Flights can anesthetize one from a full-on experience at times (however brutal that experience might be) and so it is that the journey that Frank and I take from China’s east coast to Yunnan’s capital of Kunming in the deep southwest of the country. We arrive, somehow having crossed a great span of much of China with little of the chaos, personality, or feel of the space that we cross. No trains, errant taxi’s, or delays somehow either and though slightly welcome the authentic aspect of China is absent…until we arrive that is.
Once in Kunming I am back in my zones of comfort and memories. It is home as much as any place has ever been home. The short 45-minute flight from Kunming to Jinghong, capital of Yunnan’s southern Xishuangbanna takes us into a zone of warmth and where (though it expands with stone and mortar structures) the land is covered in rubber trees, tobacco, small plots and terraces of rice and corn…and amidst all of it fields, forests, valleys and hilltops of tea. Yunnan has always moved a tad slower. Indigenous hot bed, former penal province, and place where borders aren’t quite there, it cannot quite scrub off its rich lineage.
Frank immediately feels an ease saying simply “This is a better speed”. I’m far from being objective. Offering up any thoughts on the journey thus far would not enlighten. I love the place, its people, and I love its tea. Like so much here its Pu erh tea is simpler somehow.
Pu erh tea and its big leaves and vegetal potency surround us. Yunnan’s gift to many of us drinkers is its often wild and frequently completely off the grid masterpieces. They are often masterpieces of accident with precise production lagging behind that of other regions in China. Indigenous hands and primordial techniques blended together with an almost animist treatment of the vegetation. Production and collection is often coarse and sometimes brutal, but this too changes and evolves. It is where my own palate has been frequently blown open by flavor ranges that verge on absolutely raw power. It is a place where meals are often taken on the floor and accompanied by local distilled grain alcohols that reached down and stoked fires in the soul.
Menghai is our center-point and hub. It is from there that we will head into the hills for a debauchery of green. Fluid in these parts is either vegetal or alcoholic and very little lies between.
We first head into the Nannuo Mountains where the teas are neutral, the soil orange-yellow, and the Hani people fill up pockets on the sides of mountains, and in the forests. Many of the villages that once were ‘way out’ now have incarnations of their new selves set up closer to the main roads and highways. The young now occupy Zhu Ling ‘new village’ rather than where their parents and grandparents lived in Zhu Ling ‘old village’.
Gates with carved wooden dogs mark out villages on the winding roads which wash out in the rainy season. We make our way to Bang Ma where a wedding and end-of-harvest festival is in full swing…and it swings, and it roars. Hani women with their little red and white kerchiefs and their wonderfully lined features sit in tidy groups listening to the songs and speeches. Frank and I tuck into a dozen plates and some virulent local whisky and a nice buzz takes us into the din and the moment is one of those that seeps in and entrenches itself upon the memory, even before it has past. As much as we are ‘outsiders’ we are casually accepted and welcomed. They know that the reason we are here is what grows literally in the forests beyond.
As many times as I come to these zones and as much that has changed with money rolling in and houses reaching up with shiny tiles in the middle of rampant green forests, the generosity and warmth do not ever seem to dwindle. The spirit of the place remains and though it may continue to change, I always get the feeling that one day nature may well reclaim her own down here after walls have disintegrated.
Disintegration is a word that could well apply to us as alcoholic sugars hit our blood streams from the fierce local rice alcohol that we are slurping down. Before any kind of thorough destruction can take hold, however, we are bekoned off to a home for tea. Teas here and throughout many of the mountains of Yunnan (both famed and otherwise) are generally from great sources with a story beyond simply its ‘age’ or label…tea from ancient trees served by people who live with it seems to me something beyond any kind of reproach and we sit under an awning tasting teas that are grown and produced within the mountains that coddle us. For locals tea isn’t anything particularly posh and most of the economic value assigned to it is by the outside world has come because of the recognition that the raw materials (if legitimate) help create one of the world’s great commodities. From this southern base of sub-tropics tea proliferated, wandered, was smuggled and ushered in every direction. Trends, fashions, and terminology in these zones regarding tea is uncomplicated, utterly real and familiar. And yet from these zones teas are emerging with huge price tags, and names that ascend into the hallowed heights. Much of this is due to the ancient trees and legacy that this area can call its own, but much of it too is simply down to ever-improving production standards.
Here there is a feeling that ‘old’ teas which have become such a raging trend and that are coveted by many have no value to the mouth nor the economy. While there exists a world (for the most part beyond Yunnan) that is often obsessed and at times pretentious about teas and their vintage, here it is freshly harvested teas and those that are a few years old that hold sway. When I ask N’fa our host, he shrugs his shoulders at first not saying much about his thoughts on this old tea notion. Then later he weighs in with soft words that seem to offer up some typically straightforward wisdom. “Age is something for a tree. Letting tea sit for years seems to be something that someone far away came up with. If we have an old tea it is because we have forgotten about it somewhere”.
For locals ‘age’ almost never has anything to do with a tea cake that has been sitting around for decades. It refers to the age of a tree or trees…or an elder. Frank and I sit speaking about this whole rage for aged teas. He speaks of spending a huge amount on a tea cake years’ ago and wondering what in fact he actually bought (and consumed).
Aged teas can be special if they’ve been stored properly and if a person’s palate enjoys that particular feel, but authenticating and even ensuring that their geographical designation is accurate and true is a foggy prospect. Aged teas lose much of what makes a tea such a dynamic and compelling fuel and medicine.
In the present tense we are taking in a classic Bang Ma that has just been produced. It is a wicked little tea that just barely stings with its fresh astringency before calming and enveloping the mouth with its subtleties. N’fa’s entire home is split into two parts: one extremely new and modern in the local way of gleaming tiles, many rooms (some empty), and clean railings,that look entirely out of place; the other part is the old portion where an old upstairs kitchen stained with years of smoke is held together with wooden planks. All of it; every last square metre is immaculate and this is true too of N’fa’s brilliant teas. Clean, consistent and produced with a light touch where the frying is done gently our N’fa is a fanatic about the frying process (our friend Master Ting comes to mind as do our friends in Wuyishan with their own particular brand of dedication, albeit to another leaf and tea). It is the application(s) of heat that maintain – or ruin – a great tea wherever one might be in the green leaf kingdom.
Though a taste is ever-subjective, one can certainly comment on a finely made tea and the multiple rounds that we consume range in age from weeks old to a three year old ancient tree offering.
Bitter values of a tea locally are not necessarily the same reference point that bitter is outside of the east. Bitter is considered within many Traditional Chinese Medicine texts as something that soothes the nervous system and heart. Beyond that the bitter aspects of the teas we take are perhaps less about bitter than they are about a clean raw vegetal hit that hits the mouth differently.
One tea, a summer harvest from almost a year ago hits a particularly nice place in my palate realm. Softer somehow, initially it is a tea that opens and expands in the mouth trailing off softly. The energy or qi of the tea is something marvelous and almost sacred as again and again through multiple infusions it comfortably stimulates. From ancient trees located not far from where we sit it is one of those beverages and consumables that one ends a session with. We end with this tea on this day in Bang Ma, knowing full well further sessions are coming.
The day ends entirely with Frank and I very high on very good Pu erh tea.