Bulang Mountain Puerh April 29 2014
After our awesome visit to Mangjing in the Jingmai Mountains we headed next door to the neighboring mountains of Bulang. Both are situated in the prefectural county of Xishuangbanna and are dense tropical jungle environments with tea grown at high altitudes. Rumor is that this area of China was left largely untouched and unexplored by the British who feared the locals and their habit of separating heads from bodies. There are a lot of towns in the Bulang Mountains that each have very unique puerh teas to offer. Laobanzhang is one of the best known villages with ancient puerh tea trees. Laobanzhang prices in the puerh market this year are so obscene they are unfit to print. Laobanzhang is arguably the 'best puerh'. I'm not much for arguing. I just want to buy good tea that passes my standards and take it back to sell it to our customers.
Laobanzhang is a tough place to get to. The road isn't easy. We set our sights on Laoman'e which we thought would be easier to get to. Our vehicle has all the ground clearance and climbing power of a Galapagos turtle. When nicknaming our car I thought 'turtle' would be a good name given the accurate description of vehicle capability and since it is painted green. I asked Lamu how to say turtle in Chinese and she replied "Huoji". She explained that the characters translate back as "Fire Chicken". I was thoroughly confused, but ultimately decided that Fire Chicken was a good name and decided to name the car Fire Chicken. It wasn't until days later when my confusion got the better of me and I asked Lamu why turtles are called fire chickens in Chinese. Her simple reply was "Oh, you said turtle? I thought you said turkey." We had a good laugh about that and decided to continue calling the car "Fire Chicken".
The road to Laoman'e is about a 3 hour drive from Mangjing given clear roads and an offroad capable vehicle. Soon we traded the paved comfort of the highway for a rutted, rock filled, dirt trap. We were met by quizzical stares and amused smiles of the local farmers sitting roadside. Their amusement prompted us to question our decision. When asked they looked our vehicle over slowly and then silently shook their heads no. We asked if there was another way to Laoman'e and their answer was again nonverbal as they pointed the other direction. Many conversations in China would follow this same pattern. Questions asked are answered without words and only the most simple of gestures; at most a grunt. Is it efficiency or laziness? I'm still unsure. As we turned the car around the farmers returned to their comically oversized tobacco water bongs; commonplace in Yunnan.
The back road to Laoman'e would take considerably longer, but it should be in a better condition. The first few km were nice and paved, but that quickly changed to a recently cobblestoned road. The quaint novelty of cobblestone wore off as fast as the novelty of Chinese squat toilets. I'm not entirely certain the technical necessity of creating modern cobblestoned roads. Even rutted dirt roads are easier to drive than these cobblestone roads. At first it's like a vibrating massage. Then you notice how loud it is and the massage feels more like it's going to extricate your spine. You vacillate between the desire to find the end of the road as soon as possible by increasing your speed and the need to drive slow enough not to tear your car apart. Most everyone else on the road opted for speed.
The road wound deeper and higher into the jungle with each passing kilometer. The only indicators of civilization was the road itself and the occasional white blur of a Toyota Prado racing past. As the hours vibrated by the road devolved into dust. A massive cloud followed us like the tail of a comet. In a small town as dirty and dusty as we were we found the back road to Laoman'e to be under construction and only open for an hour at noon and from 8pm to 8am. We took the road anyway and only made it a few km before we met surprised construction workers who informed us that not only would our car not make it through they wouldn't let us even if it could. We wallowed in our disappointment for a few minutes and decided to head back into town and see what we could make of it.
Meng'ang was the name of the dusty, crowded, one lane town we passed earlier. More than a few buildings had rooftops wrapped with clear plastic busy with workers on the ground floor spreading out just picked green tea leaves. In one of these we met Yan Yong Gua. Yan was in his early 20's and wore the fashionable attire of youth the world over; jeans and a t-shirt. His wrists were wrapped with white cloth strips that I thought were mere fashion accessories. He explained that he was not feeling well and the wrist straps were a local remedy. Yan runs a small tea shop in Menghai and started this factory to give local friends and family a place to process their leaves. The term factory is often used to describe where tea leaves are processed into puerh. In most cases a factory is a simple cement block building with a ground floor for drying leaves, a place for performing the shaqing roast, and an area for sun drying the leaves. Form certainly follows function.
As our dust cloud pulled up and we emerged covered in dirt and sweating from the afternoon heat, we must have been an interesting spectacle. Nevertheless Yan invited us in for tea. The factory buzzed with youthful social activity. Workers arrived with backs bearing fresh picked tea. Many kilos of this green gold was delivered, weighed, bought, and recorded. We sat, drank tea, and chatted about how our journey had brought us here. Yan broke the news that our car would never make it to Laoman'e. He would however take us himself the next day in his SUV. He was waiting for some of his customers from Menghai who wanted him to guide them. He promised to take us to Laobanzhang as well. We couldn't have been more excited. We promised to pay for his gas, but he wouldn't hear of it. He encouraged us to stick around to watch them roast leaves. They roast in the cool evening around 9pm after everyone has had dinner. Dinner was a social affair and held as a group at one of the workers houses nearby. We were expected to join them and were told we could stay the night as well.
Traditional Bulang houses are large single floor residences built a story above ground on stilts. Large roofs form a steep angle that top the houses like a hat. The roofs were historically thatched but many have been replaced with modern clay tiles.The houses are all wood constructions with slat floors and walls improperly sized that allow both light and wind to work their way in. The ground floor underneath the house is used for storage and tea roasting. Inside the house it is dark. It appears clean, but it's hard to tell. Small rooms are arranged around a square central gathering place. Massive bags of processed leaf (maocha) is stacked in the corner. The kitchen is a small room with cured meats hanging from the ceiling and a small fire coming from an embedded container in the floor itself. Smoke fills the room and I am certain assists in curing the meat. How do these houses not burn down with a setup like that? I'm sure the answer is that they do.
Our meal was to be by candlelight as there was no power. We would find out later that the local authorities limit power consumption to the hours after 9 o'clock as an energy saving measure. Huddled uncomfortably on ankle high stools around a calf high table we talked about tea as we ate our meal. In the near darkness it was hard to see the food. It could have been anything. We ate it anyway. We had no choice. We were hungry and didn't want to upset our host. The food was fresh, delicious and of course spicy.
Arriving back to the factory we were greeted with a campfire aroma. Wood crackled as fires burned beneath the shaqing roasting woks bringing them up to temperature. The darkness was pushed back with only the power of a few handheld smartphones. Four guys worked hard to get a generator going. Reluctantly the generator coughs to life. The entire factory reeks of gasoline. The few hanging bulbs provide little more light than the smartphones did. They pulse in time with the revolutions of the generator. With the addition of reliable light the roasters get to work on the sizable piles of leaf before them.
Roasting is a critical part of the process to convert fresh picked leaf into sheng puerh tea. The Chinese call it "shaqing" which literally means 'kill green'. In these smaller factories roasting is done exclusively by hand. Large metal woks set into concrete are heated from beneath by a wood fire. If built properly all smoke is routed up and out and does not come in contact with the roasting leaves. Roasting takes great skill. Too hot and the leaf is burnt, too cool and the leaf still green. These workers have been roasting since a young age. The work is both physically demanding and intensely hot. The men remove their shirts and sweat profusely. The aroma is an intriguing mix of wood smoke, wet flowers, and human sweat. Workers roast between 3 and 5 kilos of leaf at a time. After twisting and drying 3 kilos of fresh leaf becomes 1 kilo of product to sell.
There is a lot of leaf to roast. This is the busiest time of year. They take turns roasting a batch and having a beer at the bar next door. The social atmosphere continues. These workers are all local Bulang minorities that grew up with each other. They have been a part of the tea industry since they were all teens. WeChat on their smartphones plays a critical role in communication. If they're not roasting leaves or drinking beer their fingertips and noses are glued to their smartphones as they communicate with friends and family on the ubiquitous WeChat network.
Yan set out to educate us on Bulang puerh. He had a large sampling of fresh picked 2014 leaf from all over the region. He discussed the pros and cons of roasting technique, altitude, tree age and how each affect flavor. Their tea tasting table looked nice, but was sealed with a low quality varnish which melted under the heat of tea cups. Each attempt to taste the tea was met with resistance from the table itself. The melted varnish became a sticky glue and held the cups firmly in place. The tea aroma barely concealed the scent of varnish. The skill and knowledge that these farmers have is paradoxical. On the one hand some can't even spell their own name yet they can tell me what altitude and which area leaves were grown at by the taste of their brew. This was an informative tea education and I appreciated Yan's willingness to teach. One thought echoed in my mind with each new tea: Bulang tea is STRONG!
The topic of education was discussed. The common trend with these young adults was that each lamented not paying attention in school. Hence they feel stuck in the life of a tea farmer because they aren't smart enough for anything else. They each expressed hope that younger siblings would be better students so they would be able to get better jobs. My thoughts on the issue were torn. On the one hand I am wholly behind individuals who want to better their place in life through education. However I then wonder who will pick the tea? Is there a balance between education and working to bring the world this amazing beverage? Is it possible for educated people to choose a life with dirt on their hands and tea trees in their gardens? Does the tea industry exist and thrive only because children don't pay attention in school? I'm not sure what conclusion to draw.
As the evening progressed we grew tired. We left the workers to finish roasting their leaves. They would continue to do so until after 2AM. The night was bathed in crystal moonlight. A cool jungle mist rose to create an otherworldly experience. Crickets sang. Cicadas screamed. The Bulang house loomed ominous in the dark moonlit mist. By candle light we were shown to the corner they had prepared for us. Two simple mats and thin blankets with cartoon characters were our bed for the evening. Their single restroom was under the house in total darkness. I accompanied Lamu and waited outside. While I did my blood ran cold. I felt a presence in the darkness. I could hear heavy breathing and it was close. I maintained a defensive posture as I fumbled for a small single LED micro flashlight. I saw brown fur and the bemused face of a sleeping cow rudely awoken. As my heart left my throat and returned to a normal rate the cow went back to sleep. Sleep for me would come only occasionally that night. Hushed conversations and loud snoring both pass just as easily though thin bamboo screens that pose as walls. As night became morning the stirring of cows created a unique symphony with the clanging of neck bells. The realization that I was sleeping a few feet above a herd of cows under the house was an odd one.
We awoke to delicious aromas. Our tea worker hosts were all up and ready for a long day of picking. Spring is a busy time for them. We had a simple breakfast consisting largely of leftovers from the night before. Our small wicker table held captive a cat who angrily growled with a reliable rhythm. It gave the impression he was in jail. Thoughts of what we were eating while noticing the imprisoned cat in the kitchen gave me more than a moments pause. I was assured that they do not eat cat and that the cat chose to live in the table and growl at people. He could leave at any time. I guess cats will be cats in any country.
Excited for the days adventure to Laoman'e and Laobanzhang we hurried to the factory. Sleepy workers stumbled in yawning and started drinking tea and checking WeChat on their phones. Yan arrived the last and seems the sleepiest. He tells us that when his customers come in from Menghai we can all head out together. A few hours later his customers arrive and have some tea with us, then they leave on their own. We are confused and question Yan. He tells us that he no longer wants to go and has decided to stay. He tosses us the keys to his SUV and tells us we can use it ourselves. He wants our keys in exchange since he has to make some deliveries. If it were my car I'd probably be ok with that. However this car was on loan from Lamu's parents and I didn't have permission for anyone else to drive it. It was a strange situation and I wasn't comfortable with it.
We were obviously disappointed at this point. We really wanted to at least get up to Laoman'e. Yan had promised to take us. We realized if we were going to get any tea from Bulang we would have to do it in this town. Surprisingly we had yet to be offered any tea for sale. We actually had to tell them specifically to show us what tea they had for sale. It seemed to take a while before Yan got the point. Maybe he just thought we wanted to hang out. The situation didn't make me upset despite the failed promise. I still find it largely comical.
Yan told us that they only offered one type for sale, but he wanted us to try the tea his parents had roasted personally. They worked with the same leaves but had much greater skill in roasting. We told him we would be interested in sampling each. The first option was sourced locally from a wider variety of producers. He would buy leaf from anyone with product to sell. It was a mix of trees under 100yo grown around 1400meters. The approximate mix was 30% from trees ~20yo and 70% from trees around 80yo. This was their first spring pick. The brew had a soupy aroma to it. It was slightly astringent and not too bitter. There was some chaqi. I felt it was a good approximation of what the entire town had to offer.
The parents roast was notably different. They pick the leaves themselves from only their own tea garden and roast at home in smaller batches. These were picked from older trees 80-100yo grown at the slightly higher altitude of 1500meters. The aroma was similar but the flavor much smoother. There was both slight astringency and bitterness. The chaqi was stronger. I told Yan that if we could go visit their tea gardens that we would like to buy some of both.
A Jiao Wang has lived in Bulang his entire life. He sports a crudely applied lotus tattoo and a tight arm band. It was his generosity that gave us a house to sleep in and food to eat. Acting as our guide we drove to the tea gardens above his village. This narrow road was intended for farm trucks or motorcycles but our Fire Chicken made it up fine. A kilometer past his house we left our car and began hiking. As we hiked A Jiao explained that his village was named Xinman'e which means New Man'e. Laoman'e, our original goal, means Old Man'e and was where the villagers of Xinman'e came from. 80 years ago the government decided to relocate them here. They brought their long history of tea with them. One of their first acts was searching the local hills for naturally growing tea trees. Those they found they moved closer to the village and began cultivating them. The existing tea gardens they now harvest are a result of the foresight of their ancestors.
Brightly clothed farmers moving to harvest leaves add specks of color against the deep green hills that slope towards the lake behind Mongba Dam. This vital village resource ringed with tea gardens creates a very picturesque scene. The cooling breeze off the surface of the water certainly a relief for the hard working tea gatherers. We're introduced to the family members as they harvest. Three generations of tea farmers work together in the midday heat to bring in the Spring harvest. Different than the old growth tea forests of Mangjing there is a serenity unique to this place. These trees are young in comparison, but the tea is good when produced in the right hands. 500 years from now, with civilization deep into the space age, these trees will still be here. Descendants of these simple tea farmers will be cultivating and producing tea to bring to market. In this simple garden there is more than a whisper of the potential for future generations who will be harvesting leaves from these trees while others are colonizing the outer planets.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014