The sign reads "1,000 year old ancient tea tree"
Belle and I have a special affection for Luo Shui Dong, for it was here we learnt how to fry and roll tea by hand. The village name 落水洞 literally means "falling water cave". There are only 22 households in this village, and everyone knows everyone. The villagers are exceptionally kind hearted, we spent time with 3 different families who were willing to teach us about their tea making process. We spent over a week here and visited many of the surrounding tea gardens, which are exceptionally beautiful, growing amongst a variety of taller shade trees.
LuoShuiDong tea shrubs grow in a bio diverse environment
The tragedy of Luo Shui Dong is that the surrounding hills were once covered in ancient tea trees, several hundred years old, but nearly all were cut down in 3 tranches during the 1970's to plant corn. What an insult to the noble spirit of tea! It's shocking to think how a national treasure that took centuries to grow, was destroyed in one generation due to communist economics. But as one local farmer explained to me, even as late as the 1990s, a kilogram of tea was only worth one kilogram of potatoes! How times have changed. Today a kilogram of Luo Shui Dong Spring gushu sells for almost $90 US dollars. That's a lot of potatoes!
The last of the ancients
Luckily many of these ancient tea trees were deep rooted & robust enough to survive the trauma of the axe, and you can see many tea bushes in Luo Shui Dong that are re-growing from 200 year old stumps. Pictured above, is the one remaining tree that stands tall & proud as nature intended. A nearby rock proclaims it to be 1,000 years old, but all the locals I met told me it's at most, 700 years old. Since I visited last Spring, a shiny metal fence has been erected around the tree. I'm not sure what is more disturbing, the threat of tea thieving & vandalism, or the pathetic cage now surrounding this sad, lonely, tree.
Bags of maocha stacked in a farmers living room. Luo Shui Dong, Yiwu.
The residents of Luo Shui Dong are descended from Han Chinese traders, and their houses are built in a traditional Chinese style, very distinct from the Dai & Bulang architectural style. The living conditions in the village are charming & rustic, despite a few modern machines, not much has changed. Apart from tea, the farmers grow their own vegetables, and raise chickens, ducks, geese & pigs. A small truck arrives each afternoon, peddling fruit & veg not grown in the village.
The tea grown here is long and stringy, and is traditionally tightly rolled by hand into twisted striations. We learnt how to differentiate Yiwu maocha from the fat puffy leaves of Lao Ban Zhang, which lie flat against each other, and are covered in more fine white hairs.
Steeping a fistful of Luo Shui Dong maocha
Of course we did a lot of tea drinking too! I especially love drinking freshly made maocha, it has a bright & refreshing character you can't find in the finished cakes. Young Luo Shui Dong puer tastes sweet, buttery, and vegetal, with a slight astringency.
Luo Shui Dong gushu cake, Autumn 2011
You can tell from the thick woody stems and leaves, tinged with reddish brown, that this is Autumn tea. I still feel a sense of wonder holding a cake like this. Who knew tea could be fashioned into such a beautiful & pure form? One can feel the joy of many tea sessions, compressed into this cake.
Corn is hung to dry & shelled, to feed the chickens
Living with the farmers is revealing in other ways. We learnt to go "back to basics", peeling potatoes with a knife, feeding corn to the chickens, stripping & shredding the trunk of a plantain tree to feed the pigs. The village dogs take turns to visit throughout the day. Strangely they seem to have set times for their daily rounds. There is a hidden rhythm to the place that the casual visitor cannot see.
Some day in the future I want to bring Miles here to this rural idyll. The cultural revolution may have been horribly destructive, but some city dwellers like my parents in law, still reminisce about their time in the countryside living with the peasants. Quite a few Shanghainese were sent to Yunnan for reeducation, where they met & fell in love. I can see how the innocence of youth, and the patriotic idealism of the age, make them yearn for the past.
To "xia xiang" 下乡, may start with deprivation & forced education, but end in a lifelong appreciation of the farmer's way of life, attuned to the seasons & the bounty of nature. I guess at heart, I long for that simple harmony too.
A farmers dinner, simple & delicious.