Tag Archives: travel

Jian Shui

I hadn’t been to Jian Shui for more than four years and recently got the chance to go back there. Jian Shui, to the south of Fuxian Lake is a pottery town, renowned for its purple clay which is very dense and, after using a variety of techniques; throwing, carving, inlaying, is burnished using stones to give a high polish without the use of glaze.

Double Dragon Bridge is a few kilomteres outside Jian shui, an excellent example of Qing Dynasty (18th Century) architecture. At the confluence of two rivers – Lujiang and Tachong Rivers – it originally had 3 spans, but was later extended due to a change of course in the river.

Apart from its large city gate which is currently being renovated, Jian Shui is well known for it’s Daoist Temple, built in the style of the Qufu Confucian Temple in Shandong, during the 13th Century.

The Dao is Natural

Here’s a small teapot I acquired whilst there. Because of the process of making Jian Shui pottery, it is apparently rare for pots to be made by one individual, rather they are made by a number of people, each of whom specialises in a different skill. The image on the pot is made by first engraving the pot and then filling with different local clays which have unique colours.

Not for all the tea in China

Heading east out of Porto, following the River Duoro, one eventually moves out of the verdant lower reaches and moves up into the highlands that feel more like the North Yorkshire Moors than Portugal. By swinging north-east, one eventually arrives at Braganca, home of Catherine – her father was the Duke of Braganca – the Portuguese princess who married Charles II in 1662, and brought along her penchant for a nice cup of tea.

Tea was first brought to Europe in the early 1600’s, but, having been popularised by Catherine who arrived some 40 years later, by the late 19th Century, tea had ceased to be the luxury item it was at the time of it’s introduction.

‘Not for all the tea in China’ perhaps still alluded to the value of tea, but also, rather more the quantity.

The price of Puer, volatile as ever, reached a new height recently; someone brought us some Lao Ban Zhang Summmer tea (yu shui cha). It actually wasn’t bad, but at 1000 RMB a kilo it wasn’t very attractive. As HM said, “Why would you buy Lao Ban Zhang yu shui cha, when for half the price you could buy the very best Nan Nuo Shan Spring tea.”

Of course, compared to Longjin and what have you, Puer is still inexpensive. But, as Puer tea moves further and further away from being an agricultural product, to being a quality, hand-crafted tea, made by farmers who want to see their standards of living rise (even if that might mean, from many an outsider’s view at least, a decline in quality), and as they become increasingly connected to a larger society which has inflation that’s probably closer to 20% than most care to acknowledge. Who’s going to tell them ‘bu xing!’

Rainy Season

I recently got back from a trip to Thailand. Coming back up the Mekong  we had a slow ride as the boat had some engine trouble.  The rainy season rains had swelled the river and, in places where the river is not so wide and also not very deep, the current is strong enough that some boats, when laden, can’t make headway up river.  In this situation, the boat has to drop back downstream a little way and a cable is run to the bank where it is anchored on a rock.  The boat’s winch is then used to help pull the boat up.  In a smaller boat – a canoe, or raft or something, these stretches would look like rapids, but in a 40 meter boat they don’t look so ominous.

The Mekong River

There were a couple of days when it rained all day and night.  Back in Jinghong, we have also recently had heavy rain.  At this time of year in Jinghong the fragrance of tea is rather muted. The flavours are all there, but the humidity seems to surpress the more aromatic compounds. It will not be till September that the weather will become dryer, and tea will change again.

Manguo Xin Zhai

I went back out to Manguo Xin Zhai A couple of weeks ago – it was Children’s Day.  Next year some of these students will graduate and go to Bulang Shan County or Menghai for middle school. As this is not an old village, there is no long history of children graduating from the village school and progressing to middle and high schools.  The teachers aspirations are that children will be successful in moving on to other schools and that the value of education will be appreciated more and more. I had lunch with the teachers and the village head, who gave me a bag of tea as I left. I had taken a few things for the classroom – pens, paper, crayons, colouring pens, etc.

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New Year

Xishuangbanna does not have a particularly strong Han Chinese culture, nonetheless, during this season, many different ethnic groups celebrate their own new year ; Aini, Jinuo, Han, all have celebrations.

This last week has been the Jinuo New Year – several days of celebrations, for which cows and pigs are slaughtered and shared out amongts the households of the village.  Much is also given away to guests.

Yesterday I went with friends to Jinuo Shan.  We were invited to a friends house to eat.  This was followed by dancing.

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A group of dancers, accompanied by others playing cymbals and makeshift drums,  go round the entire village, enter each house to dance and drink bai jiu and finish in the village square to continue the celebrations.

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A basket of greens was tossed in the air above everyone’s heads, while the drinking and dancing continued.

In these situations, avoiding being more or less forced to drink home-made maize liquor takes great determination and – as far as the hosts are concerned – a degree of insensitivity to their cultural norms.  However,  Jinuo people tend not to be  as persistent as some other cultures in this matter.P02_R

All Jinuo people will wear some form of traditional dress for this kind of occasion; typically a jacket and a bag. Only the woman wear hats. This clothing is made using cotton that people have grown themselves and dyes that come from local plants.P05_R

There is very little tea in this particular part of Jinuo Shan now.  Old tea trees have been cut down to plant rubber which  encroaches relentlessly on more traditional farming areas.

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Climate Change

I just got back from a month in the UK.  The first visit in five years. Of course, I took tea with me. It was the first time I had personally taken much sheng cha from one climate to another, significantly different, climate.

From Jinghong to Kunming, with about 1200 metres rise in altitude, is already a huge change and it requires time, particularly, it seems,  for younger teas to adjust.  I had taken some Puer to Beijing a couple of years ago, but it was October, when the rainy season in Xishuangbanna is largely over and the weather in Beijing is still pleasantly warm, albeit quite dry, so the change was not so obvious.

Younger teas took the best part of three weeks before they started to taste anything like they do here. And even ‘here’ the change in sheng between dry and wet seasons is very noticeable – most typically losing it’s fragrance whilst the flavour becomes thinner.

I spent a fair amount of time also exploring different waters – bottled, commercially available water  – and even went as far as buying a small kettle since, even if you have good water, which you then boil in a calcerous old kettle the result will be compromised.

After trying many waters with different pH and mineral content I concluded – farbeit for me to advertise – that Volvic was the most suitable for the majority of teas.  It’s mineral content is not very high – it has very low calcium levels and the pH  neutral at 7.  The water we use in the shop has a similar profile, but with a few less minerals. It seemed that older teas were a little more tolerant of the cliamte change and poorer water quality.

The correlation of water and altitude (boiling point?) is also interesting; Nan Nuo Shan is blessed with ample crisp spring water.  It’s excellent for drinking when walking in the mountains and, at 1600 metres or more, makes a fine brew of tea. But when we have tried bringing that water back to Jinghong to make the same tea, the outcome is rather less favourable.  Typically less fragrant and more astringent.

My conclusions in the UK were supported by friends in France whom I went to visit at their home in the Cote de Luberon.  They  have some good experience of Puer and are very familiar with our teas being frequent visitors to Xishuangbanna. They can be visited in their shop in Lauris  ‘Galerie Yunnan’ where I’m sure they would be happy to share tea and stories.

By way of conclusion; of paramount importance is some tenacity in tea-making. If  one is trying a new tea, or even a tea that one is familiar with, but in a new situation, experimentation is key. Without the determination to explore

Books

Yesterday we went back to Man Guo Xin Zhai in Bulang Shan.  It was a hot, dry day – 34 degrees and windy.  It’s been a very dry spring with only one decent rain in months.

As we left Jinghong with our boxes of books to take to the village school, windows down and the wind blowing,  a smell of wood smoke suddenly reminded me of France – the south.  Our olfactory senses must surely be the most refined, our sense of smell the most evocative.

bananas

Outside Jinghong on the Menghai road it’s all bananas and rubber.  After Nan Nuo Shan this scene gives way to the big tea factories and their plantations along the road side .  Past Menghai.  Not the ugliest of towns, but nothing much to commend it  and we move into bright green fields of new rice and, in higher areas, the pale leaves of sugar cane.  Farmers are out cutting the cane, a variety that is not suitable for eating but provides a cash crop that’s sold for sugar manufacture. Smoke is in the air.

We pass new Dai houses on the outskirts of Meng Hun – a sign of their growing prosperity, thanks mostly to rubber.

As we move up off the plain there are tree blossoms Bai Hua and maybe some Cherry.  There are more, smaller tea plantations, but the profit from such crops is minimal;  I was recently visiting some friends in Da Du Gang – an area mostly given to green tea production, Biluo Chun, where villagers started planting tea 5 or 6 years ago.  But they sell the fresh leaves for 2 or 3 RMB a kg, so it’s not a ‘get rich quick’ shceme.  Old tea tree farmers do rather better.   

There are some new  place-name signs on the side of the road in English and Chinese, translated by someone with a sense of humour.  The Chinese is commonly a transliteration from a local language, so bears little or no resemblance to the original meaning:   Man Da Huo,  if one can wring a meaning out of it in Chinese becomes ‘Village Makes Fire’ (‘man’ is a transliteration from Dai- meaning village) which in turn becomes in English  ‘Man Ignition’.

The school where we are headed is supervised by a bigger school in the village on the main road; Ah Ke Zhai which somehow gets rendered into English as ‘Acton’.  It bears absolutely no resemblance to Acton (or East Acton for that matter), but it’s fun to consider the possibilites of a twinning between the two.

Going up the hill to the village, one is reminded of why people settled here.  There’s water! Women are washing clothes and bathing in spring water coming out of a pipe on the roadside.  None-the-less this area is recognised by the central government as an area of poverty and within that, Man Guo Xin Zhai is particularly badly affected.

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When we had handed over the books and materials the teacher, Xiao Luo, he put the books on a couple of tables outside and called the children round,  inviting them to have a look.  The effect was noteable;  as children read out loud a  low hum developed.  The children, despite the fact that their Chinese is less advanced than their city counterprts,  were engrossed in reading.  Perhaps for the first time in their village having books to read and become immersed in.

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Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

P1000173Well, no.  He’s actually the teacher in a village school in Bulang Shan. The school has one classroom, a kitchen and an office-come-bedroom.

He teaches, nurtures and cooks for a little over 30 children from the village. The villagers are Bulang but the teacher is Aini from Nan Nuo Shan.

HM suggested we donate some books for a small library for the school as the only books they have now are standard text books and they are decidedly under-resourced.                                                                                                   

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 Aini and Bulang villages have gates at the entrances  and a post in the centre of the village for protection.

Early Spring Tea

We went out to Bulang Shan the day before yesterday and then HM went again yesterday to Lao Ban Zhang. He came back with lots of photos (thanks to a new camera) and a little new tea.

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It’s not old tree tea.  It’s tea from trees that are maybe 50-60 years old.  It seems no chemicals have been used on the trees…

The first one we just tried:

As HM said “The fragrance, flavour and aftertaste are all lacking.”  “Only the smokey flavour is (more than) enough.” 

But then, as someone said to us last spring “If it wasn’t smokey it wouldn’t be Lao Ban Zhang!”

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The tree (and woman) in Lao Ban Zhang that almost everyone who goes there takes a photo of.

 

Lao Ban Zhang consists of five villages:

Lao Ban Zhang, Xin Ban Zhang, Baka Nuan, Baka Long and Lao Man E.  All of these villages produce ‘Lao Ban Zhang’ tea, but they are all different. 

Old and New Ban Zhang are Aini villages (people who originally moved there from Nan Nuo Shan).

Baka Nuan and Baka Long are Lahu villages and Lao Man E is a Bulang village.