A Time of Talk … of Tea – Xishuangbanna lll

 

There is always a kind of inevitability of events in China. With the rush, the masses, the intensity of purpose, things just MOVE!! There is the sense at times that the speed and lack of warning of when something ‘may’ happen can destroy one’s morale and erode the ever-fragile balance. It can be exasperating at times trying to plan but in my case I’ve simply adapted (not always with success). One saving grace is that here in Yunnan where the speed of things is diluted, if one simply rolls with things that come up and say yes more often than no, things will work out. Saying no, after all, often means that one will miss out on some kind of random little gem of unpredictable fun.

No questions here as to what rules...and that is a tea pot by the way, nothing else

And so it goes. Safely perched sipping tea in Menghai planning another trip into the mountains, a pickup of friends arrive with a crunch of gears and the kind of intention in the eyes that I’ve come to love in the locals – a kind of tea-fed frenzy (of the positive kind). It is in the midst of the Dai people’s annual New Years celebrations, otherwise knows as the ‘Water Festival’. The idea is to spray, shoot, and haul as much water on unsuspecting and suspecting victims as possible. Clothes, vehicles, and animals alike get pasted with water in a spirit of wet joy.

More tipping of the cup goes on here than in most parts of the world

In minutes my vague attempts to say ‘no’ to going out to the Dai villages to celebrate New Years have been wiped out by a good friend who forcibly drags me away from my tea. The heat is intense and the sun sends down a dusty series of shafts.

Tea wrapped in Banana leaf

Watermelon fields with their plastic canopies create a landscape of white bubbles. The villages we head towards are tea villages that I’ve visited before, lining the introductory hills of the Pulang Mountain range – home to some of the Pu’erh world’s classics.

Low grade tea is used to clean chopsticks in a kind of local tea snobbery

Along with the pleasantly inevitable cups of tea, another fluid will be on offer: firewater of the most brutal intensity. Food, in amounts that embarrass will also be on hand. Even within the bastions of the tea world, there is time for other things (which can – I think – be accompanied by tea).

One of the inevitable meals in a Dai village that is kept at bay only by several cups

We arrive in dust and stop in a town I had two years previously enjoyed a similar day of rampant celebrations. Here, during the ‘new year’ there must be time to enjoy talk beyond business, drinks beyond an end game and food beyond limit! But, I wonder how far any conversation here can stray beyond the green leaf.

In these indigenous areas there is that, like in the indigenous culture of N. America’s ‘Six Nations’, a time that is known as ‘Ohen-ton Karihwatehkwen’ (Words Before All Else). Words here mean that there is the time taken to actually speak and listen.

Half of myself and a local friend who makes classic teas near Pulang

Wicker tables have been set up in the huge home with tiny stools surrounding them. Before anything though, tea is served from nearby Pulang Mountain – an astringent teathat takes over the mouth. Quickly beverages of the ‘firewater’ variety are on offer. I stick with tea knowing two essentials: one, that I will not be permitted to drink nothing, and two, that the only beverage besides the local corn whisky I will be permitted to drink is tea. There is a third reason that lingers but is potent is that the local whisky is at every home that I will visit in the coming day. A day of this sharp white whisky will crush my very core.

Streets lined with tea sellers, sniffers, buyers and middlemen

I’m also aware from that great teacher – personal experience – that my taste buds will be obliterated for any tea that might be served. Often, at these informal gatherings around this tea-stained region (we are literally at the base of Pulang Mountain) a tea will be served that potentially stirs interest. A blank stare and stunned palate will not be able to savour any of the goodness.

And when all is said and done, another meal arrives

I don’t have to wait long before a dispute arises as to whether a tea we are served is in fact a Banzhang. One thick-set little power-plug of a man, “Lin”, insists that the supplier of the tea was either a liar or that our host might be exaggerating his claim. It is good-natured fun but it belies the intensity of the subject matter.

 

At another table with the guests in various states of sobriety – and not – another discussion goes on about the high prices of local tea. Still another conversation goes on about a local that everyone knows who has apparently left his wife. Unfortunately for him who left, is that his wife and their tea business has thrived with his departure. This brings chuckles and howls of delight from both the men and women at the table.

Nothing pretentious here...great leaves in a glass

Tea’s higher prices this year come from two main sources say all. Rising labour costs and the droughts are notching the prices ever-higher. Tea’s every line, every characteristic, and economic ripple is commented on in details that would have a lay observer either slack-jawed or bored out their mind.

 

In this region tea is omnipotent. Even on this so-called day of rest. We sip it, discuss it, argue upon it and its effects on the body and mind, but we ultimately adore it.

 

A little bit of subtle selling

Food and still more food appears in every colour, from every corner of this bountiful region where everything in the earth seems to prosper.

 

In the next 7 hours locations change, food is heaped higher on yet more round tables and the talk continues and tea’s continued adoration society continues to fuss about it. Sometime in the early hours, I return to my stale little apartment that is home to flying creatures of all sizes. Walking into the lobby the young tattooed man at the front desk looks up and asks, “Bought any tea”?

Tea and People...always

 

 

 

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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3 Responses to A Time of Talk … of Tea – Xishuangbanna lll

  1. steph says:

    OMG Jeff!! what can I say…. I am so connected to your work…Yunnan is a place I visit so often as we return each time for voluntary work. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog….
    are you permanently based in Banna?

  2. steph says:

    I’ve just managed to read a little more….I may be travelling to Shangri La in August….will be back for more tea stories….Have a good one… cheers!!

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