Author Archives: Puerist

The Map is Not The Territory

Download the USGS dataset for this region, and you’ll find yourself staring at something that looks like the skin on a Sharpei.

Because it’s a big file and takes some time to download, I have edited a small section and added a couple of major towns for reference. The purple dot in the middle, with no name, is Jinghong, on the banks of the Mekong.

banna-gmted

Google Earth is useful for similar reasons, as one can get a good idea of the topography of the area.

For the likes of Google however, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly a cartographic backwater: some of the images are years out of date.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the last two years pawing over Google maps, and the less popular Microsoft Maps (now Bing).

It would  be an exaggeration to say that oxbow lakes have formed since Google updated some of its images, but it’s close: rivers have certainly changed their courses, villages have disappeared, highways have been built: the main highway from Jinghong to the Lao border, which was finished soon after I first came here seven years ago, is still not on the satellite images.

A while back, I was with a friend in the mountains, and we were identifying villages as we went. I asked a couple of times about a village I had seen on Google satellite images, but my friend was insistent that no such village existed. On arriving back home I compared Google and Bing images. In the former photo there was a village, in the latter, no village. The entire village had moved and been razed. My friend had no recollection of the village, but it was surely there some years ago.

This particular image was updated at the beginning of March 2013. The previous image was from 2001. A lot can happen in twelve years.

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai. Dated January 2001

What’s good about this is that Google provides an historical reference. Many roads have been built or changed and villages moved in the last decade, and many of Google’s images of this area date from 2001/2.

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai. Dated March 2013

Bing generally has better resolution pictures, and is more up to date, but it’s good to reference them both for comparison – not least because of cloud cover, as in the image above. The resolution on recent Google images is much better than earlier photographs: older images can often look like this:

Me Yang – Google

Rather than this:

Me Yang – Bing

So a caveat for Puer drinkers who are inclined to spend hours on Google or Bing trying to find exactly where their favourite tea comes from. Amazing as Google and Bing are – who would have imagined ten years ago that this kind of information would be freely available – they have their limitations.

 

Early Spring Tea

Well, the hoopla of early Spring tea is done. Yet another round of price increases with plenty of exaggeration thrown in for good measure. Ban Zhang xiao shu for 3,800/kg, Man Song for 4000 to 6000 a kilo depending on who you are and who you talk to, Bing Dao for seven or eight thousand.

HM’s riff is that sheng cha has not yet reached it’s ceiling and that compared with Long Jin et al. it’s still very fairly priced. He is certainly not averse to paying top price for what he believes to be top grade tea, so I was surprised to hear him voice the idea that this year’s Bing Dao was not worth that much.

zhi beng ancient tea tree gardens

Zhi Beng ancient tea tree gardens

The rain early on in the year brought the first flush sooner than has been the case in the last few years, but then the tea was thinner in flavour. After the third week of March things improved, so there was a relatively brief window of time when the tea was good, and then it was Ching Ming Jie which, according to Han tea culture, signals the end of early Spring tea. Of course, it works as a rule of thumb for the most part, but there are always exceptions. Many tea farmers will try and tell you that in any case, the second flush is better than the first, but nobody much believes them.

In fact, it might make more sense to consider the lunar calendar rather than the solar – on which Qing Ming Jie is based – when picking tea, and by which it seems like harvesting might best be done on a waning moon.

Tea from more bei yin tea gardens have, to my mind at least, produced more interesting tea. Though this is not the case everywhere. The weather of the previous two or three years was in a sense an aberration and it is perhaps good that it has not continued. Though the current situation is also cause for concern.

drying early spring tea Ma Li Shu

Looking across to Mi Bu

Since the February rain, nothing. Hardly a drop in most places. So the second flush has not yet shown itself in many areas, though this is not universal. Many farmers reported a drop in gu shu yield this year, which is always good for helping to push up the price, but others reported above average harvests. Of course it’s not just the climate. There may well be other factors, like over-picking, that could bring about a drop in yield.

Sourcing good tea is not getting any easier: One needs to be paying attention, be resolute, have good contacts, have a good wad of money in one’s pocket, and some good luck too.

There was the usual flush of stories: like the sacks of tea in Gua Feng Zhai with last year’s gu hua cha stuffed in the bottom and some spring tea on top.

mi bu near ma li shu

Near Ma Li Shu. The tree in the background with red flowers, but no leaves is a Kapok.

I was in one village, Ma Li Shu I think, when a tea farmer was lamenting the current situation: “These cha lao ban who only want tou chun tea. Whose going to buy the rest of the tea?” For them the trend of distinguishing between gu shu, da shu, xiao shu and first flush, second flush etc, is not particularly to their benefit. They perhaps feel that they need to be making significant sums of money on the first flush in order to offset the income from the rest of the season.

Certainly, the bigger producers, like the folks from Guangdong in Ya Nuo are good news for the villagers, as they will buy tea from all three seasons, so the farmers do not get stuck with tea that they have a hard time selling. This is a much more reliable income than picky tou-chunners who leave the farmer in a precarious position.

mang zhi -yang lin

Looking across from Yang Lin. The mountains to the left of the valley are Ge Deng, to the right Man Zhuan

Monkey Picked Puer Tea

We’d been talking about this for months – going to pick some wild tea trees in the forest on Long Pa Liang Zi. Of course, they’re not truly wild trees in the proper botanical sense, but they’re trees that the village has no collective memory of anyone planting and they are left largely untouched in the forest except for when they flush twice a year.

picking wild Puer tea in the forest

There apparently used to be a lot more, but they have over time, died or been cut down. The taller trees are a fairly impressive 7 or 8 metres in height but my tea farmer friend’s younger brother scaled them in seconds to pick the tea.

To see him move through the forest – at a speed I could barely maintain – was to be reminded of the Jinuo people’s still recent past as hunter gatherers. The animals are, unfortunately largely all gone, but the brother is the kind of guy who is happy to set off for a few days in the forest – as long as he has a couple of packs of cigarettes and his machete. He also has a mobile phone but with the sound turned off, so wearing his camouflage outfit so that he melts easily into the forest.

wild tea tree in Jinuo Shan

The trees are a mix of da ye zhong and xiao ye zhong. The girth at the base of some is significant, but having been cut back, they have subsequently produced a number of relatively slender trunks. The taller trees, of course, in this kind of environment will have grown very quickly, and don’t necessarily represent vast ages, though the villagers believe them to be several generations old.

I was trying to measure the height of one using the altimeter on my mobile phone – which wasn’t very successful and, reminded of the ‘barometer story’ about the young Niels Bohr as a student under Michael Rutherford, was thinking it would be better to give the phone to  the brother in the top of the tree and get him to drop it so we could measure how long it took to hit the ground. (If you’re not familiar with that story, you can read it here ).

One problem with trees in this situation is that, since they are on ‘common’ land, anyone can pick them – the sort of situation that led to fighting between Yi and Yao people near Yi Shan Mo a couple of years ago. Here, there are only Jinuo people so there is not that kind of issue, but the tree in the picture below was cut down last year. No one is saying who and, contrary to Wilde’s assertion, in villages like Ya Nuo, it is probably indiscrete to ask.

tea tree growing in the wild

We kept moving through the forest from one small group of trees to the next, so there was no way to spread the leaves out to  keep them cool and time was an issue.

wild tree tea leaves

Having finished picking, my friends brother took the basket and, moving quite a bit faster than the two of us, carried the leaves back to the workshop to spread them out.

When we got back, perhaps 20 or so minutes later we fired the wok and fried the tea.

frying tea in you le

We ended up with just under a kilo of mao cha which has a very distinct and pleasing fragrance. More on that another day.

Mang Zhi

When one thinks of Gong Ting (Tribute Tea) one first thinks of Man Song and when one thinks of places of historical importance related to Puer tea in Xishuangbanna, one perhaps first thinks of Yibang or Yiwu, or maybe Gedeng, but Mang Zhi has its share too.

Man Ya is below Hong Tu Po and the quickest way to get up there is from the Xiang Ming road.

the road up to Man Ya

Once across the bridge, it’s quite a quick journey up to Man Ya where the ancient tea tree gardens are. Like many places here, the original village no longer exists and the inhabitants have all moved further down the mountain.

One reason that this has happened is because of a lack of water, or the need for it outstrips the resources. Another is simply convenience. Sometimes villages have also been moved by the authorities.

tian an men

These trees, known by the villagers as Tian An Men provide a fitting entrance into the area where the gardens are. As with many places, the gardens are a mixed bag with some xiao shu near areas of older da shu and gu shu, but the general feeling is still good.

Most villagers make tea in or on the edge of the tea gardens, while several sell the fresh leaves they have picked to someone else from the village to process.

puer tea drying in man ya lao zhai

Many of the trees are similar to those in other Liu Da Cha Shan areas, but a few are significant, like the one below with a girth of 60 or 70cm.

man ya gu shu

The gardens have good ground cover with plenty of ‘za cao’ or weeds.

Lost in the undergrowth are a couple of tombstones which appear to be maybe Ming Dynasty and look like they were for government officials. One has been defaced, it seems by…. well you know the story. The other is still in relatively good condition.

 

mang zhi gravestone

It is said that tea from these gardens was also Tribute Tea – tea that was reserved for emperors or government officials.

Teapots

Recently someone we know in Ningbo said they would lend us some teapots.  Four of them – and they are no ordinary teapots. The one in the picture is a rather handsome 400cc hexagonal pot. Unfortunately two others were broken en route! But two survived and have made a very nice addition to our small collection.

teapot
teapot

No Tea

The price of fresh Puer is mostly determined by ‘market forces’,  the perceived quality of the tea and a little collective/individual.  In the last few days the price of  Lao Ban Zhang went from 800 to a thousand Yuan a kilo.  Tea from a roughly 1800 year old tree in Nan Nuo Shan, more than twenty thousand Yuan a kilo.

HM : ” Before there was a price and tea.  This year there’s a price and no tea.”

Books

Yesterday we went back to Man Guo Xin Zhai in Bulang Shan.  It was a hot, dry day – 34 degrees and windy.  It’s been a very dry spring with only one decent rain in months.

As we left Jinghong with our boxes of books to take to the village school, windows down and the wind blowing,  a smell of wood smoke suddenly reminded me of France – the south.  Our olfactory senses must surely be the most refined, our sense of smell the most evocative.

bananas

Outside Jinghong on the Menghai road it’s all bananas and rubber.  After Nan Nuo Shan this scene gives way to the big tea factories and their plantations along the road side .  Past Menghai.  Not the ugliest of towns, but nothing much to commend it  and we move into bright green fields of new rice and, in higher areas, the pale leaves of sugar cane.  Farmers are out cutting the cane, a variety that is not suitable for eating but provides a cash crop that’s sold for sugar manufacture. Smoke is in the air.

We pass new Dai houses on the outskirts of Meng Hun – a sign of their growing prosperity, thanks mostly to rubber.

As we move up off the plain there are tree blossoms Bai Hua and maybe some Cherry.  There are more, smaller tea plantations, but the profit from such crops is minimal;  I was recently visiting some friends in Da Du Gang – an area mostly given to green tea production, Biluo Chun, where villagers started planting tea 5 or 6 years ago.  But they sell the fresh leaves for 2 or 3 RMB a kg, so it’s not a ‘get rich quick’ shceme.  Old tea tree farmers do rather better.   

There are some new  place-name signs on the side of the road in English and Chinese, translated by someone with a sense of humour.  The Chinese is commonly a transliteration from a local language, so bears little or no resemblance to the original meaning:   Man Da Huo,  if one can wring a meaning out of it in Chinese becomes ‘Village Makes Fire’ (‘man’ is a transliteration from Dai- meaning village) which in turn becomes in English  ‘Man Ignition’.

The school where we are headed is supervised by a bigger school in the village on the main road; Ah Ke Zhai which somehow gets rendered into English as ‘Acton’.  It bears absolutely no resemblance to Acton (or East Acton for that matter), but it’s fun to consider the possibilites of a twinning between the two.

Going up the hill to the village, one is reminded of why people settled here.  There’s water! Women are washing clothes and bathing in spring water coming out of a pipe on the roadside.  None-the-less this area is recognised by the central government as an area of poverty and within that, Man Guo Xin Zhai is particularly badly affected.

students2

When we had handed over the books and materials the teacher, Xiao Luo, he put the books on a couple of tables outside and called the children round,  inviting them to have a look.  The effect was noteable;  as children read out loud a  low hum developed.  The children, despite the fact that their Chinese is less advanced than their city counterprts,  were engrossed in reading.  Perhaps for the first time in their village having books to read and become immersed in.

reading1

Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

P1000173Well, no.  He’s actually the teacher in a village school in Bulang Shan. The school has one classroom, a kitchen and an office-come-bedroom.

He teaches, nurtures and cooks for a little over 30 children from the village. The villagers are Bulang but the teacher is Aini from Nan Nuo Shan.

HM suggested we donate some books for a small library for the school as the only books they have now are standard text books and they are decidedly under-resourced.                                                                                                   

P1000227

 Aini and Bulang villages have gates at the entrances  and a post in the centre of the village for protection.

Early Spring Tea

We went out to Bulang Shan the day before yesterday and then HM went again yesterday to Lao Ban Zhang. He came back with lots of photos (thanks to a new camera) and a little new tea.

P1000376

It’s not old tree tea.  It’s tea from trees that are maybe 50-60 years old.  It seems no chemicals have been used on the trees…

The first one we just tried:

As HM said “The fragrance, flavour and aftertaste are all lacking.”  “Only the smokey flavour is (more than) enough.” 

But then, as someone said to us last spring “If it wasn’t smokey it wouldn’t be Lao Ban Zhang!”

P1000375

The tree (and woman) in Lao Ban Zhang that almost everyone who goes there takes a photo of.

 

Lao Ban Zhang consists of five villages:

Lao Ban Zhang, Xin Ban Zhang, Baka Nuan, Baka Long and Lao Man E.  All of these villages produce ‘Lao Ban Zhang’ tea, but they are all different. 

Old and New Ban Zhang are Aini villages (people who originally moved there from Nan Nuo Shan).

Baka Nuan and Baka Long are Lahu villages and Lao Man E is a Bulang village.

Old Tea (Let's go and have lunch)

We were drinking tea in the shop yesterday morning with a tea-friend when someone he knew walked past. His acquaintance was carrying a brick of  ‘thirty year old sheng cha’. A piece was uncerimoniously broken off for us to try. 

HM brewed the tea, poured us all a cup  then, after one mouthful,  “It’s not that old!” he  pronounced.  “Lets go and have lunch!”.

Later he conceded that the huigan was not bad but the cha qi, xiang qi, yun  were all lacking.  It also had that kind of flavour that I can only associate with shou cha. 

HM said ” I’m not sure how they made this stuff “.  Concluding it was wet-piled for a week or two to lighlty ferment it such that it could still be called (by some ) ‘sheng cha’, then after pressing, wet-stored and aired.  “That’s the kind of rip-off you get with Puer tea.” he declared with a sad expression.