Jingmai Mountain and Mangjing Village April 09 2014
We arrived late at night in Huimin. Our goal was the Jingmai ancient tea growing area, but it was too dark and late by the time we arrived. We got an early start and made our first focus on breakfast. Breakfast in small Chinese villages is largely hit or miss, with the hits generally being noodles. I'm not a big fan of noodles in the morning, but the practice is growing on me. My idea of the perfect breakfast is some fresh brewed shou puerh with a side of peanut butter toast. Finding decent bread, let alone peanut butter is an impossible task outside of the larger cities in China. For situations like this I allow my wife's expertise to take over. She has a native ability to ascertain restaurant quality at a glance. Restaurant is a loose term in most Chinese villages. It seems that anyone can prepare food and sell it pretty much anywhere with very little oversight.
It was overcast and cold when we found food that passed my wife's standards. I was still skeptical. Our cook plied her trade among a row of noodle vendors and motorcycle repairmen. Individual boundaries were loosely defined, if at all. Noodles were prepared and served side by side with carburetor repair and full engine overhauls. Gasoline vapors mixed with the aroma of spicy Sichuan peppers and were blanketed by the sweet smell of exhaust. The noodles were of average quality and easily forgotten. Far more fascinating was the larger picture of a small town gearing up for the day's work. I was entranced with the utilitarian confusion of the scene. Bikes were repaired only just in time to be strapped down with live chickens, fresh vegetables, and squirming children. These wobbling balancing acts artistically wove like a fine tapestry through the lumbering diesel powered industrial beasts of burden slowly chugging through town. Just another day in the life of rural China.
Our bellies and imaginations full we set out to find some tea. Simply stating that Jingmai has a rich history with tea doesn't really do the area or the people any justice. When the Romans were still ruling the rest of the world the Bulang people migrated to the Jingmai area and began cultivating tea trees in an environmentally responsible way integrated with the local forests. 1800 years later this amazing resource not only still exists, but thrives.
Jingmai is situated deep in the Southwest corner of Yunnan Province. These ancient forests border Burma and hide smuggler trade routes still in use today. This biodiversity of the region and the nearly untainted old world methods and rituals of tea cultivation and harvesting make this area unique among world tea production. The Chinese government in 2013 applied for the "Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain" to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 4 grape wine and 2 coffee related World Heritage properties already, but none yet for tea. If any place in the world deserves it, Jingmai would be it. However, after my experience in Lijiang, I wonder about the actual benefit of being granted World Heritage status. Will the true culture remain, or will locals be pushed out and replaced with cultural clones backed by far away investor dollars? I hope this unique mountain and tea culture will be preserved for generations to come and not become the tourist trap wearing a mask of culture that was the fate of Lijiang.
The road to Jingmai mountain was well maintained until we got to the village of Jingmai itself. Construction projects rushed to prepare for the Spring harvest made some village roads nearly impassable. Ominous sounds beneath us indicating metal scraping on rock reminded us how little clearance our car actually has. Despite the challenges we passed through Jingmai village unscathed and continued toward the tiny village of Mangjing. We passed countless acres of Taidi tea gardens with workers seemingly hunchbacked by large leaf filled bags quietly adding to the daily harvest. Their nimble fingers deftly removing leaf with skill and precision similar to the proboscis of a butterfly constantly hunting for nectar. Wide brimmed hats protected their faces as the sun crept higher in the sky.
Mangjing is a one road town with an uptown and a downtown. They're separated by a few hundred feet of dirt road. I incorrectly assumed they were both the same place, but our local contact assured us that there was a difference. She considered herself quite certainly a Lower Mangjing girl. Her name was Tang. She is part of a family that has grown puerh in the region for quite some time. They have a noticeably larger operation than the farm family we met in Longtan Village. Their family owns 4 gardens in the area where they produce tea without use of fertilizers or pesticides. All except one take motorcycles a couple hours one way to reach. Her extended family harvests around 500kg of leaf per year. They were all out working the fields when we arrived. It was her day to stay home and grade the leaves processed and dried the day before. She was more than willing to drop what she was doing to take us up the hill to see their ancient tea garden.
The energetic Tang led the way straight up the side of the mountain that Lower Mangjing is built on. We wound our way through the local houses on tiny dirt trails more often than not patrolled by squads of wary chickens. Captive pigs grunted their acknowledgement of us as we passed their simple pens. The path became steeper and we soon were presented with a beautiful view of Mangjing and the Jingmai mountains. Tang pointed into the distance where her family was harvesting that days yield of tea leaf.
The forest became thicker the higher we climbed that steep path. Entering the forest the high trees created a protective canopy. The forest floor was well maintained and easy to walk through. Before we knew it we were surrounded by ancient tea trees. I've seen pictures, but nothing is like being amidst a forest like this. The scene offered both serenity and tranquility. The rustling of the tea tree leaves brought a cool breeze announcing Spring with a sweet aroma. The suns rays piercing the upper forest canopy with the slowly swaying branches performed a shadow puppet show on the forest floor to entertain us. It was a singular moment that I won't soon forget.
A few of these trees were over a thousand year old and were as large as the apple trees of Eastern Washington I used to climb as a kid. The first Spring rains had yet to provide a drink to this thirsty mountain. Thus it was just a bit too early in the year for the harvest of these ancient tea trees. A few trees presented us with their first buds and Tang encouraged us to pluck them to eat. They were soft and easily edible but came with an intense bitterness. The bitterness lingered a few minutes and then brought a sweet aftertaste. The flavor lasted until long after I would have thought.
We returned to town via a different path and were shown some other tea gardens. I was really impressed with how well integrated these tea gardens were with the natural forest. There was a noticeable synergy between man, tea tree, and forest. I respect the ancient tea elders of 2 millennia ago who guided the future generations to create this unique tea growing environment.
Back at their small factory we were ushered upstairs to the drying room. Thinly spread leaves dried in the sun and gave evidence to the previous days harvest and the late night shaqing roast. Pulling back a curtain Tang revealed their simple tasting room. This room was open to the east revealing a view of their neighbors tending their chickens and pigs next to the local school. School bells rang as we sat down, perhaps to indicate our own tea education as well as those of the young future tea workers. The outside breeze mixed with the inside aroma of drying leaves and created a pleasant place to sample their recent harvest.
This time in the season they only had two products for sale. We tried both their ecological tea garden leaves and their ancient tree teas. The ecological trees were younger than 100 years old. The ancient trees were between 200 and 300 years old. We were not able to try any tea from the really large old trees we hiked to because it was too early in the year to harvest them.
Cramming a handful of loose leaf into the mouth of her gaiwan Tang began to prepare her tea. Moving with the speed and skill of years experience she first prepared her family's ecological offering. The tea was fine, but I wasn't really impressed. She moved on to the ancient tree tea stuffing the gaiwan so full it looked like a porcupine. This tea was noticeably smoother. You could tell the difference right away. The chaqi came quick. There was a slight astringency. I had expected some of the floral orchid aromas Jingmai area tea is known for, but I didn't notice any in this tea.
We picked up some of their ancient tree tea and will be selling it when we return this Summer. We have a lot more adventure ahead of us before we're ready to come home though.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014