Updated: Jun 19, 2019
For years I had dreamed of going to the mountains of Yunnan and discovering for myself the wonderful treasures to be found on each mountain top. My dream finally came true! On my latest visit to Yunnan, I visited Lao Ban Zhang, Hekai, Banpan, Menghai, Jinggu, Zhengwei and Bing Dao. But the highlight of my trip was my visit to Jinggu, where I stayed with a farmers family for 3 days, learning and experiencing the true life of a tea farmer.
First, the fact that the Yang family opened up there home to me, a stranger, is amazing! On the night of our arrival, one of the family members met us in the village to guide us to their family home. A feast was awaiting us on the table upon our arrival, and although we had already eaten, I found it impossible to dishonor their hospitality. We ate and drank until 2 am. They put up with my extremely limited Mandarin and we were able to get acquainted, share stories and laugh with each other, creating the beginning of an unforgettable, dream come true, experience. The meal consisted of steamed local greens, chicken soup, steamed rice, thick slabs of bacon, and some kind of anchovy-like fish. And of course all of these ingredients were fresh from the farm. The meal was served with freshly processed maocha and ‘bai jiu’, (translated to white wine but a better description is local moonshine). Walnuts and sunflower seeds were brought out at the end of the meal. The mother, her son and daughter-in-law, and one of her other two daughters were living in the home and were all at dinner to greet us. The father had gone to bed early in order to wake up early. In our group was my friend Ben, Wendong, my facebook tea friend, who made this trip possible, Yan, his tea/art instructor, and Zheng, Yan’s friend.
I arose at 6am to clean up and get ready for the day. All was silent, except for the crowing of the roosters and the cackling of the hens. I mistakenly thought that I was the 1st one to awake. I was walking quietly to the outhouse and realized that Lao Yang and his son were busy getting things ready outside, preparing the motorbikes and the van for the upcoming trip up to the tea mountain. As I finished cleaning up, I realized that rice noodles with chicken broth and a multitude of toppings were laid out on the table, ready for all to enjoy. It would seem that the family did not sleep in order to prepare for us. I was somewhat embarrassed as we leisurely arrived for breakfast and I noticed how the Yang family waited politely for each of us to take a bowl of noodles before they took one for themselves. A bowl of rice noodles is given to each person. We each then proceed to pour chicken broth over the noodles and top it with our choice of toppings, which include chopped chili, sliced scallions, black vinegar, pickled greens, cilantro and chicken meat. It is absolutely delicious!
After a full breakfast, Lao Tang and his wife mounted on a motorcycle and the rest of us piled into the family van. We proceeded to drive up winding, narrow roads with a steep, fatal fall awaiting us on either side, if Xiao Yang did not keep the wheels on that narrow path. We finally reached our destination a little above 1700 meters and we proceeded to unload the van. Each of us grabbed some items and hiked into the mountain following a small, narrow dirt trail. We arrived at a small hut, used as a base camp site in the middle of the tea field, where Lao Yang and his wife were already awaiting us. They gave us shoulder bags, explained their picking standards and released us into the fields. Wendong confided in me that the regular tea pickers are expected to bring in 10kg per day, but that Lao Yang mentioned he’d be surprised if any of us returned with 1kg. Despite the high altitude and the straw hat which they gave me to wear, the heat was blistering. I began to sweat as I picked tea leaves, 1 bud with 2-3 leaves. 2 leaves if older, 3 leaves if younger and still tender. We were picking tengtiao trees, which meant that in addition to picking the leaves, we were to pluck off and discard the smaller buddings along the stems. This is done in order to provide more nutrients to the remaining buds and leaves which will actually be used, therefore ensuring more complexity to the final product.
After several hours we were called back to the hut for a tea break. Yan prepared gongfu puerh tea for us as we sat on the floor around her. We compared our bags and although i had believed that i was doing a very good job picking leaves, my bag was embarrassingly less full than everyone else’s. Even Lao Yang had a good chuckle when he saw my pickings. Although he was not surprised. After enjoying the tea, we continued picking for several more hours. As we were picking, good conversations was had between everyone in the area. Picking leaves is monotonous work to do under the beating sun. Good conversation and humor go a long way to lighten the atmosphere.
We were called back to the hut for a well earned lunch. Rice, sausage, pork, pickled greens, chili spice, scallions. We sat on the floor in a circle while we ate, shared stories and laughed. A very memorable moment! After we ate, fresh fruit was offered along with walnuts and sunflower seeds. Before heading back to the fields, sugarcane was cut and peeled to provide us with some energy.
Lao Yang seemed to have sympathy for us and decided that the sun was too strong and we could take the rest of the day off and go visit the famous Stone Buddha Temple which sits on top of the mountain at 2200 meters.
Later in the evening we returned to the farmhouse. We were all tired and hungry, so as Mrs Yang prepared dinner, we watched Lao Yang spread the fresh tea leaves on the mats layer out onto the floor to wilt. After dinner, Xiao Yang began the the kill green stage, known as chaqing. On a large wok, fired by wood, the wilted leaves are stir-fried for 20 minutes. This time varies from farmer to farmer depending on the desired end result. A longer chaqing results in a more aromatic and ready to drink tea, although it will not age well since more enzymes have been killed in the process. On the contrary, a shorter chaqing stage will result in a more bitter and less drinkable tea which will age very nicely, assuming that the leaves are of good quality and that it is stored correctly. Xiao Yang began stir-frying the leaves and taught both Ben and me how to do it also. We all too k turns at the wok and passing on the leaves to Lao Yang and Mrs Yang to continue with the rolling process. They still hand roll the leaves here. The leaves are then spread out on the mat again and allowed to dry completely. This product is known as maocha. It can be drank as is or it can be passed on for fine processing; sorted, compressed into cakes, wrapped and stored.
We showered up and most most of the family went to fleet. I stayed up with Xiao Yang and his local friend drinking tea and bai jiu, taking advantage of the time here in the tea farmers house. I am already looking forward to my next visit to Yunnan. The food, the culture, the tea and of course the people will all be missed by me tremendously .