One of the reasons so many tea connoisseurs are so fanatical and will pay astronomical prices for vintage Pu’erh tea is because high quality Pu’erh not only offers distinctive flavors that are dissimilar to those of other teas, it offers an experience of the whole body and gives you an overall sense of well-being. Many avid Pu’erh drinkers call this “Qi” which literally means “the flow of energy.”
The difference between good quality and poor quality Pu’erh, among other things, is the mouth feel – the sensation left by the tea in the mouth and throat. The flavor of poor quality Pu’erh stops at the front of middle your tongue and does not do anything else. Good quality Pu’erh’s flavor, on the other hand, reaches the back of your mouth, down into the esophagus and stomach. You will feel a sense of warmth in your body. The flavor of a good Pu’erh tea always transforms to a sweet aftertaste, which lingers in your mouth and gives you a pleasant sensation. An avid coffee drinker but loves Pu’erh once said to me, “Pu’erh talks to me.”
Yunnan is believed to be the birthplace of tea trees and, according to the Pu’erh Tea College of the Yunnan University of Agriculture, there are still over 60,000 acres of ancient tea gardens in Yunnan with tea trees ranging in age from 100 to 3,000 years old can be found. Yunnan people revere these tea gardens as “tea tree museums” and refer to the tea trees as “living fossils.” The ethnic minorities who tend and harvest these trees call their tea gardens a “living inheritance” from their ancestors.
As a tea enthusiast, my being able to visit these centuries-old tea gardens was a real privilege. I was able to witness the environment in which my favorite teas are being grown and observe the life of the people who work to produce these wonderful gifts of nature. The tea gardens are all located in remote mountainous regions and, to arrive there, hours of driving through rugged terrain is required. There are no modern facilities like hotels or restaurants in the area. My companions and I stayed at a tea farmer’s house and enjoyed the simple and rustic aspects of living on a farm, an experience I have rarely had having lived in the city all my life.
There are a little over 100 families living in the village where I visited and they all farm tea for a livelihood. The families live a modest and self-sufficient lifestyle, unaffected by the modern world (although cell phones are prevalent). They grow their vegetables and raise their own animals. The furniture in their homes is largely made with bamboo grown in the region. The houses are constructed with wood planks and the actual dwelling units are about ten feet elevated from the ground. The ground level is used to store logs and to keep the animals. All the houses are of the same style, reportedly designed by a general during the Three Kingdoms period (over 2,000 years ago). Speaking of the houses, when I returned to Lao BanZhang this year, I saw a number of new Han-style brick houses under construction. The view of the village was no doubt less homogenous than last year. One tea farmer told me that because the tea from this region is the most sought-after by tea merchants, some tea farmers became rich and built more modern homes. I heard that many other villagers frown on the building of these new homes because of concerns that the village is losing its identity.
The tea gardens are about 20-30 minutes walking distance from the village. From afar, these gardens look just like any forest. The tea trees are interspersed among other forest plants in a very natural environment, untouched by modern technology or human intervention. They do not require pruning, fertilizers or pesticides. The trees are planted with plenty of space in between to allow for exposure to maximum sunlight. The tea trees in the garden are various ages, but even the youngest are over 100 years old. The oldest one I saw was 1,200 years old. Looking at these trees, I couldn’t help but wonder about the people and what their lives were like when these trees were first planted so many centuries ago.
I visited three famous tea mountains during my trip. Although the tea gardens were relatively the same in appearance, the teas produced in each mountain region are quite distinctive due to the differences in their ecological environment. My favorite was the tea from YiWu because it was so refreshing, sweet and delicate. The famous BanZhang tea is known for its strength and its aging potential. The taste is heavy and musky. On the other hand, tea from Nannuo is smooth and subtle. While there may be some initial bitterness, it quickly disappears and turns sweet.
Residents of the tea mountains are members of various ethnic minority groups, among them Hani, Aini, Bulang, Dai, Lahu, and Yi. These groups have their own dialects but no written language. I had the privilege of speaking to a young man at length about their traditions. His name is GeErh. He said everyone in his village has three names; one used for school, a pet name used at home and a name given at birth. However, only the parents know the child’s birth name and that name is only used to “catch the child’s spirit” when the child is sick or in danger.
Life is centered around the extended family with the grandparents looking after the young, while the father and mother work in the tea garden. The tea garden owned by GeErh’s family has about 100 acres in size. GeErh said he is very happy with his life and has no desire to live elsewhere. He said he loves the mild weather and the fresh air in the mountain. As long as he has his tea garden, he does not need to be concerned with unemployment or poverty. He has a young wife and a two-year-old son.
I met a number of tea farming families during my trip and I found them to be all very hospitable and generous. While not having much in the way of materials goods themselves, they provide their guests with the best of what they have. For example, I was so touched by our host family for letting us use a blanket that was made last year for the wedding of the family’s older son. It has the red double happiness character beautifully embroidered on the duvet and it was almost brand new. They let us sleep in their bedroom while they all slept on the bare wooden floor. One thing worth noting is that my companions and I enjoyed the chicken we ate on the tea garden. As we raved about how lean and delicious their “free range” chicken was, the host and his family became puzzled by the concept of “free range” chicken. In the village, animals are always free to roam.