeled – and presented me with a gift. A gift of tea from those that spend much of their lives obsessing over and shooting back liters of, it is something of an offering of a lifelong bond. It is a desire to share something special, potent, or simply something deemed good. This little collection of dried beauty in a half a dozen shapes and sizes were part of his seasonal collection of teas that he had found “interesting” (and yes, “interesting” is a legitimate description in the tea world). The ‘gift’ was an eight-inch tube of compressed Ban Zhang tea in raw form. Bamboo informed me in his rapid-fire nasal twang that it was a tea I would thank him for introducing me to, but would regret because of its inaccessibility (here he clearly meant availability and the ludicrous prices that such a tea could command). He referred to it as an astonishing tea that I should only sip after five years. Whether it be a Pu erh cake, a nest, a brick or cylinder, formed or compressed Pu erh’s are revelations of flavours every time they are unveiled. Leaves in their compressed forms age differently than do a pile of loose leaf tea, with the friction of the compression creating its own signature on a tea.

Ban Zhang teas have steadily increased in value (though some might argue the point) and this gift was in a rare cylinder form having been recently made by Dai artisans who acquired some of the precious Spring harvest. One of the most ancient forms of compressed or formed teas, the cylinder was long a method of creating compact shapes ideal for the transporting of teas and was – and still is to a degree – a bit of an art form in itself. Though the tea itself was not cultivated by the Dai people, they are one of the creators of such teas in this form. Ban Zhang teas have reached a kind of pinnacle of price point in the world of Puerhs, so much so that its teas regularly sell out before the teas have even been harvested regardless of price. Sumptuous raw materials, a name that is almost fabled, and an ever-increasing standard and consistency has taken this tea into the arena of legends.

The leaves unfolding in their first ever experience with a flared cup

The leaves unfolding in their first ever experience with a flared cup

Steamed and in a forced into fragrant bamboo husks (a particular species of bamboo) the Dai create leaves that are fragranced slightly with their time within the husk, emerging as masterpieces. Quality tea leaves with added manipulations would in some portions of the tea-drinking world be sacrilege…unless one’s palate for risk and adventure is high. Any Puerh deemed respectable or otherwise can find itself being prepared for this immersion into bamboo, but usually it is a tea that is considered excellent to start with, as the process is not common nor is it one that just anyone can perform.

——-

Presently and finally that tea cylinder lies uncovered in front of me after thousands of kilometres of travel and almost a decade of intention. Four years ago I wrapped it in a layer of light paper from a Dai village to wrap it. Having sat in a box untouched since then, and never sampled, it now sits awaiting its dousing with hot water. It is just after 4 pm in the afternoon and it is almost the time of the first harvest throughout the tea world. Spring teas the world over are awaited with something akin to a slightly paranoid lust. Considered by many to be the harvest of all harvests, drinkers are also wary of the famed fakes that abound.

A first round infusion

A first round infusion

Hawaii may not be a place that strikes one as tea country but in the words of one of my tea mentors “A good tea takes you into the earth of its birth”. My stained and loyal tea table provides the setting.

My own imminent travel back to Yunnan has reminded me of this tea and it seems a fitting time to sample and remember how it came into my hands and pay a little tribute to that man Bamboo.

 The cylinder is tightly compressed, with the light delicate strands of the inner layer of bamboo adhering to its surface like threads. Part of the delicate flavouring of the tea comes from this ‘skin’ and it is not simply any bamboo which can be used but rather a delicate version, which is available in the autumn months.

Whittling away an end of the cylinder a wedge comes off with a slight satisfying crack of noise. I’ve already decided that there will be no first throw-away rinse of this tea but rather a long infusion time to loosen up the tight compressed leaves and a contented swilling down of the first round. I’m not going to waste the water nor the precious first opening round of this special tea. The description those years’ ago from Bamboo of this tea being “astonishing” come at me into view as I prepare.

Peeking in to watch the leaves unfurl

Peeking in to watch the leaves unfurl

In the subsequent years since receiving this gift I ran into Bamboo three more times as we charted our respective courses through the Puerh lands of southern Yunnan and each time we’d share teas, stories, whisky and he’d inevitably ask if I’d sampled the tea that he’d presented, to which I could only shake my head. Then I lost track of him and his wondrous tea ended up in one of my boxes of neatly arranged artifacts of tea. I think of Bamboo and his life now and wonder where he might be and what his tea collection might look like. I think too of the wonderful generosity of that moment and how simple most of the most cherished gifts inevitably are.

This first infusion – so maniacally important to some and casual to others – takes a long while to inundate and break into the solid compacted shape. The fully boiled water though, works its own bit of magic and it will not be denied as it slowly breaks up the tightly held together leaves.

Good amounts of white end buds appear and unfurl. The colour retains a fairly light apricot hue given that this tea has aged almost ten years. I expect more colour but as I watch there is a hint that it will in fact continue to darken over the course of successive infusions.

The wonderful 'end pile' of what is left. The 8 grams made 9 superb infusions without losing strength

The wonderful ‘end pile’ of what is left. The 8 grams made 9 superb infusions without losing strength

Scent-wise a coppery-earth smell comes up out of the steaming leaves and the first sip is a powerful jolt of initial iron and soil that hit the sides of the tongue. It gives way to layers further in the mouth with a touch of smoke and some soft but unrelenting notes of brown sugar. The finish is a sweet one as any great tea endeavors to do as it disappears into the throat.

Bamboo has left its impression, softening the powerful Ban Zhang flavours and introducing some sweet touches. A second infusion softens but lengthens in time and experience as further layers of the leaves are revealed and the whole mouth can take part. Age has softened edges but with classic teas like Ban Zhang that are produced well, those edges remain ever so slightly and strength is retained. Bamboo has added soft nuances that are unmistakable and almost loam-like. The colour has in fact darkened and this raw Puerh’s transition tint-wise is one of the proofs of its ageing.

Two differing bamboo offerings from my collection that both show some of what makes this particular offering something special. Exposed buds, stems, and compressed leaves.

Two differing compressed bamboo offerings from my collection that both show some of what makes this particular offering something special. Exposed buds, stems, and compressed leaves that develop with time differently than a loose leaf bunch.

There haven’t been too many sips taken in my days of tea that don’t take me back to where the leaves and people of the leaves reside but this particular session hints at something all-encompassing. Produced by Hani, grown in the famed red clays of the greater Bulang Mountain, and ‘curated’ by the dominant minority of the region, the Dai, this experience is one that feels ‘entirely Yunnan’. Age has nicely rounded off the edges of this tea and will continue to over time. With Puerh cakes or cylinders one of the great beauties is that one can never be entirely certain of which tea will age well and become something better. Right storage might help and great raw materials and carful production cannot harm,but there is still a kind of random bit of alchemy involved.

As one of my old tea mentors once remarked during a tea-taking session, “What you taste when you know what has gone into creating that tea is an entirely different sensation than that same tea served without its story, without its hands”.

A view into the cylinder itself revealing why compressed teas were so popular long ago for ease of transport

A view into the cylinder itself revealing why compressed teas were so popular long ago for ease of transport

For now at least my hand remains perched contentedly upon the cup in front of me.

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The Ancient Tea Horse Road – Now in Portuguese

As an old trader along the Ancient Tea Horse Road once remarked to our team as we traveled through his village, “You all are lucky because you can read, you can write, and can tell a story that many will hear. I cannot read or write…I can only speak if there is somebody listening”.

Dandee Pinchu (tea trader, brigand, bodyguard, muleteer extraordinaire)

Dandee Pinchu (tea trader, brigand, bodyguard, muleteer extraordinaire)

In his case, his words rest here in this text so his audience has multiplied and many have heard his voice and of his tales.

Heartfelt gratitude and thanks to the courageous Livros de Bordo who relentlessly ploughed on with publishing my Ancient Tea Horse Road into Portuguese and extended this great mountain route’s history to a wider audience. Language is kept accurate and the thoughts and subtle wisdom of a last generation of muleteers and traders is wonderfully intact.

Tea Horse Road - Jeff Fuchs

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Tea Horse Road – words from Drolma

Elder Drolma from Dzogong speaks and reminisces about the days of the Tea Horse Road linking her home in eastern Tibet with Lhasa and beyond. In her words “It was a journey that both gave and took life”. Both Drolma and her husband offered up bo jia (butter tea) while speaking about an eternal route of tea, trade, and of relentless movement through the mountains.

nomad - Jeff Fuchs

These words (like so many from the elders) spoke of something tangible and fierce, but ultimately of a route that bound cultures within the Himalayas’ protective walls to others that they would never meet. The Tea Horse Road was one of the great Himalayan pipelines and providers to peoples whose version of luxury might extend to a single extra brick of tea or a bag of salt.

They spoke of a route of punishing and suffering landscapes that ranks as one of the great adventures. Always though was the reminder that the mountains also protected.

When our team of six moved on from Drolma’s home with full bellies and lumps in the throat, she wished us well on our way to Lhasa and with a small grin (that kept it all very real) reminded that though Lhasa was the holy place, she’d heard that thieves were perhaps more clever there and told us to “Bow on your knees to the great Jokhang Temple while keeping one hand on your knives”.

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Condè Nast Traveller Tea Article on Jeff Fuchs

 

Condè Nast Traveller Tea Article on Jeff Fuchs

Condè Nast Traveller introduces my latest tea-fueled exercises in the green leaf here.

A trip of sips with some of the most ancient of cultures of the green on the planet…from soil to cup.

Tea preparation with Bulang minority

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Snow Curtains in Tibet

Winter has set in marking the end of my own season within the Himalayas and Tibet. It is time for the  grand silences and deep cold – that seep into and out of the earth – to bring their annual change to the earth. This year brought with it all of the mountain magic that it always does with additional reference points on the ancient trade routes that once passed through the Himalayas, the health of the heights, and a confirmation that what happens in the heights will inevitably soon find its way down.

Tibet - Monastery

The time within the mountains also emphasized however impregnable they remain, they also are changing at speed and suffering as temperatures rise, glaciers melt into the depths, and water becomes an even more tempestuous necessity and commodity. Sand dunes climb ever higher into the mountain valleys as silt and sand from dry river beds are blown and carried into the heights.

Tibet - Sand Dunes

As always though, the overwhelming feeling and perhaps ‘lesson’ that I take with me is that beyond the risks and sheer daunting nature of the spires, snow passes, and isolation, the mountains offer up something of a sanctuary and silence. They nurture even while they are abused.Tibet - Himalayas

In a season that saw a Tibetan mastiff attack a friend leaving an inch-deep puncture in a leg, a blood oxygen level of another friend drop to half of what it should, the Himalayas did once again show an astonishing ability to soothe and remind of the sanctity of the elements.

Tibet - Nam Tso

Nam Tso lake in its magnificent sheen of power, and high-altitude waves that crash into the shoreline remain somehow pristine. The ever-flowing Tsangpo River which is the highest major river in the world, follows its ancient route etching its way through canyons and communities as it has for ages.

Tibet - Himalayas

Black necked cranes wandered through the valleys as elegant and without fear as they are rare. Beyond the buffer that the Tibetan Plateau has offered up in ice and stone, the great glacial pieces have long been the providers of some of the most important waterways on the planet. They are the crucial feeds of the waterways.

Tibet - Himalayas

I was also reminded of the wisdom that remains so present in the mountains when Tibetan friend Gonpo said one day “The mountains and rivers are the same. One end is always attached to the other end and you cannot touch part without touching the whole thing”. I would only add to that, that one cannot touch a part without being touched.

Tibet - Himalaya

A trader (another of those gems of the times when things moved and were moved by foot rather than wheels) offered up another mountain law telling me ”If you are lost, you must ‘follow the snow’. It too has a path” – this while looking at a white drape of snow lining the entire sky.Mount Everest

Chomolungma the great female deity that rises in stone higher than any piece of earth, (aka Mount Everest) sits broadly and mesmerizing in its intensity. But it also feels intensely calm and almost forlorn.

Tibet - Sand Dunes

I often wonder what the mountains would wish for and what they might observe. Tibetans certainly think that they might slowly shake their heads at some of the shenanigans performed by their noisy little two legged neighbours. Or perhaps the mountains might simply remind us that beyond being wondrous widths of stone and ice, that they are also the harbingers of things to come.

Tibet - Himalayas

In Tibetan there aren’t really words for good-bye but rather to “live long”, “go slowly”, “go well”… and so a year comes to an end ‘going slowly’. People, phases, time itself are all given a farewell but rarely a good-bye.

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Our Expedition Ladakh gets Cover Feature in Outpost Magazine

Delighted to make the cover-feature (top-less no less) of Canada’s award-winning Outpost Magazine in the current edition. Our journey last year along the Route of Wind and Wool, tracing the ancient Himalayan pathways by foot is the focus.

Cover - Outpost, Issue 101

Expedition Ladakh, Jeff Fuchs

Another of the great mountain’s unheralded routes gets a little light shone on it with some emphasis on the glaciers, which continue to ‘bleed’ and disappear. Our ‘expedition Ladakh’, known more accurately as the Route of Wind and Wool (both of which thrive up in the mountains) was an odyssey as much into the suffering mountains as they were along a timeless route of commodities.

glacier - Jeff Fuchs

Indeed, it was the glaciers (and the elusive snow leopard) that were occupying the mind during much of this journey. A few years ago, according to a local, glaciers like the one above were “covered in white“. Now, “The mountains I knew as white, my son has only known as black and snowless“.

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