Tag Archives: Six Famous Tea Mountains

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For the likes of Google however, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly a cartographic backwater: some of the images are years out of date.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

The Road to Gua Feng Zhai

I must have chosen some of the hottest, driest days of the year to take a ride on my newly acquired bike around the Six Famous Tea Mountains. It was Water Spalshing Festival or 泼水节 ‘Po Shui Jie’, Dai New Year Festival – ‘Songkran’ in Thai – which takes place around Xishuangbanna between the 13th to 15th of April.

I spent a night in Mahei before heading up to Gua Feng Zhai.The road runs alongside the San Jia River, crossing over it a couple of times. Sometimes soaring above it, then dropping back down to run alongside again for a while. One is never out of earshot of the river.

A view of the village before dropping down into Gua Feng Zhai. It is currently a little dishevelled as they have been improving the roads in the village and work has not yet been completed. The village is on the Meng Nai River which joins the San Jia He further down the valley. Meng Nai is the Yao name for Gua Feng Zhai.

There are three main tea growing areas with ancient tea trees worked by people fom Gua Feng Zhai; Bai Sha He, Cha Wang Shu and Cha Ping. Due to inherited land use and land allocation, there are many people, other than Gua Feng Zhai villagers who have trees in Cha Wang Shu. There are people in Yiwu who have land in Cha Wang Shu.

The Bai Sha He tea field below is typical of the type of ancient tea tree fields in the Gua Feng Zhai area, but they are all a good 8-10 kilometres from the village. In the immediate vicinty of the village there are only bushes/xiao shu. In this picture the trees are fairly sparse and land around them has been previously cleared. The trees are surrounded by forest. The simple low frame structures in the foreground are used to place bamboo drying trays 簸箕 (boji) on to dry tea.

gua feng zhai tea gardens

Many of the trees have a substantial base, which gives a better idea of their age but, because in the past they were cut back, they mostly have a number of more slender trunks rather than one main trunk. They still grow to significant sizes and can be 4-5 metres tall.

ancient tea tree in Gua Feng Zhai tea field

With all of these tea fields, because they are significant distances from the village, the common practice is to process the tea in the field and then carry the loose maocha out.

Here is a photo looking across from Bai Cha Yuan towards Cha Wang Shu (the mountain to the right). From here it is is a further 2 hour walk to Cha Wang Shu. It is a little more accessible from the other, Gua Feng Zhai, side of the mountain as it can be accessed by motorbike.

Below is a photo of a simple processing facility in Cha Wang Shu. This is where we made tea this spring.

Cha WAng Shu processing facility

Here is one of the bigger trees in Cha Wang Shu. Again, the tree had been previously cut back and then subsequently left untended.

gua-feng-zhai-cha-wang-shu. Ancient tea tree

The scenery around Gua Feng Zhai is among some of the most pristine in the Six Famous Tea Mountains area, not least because of it’s remoteness. Typical tea fields here are at altitudes of 1,600-700 metres.

a view on the road from mahei to gua feng zhai

Gua Feng Zhai – Cha Wang Shu – First Spring tea

HM was back up in Gua Feng Zhai about a week ago and came back with just over three and a half kilos of the first spring tea from Gua Feng Zhai’s Cha Wang Shu.

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

We tried the tea which at that stage was very smooth in the mouth, and sweet, but seemed a little thin in flavour. So about a week later, I thought I would try it again.

It had changed somewhat: still very smooth. The lid of the gaiwan carried the scent of  ‘flowers and honey’. The wet leaves have a dense ‘green’ aroma – a very distinct qing chou wei.  A faint hint of bitterness on the upper palate and ‘retro-olfactory’ hints of honeysuckle in the nasal cavity.

Lao Feng dropped by just as I was pouring out the second steep. We agreed it had improved in the week since we had tried it first. “The very first tips of spring” he said “it’s like an animal that’s been asleep all winter and has just awoken. It’s not fully awake yet.”

gua feng zhai cha wang shu 2012 puerh

Wan Gong and Bai Cha Yuan

HM has been recently spending a fair bit of time going up to Wan Gong where we found a little tea last year, and Bai Cha Yuan . Our hope this year is to build on last year and make some more tea from a couple of tea gardens up there.

Old tea tree around Wan Gong

Old tea trees that were cut back and then left untended

The trees in the photo are typical of a fair number of the trees in this remote area near Bai Cha Yuan – they are maybe about 200 years old but were cut back heavily many years ago and have subsequently been left untended for a long time.

HM and some tea farmers from the area have built a small makeshift ‘pondoki’ where we will make tea, as it is much too far from any more permanent tea making facilities.

A rough shelter on the mountain

A makeshift shelter

We have improvised two small woks for frying tea.

Two makeshift woks for frying tea in the field

A rather splendid view from near the top of the mountain.

A view from near the top of the mountain

A view from near the top of the mountain