Exploring Chengdu February 03 2014
Intense fog greeted our midnight arrival to Chengdu; the capital of Sichuan Province in China. Chengdu is well known for being overcast and foggy. This fog would stay with us during our stay in Chengdu. There are similarities to my home town of Seattle in the local winter climate here. Surrounded by mountains and nestled in a fertile plain the winter weather is often moderate but dark. This made the transition from Seattle to China fairly painless.
Chengdu has been a traditional hub for trade and commerce for hundreds of years. Tea has played and continues to play an important role in Chengdu daily life. Tea houses are everywhere and used socially by all classes. Business meetings are often held in the local tea houses over shared tea. Bamboo is plentiful here and used liberally for furniture in the local tea houses. The bamboo chairs are specifically designed to be comfortable and allow you to sit for a very long time drinking tea.
Tea culture is very much alive in Chengdu, and for good reason. The geographical position of this city made it uniquely situated for commerce and trade west to Tibet, south to Yunnan, east to Beijing, and north to the Silk Road. Chengdu is one of the starting points of Southern Silk Road. The Southern Silk Road is also known as The Ancient Tea Horse Road : Cha Ma Gu Dao.
Our original intent for staying in Chengdu was to take advantage of the Tibetan stores. Little Tibet is a small neighborhood in downtown Chengdu that has a large population of Tibetans and Tibetan stores. This was where Lamu and I would find our wedding clothes. We spent a good deal of time with her mother walking, shopping, and trying on clothes. There are many local monasteries and seeing monks walking the streets is a common sight. The image of penitent monks walking the streets in red and yellow robes hands clasped together muttering prayers becomes humorous once you realize most are holding iPhones and talking on WeChat.
We stopped and chatted with a local tea vendor in Little Tibet. A guardian ram ornately decorated stood guard over many hundreds of pounds of compressed and wrapped tea. This vendor dealt exclusively in a locally produced Heicha tea called Kang Zhuan Jin Jian tea. This tea is targeted specifically at the Tibetan population. Heicha is the term used to describe fermented tea like Puerh that is made outside of Yunnan. The Chinese government has given only tea produced in Yunnan the right to call itself Puerh. This tea was compressed in wide bricks about 10 x 4 inches and 3 feet long. It consisted of a very high percentage of stems. The tea brewed clean and sweet and seemed slightly oily like slippery elm.
The vendor claimed this tea makes up 95% of the current tea imported into Tibet. Puerh is the other 5%. This tea is produced in a very complex process involving 32 steps. It is fermented in 3 different stages and stored for at least 3 years before reaching market. The fermentation stages involve the addition of already aged and fermented product to help the younger leaves ferment quicker. He also mentioned that the leaves are each individually twisted at least 5 times to help break down the cellular structure and enhance the flavor.
It was also his claim that with the advent of modern transportation that brought about the end of the Tea Horse Road's utility that puerh got to Tibet too quick. Since the puerh was too young when it got to Tibet it was unhealthy to drink because the increased caffeine content raised heart rates which is dangerous at higher altitudes. Because of this, puerh was not desired in Tibet anymore. I understand he has a product to sell, but I'm not entirely sure about all he told us. We haven't been able to corroborate all his claims from other sources.
The highlight of our trip was a visit to a remaining portion of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Little remains of the portion from Chengdu to Ya'an. We traveled by bus a couple hours southwest of Chengdu to Pujiang County. Three of us crammed into a human powered bicycle taxi that crawled along slower than we could have walked. The driver was very eager to please and we were kind enough to indulge him. Afterwards a second bus took us to Chengjia Village.
Our bus driver was certainly an enthusiastic and confident driver. On a 4-lane highway in China the rightmost lane is for slow moving vehicles, bicycles, scooters, and occasionally people. The left lane is the fast lane. The oncoming traffic's fast lane becomes a third lane used for passing people in the fast lane. Time and again our driver pulled right into oncoming traffic hoping they would get out of the way. When he felt the game of chicken was won he would pull back into the correct lane pushing out anyone who was already in that lane over into the slow lane. He played this game more times than I could count. Even the seasoned Chinese passengers were holding their eyes shut.
When we arrived at Chengjia Village it was bustling with pre Chinese New Year activity. Kids were chasing each other with military grade snap-pops while the smell of sulphur hung from the fog like an ornament. We took lunch at a local restaurant that had no menu just a shelf of vegetables and piles of assorted meats. Lamu and her mother pointed to several of each and the owners hurried into the back to prepare what turned out to be some amazing Sichuan cuisine. With the meal we drank some local Zhuyeqing green bamboo tea. This tea is so named because of the habit of the leaves to stand vertically like stalks of bamboo.
After our fill of spicy Sichuan goodness and some hastily communicated directions we set off to hike to our destination. We were assured that the Tea Horse Road was at most a 20-30 minute walk away. That was not the most accurate of statements. Thankfully our hike was through some amazingly beautiful countryside full of tea gardens because we were walking for a long time. We arrived at a roadside tea attraction who confirmed our suspicion that we were a long way from our intended goal. After much cajoling, hand waving, and phone calling a guide was sourced to drive us the rest of the way. Our guide arrived and whisked us off. He kept insisting to us that he was a great driver. It was a poor verbal cover for his beet red face and cologne of local beer. Even so, he brought us to the Tea Horse Road safely.
In this area much of the original Tea Horse Road has now been converted into farmland. We parked in the driveway of an orange grove farmhouse and started hiking again. A small dirt path from the farmhouse backyard turned to large flat stones and we knew we had arrived. This remaining portion of the Tea Horse Road was a little shy of half a mile long. We hiked it from southwest to northeast. Our guide was either geographically challenged or had had far too much to drink. He explained that Yunnan was at the end of the road to the northeast. His misdirection aside it was incredible to see this portion of tea history. You can close your eyes and imagine the heavily laden humans and animals taking tea and other goods to and fro on this very path. The thick stones reveal great wear that only time can engrave.
The road winds up and down through a dense forest dotted with pockets of bamboo and bordered by tea gardens. In a short span it undulates between wide and narrow, steep and flat. It follows the natural terrain like a snake. Deep grooves had been cut into the stone steps on the steeper portions to give additional traction. These offered little real assistance to the combined power of moss and moisture. More than once did we have to check our balance and tread carefully to keep upright.
The road continues until confronted with the broad facade of Changtan Lake. It is here that this portion the Ancient Tea Horse Road has met the juggernaut of national progress. Many years earlier this lake was created with the construction of a local dam and consequently submerged the Ancient Tea Horse Road.
This remaining section of the Ancient Tea Horse Road has been well taken care of and remains largely unvisited and mostly undisturbed. This was a definite highlight of this first step of our trip. I'll end this first blog with more pics. Thanks for reading. Until next time!
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014