Climbing up the cliffs of Wuyishan
In October 2010, my father and I travelled to the legendary Wuyishan mountain in northern Fujian, home of China’s finest Oolongs and Lapsang Souchongs. My father drove up from an auto makers conference in Fuzhou. I was there for the tea.
The romance of Wuyishan is brought to life in Sarah Rose’s enthralling book “For All the Tea in China” where she describes the botanist Robert Fortune’s remarkable expedition there in 1849 to steal China’s finest tea plants & the industrial secrets of tea production, so the East India company could grow their own tea in India. Disguised as a high ranking mandarin official, he found lodging at a Buddhist monastery, and successfully made off with cuttings & seeds of Da Hong Pao, the king of Oolongs, the beginnings of the Indian black tea industry.
Like Robert Fortune before me, I too was in Wuyishan searching for tea samples and a local expert to teach me everything about Wuyishan’s famous rock oolongs. I wanted to know how they are grown & processed into such an astounding variety of flavours.
Wuyishan shui xian
I had become a fan of da hong pao and shui xian in the early days of my Shanghai tea market visits, but the quality varied dramatically and often the shop owners were not able to convince me of the authenticity of the product or clearly explain the differences between the many Wuyishan varietals. I felt I had to go to the source to get more firsthand experience.
Rou gui bushes growing in Wuyishan
It took Robert Fortune 3 months to travel by boat from Ningbo, up the rivers & man made canals to Wuyishan. These days it takes just over an hour to fly direct from Shanghai to Wuyishan, but the journey is no less perilous. Arriving at night, my flight experienced turbulence on the approach. Descending into misty mountainous terrain, and unable to see any lights out of my window, I suddenly had visions of a fiery death on a tea covered mountain slope. What a way to go! Fortunately, the plane touched down without incident and came to a stop 200m from a modest airport building, with an amusingly small door marked “international.” I later discovered this was for direct flights in and out of Hongkong, which under the one country two systems rule, is still considered an international destination in mainland China. As I walked across the dark, windswept tarmac to the airport building, I was reminded of an age of exploration long since past.
Wuyishan airport at night
Wuyishan township itself is small and unassuming, with one long, dusty main street, lined with numerous tea shops, workshops producing intricate wooden sculptures, and restaurants serving exotic game animals & forest picked mushrooms. But it is the nearby limestone karst mountain range & the rugged tea trees that thrive in its valleys that have put this place on the map. I was itching to hike the trails up into the peaks, to see the original da hong pao bushes, and the plantations of rou gui & shui xian bushes that grow between sheer limestone cliff faces. But first priority was to find a local guide with insider knowledge, so I set off down main street to try and make some friends.
Amazing wood sculptures are to be found everywhere in Wuyishan
Giant wasp larvae are one of the more exotic local delicacies
The sheer number of tea shops presented a unique challenge. There were more than 20 mom & pop tea stores within a 2 block radius of my hotel, and I had trouble finding one that stood out. By the end of the day, the only purchase I had made was from a cheerful old woman who pressed so many free samples on me and spent 2 hours telling me the story of her life so I felt obliged to buy something. I asked for something special and she brought out some da hong pao that she said was 12 years old. To age da hong pao, you need to re-roast the tea every year, which can be a major hassle! I always have doubts when people offer to sell me aged tea, but we put it to the test and it tasted much better than the display teas she had brewed earlier, yielding more than 10 steeps of gratifyingly rich, toasty flavour. But then she brought out some 15 year old da hong pao, and the cynic in me began to wonder if she’d just been inspired by the marketing tactics of Ballantines whisky. I pushed aside my objections and bought 200grams of each. She kindly offered to get her son to show me around the next day.
How old is this Da Hong Pao?
Back at the hotel, clutching my da hong pao of dubious age, I decided what I needed to find was a larger scale operation, ideally a producer who grew & processed award winning teas, not just distribution & sales.
For a town that made its name on tea, I was surprised to discover the hotel front desk had no personal contacts in the tea industry. They did however inform me that I had just missed the Wuyishan tea expo by days. Luckily they still had a few copies of the expo magazine. Full of informative articles about wuyishan’s attractions, it also had plenty of ads. I now had the contact details of the biggest tea producers in Wuyishan. The adman in me immediately picked out the largest, prettiest ad and picked up the phone...
Continued in Part 2: Mr. Yu's School of Rock Oolong
Breakfast in Wuyishan: Beef brisket noodles
Local rice wine infused with snake, ginseng & gou qi
Sacks of wild forest mushrooms for sale