Category Archives: Places

Lao Huang Pian

I was around Ge Deng somewhere drinking tea with Chen Lao Ban (Guangdong Chen) when a tea farmer brought a bag of tea he had made for him. Chen Lao Ban makes his own tea and also has some local people make tea. There wasn’t much, no more than three kilos. He looked in the bag, looked up and asked “Where are the huang pian?”  “You complained about them last year” the farmer said, “so this year I took them out.” Chen Lao Ban, looked up, shaking his head in disbelief, but said nothing.

Bada Shan Autumn 2012 Lao Huang Pian

Such is the story of huang pian, or yellow leaves, sometimes called ‘lao huang pian’.

As indicated in the previous post on the causes of bitterness and sweetness in tea, it is the older leaves that are sweeter.

Tea farmers: Aini, Bulang, Jinuo, etc, would not traditionally use young leaves to drink themselves. They use the sweeter ‘lao ye’, which they brew up in a kettle – traditionally in a bamboo tube – maybe having baked the leaves first.

For them, younger leaves, and all the tea brewing paraphernalia, is a Han Chinese thing which is alien to them. Many a tea farmer will tell you that when they were young, they never had a gaiwan or bowls. It is something they have now, rather as part and parcel of doing business.

If tea is growing quickly, the leaves, even including the fourth leaf are supple, pliable, and will not produce huang pian. When tea is growing more slowly, or has been left longer before picking, the lower leaves become less pliable, and if they are picked, will make huang pian. These leaves will not be made more supple by time or the frying processes, and remain un-rollable.

Ideas about huang pian in Puer tea change. From an appearance point of view, they are less desirable, but from a flavour point of view they are fine, and in small number, will not be detremental to the flavour; bringing a little extra sweetness.

The practice of picking them out is to please the customer who is primarily concerned with appearance. In Spring tea there should never be many. Autumn tea has more, and summer tea the most.

If the tea leaves are picked well and there are are few huang pian, the farmer can pick most of them out when they are firing the tea. When there are more, the laboriuos job of picking them out of the mao cha has to be done. The benefit is that they then become a ‘product’ in their own right.

Too many huang pian will lower the value of the tea, but most tea producers are happy to see some in their mao cha, which they can then decide to leave in or pick out and sell separately.

At Zhi Zheng, as there are generally very few huang pian in our mao cha after it has been dried, we prefer to leave them in the cakes rather than pick them out.

 

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.

Spring in Banna

Spring has come early this year. A few weeks ago there was some bush tea around and I was in Lao Si Tu where they were processing some old tree tea.

Hong Tu Po near Ge Deng

Bauhinias in the evening near Hong Tu Po

At this time of year in the mountains, hillsides are spotted with white and the air is heavy with the fragrance of Bauhinias. In Chinese the tree is known as zi jing hua -紫荆花 , but in Xishuangbanna they bear mostly white flowers so are known locally as bai hua shu – 百花树.

The road up to Yi Bang was much better than it was a couple of weeks ago: the mud has all but dried up leaving a rock hard surface with deep ruts in places. But it has not dried out to the point that it is terribly dusty. Also, it is early enough in the season that there has not yet been much traffic.

I was in an Yi village some way beyond Yi Bang – He Bian Zhai. A small village with some fifteen households at the head of the Long Gu River.

he bian zhai near yi bang

Ancient tea trees near He Bian Zhai

Most of the ancient tea tree gardens are below the village, but some are next to the houses. A few are quite large, with a girth of maybe 80 cm, but most are more slender. The trees here are xiao ye zhong – small leaf variety, as are many places in the Six Famous Tea Mountains area. The ground here is not treated in any way. The soil is consequently quite hard packed as the farmers do not turn it, as some have taken to doing in other villages.

xiang ming he valley in the early morning

Looking down the Xiang Ming River valley

 

 

Ya Nuo (You Le Shan)

the road to ya nuo

There’s plenty of tea to be found on the road out from Jinghong to Jinuo Shan, but it’s not until you get some way past Jinuo Shan Town that you start to see anything that looks like you might want to try drinking it. And not until you get to Ya Nuo, some 10 km later, that you start to see some forest and ancient tea tree gardens.

tea trees typical of Yanuo ancient tea tree gardens

Formerly known as Long PaYa Nuo is a Jinuo village on the Menghun side of Jinuo Shan. It is one of two original ‘buluo‘ that the Jinuo inhabited. Originally, there were two extended families with fifty odd households living under one roof in a large bamboo structure with a grass roof. All the buildings in the village now are brick and concrete.

In the late 1970’s, when the Jinuo people were officially recognised by the National Government, the families in Ya Nuo were joined by families from the second village.

The Jinuo are a Tibeto-Burman group with a population of about 21,000. Their language shares some similarities with Burmese and  belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Jinuo people are animist and traditionally, hunter-gatherers and tea farmers. The Jinuo ‘creation myth’ is that they were born out of the sun drum – a large drum with pegs holding a taught skin over the end of the drum that radiate out resembling the sun’s rays. All Jinuo villages have a male and female drum which are of central importance in festivities as they embody sacred spirits.

Traditional Jinuo culture was egalitarian, with clan members hunting and farming together and sharing their spoils equally amongst all families. Tea  was traded with ‘ma bang’ caravan traders in exchange for commodities that were needed, such as salt, cotton and ironware.

The most important festival is Temaoke or ‘Iron Forging Festival’ which falls early in the new year and is referred to as the ‘Jinuo New Year’.  See here for some photos of a Jinuo New Year festival. For Tamaoke, a cow is slaughtered and shared amongst the villagers such that each household gets an equal share of all parts of the animal.

Jinuo people tradionally make tea by wrapping it in a large leaf and roasting it in the embers of a fire. The leaves are then removed and brewed in a length of bamboo,or nowadays, in a large kettle. The resulting tea is strong and sweet.

traditional Jinuo tea

Older Jinuo people – particularly women, chew betel nut ‘Burmese style’ using areca nuts and betel leaves and continue to wear traditional dress, but most younger people now only do so for special occasions.

At Ya Nuo, there are 2,800 mu of old tea tree gardens, owned by the original families of the village. In the 70’s, a co-operative, that is now defunct, was set up and tea bushes planted around the village. The later arrivals have no old tea tree gardens.

From the back of the village an area of protected forest extends all the way to Menglun, and it is mostly in this area that the ancient tea gardens are to be found, at altitrudes ranging from 1300 to 1700 metres.

jinuo shan-autumn-tea-tea-drying

You Le Shan – dawn

dawn on Youle Shan

A chilly early morning looking south east towards Mengla from Jinuo Shan.

I was back in Youle Shan last week. The weather here has turned quite cool. The days are still into the 20’s, but the nights can be quite chilly. At this time of year there are some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The area to the right of the picture is all part of Menglun Protected Forest Reserve. The villages tea gardens border on the reserve.

The photo is completely unedited apart from to reduce the size ans was taken with a decent quality digital camera set on automatic.

Menghai-Mengsong

The old Menghai road looks like they once thought about repairing it, but then gave up on the idea. There’s not much traffic, but there is some mining up there, so there’s quite a few trucks on the road. Fortunately they’re not big, but they’re probably mostly overladen, which has taken its toll on the road. Mengsong is some kilometers off to the north of this road. Further into Menghai there are many tea factories along the road – witness to the fact that until the end of the last century, this was still the only route from Jinghong to Menghai.

liu sha he river xishuangbanna from old menghai road

Liu Sha He had much more water in it than the last time I was here back in the early summer. Being in the mountains at this time of year is pleasing: the air is redolent with tree blossom – jiang hua line the sides of the roads, providing a dense fragrance that counters the slightly sour pungence of latex tapped from rubber trees that is pervasive at lower altitudes. There is also the smell of damp forest mixed with the alcoholic aroma of fruits that have fallen and lie on the ground untouched.

Besides tea, Autumn is a time to harvest rice and maize. Rice is usually not sold and the maize is typically dried and used for pig fodder.

not only tea - maize harvested in Autumn

Bamboo is cut in the autumn after the zhu chong – bamboo grub – has hatched. If bamboo is harvested at other times of year, the grubs, which have not hatched out, will eat the bamboo, then eat their way out of it.

Long zhu, or Dragon Bamboo, is known for its thick base which is substantial enough for kitchen implements to be fashioned out of it: mugs,jugs,etc.

jug made from base of dragon bamboo

dragon bamboo on horticultural tractor

Naka

Naka -(Menghai Mengsong)

Early morning in Autumn - Naka. Near Jinghong Mengsong

Naka is a Lahu village above Menghai Mengsong with around 100 households. They have a compratively small area of old tea gardens – about 500 mu of old tea trees. As early as the 1970’s tea manufacturers were sourcing tea from here. Read more about Naka here.