Tag Archives: travel

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.

 

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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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

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.

 

 

 

There and Here – more on puer storage

After comparing two Bulang Peak teas whilst I was in the UK, I thought it might be interesting to bring some of the 2010, UK stored tea back to ‘Banna to compare with some of the same tea that has been stored here in Jinghong.

This therefore, is more an ‘apples with apples’ comparison than the one in the UK which was comparing a 2010 tea stored in the UK for 18 months with a 2011 tea that had been in Jinghong. This time we have the same tea, same batch.

bulang peak 2010 cakes

UK cake on left, 'Banna on the right

The first thing is that the difference between the teas is not that obvious. Looking at the colour of the cakes, the broth colour and the dregs, there is some difference to be detected, but it’s not that pronounced.

bulang peak 2010 uk stored cake detailbulang peak 2010 cake stored in JinghongThere is a slight difference in colour between the two cakes – most visible in the tips which are a little darker in the ‘Banna stored tea and in the slightly ‘greener’ hue to the UK stored cake. The top photo (right) is the UK stored cake, the lower one the ‘Banna stored tea. It’s not obvious in the photos here but the ‘Banna tea also looks a little richer, more moist than the UK stored cake, but perhaps I’m just imagining that.

The broth also produces marked difference – at least of the kind that I might have anticipated.

The broth from the first steepings of both teas looks pretty similar in tone.

I started using these two cups – the UK stored tea is on the left – but then realised my mistake as the shape of the cups and their translucency was affecting the appearance of the broth.

bulang peak spring 2010 broth

So I switched to two identical cups to see how the appearance of the broth was altered. I tried to steep the teas as close to simultaneously as I could in order to minimise any differences caused by oxidation of the broth and steeped the UK stored tea first, so that oxidation would not exaggerate any difference.

bulang zhi dian broth comparison

As can be seen in the photo above, there is no very obvious difference. Possibly the broth on the left (UK) is a mite lighter than the ‘Banna broth. Both are the third steeping.

Here is the broth from both teas after steeping for 5 minutes. This time the broth on the right (‘Banna) is more noticeably darker, but it’s still not much.

bulang peaks broth after five minutes steeping

The difference is most clear in the flavour – perhaps as one might have expected. The UK stored cake has kept more of its youthful floral/fruity notes and is very sweet. At the same time it is very slightly more astringent than the ‘Banna stored tea.

The ‘Banna stored tea has lost most of those fruit/floral notes and has started to show hints of something deeper, though as yet, no obvious chen wei. Both teas, when pushed, show a decent kuwei and both resolve quickly to produce a good huigan.

So is there a conclusion?

Of sorts, there is an interim one. It could be that the astringence in the UK stored cake is due to the fact that it has aged more slowly than the ‘Banna tea (and we have forgotten how it was when young) and that with further storage it will diminish. The other possibility, it seems, is that it has been influenced by the dryness of the UK conditions and this has produced the astringence. Only further storage time will tell.

bulang peak broth and dregs

 

 

Tea with the Chens – From He Kai to Ge Deng

I have recently had cause to hang out with two different Chens – a Chinese name something akin to the English Smith. One in Hekai, on the edge of the Bulang Mountains, and the other from Guangdong who sources tea from the Six Famous Tea Mountains area.

Chen No1 is based in He Kai. I went up there a few weeks ago and then accompanied him to Lao Ban Zhang where he got 30 kg of fresh leaves. The cost of fresh tou chun leaves in Ban Zhang this year was anything from a little over 400 to over 600 RMB/kg, and this Spring, just over 4 kg of fresh leaves was making a kilo of mao cha.

We got back to his place with the tea around mid-day and spread it out to wilt for a while. He started frying tea later in the afternoon and continued till almost midnight, putting the tea out to dry the next morning, which is normal practice.

His sha qing approach is a little different from some tea makers as he tends to fry the tea for considerably longer than is typical, and then rolls it for a relatively short period of time. When tea is heaped in the pan during frying in the fashion described above, it is locally described as ‘dui de‘ or piled.

He Kai Chen left his tea to wilt for a fair time even though the weather’s very dry – although it had been raining a little at night when I was there – (one reason for wilting, apart from allowing the moisture content in the leaves to drop, is to allow it to even out, so that there is a more uniform amount of moisture throughout the leaf – from tip to stem. If this is not done, it’s easy to burn the leaves).

Typical tea frying woks in the Bulang Shan/Hekai/Ban Zhang area are set flat on a brick oven. Initially, the tea leaves are kept moving in the pan which must be done to stop the leaves from burning and to produce an even roast. As the tea is roasted, the heat is allowed to drop a little and the tea moved less. After frying for a while – maybe as much as 15 minutes – during which time the tea is turned and shaken out repeatedly (this allows some of the heat to disperse), the process slows down and the tea is turned and then piled in the centre of the wok and left for a minute or so. This process is repeated many times.

Chen Lao Ban then takes the tea out of the wok and leaves it on a tray for several minutes – again piled as opposed to spread out, which is the more common practice.

Making tea in this way, he then machine rolls it in an old electric roller with a wooden drum and tray, but only for a few minutes. The result is a tea that is very fragrant, has good body, with a light clear broth, little astringence and good hou yun.

When He Kai Chen makes tea completely by hand, as he did with some of the Ban Zhang tea, he does not follow this method, and has a more typical approach to frying and rolling.

Across the other side of Xishuangbanna, a few weeks later, I was in Ge Deng and bumped into another Chen. Chen Lao Ban is from Guangdong where he sells tea. He spends quite a lot of time in ‘Banna and has been sourcing/making tea in the Liu Da Cha Shan area for 5 or 6 years. He has set up a few small chu zhe suowhere he both processes fresh leaves and collects some mao cha.

Guangdong Chen has had a wok made according to his requirements: the wok is also set flat on the oven in a manner similar to Bulang Shan woks, but it’s a fair bit higher. One only has to fry tea for a few minutes in a wok in say, Nan Nuo Shan, to realise how important the height is! Most Aini people are relatively short, and build their ovens accordingly, so this can be back breaking for anyone taller.

His approach to tea making is almost as far from Hekai Chen’s as Ge Deng is from Hekai. The wilting time is probably about the same – somewhere between 3 and 5 hours, but his approach to sha qing is quite different. Tea Urchin referred to this style as ‘medium rare’. I like that description. I think a lot of people I know here would say it was ‘sha bu tou‘ – not fried enough, but Guangdong Chen (and lots of other people in Guangdong) seem to like tea with this kind of flavour; a little less smooth feeling in the mouth than is typical, a fair bit of astringency, and not much obvious fragrance; either in the leaf or the cup. And virtually none of the retro-olfactory aromas that He Kai Chen produces.

Chen Lao Ban says that when the tea is stored (in Guangdong), the astringence mellows, though I have to say, that in my (limited) experience of drinking tea in Guangdong, even after several years, tea is often still markedly ‘apre’. He Kai Chen also says his tea ages well. I have had some which was 3-4 years old which was reminiscent of a rather older tea; very smooth, good hou yunand a pleasant chen wei.

What is most interesting in all this is that Puer making methods, within a broader understanding of the process, can vary considerably. There is not necessarily any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things – and I suspect there never was – although it is easy to find people who will swear by one particular approach.

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

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

Dongguan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop

We weathered the coldest spell Guangdong has had for many years to attend the opening of a branch of Zhi Zheng Tea Shop in Dongguan, Guangdong which is on the main Shenzhen – Guangzhou highway.

Dongguan is known for its manufacturing industry (as well as other related service industries, which somehow, in China, seem to be deeply interwoven with doing business), so we were happy to dwell in the rarefied atmosphere of tea, for which Dong Guan is less well known.

Dong Guaners’ enthusiasm for tea – particularly Puer tea – is considerable. The shop is actually in Da Ling Shan which was once a small town that has now been subsumed by Dongguan, and Da Ling Shan alone has more tea shops than Jinghong. 

Two dragons and their leader, with Wu Meng Zhao (left), Chairman of Guangdong Tea Culture Association and (right), Li Gui Rong, owner of Dong Guan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop.

The shop, which opened in typical Guangdong style on the 5th of January, is on two floors and has rooms on the second floor for tea tasting/drinking, and meeting friends.