Tag Archives: People

There Goes Another One

It’s ‘Swing Festival’ again. Hard to believe. Another year gone. I’m not sure I could satisfactorily list what I’ve accomplished in the last 12 months. It seems like not much, but I’ve made a fair chunk of tea, and drunk a lot too. Some of it courtesy of an Aini tea farmer on Nan Nuo Shan whose tea gardens are between Shi Tou Zhai and Ban Po Zhai.

Someone once said to me ‘The thing that’s special about Nan Nuo Shan tea is that there’s nothing special about it’. It’s not exactly true: at it’s best it’s floral-fruity, with plenty of body, some heftiness with a distinct bitterness and astringency, and a good hui gan. A good solid tea that has so far escaped some of the extreme, fad-driven price fluctuations that have affected some other places. There’re differences between villages or tea gardens of course. Ban Po Lao Zhai is often a little more astringent than Shi Tou Zhai, etc. and of course, Ba Ma is another story.

This year it was raining heavily the day we went so we skipped the swing and stayed inside eating and drinking tea. The village, like others on Nan Nuo Shan runs on tea. They have tea gardens above Ban Po Lao Zhai even though they moved down from there many years ago to a village nearer the road because they still maintain land there that was apportioned to them at the time of the move. As with many other villages, people here grow some other crops too. Some rent land near the foot of the mountain to grow paddy, and they often grow some vegetables near the village.

Clouds rolling up the valley

The day before, I went to Pasha, where I hadn’t been for ages, but after repeated invitations from a tea farmer there I decided it was time to go. I went on the ‘new’ concrete road that was finished a couple of years ago that runs around the south of Nan Nuo Shan to Gelang He. It shortens the trip from Jinghong by about half. On the way I bumped into the tea farmer from Nan Nuo Shan who, on his way home had just had the misfortune to have a scrape with a Range Rover on a tight, sloping corner. They were lucky. Neither he nor his wife, who was on the back of the motorbike were badly hurt, but his bike was unrideable. He was waiting for his brother in law to come and pick them and the bike up. He forked out 2000 yuan to pay off the Range Rover driver to boot, even though it was questionable who was at fault. That’s the cost of riding an unregistered bike (something that many mountain dwellers do here), particularly on a tricky mountain road in the rain.

 

The road to Pasha from the foot of Nan Nuo Shan

The road to Pasha. Maize and rice are grown at lower altitudes.

Pasha, like Nan Nuo Shan is inhabited by Aini tea farmers. Their language and customs are the same. They both celebrate Ye Ku Zha – Swing Festival – at around the same time of year.

I think I’ve finally figured out how the date of the festival is determined: according to some folks it starts on the first ‘bull’ day of the sixth month of the ‘nong li’ or traditional farmers’ calendar. But there’s a problem with that because in Pasha it started this year, 2017, on July 13th, which was the second ‘bull’ day of the sixth lunar month and the rest of the Gelang He area it started on the third ‘bull’ day. According to my host, they start on the third ‘bull’ day in the Julian month of July. Make of all that what you will.

Aini (Hani) people are outward-looking, readily adapting to and takung on things they like or see as useful – Nan Nuo Shan is pretty well stocked with upscale cars these days – and they are much more open to outsiders than say, Bama’s Lahu people. They are also often quick witted business people. But they have an interior life which is less easy to access – they have an Aini name, for example – not the name on their documents, a public name, a name ‘for the government’, but a name only used by close family or friends that someone like me will likely never be allowed to utter. Last year the tea farmer I just visited for Ye Ku Zha actually told me his name, but at the same time made it clear that it wasn’t for me to use it.

Whilst their lives are changing rapidly – everyone who can, gets a car, pulls down their wooden house to replace it with something ‘fait de beton’ – Aini people, in this area at least continue to value their own culture and are not in immediate danger of being ‘han hua’d’ any time soon, maintaining, apart from their own festivals, their own language and customs – children all grow up speaking their mother tongue – and they still take time to make some of their own clothes and bags, albeit only worn on special occasions.

Boots ‘n’ Brolly for a Rainy Day

 

 

Hani ‘Ye Ku’ Festival

According to the Lunar calendar, the full moon in late June or early July is the time Hani people celebrate Ye Ku Zha. The Chinese translation, 秋千节 means ‘Swing Festival’ because, similar to some other local minorities, a large swing forms a central part of the festival. In other parts of Yunnan the festival is also referred to as Zha Zha Festival and rather than a swing they may have a see-saw type arrangement where a horizontal pole, set atop a vertical pointed pole can both pivot vertically and rotate horizontally. There appear to be various founding legends for this festival, but it essentially celebrates ancestors, though in some areas it is said to also be a harvest festival.

hani swing

Preparing the swing

Not all Hani people in Xishuangbanna celebrate it, but on Nan Nuo Shan and other Hani villages nearby they do. The time it is celebrated can also vary by as much as a couple of weeks. Traditionally the swing is made from four tall tree trunks, but due to the scarcity of the right height and thickness of trees, and restrictions on felling, it is common for the frame to be made of steel as it is in these photographs. The cross-pole is made from a thick length of vine and traditionally a number of thinner vines were strung over the cross-pole and braided to form the rope for the swing. Nowadays nylon rope is braided in the same manner.

child on sw2ing

Children lining up to ride on the swing

After the festival, which lasts about one week, the rope is left on the frame to be taken down and replaced with a new one the next year. The swing cannot be ridden before the first day of the festival when a cow is slaughtered and the meat shared out between the villagers. At that point villagers and visitors can ride on the swing and there may be a competition to see who can swing the highest, but according to village lore, the main purpose of the swing is essentially a form of cleansing ritual: by riding on the swing one can cast off ‘bad luck’ or inauspicious events from the previous year.

riding the swing 2

The village champion

At this time of the year, some way into the rainy season,  tea farmers are not particularly busy. There may still be a little Summer tea being made in some villages where they have small tea trees, but generally there will be little tea until the Autumn and any crops that villagers may have planted, like rice or maize will have already been harvested or will not get harvested till the Autumn.

 

Autumn – Nan Nuo Shan

I’ve been to Nan Nuo Shan more times than I care to imagine so I guess I feel like I know it fairly well and I had pretty much given up on the idea that I might find a tea garden there that was not over-managed, but this Spring on a spur of the moment decision I decided to do some exploring whilst I was unaccompanied. It was fortuitous since I found my way into some tea gardens that are part of Ban Po Lao Zhai, but that I had not visited before. There was one area of the tea gardens that particularly interested me and a second area which also looked good. The garden’s on one of the higher parts of Nan Nuo Shan, at a hair under 1800m, and the surrounding environment is surprisingly good.  It’s a tea that turned out to be one of the pleasant surprises of this year.

IMG_20150923_141141

After a rather sedentary summer, I went again to Nan Nuo Shan a day or two ago , this time with some friends. We visited some tea gardens that are part of Shi Tou Zhai, but lower down the mountain at a height of around 1400m, so not that high, but good enough. Some of the gardens here are managed with a slightly heavy hand but some, higher up the slope, toward the top of a ridge are better. Quite a few of the trees here have been copiced at some time and there are also quite a few smaller trees in amongst the larger ones. Some of these are clearly trees which were cut, or burned right back to the ground, but others look like they came later, naturally or otherwise. The environment around the gardens is quite good. My friend says he tasted some tea from here in the summer and that it was not bad so he’s toying with getting some Autumn tea from here this year. So, let’s wait and see.  The gardens looked OK, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

IMG_20150923_141916 (1)

 

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New Home

So here is HM in a new home. It’s been a while. I just realised, when moving things around, how long the hiatus has been. I’ve been busy with other things, but I’m hoping to still find time to keep this more contemporary.

Spring is still a little while away, but Spring Festival is round the corner – The Year of the Goat. A wooden goat at that. I just got back from a month or so of travelling to rain and some fairly cold weather. Already, I heard a couple of folks wondering about how so much rain early in the new year might affect tea, but it’s early yet. No point in worrying about what hasn’t happened.

In my explorations of the last year I’ve happened on a couple of interesting tea gardens, not well known – one pretty much unknown – from which I’m planning to source tea this Spring.

I’m getting ready to go and check out the tea gardens again and will post a couple of photos when I get back.

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 Lin 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

Hand Made Paper from Man Zhao – Correction

For the last few years I’ve been under the misaprehension that the paper made in Man Zhao outside Meng Hun, the hand-made paper which is used widely for wrapping puer tea, was made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. I was wrong.

The bark now rarely comes from local sources as there are insufficient trees to support the village industry, so most of it is imported from neighbours: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos. It’s called gou pi shu locally – which I somewhat predictably assumed was ‘dog skin’ tree – it is in fact  构树/gou shu, Paper Mulberry, broussonetia papyrifera.

I could perhaps be forgiven as the leaves do look a little similar.

There are a number of photos here

And some links here:

efloras.com

Wikipedia

Kew.org

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Conversations – On Picking Tea with Professor Chen

 

Like Picking Money from Trees III

 

the three standard formations for tea picking

I thought it would be interesting to get a more learned view on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. There’s always plenty of homespun logic available, but less easy to hear from the mouth of an academic, so I decided to get in touch with someone I’ve known for a year or so who’s just that: Professor Chen is on the staff at South China Agricultural University. He’s in the Tea Science Department.

I posed the question to him: When is an old tea tree over-picked?

His reply went pretty much like this:

‘On the problem over-picking tea trees, the main thing is to consider what is ‘appropriate’ picking. The aim of appropriate picking is to ensure a basis of a good, stable yield, to accomplish both ‘regular production’ and to ‘cultivate the tree’ – there is a paradox between the two.

The leaves of camelia sinensis are a vital organ which through the process of photosynthesis give the tree life. To maintain the trees strong vitality it is imperative to maintain stable, abundant foliage. The tree’s total leaf-surface area is an indices of its life-force.

At the same time, tips and young leaves are predominantly picked for tea production; appropriate picking practices can increase yield and also ensure the longevity of the tree. Accordingly, normal tea picking methods are to leave leaves on the tree. Research has clearly shown that if during spring picking a large leaf is left unpicked on the stem and in summer, the ‘fish’ or ‘milk’ leaf is left, it can improve both the quality and yield of the tree two years later.

Old tea tree gardens are somewhat different from plantations. They are less well managed and trees are more easily damaged. If through picking, the tree’s leaf area is reduced too much, i.e. too few leaves, it inevitably leads to early aging of the tree and in extreme cases, its death. Clearly, an appropriate degree of picking is important to maintain old tea tree gardens. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no scientific research reports on appropriate approaches to harvesting of old tea tree gardens.

He suggested:

1. Old tea trees should not be picked harshly, (that is to say, pick the tree clean – all leaves, irrespective of size – in one go). Each time the tree is picked, a portion of the leaves must be left on the tree.

2. In the spring, during the first and second flush, a large leaf should be left on the stem because June is the time when the tree will lose leaves. In the summer, a ‘milk’ leaf should be left and in autumn, again leave a large leaf.

3. Pick according to the condition of the trees foliage; if old leaves are few, leave more on the tree. If old leaves are plentiful, pick more. In times of drought of course more leaves must be left on the tree. The older the tree, the easier it is to damage its life-force, so it is even more important to leave a proportion of tips and leaves on the tree.

4. When a tree is old it is very easily affected by over-picking. The tree is past its most productive stage and is in a period of decline.

Further research needs to be conducted to understand how over-picking impacts the quality of old tree tea.’

Some people say that the of type approach suggested by professor Chen is not that easy for tea farmers to take on board, and a simpler approach of getting them to re-establish traditional practices in cases where they have been lost would be more effective and would have the same result. However, it’s not all tea farmers who have a lore of tea cultivation in their culture – and certainly not of commercial tea production.

So it’s clear, if not conclusive, that there is, or at the least, there is potential for, a problem. But not so clear how widespread the problem is or how to deal with it. It’s unlikely the regional government, even if it had the will to grasp the issue, would have the ability to police it. So the onus of responsibility is on the farmers and the people who buy their tea.

see here for earlier posts on over-picking tea:

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/picking-money-trees/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/over-picking-tea/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/ma-hou-pao/