Not entirely satisfied with the trees we had seen in Yiwu, we set out to visit the ancient tea gardens of He Kai (贺开 but pronounced "Hor kai" in Banna), 75km south west of Jinghong. Leaving Yiwu, we drove down through Jinuo mountain & Jinghong city, then back up the other side through Nannuo & Menghai. We passed through the paddy fields of Menghun on a bumpy dirt track, then slowly wound our way up He Kai mountain, our little van rattling & shaking violently all the way.
Paddy fields in Menghun
Feeling thoroughly shaken up from the arduous journey, it was a relief to finally arrive in He Kai. Little black haired pigs roamed freely amongst 3-5m tall tea trees, with thick, robust trunks that rose a meter out of the ground before branching out into a leafy spray. Compared to the over picked, pruned & wispy trees we had seen in Yiwu, it appeared as if we had arrived in gu shu wonderland. Despite being at 1,400-1,600m elevation, He Kai is still considered semi-tropical and has thousands of old tea trees ranging from 100 - 800 years old.
Unfortunately, the local Lahu tribes people only pick the tea, most of the maocha production is done at several “chu zhi suo” (初制所 maocha processing workshops) operated by Hani minority and Han Chinese traders. These workshops buy fresh leaves from the farmers at less than RMB 30/kg, and process them into maocha, selling them onto puer buyers like myself for RMB 150-300/kg (remember it takes 4kg of fresh leaves & labour to make 1kg of maocha).
According to Rishi (who neglected to credit The Leaf), Fair Trade programs have funded road hardening, toilets & temples, but the key to improving people’s lives here is surely to train them to process & market maocha themselves so they can capture a bigger share of their tea’s true market value.
Lahu tea pickers lining up to sell their fresh leaves to the maocha factory
As we arrived a local Lahu man was trying to offload a bag of leaves he had picked. He seemed dazed as if he’d been smoking opium, his clothes were tattered & dusty, but he wore an incongruously flashy red hiphop cap, raked to one side. The “chu zhi suo” manager turned him away because he had picked too many old leaves, and the leaves had been in the bag too long, and withered too much. The man barely put up a fight, and just shuffled off into the distance with his unwanted leaves.
Laying out maocha to dry by the side of the road
Maocha was spread out to dry on a bamboo platform by the side of the road, but the constant passing of motorcycles & pickups kicked up a lot of sandy dust that no doubt ends up in the tea. Sure enough when we entered the “chu zhi suo” to sample the maocha, we found it lackluster, with low contrast in the leaves, and very weak fragrance. When thrown into the air, clouds of fine dust flew from the tea. It was simply too unappealing to buy, even at the cheap price of RMB 150 / kg.
An elderly Lahu woman sells her leaves to Zhen Wei Hao maocha factory
Hidden amongst the trees, we came across a more professional chu zhi suo owned by “Zhen Wei Hao” (臻味号). Several tea tourists had pitched their tents on the verandah and were picking & processing their own maocha. A steady stream of tea pickers turned up to sell their freshly picked leaves. These were laid out to wither on 3 long tables with a ventilation fan installed underneath. They weren’t firing any tea when we visited, but outside on large bamboo mats, maocha processed the day before, was soaking up the sun, away from the dust of the road.
Zhen Wei Hao's maocha processing facility in HeKai
He Kai's ancient tea trees actually form a canopy
The surrounding tea garden was astounding, the ancient trees in He Kai stand tall & proud, forming a dense canopy of leaves. Their sturdy branches support orchids, lichen & other epiphytes. They are excellent examples of healthy, organic, gu shu tea trees.
Epiphytic orchids & bromeliads
Branches dripping with mosses & lichens
This tree named 西保四号 is older than 600 years.
With the little black pigs going about their business underfoot, He Kai’s ancient tea garden is a most charming & photogenic place.
Pigs roaming the tea garden
On the downside, we saw many farmers using motorcycles on the walking tracks up through the trees, leaving deep ruts that are causing erosion. In some parts the path has deepened into a one foot deep crevasse.
Motorcycle track through HeKai tea forest
And for some reason, the maocha did not impress. We drank several batches at Zhen Wei Hao’s facility but still were not inspired to buy. The tea lacked fragrance, or depth of body to speak of. Perhaps it was because it had rained recently, and there was too much water content in the leaves. I wanted so much to like the tea, because the trees were amazing and the price was good, but we left empty handed.
Magnificent gushu leaves reduced to tasteless maocha
New roads in He Kai
It was time to move on. Newly bulldozed roads laced into the distance, but people here are still accustomed to walking kilometers to get anywhere. Strung out along the road were colorful Lahu kids with dyed hair walking home from school. We passed by one village of ramshackle huts with corrugated tin roofing and a few brick outhouses. Overhead electricity cables and a few solar water heaters were the only sign that we were in the 21st century.
Lahu kids walking home from school
Lahu Village in He Kai
We passed through the village of Bang Pen (帮盆 often pronounced & spelt as Ban Pen), stopping briefly to pick up some maocha samples. The Lahu villagers here seem to be doing a little better, perhaps because a lot of their tea successfully makes it way into Lao Ban Zhang cakes ;) I noticed several had built small PVC glass houses for sun drying maocha, and a large maocha processing facility that was attracting buyers in big SUVs.
Puer factory in Bangpen, Bulang mountain range
But it as we drove closer to Lao Ban Zhang (老班章 or LBZ), the true economic impact of puer driven investment became clear.
First we noticed the tea shrubs by the side of the road starting to look very stressed & over picked. Many were clinging grimly to the edge of a precipice, roots half exposed where the road had been widened.
Tea tree roots exposed by road widening in Lao Ban Zhang
Then the disfigured village of Lao Ban Zhang came into view, huge chunks of hillside had been carved out for new housing & roads. One wonders how many tea trees have been lost in the process. The village is going through a construction boom, with white cement walls & blue ceramic roofing defining the new architectural style. Many homes already have a pickup truck and several motorcycles parked outside. The contrast between Lao Ban Zhang and Hekai could not have been more stark
New landscaping in Lao Ban Zhang
Construction boom in Lao Ban Zhang
This rapid modernization is ugly but inevitable, as much as those of us living in the first world selfishly want the few remaining tribal villages to preserve their environment & traditional way of life, the modern conveniences of machinery, large concrete homes & paved roads have an irreversible appeal. It is interesting to ponder that even though Lao Ban Zhang's trees are commercially over exploited & sometimes blended, they still produce better tasting tea than He Kai's ancient trees, and therefore bring dramatic wealth & progress into the farmers lives.
Is this primarily an outcome of better maocha processing & marketing? How much genetic & environmental advantages could Lao Ban Zhang trees really have over nearby Bangpen?
To be continued in Part 2: Lao Ban Zhang…