We were welcomed in Jinghong, the capital of XiShuangBanNa autonomous prefecture, by a wave of unexpected tropical heat. The warm humid air engulfed us as we stepped off the aircraft, like a mother welcoming a child. The sun beat down bright from above, causing us to squint as we surveyed the fading airport building with its single baggage carousel. Two girls dressed in tight fitting Dai minority costumes cursorily checked our baggage tags, as our guide waved to us from the other side of the security barrier.
Welcome to Banna! Sweet Banna! I sniffed the air, hoping to catch a whiff of puer, above the dust & fumes of the city.
Jinghong, like the rest of China, is modernizing fast. Large two storey villas with gold-tipped thai gables line the freeway to Nannuo Shan. “Dai villagers relocated to make way for the new airport” explained our guide. We drove rapidly through open fields, past greenhouses filled with exotic flowers and huge lumberyards stacked with planks of Myanmar’s finest. Our little white van strained to live up to it's Star Trek badge - it’s thin metal frame vibrated & lurched with each change of gear, the occasional bump in the road sent a shiver up the spine.
Our heroic little rental van
In the distance, farmers set fire to their fields, grey smoke merging with the heavy cloud cover. Lying across the back seat with my shades on, watching the plains flash by as hot dusty air flew in the open window, I felt excited. I was on route to target, a puer hunter in a Huey, legs dangling out the chopper door.
As we began the 1 hour ascent to Menghai, we were saddened to see entire mountains shaved bare of their natural forest cover, replaced by endless rows of skimpy rubber saplings & banana trees. The denuded earth, flushed in response, with rich outcrops of red clay bursting out along the floodplain.
The red soil of Menghai
Rustic tea tasting hut at Lang He
We arrived in Menghai, at the Lang He tea factory (郎河茶场). The factory owner Mr. Yang came out to greet us. He used to sell lights in Hunan but moved to Yunnan in 1996 to make Puer with his father in law.
We climbed up into a faded wooden hut bearing the sign 品来品出 (come & have a taste). The stairs creaked and the floorboards bent under our weight. Old jars of tea & yixing pots were stacked everywhere. The perfect tea room to enjoy our first puer in Menghai.
A bing of Lang He's "Arbor Silver Needle Sheng Pu"
Lang He's "2006 Golden Buds Shou Pu"
Sitting on wooden benches, we drank a smooth shou pu made from golden tipped leaves, followed by a shengpu made from a "silver needle" variety, then a huang pian with a distinct ginseng aroma. Breaking the cake open I noted some fibrous strands of what looked like rope bonded inside. As we left the tasting hut to begin our factory tour, Mr. Yang treated us to an urban legend of one girl who found a gold ring embedded in her puer cake. He explained how easy it is for foreign objects to get into the tea, especially during the shai gan (sun drying) and wo dui (artificial fermentation) process, when the tea is lying on the ground for long periods of time.
Outside the main warehouse women were meticulously sorting through freshly arrived maocha, seperating out sticks, twigs and nuts by hand. In their waste pile I saw some reeds, ribbon and tree leaves, even a tear away plastic band from a cigarette pack. Inside the factory, workers are not allowed to smoke or wear perfume, as the smell can get into the tea.
Shou pu is Lang He's specialty, Mr. Yang believes there's more art and personal influence in making Shou than Sheng, and he always supervises the fermentation process himself. He explained it takes up to 2 months, but he wouldn’t elaborate on his process or let us take pictures inside the factory grounds. "Wo dui is a national treasure" he told us, with a glint in his eye.
A Taiwanese couple were in the sampling room, selecting out maocha for their production run. Little paper bags of maocha covered the entire table and spilled out across the floor of this tiny room. A worker stood waiting outside with two identical looking trays of maocha. Mr. Yang and the worker began to compare the two trays, and it became clear that Mr. Yang was not impressed with the one on the right. “It’s not up to scratch!” he bellowed. “Look at the colour! It’s lacking brightness! Anyone can see they're not the same!” We watched fascinated, as the worker tried to defend his meager maocha. Finally, the two trays were merged into one, and the difference became painfully apparent.
Next, we visited the pressing & packaging facility. The 4m by 2m drying room was windowless & fantastically dark & moist. A single ceiling fan was the only decoration in this miraculous metal womb. Heating pipes hidden underneath the metal sheeting warmed the room. Large coins made from Shou Pu were strewn across the floor like dark lumps of coal. We filled our lungs with the rich luxuriant smell of damp puer, before moving on to a large white room with a 6m high ceiling. We admired the stamping machines with wooden molds for making mini-tuos and bricks. The large electric presses stood idle, but nearby cane baskets filled with more puer coins & bricks paid silent testimony to their minting efficiency. Mr. Yang gave us a grisly reenactment of how he came to lose his finger tip whilst pressing puer.
Next door, 5 young workers were sitting on the floor, surrounded by wooden racks of dried puer cakes. They methodically wrapped each cake with paper, folding with unbelievable speed & accuracy. When they had a stack of 7 wrapped cakes, they put the stack between their feet, and expertly bundled it up with sheets of dried bamboo skin & baling wire.
I was in seventh heaven. Everything felt light & heady, as if in a dream. Soon I would be pulled back into the real world. I became anxious about making a mental recording of my surroundings. After months of planning & dreaming about this trip, I was finally here! In a puer factory in menghai, surrounded by these amazing sights & smells. I had even brought 2 cameras, but I was forbidden to take photos! What a tragedy! My trigger finger itched to take the shot.
Thanking our gracious host, we jumped back in the van and rushed off to 同兴號 Tong Xing Hao tea factory, arriving just as the workers were finishing their shift. Unfortunately once again the factory manager begged us not to take photos. “State secrets!” she whispered mischievously.
In the dark, unlit factory, a shaft of daylight shot in from an open barn door halfway up the wall. Two workers shoveled maocha in from the loading dock, filling the air with tea dust. The loose maocha slid down a chute to a bench where 2 women packed it into large 10kg bags. Nearby, one steam & press station was still operating.
Steam & Press production line
A continuous jet of steam shot out from 5 small holes drilled in the table. A tin can filled with maocha was put over the steamer for approximately 20 seconds, causing the mass of tea leaves to immediately sink down, losing half it’s volume. A neifei was thrown in, then a cloth bag rolled over the top of the steaming can. A quick flip of the can and the steamed leaves were in the bottom of the cloth bag. The tin was then removed, and the cloth bag holding the steamed tea, passed to a bemused old man. Holding the tail end of the bag in his right fist, he deftly rotated the solid mass of tea with his left hand, continuously pressing the tea into a disc shape using the bottom of his fist. When satisfied with its density, he quickly curled the open tail end into a tight knot at the center of the disc.
Stone weights to press puer bings
A third man then took the bing and placed it under a large cylindrical stone press. Standing on top of the stone with his hands on his hips, he began to gyrate, grinning like the Cheshire cat. The stone press rotated with his feet, until he almost completed one revolution.
I shot from the hip, capturing a lot of blurry, out of focus rubbish
“Please don’t take photos” said our guide.
A mountain of puer gold!
English Treasure map of XiShuangBanna
Continued in "Afternoon Tea with a Puer Master Blender"