The Dangers of the Tea Industry. A true story from the jungles of Southwestern China. July 26 2019
We spend a decent amount of time traveling and exploring in the southern half of Yunnan Province in China. We’re looking for the high quality puerh tea that has grown there for hundreds of years. Once you pass the Tropic of Cancer heading South things start changing quickly. The vegetation gets thick. It’s very hot and the humidity is like a second layer of clothing. The wild life gets more diverse. There are large numbers of wild elephants native to the area that roam freely. Earlier this year a road we were planning on using had been closed because wild elephants were attacking the passing cars.
This is an old area of our planet and the modern world has only just reached most of these remote mountains. The place has it’s own rhythm and energy that is unique. It’s right on the border of Laos, Myanmar/Burma, and Vietnam. The ethnic minorities that live there are given a large amount of autonomy from the Chinese government to live as they always have. They have their own history, culture, language, and religion. In some areas head hunting was only outlawed within the last generation. My wife, Lamu, is a Yunnan native and even still we’ll get to some places where she can’t understand what people are saying. Thankfully there is usually at least one “educated” person in the village who speaks Mandarin Chinese.
This is all to paint the background of this story. These areas are remote and in many cases actual jungles. The tea mountains are relatively high altitude and often quite steep. Getting to the good trees can take a lot of work. Dotted in and around these old tea mountains are villages where the old locals still live and process the teas. We were in one such tea mountain in the Spring of 2018. The mountain is called Hekai. We love the tea from here. Hekai is a relatively unassuming puerh tea growing area that gets dwarfed by the neighboring villages of Lao Ban Zhang and Lao Man’E whose tea has gained international acclaim.
The tea from Hekai is no slouch but all the modern glory goes to Lao Ban Zhang and Lao Man’E whose flavor and aroma experience is unmistakeable. In Hekai there are a handful of villages each with a different personality. We were visiting the Hekai village of Manmai Lao Zhai. This village is right on the top edge of a steep mountain spine deep in the jungle and hours from the nearest big city. Hiking down both sides you are surrounded by incredible old growth trees. We were exploring one of these gardens with our guide.
In remote areas like this, you really need a good guide. Our guide was a local woman we’ve known for years who is incredibly competent. She runs her own tea company and grew up in the jungles of Hekai as a barefoot kid. You don’t often see women in China who run their own tea business. The tea business in China is very masculine. There’s a sort of machismo/gangster aspect to running a tea business and it’s very much an old boys network of sorts. I’m explaining this only to showcase how remarkable our guide is. She is amazing and does it all. She’s constantly exploring the tea mountains, she drives her own truck (highly unusual), she picks the tea, processes the tea, and presses the tea. She is quite capable and a valuable guide.
She’s been in this garden before but it was our first opportunity. At the time, Lamu was about 6 months pregnant and not in the mood for a long hike into the forest. She stayed with our car at the top of the mountain as we began the hike down. It was steep and I was carrying a lot of camera gear so I could capture the experience. It was hot and I was sweating profusely. Straight away I knew this place was different. I still find it hard to describe. It’s something that was felt more than seen. That’s not to diminish the sights though. The view was incredible. As I stood amongst these old growth tea trees on the edge of this mountain, I could see across the valley and into the jungle. It was magical.
Everything felt old. I don’t mean it felt a few decades old or a few centuries old; this place felt like I was walking into a different era. It truly felt like I had stepped into the Jurassic. The plants were unfamiliar and seemingly from a different time. The sounds of the jungly forest were all new to me. We’ve spent a lot of time in old growth tea forest and this was unusual. At one point a giant bird flew overhead and in that moment I couldn’t convince myself it wasn’t a pterodactyl. This was a special place and I was excited to be there.
As we hiked further down the trees, and foliage became denser. Our guide was just 15-20 feet ahead but I was losing sight of her. I stopped to take some pictures and film a little video when I was interrupted by a truly horrifying sound. Our guide was screaming louder than I’ve ever heard anyone scream before. I need to reiterate the respect I have for this woman. She is tougher than nails. She is experienced and capable and truly fearless. I trust her with my life and something has just scared the life out of her.
The trees part and I see her emerge thoroughly frightened. Her dark native skin is now pale as the moon. She’s running and still screaming. She’s running right at me yelling the only English she knows “NO GO GLEN!”. At full speed she races past me, up the mountain slope, and I’m left alone. I’m standing there amidst a pile of expensive camera gear I’ve spread around me in preparation. My hands are full and I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to figure out what just happened. What was she so scared of? Should I run too? Is this that point in every horror movie where the audience is screaming “RUN!” and the clueless victim on screen just stands there? My senses were heightened and I was on full alert but I didn’t hear anything or sense any danger myself. I packed up what I had with me and went to go find her.
I found her most of the way up the hill. She was sitting in the grass hyperventilating with her head in her hands. As I approached she jumped at the sound. She was still quite visibly shaken. I couldn’t understand her. My Chinese is pretty poor even when people aren’t scared out of their minds. She was speaking a mile a minute and gesticulating wildly. I had no idea what she was saying.
Thankfully, we were now in cellular range and I called Lamu who nonchalantly said she saw a snake. “Oh, is that all?” I remember thinking. My biggest fear was a wild boar which is a very real possibility. I’m not scared of snakes but I have a deep respect for them. She went on to explain that it was a big snake. How big could it really be though? She said the body was as thick around as my forearm and it was at least 4 meters (13 feet) long. The head was the size of a cat’s head. Ok, yeah that’s a big snake.
She said she wasn’t paying attention because she was gathering wild plants to make dinner for us. She heard a noise and turned around. The snake was right there. It was standing as tall as she was. It was looking her direct in the eye. It was about a foot away. It swayed and made a sound like you’re slowly exhaling a deep breath. That’s when she ran. Can you blame her? After she was able to relay the story, she sat there shaking and repeating the phrase “It took my soul! It took my soul! It took my soul!”.
I’m no snake expert but I know a fair deal. I did earn the Reptile Studies merit badge in the Boy Scouts after all! I knew that in this area there are a few small snakes that are venomous and occasionally a large python/constrictor. I figured she just saw a python. They’re not any real danger to a full sized person. They kill small animals and sometimes little kids. I wasn’t too concerned. I told her I wanted to find it so I could take a picture of it. She was adamant that I not go back down there but I was undeterred. In hindsight I probably should have listened to her…
I just knew it had to be a big constrictor. That’s all it could be right? What else could it be? I got down to where she had seen it. There were tea trees everywhere. It was dense and the grass was high enough to hide a big snake. I was cautious but I proceeded. In a few spots I had to duck down to get through the dense forest. Try as I might I couldn’t find any sign of the snake that had so terrorized her. I got to one area that opened slightly and I hesitated there. It was like I had hit an invisible wall. Something was physically preventing me from going any further. I was overcome with a deep sense of dread. I decided that it was wise to listen to whatever was offering this ethereal warning. I did take the time to photograph the area just in case the snake was there.
As I left and began the long hike up the steep slope of Hekai I was quite disappointed that I hadn’t seen the snake. It was until later that I knew how close I had come to real danger. Just 10 feet away, sitting in a tea tree, was a full size King Cobra just watching me like I was Eve in the Garden of Eden ready to offer me the original temptation.
As we left Hekai I began to question our guide further about what she saw. I downloaded pictures of snakes I knew were local to the area and none were what she saw. She said she had never seen a snake like that in her 43 years of living in Hekai. On a whim I pulled up a photo of a King Cobra to show her and I swear she almost passed out. That was it. That was what she saw. I didn’t think these snakes were common in the area and after a little research I learned that they’re not. However, with rising global temperatures these snakes are making their way north across the border and into Xishuangbanna.
We’ve asked other tea farmers and a few have mentioned seeing one very rarely but they are there. I get goosebumps just thinking about how close I came to one and how close our guide did come. A literal face to face meeting with the largest venomous snake in the world is not one you will soon forget. I’m going to post the pictures I took. It’s not easy to spot the snake but when you see it it is unmistakeable.
Obviously we’ve become completely enamored with this garden. We’ve worked hard to make sure we can get material from this area. We released some Autumn material last year, but have been super excited about the chance to get tea from this garden this year. We actually pre ordered the entire garden this Spring. It’s not a big garden and doesn’t produce a whole lot, but the material from here is spectacular. Sadly, this year with the drought we got far less than we had expected and it made the material a lot more expensive.
We pressed what we have as a new tea called “Danger Zone”. We commissioned a piece of custom, and very fitting, artwork from Pacific NorthWest artist Jake Knapp ( @knappuer ) and we absolutely love it! We pressed this material into 100g cakes with the hopes that as many people as possible can try it. It’s not cheap material but it is so worth it! You can check out the cakes here:
Drink tea with us in the Danger Zone!