You meet a lot of interesting characters on the tea road - adventurers for whom tea is a journey, vendors obsessively hunting the perfect leaf, curious backpackers of the unspoiled, anthropologists of disappearing cultures, and eccentric drifters who have found acceptance in the village. A mysterious power drives them all to live life off the beaten track, to visit the remote villages of Yunnan.
Chong Kyong Won in Da Mengsong 大勐宋 April 2011
Chong Kyong Won is an ex-Paratrooper, snowboard trainer, and a Korean puer pioneer. He has lived in Yunnan and studied Puer production for the past 6 years, travelling to each and every mountain in his famous red Jeep with cow bells dangling from his flood lights. His offroad driving skills are amazing & terrifying at the same time. He finds a track when there is no road, and somehow traverses the deepest ruts & narrowest gaps in one constant skid & slide, with barely a bump felt inbetween.
Chong Kyong Won's signature red jeep
I cannot speak Korean, and Chong Kyong Won’s English isn’t great, so our common language is Chinese. For this reason, I refer to him as “Chong Ge” or older brother Chong.
Chong Ge’s blog has inspired many other Korean puer devotees to follow in his footsteps, and is worth checking out for the photos alone. There are now so many Koreans making puer in Yunnan, it is not uncommon to see Korean signage in the tea villages. But if you clarify that you are talking about the Korean who wears Aini ethnic clothing and drives a red jeep, everyone knows Chong Kyong Won.
When Chong Ge arrives in a village, the children immediately recognise him. His generosity is well-known. He lives with the tea farmers, and in return, gives them Korean cosmetics, digital cameras, and scholarships for their children. He even paid for their first bathroom, complete with a flushing squat toilet. He told us when he first started visiting Da Mengsong 大勐宋, there was no bathroom in the village, only the "scenic toilet" (风景厕所)
One time in the middle of the night, he had to visit the "scenic toilet" with only a flashlight & a roll of toilet paper in his hands. He walked up the hill away from the village, found a stick and dug a hole. Before he had finished his business, a wild boar emerged from the darkness and chased him up a tea tree. He tried to beat the boar away with a branch, but to no avail. Pantless and stuck up the tree, he had to wait until the wild pig had finished devouring his faeces before he could retrieve his trousers. Back at the village, the tribes people thought this was hilarious. "Next time you're in trouble, just whistle for help!" they advised him.
Sure enough, the next time he heard strange rustling sounds whilst using the "scenic toilet", he whistled loudly for help. Several excited dogs from the village quickly appeared and chased the wild pigs away from the scene. "Oh, so this is what they meant. What a great system!" thought Chong Ge, only to watch on in shock as the dogs returned and set about devouring his faeces.
This was just one of many colorful stories Chong Ge told us about his life on the tea road.
With his military experience, eccentric costume, and extreme driving skills, Chong Ge is a larger than life, action hero. “My name is puer cha”, is how he introduced himself on our first meeting in Jinghong. Later, in our second meeting in Da Meng Song 大勐宋, along the Myanmar border, he told me “I was born Korean, but I am Akha” (“Akha” is what the Aini tribes people call themselves in their own language).
Chong Kyong Won "I am Akha"
Chong Ge’s philosophy to making puer is to look for people with ancient trees, honest hearts and no machines. He started out making puer for his own family, in particular his elderly mum. Korean’s believe bitter tea is good for health, and Chong Ge spends a lot of his time collecting bitter, wild, tea buds to press into cakes & make "cha gao" (茶膏 tea paste slowly created by distillation over 7 days & nights). It takes 100kg of wild tea to make just 5kg of cha gao. Instead of dissolving the paste in water, he gave each of us a small slice and instructed us to suck on it like a lolly. It was extremely, unpleasantly bitter, and turned my mouth black. But apparently, it’s very healthy and good for fighting colds!
Wild tea buds used to make Chong Ge's cha gao 茶膏
Tea made from the wild buds is distilled for 7 days until it becomes a paste
Chong Ge’s knowledge of each mountain’s virtues is astounding, he knows where to find the oldest trees, which villages blend in tai di or spray pesticide, and how the teas will age. He drew me a map from memory, detailing his favorite mountains. “Jingmai has really good fragrance and cha qi when young, but gradually depreciates after the 3rd year. Nannuo, on the other hand, gets better and better after 3 years.”
“You have to be ahead of the crowd” he advised me, “All the bad practices follow.”
In one experiment, he strapped puer to the roof rack of his car, and drove from Yunnan, to Tibet & Beijing, via the old tea horse route, to document how puer traditionally would have aged along its journey. “In the old days, they strapped 60kg of tea to each horse, and they walked 30km a day, resting whenever it rained.” He didn’t add horse-sweat in his experiment, but he did use traditional bamboo wrappings. Whenever it rained, he stopped for a few days to sun dry the wrappers, then put them back on again.
“I was a tea horse in my past life” he said matter of factly.
Chong Ge used to own 3 Harleys & a Yamaha, but he sold them all to fund his Puer expeditions. Through his #1 ranking naver blog & google panorama photos, he became a puer celebrity in Korea. Now he has some Korean investors backing him, he can afford to live in Yunnan all year round, producing 200kg of puer a year from 10 different locations. He stores his tea in 4 highrise apartments in Xiaguan & Kunming, chosen for their dry climate & wind. “I’m not in it for the money,” he says, “I want to be a legend after 20 years.”
In my mind, he is already the Bear Grylls of puer. Whilst there is a lot of “hu you” (忽悠 boasting) on the tea road, Chong Ge is the real deal.
Drinking cha gao with Chong Kwongwon, Nannuo, October 2011