Category Archives: Six Famous Tea Mountains

Tea and Zen

Way up north of Yiwu is not necessarily the first place you would think to look for that rather overplayed blend of tea and Zen, but there it was. I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least, but somehow I still was.

Tea garden

Over the last couple of years I have been sourcing a little tea from a tea garden in a quite remote area some way above Yiwu. From the nearest village, it takes about an hour my motorbike on a narrow and difficult trail, often with steep, muddy inclines coupled with a sharp drop on one side as the path winds its way up the mountainside. A Yao (瑶族)friend and I had gone to the tea gardens and on the way had seen the small but vivid signs of how treacherous the path can be: a local couple had been riding on the path and had come off. They had already been taken down from the mountain, but the bike was still in the gully.

path

A more leisurely stretch of path with a little bit of ‘cha ma gu dao’ for extra flavour.

As anyone who has engaged in any kind of activity like that knows, the moment you come nearest to screwing up is when you lose concentration for a fraction of a second. I was curious to hear my friend’s experience, as it’s a much more regular activity for them than for me. I had also never had that kind of conversation with him, so when we got back down to the village I asked him what he thought about when he was riding on the path. He looked quizzically at me for a second or two before replying, ‘Nothing!’ he said.

screen-da-du-gang

Looking south east from Da Du Gang toward the Six Famous Tea Mountains. Kong Ming Shan (to the north- west of Ge Deng) is just above the tree branch on the left.

Some Old Tea Tree Gardens (and some lessons on transliteration)

Last week, I had a few days’ trip in the SFTM area. The weather was good – dry, warm in the day, cool at night – and I got to re-visit some places and also go to a couple of new places.

I’ve been trying to get to Ma Pia (吗叭/ma ba in Chinese) for a couple of years. I think it was the autumn before last, I was with some friends in Ding Jia Zhai who had just come back from Ma Pia with some tea. One of them had a couple of pictures on his mobile phone. The tea wasn’t up to much – there were some problems with processing – but the trees looked interesting.

Laos China border region


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Spring Tea

Another really dry spring, though it looks like it’s going to rain this weekend. Tea prices have gone up anything from 25 to 50%. Earlier in the spring, people were saying that Dayi and Cheng Shen Hao were going round pre-ordering tea which ratcheted up the price, but then, as some others commented, they’re not necessarily willing to pay top whack, and there are plenty of tea farmers who have solid customers who they don’t want to blow off anyway.

One tea farmer was telling me yesterday that, in their village at least, it was an increase in folks from Guangdong that was pushing up prices. That may be maligning Guangdongers, there’s always been plenty of Guangdong people coming buying tea. In any case, the village has seen a fifty percent increase on the price of fresh leaves since last year, and over the last three days, it’s gone up 10 yuan a day. The weather, as always is also a factor: very dry, not so much tea. After it rains, there will be lots more, but then there’s at least a few days after the rain where it won’t be worth having if anyone picks it.

HM came back from Ge Lang He saying Pasha was full of folks from Ban Zhang buying tea – draw your own conclusions. BHT fresh leaves are around 750-800 yuan a kilo, which means prices around 3000 a kilo and the rest of Wan Gong not much less. Walong is still about half that. So here are a couple of pictures to be going on with:

 Wa Long village in Man Zhuan

Wa Long is a little like Man Lin or somewhere like that where, at slightly lower elevations, it’s surrounded by rubber, but right round the village, and the tea gardens, the environment is surprisingly intact.

walong old tea trees

Here are a couple of trees right near the village, but most old trees are in the forest above the village.

Coming up from the Xiang Ming road, one first gets to Wa Long Lao Jia, and from there you run along the mountain ridge to Walong. From the road between the two villages one can see Gedeng.

wa long looking across to gedeng

Roundup

After writing this post, I deliberated for some time on whether to post it or not. It’s not such happy reading, but in the end I’ve decided to go ahead. With ‘Publish and be damned!’ ringing in my ears, here it is:

mountains in border region between china and laos

“It stays in the soil for fifty years” he declared, which sounded a little implausible given that Glyphosate was invented in 1970 and has been commercially available less time than that. But it’s possible.

It was the tail end of summer and I was on a few days trip near the Lao border, going up the county road which runs from Meng Xing up to Jiang Cheng, and heading off into the mountains on the east side: Tong Qing He, Bai Sha He, Bai Cha Yuan, Wan Gong, Yang Jia Zhai, Yi Shan Mo, Zhang Jia Wan, Jiu Miao, and so on – and had bumped into a tea lao ban on the road. We were discussing the use of Glyphosate, or cao gan lin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the kind of hyperbole Monsanto pedals, even in the face of almost overwhelming research to the contrary, insisting that Roundup is as safe as mothers’ milk, or words to that effect. “Roundup.. agricultural herbicides continue to be a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.” they say. That’s some pretty tall cotton too.

The feaces really hit the fan in 2000 when the patent expired: Monsanto dropped the price in order to stave off competition and there was a consummately large increase in sales although truth be told, Cao Gan Ling was widely available in China much earlier than that, made under license or not. (Recently the government has made attempts to reduce the huge over-supply of Chinese Glyphosate.)

Touted as ‘the most widely used herbicide in the world’ its use is extremely pervasive and has wide implications for users and consumers. I have no need to catalogue the research, one just has to search online, or if you can’t be bothered with that, click on some of the links at the bottom of the post.

Not surprisingly, there are few tea farmers with old tree gardens who will readily admit to using it. Some will acknowledge that they used it in the past, but not anymore. Unfortunately, evidence of it is quite widespread.

As Tea Urchin commented some time back, the presence of spraying equipment doesn’t have to sound the death knell, but when it’s in remote tea fields, unless they happen to have been growing some corn or something nearby, there’s not really any other reason they would have had the equipment there.

I was exploring some areas off the  S218. One day, we had been walking in forest for an hour or so, crossing a stream in our path, we saw this:

If you can’t see clearly enough in the photo, it’s bags of Glyphosate.

Where there is a ready supply of water, this is a relatively easy method of clearing weeds. In this case it was done in a cleared forest area in order to plant some tea seedlings, so this does not necessarily mean that old tea trees are being treated the in the same way, but it is unfortunate evidence to come across in what should be pristine forest.

Most tea farmers have now have got strimmers to keep the weeds down, but it’s hard work and needs to be done two, or even three times a year to keep the weeds at bay. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that even in areas where farmers have to go by motorbike and on foot for up to a couple of hours to get to their tea gardens it’s not sure to be trouble free. It’s fairly common, in the small gazebos that most farmers have in their tea fields, to find spraying equipment.

I’m trying to resist being drawn to the conclusion that the more remote the area, the more likely the tea farmers are to have used chemicals on their tea gardens, but there are reasons why that could be the case.

Lao Feng (Mr Feng to you) once said to me you only had to look at all the queues of farmers waiting in hospitals to realise how widespread the use of agro-chemicals was and how injurious the effect.

It’s not that simple: farmers now all have health insurance, and western medicine particularly seems to be viewed as a panacea. (It’s common for people to go to a hospital or clinic for intravenous drug treatment for such things as a common cold.) So the preponderance of country folks in city hospitals cannot be construed necessarily as an indicator of their poor health, triggered by profligate or irresponsible agro-chemical use.

Having said that, the concerns are legitimate and I know people who believe that drinking water in rural areas is often affected to the extent that one could not sample tea in a village using their own water and be clear about whether any chemicals present were from the tea or the water, or both.

A Zhang Jia Wan tea farmer said to me a while back, “In 2005 we all used it, then we realised it was not good and haven’t used it since.” But it’s anecdotal. It’s not ‘everyone’. It’s a pointer that when sourcing tea one must be ever vigilant, and looking can only tell you so much.

The half life of Glyphosate in soil varies and is said to be as short as a few days and as long as half a year. What that means is that it could be ‘gone’ in a few months or there could still be small amounts in the soil a few years later. Residue in the plant is another issue.

Tea shop lore is that the year it is sprayed (typically in the winter months), Roundup may not be that obvious in tea, and is most noticeable in crops two years later, from when on it diminishes.

More recent research has shown that some of the so called inactive ingredients in Roundup are also harmful, meaning that the mix of chemicals is potentially more harmful than Glyphosate alone. (see links below)

So what to do about it?

For a couple of thousand yuan you can go to the government quality assurance office (zhi liang jian du ju) and give them a kilo of tea that they will test for all manner of things: DDT, Bifenthrin, Chlorpyrifos and so on, along with caffeine, theine, etc. But no Glyphosate. I once asked them at the local offices why. ‘Because cao gan lin is not on our list of permitted agro-chemicals’ they said.

It’s a fine logic – why would you bother to test for something that was not permitted? What’s much more bothersome is that if you check with all the big testing companies present in Asia (mostly western), none of them routinely test for Glyphosate as any part of their standard testing packages. It can be done, but you pay for it. It would be tempting to begin to see it as some kind of wider issue that a conspiracy theorist might have fun with, but a more measured view is that there is no straightforward, affordable methodology for testing for it.

So testing is not much of a solution. One has to rely on ones own accumen to detect it. The indicators have been well catalogued: tingling on the tip of the tongue or inner lips, or sometimes a slight numbing, puffy feeling, a prickly, dry feeling in the throat, and so on. Whether any and all of these are attributable to Glyphosate is a moot point. There could be many reasons a tea can produce these kind of sensations, and not all chemical, but it is a warning sign to be heeded.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/25/roundup-health-study-idUSL2N0DC22F20130425
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/07/30/glyphosate-toxicity.aspx
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/10/23/glyphosate-found-in-human-urine.aspx

http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Why_Glyphosate_Should_be_Banned.php

http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Actives/glyphosa.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Glyphosate

http://www.frost.com/prod/servlet/market-insight-print.pag?docid=JEVS-5N2CZG

http://www.icis.com/Articles/2000/12/11/128125/us-patent-expiry-of-roundup-creates-uncertainty-in-glyphosates.html

http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pesticidefactsheets/toxic/glyphosate.php

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=weed-whacking-herbicide-p

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.

 

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

 

 

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.