You Le's ancient tea trees
You Le 攸乐 is only an hour's drive from Jinghong, and with paved roads all the way, it is easy to access. This usually means more tea tourists, and higher prices. Yet You Le is curiously one of the cheapest places in Yiwu to source puer. I've always found You Le tea to be easy to drink, but perhaps a little lacking in body & complexity compared to other, more famous, Yiwu plantations. This is the main reason why You Le tea is good for blending and relatively cheap, but there is another, less talked about reason behind the low price. You Le is increasingly surrounded by rubber plantations, which are chemically treated, adversely affecting the tea. The clear felling of the semi tropical forest to make way for rubber also reduces the humidity and mist at the top of the mountain, where the tea is grown.
Taidicha plantation on the lower slopes of You Le mountain
At lower elevation, large terraced tea plantations provide the raw material for bamboo tube puer 竹筒茶 and cheap cakes. Some of this machine made tea actually tastes pretty good.
A "shaved" Bamboo Tube Puer 竹筒茶
We drove on to Ya Nuo village at the top of the mountain. Helping to prop up the local economy here is Douji, who have a maocha processing workshop in Ya Nuo. A lot of farmers sell their freshly picked leaves to Douji, who then takes care of the processing & packaging. We visited a few tea farms in Yanuo, and inspected the tea trees.
A local farmer, called 金宝 Jin Bao, from the Jinuo ethnic minority, showed us around. In his early 30's, and married with kids, Jin Bao also supports his parents and grandparents - 4 generations live under one roof. They have a rudimentary wooden house with a raised platform, as well as a smaller two room concrete building. Jin Bao wants to tear down the old wooden house and build a modern two storey, white washed concrete house. But he doesn't earn enough from tea to make this happen. All in all, he seemed a bit down about his prospects.
金宝 Jin Bao
When we arrived at his house, Jin Bao's mother was working a traditional shuttle loom. The family makes a bit of extra money by selling traditional Jinuo clothing & bags. You can see her wearing the traditional Jinuo head dress below.
Weaving Jinuo fabric on a traditional shuttle loom
Traditional Shuttle Loom, Yanuo village, Youle mountain, Yunnan
Jin Bao is also a Xishuangbanna forest ranger, receiving a small stipend from the government to prevent poaching. Many tea farmers have told me about their hunting exploits in the forest, how they bagged this animal or shot another. With the natural forest rapidly disappearing, the forest rangers job is increasingly important, yet at the same time, getting easier.
Xishuangbanna Forest Rangers Badge
Jin Bao took us to see his tea trees, which grow on a part of the mountain that receives less sunlight than is ideal. He has a few large ancient tea trees in his family plot, some with impressive, centuries old trunks
A tea tree trunk like this suggests the tree is 300-400 years old
Their larger than average 茶果 Cha Guo, or seedpods, were nothing to sniff at either.
Tea tree seedpods, Ya Nuo village, Youle mountain.
At first glace, the tea gardens around Ya Nuo village seem very attractive, with tall shade trees and a biodiverse ecosystem. In the foreground are young, recently planted bushes, whilst in the background you can see older, gushu trees, standing 2-3m high.
Tea garden near Ya Nuo village, You Le
The older tea trees play host to a range of bromeliads, lichen and mosses, a reminder of Xishuangbanna's tropical micro-climate, and a good sign that the farmers allow the trees to grow as nature intended.
Epiphytes growing on tea tree in YouLe
But on closer inspection, we found worrying signs of disease and mismanagement. Recently the area has been subject to bad leaf blight, we saw many blotched leaves on the trees, and in the tea. The spots are not visible in dry maocha form, but become apparent once you steep the leaves. On top of the mediocre flavor and poor processing, this was another reason we decided not to press You Le cakes.
Diseased tea leaves
Tea leaf blight
We also saw a lot of trees that had suffered heavy handed machete pruning. Jin Bao explained this was done to make the trees produce more new leaves for harvest, but to us the trees appeared denuded and stressed.
Pruned tea trees in You Le
We visited his sister's chu zhi suo up the road, where large mats of maocha were drying. The maocha produced that morning was spread out thinly to dry. The mat at bottom right contained yesterday's maocha which due to the overcast skies still needed further drying. Maocha ideally should be dried in a single day, or it can produce a weaker & cloudy liquor.
Sun dried maocha, Yanuo village
Grabbing a few samples, we returned to Jin Bao's house to drink them. It had rained so much in recent days, the tea was a pale, murky yellow. Jin Bao gave us some maocha he'd made before the rains, but it tasted burnt. By Jin Bao's admission, he'd overcooked this batch.
Nearby Jin Bao's young son sat playing with an old rusty machete. Too poor to afford many toys, kids here make do with what they can get. Fetching a higher price for their tea has the power to change lives here, but for now, it seems circumstance and environmental issues are against them.
Child playing with machete
The older boy at least had a yoyo, and he showed us a few tricks that he'd learnt. Bashful but curious, he hung around us for the better part of the afternoon. Here he is wearing Jin Bao's ceremonial head gear, reserved for special occasions.
It was a shame that we couldn't find any good maocha, but we wanted to thank our kind hosts for spending the day with us, so we bought some souvenirs from them. Like our previous visits to Hekai, and Lao Ban Zhang, not everyday on the tea trail ends with a good tea find. But as we made new friends & learnt something new, we didn't come away empty handed. We said goodbye to Youle, with a greater appreciation for the hardy Jinuo people and their traditional way of life. If Belle and I were Jinuo zu, we'd look like this: