We finally made the trip this fall. I had planned it a long time ago. We took a night bus from Kunming South Bus Station, thinking it could save time. The bus was supposed to arrive in Lancang the following morning at 8 am, but it was delayed because of new traffic rules. However, the morning time gave us a chance to enjoy the nice views of the banana and sugar plantations in the river valley below.
(The Gate of Jing Mai Tea Mountain)
On the way from Puer city to Lancang, we were excited as we began to see some of the large tea plantations higher up on the hills. When the bus was about an hour or so away from Lancang, we were stopped for inspection by customs officials and were told that we were close to the Burmese border. My American friend, Mike, was required to do some registration. I made joke that those guys might think he was drug smuggler.
I had heard that “Brilliant Group” had rented all of Jing Mai’s mountains and charged an entry fee. Thankfully, it turned out to just be a rumor. We changed buses in Lancang, and after passing by Brilliant Puer Fazenda, Jing Mai Tea House, then we finally arrived at our destination: Jing Mai. It is located halfway up the mountain, surrounded by trees, and seems to be floating on a sea of clouds. We could not help but take a deep breath of the cool, fresh mountain air. The scent of roasting tea leaves was everywhere. This was definitely a land of tea. We were so glad to finally be there.
(Dai temple in Jing Mai village)
It had rained a lot recently, causing a lot of tea tenders to emerge; yet another busy season for autumn tea! YuBai, a local Dai Minority girl was to be our host and guide during our stay in Jing Mai. She was there waiting for us at the bus station, having just come back from the tea mountains. After dropping off our bags, we excitedly headed off to the tea mountains with YuBai leading the way. After a meandering walk through the village along the stone-paved road, we came to the famous ancient tea-horse road. The Tea-Horse road has been used for a millennia transporting tea from the surrounding area to Tibet and Mongolia in the North, even further to Nepal and India. The tea was exchanged for horses,salt, and other goods, which were brought back south into Yunnan. Today, the stone steps are worn smooth and covered with moss. We could imagine the hundreds of horses and men carrying Pu’er tea on their backs for so many years. This afternoon was our chance to use this ancient road. It is the way into the mountains, into the tea plantations.
We walked with laughter, and soon arrived at one of the many ancient tea plantations. We could not believe what we saw. So many tea trees! Several thousand of them. Any tea tree within our sight would be 100 years old or more. And it was blooming time. We could smell those tea flowers, their blooms accompanied by a sweet, pleasant fragrance. We were told that a lot of precious herb teas originated from here as well. One variety is known locally as “Crab Feet”(Latin name: Viscum liquidambaricolum Hayata), which is a rare Chinese medicine herb and only grow here in Jing Mai. About 20 meters away, some sounds attracted us, there were a few people attempting to gather some wild honeycomb from an active beehive, which is not only rare and expensive, but also quite a dangerous crop to harvest. The men were trying to shoot the hive down with a slingshot, but had stopped and were waiting for us to leave. They had informed us that the bee stings were quite dangerous and it was best that we move along.
(The border of Myanmar far away)
We continued following Yu Bai and walked deeper into the mountains, lots of wild fruits on the ground, such as plums and some wild berries. We were told that those fruits were known as “duo yi”. Once, a so-called scholar mistook them as ancient tea trees and really ruined his reputation as a tea expert. There were lots of big trees within the tea plantations, we could really admire those trees when looking up at them. They assist the tea trees by breaking up rocks with their roots and provide nutrients to the soil.
Be careful, one can easily get lost in the tea mountains. Luckily, we had YuBai leading the way. We finally found a gap in the trees where we could enjoy a better view. There are beautiful rolling mountains in the distance. The air was so clear that it seemed like we could see for hundreds of miles. Yubai said the distant hills are part of Xi Shuang Ban Na, Yunnan’s southernmost county. I plucked a mature leaf beside me and put it in my hand. Wow! It was larger than my palm! A leaf nearly 20 cm in length. The large-leaf tea varieties really live up to their name.
(the large-leaf tea tree)
On the way back to Yubai’s house, we were fortunate enough to see a rainbow, we felt it was a gift from the gods, as if blessing us on our journey. On our way back we got chance to have a full view of JingMai village. Nothing could be better than at that moment to feel the peace and harmony, which at times, can be so rare in our lives.
Puer tea has brought Jing Mai people a real fortune in recent years, yet they still enjoy a simple life. We were so happy that we still had the opportunity to see their traditional kitchens cooking the local cuisine, which provided us with some really nice home-made meals. It rained heavily at night, and the electricity was cut off every time there was if there was a lightning strike nearby. We went to bed early, lulled to sleep by the sound of raindrops falling on the roof overhead.
(Yu Bai's farther, sorting by hands)
Early the next morning, we were awoken by YuBai’s family. They get up at 6am every day. We were told that we could view the famous “cloud sea” early in the morning, and of course did not want to miss it. It is hard to describe such beauty, and our pictures hardly do it justice. Just enjoy it.
Today the plan was to ride around the tea plantations and surrounding villages by motorbike. I really wanted to try going by horse, but decided to give up the idea for the sake of safety. The motorbike is by far the most common and useful form of transportation in the mountains. Almost everyone, even children and old ladies are good riders. Mike held his own on the rocky dirt roads, but still fell far behind YuBai, whom was even trying to go slowly for us.
As the largest of the ancient tea mountains, Jingmai has around 1866 hectares of ancient tea plantations and is one of the best preserved tea areas as well. The area consists of the villages of Mang Jing(home of the Bu Lang minority) and Jing Mai(home of the Dai minority). There are Wa and Hani minorities living here as well.
(Wa People in Middle)
Because of our limited time, we were only able to visit a few villages. Different villages have their own specialties, and no matter how rich or how poor, all of the villages were exceptionally hospitable to us. There is one Dai village called Nuo Gan, which is famous for its longevity, they were repairing the temple while we were there. A lot of elderly people in the village are able to pick tea even into their 90s. There was even an old monk at the temple that was happy to have us visit and show us around. He could even speak a bit of English. We were glad to see that most people were living a better life because of tea. The government has also helped out the local people by building a road and providing electricity. It surprised us to see the modern solar-powered street lamps and solar water heaters there. Of course, it takes time to help all of those villages. We were told that Jingmai has applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, if it is successful, Jingmai would attract lots of visitors, and hopefully education and life will also improve.
(Fixation - Sha Qing in Chinese)
Jing Mai people, especially the Dai and Bu Lang people have a long history of planting and making tea. However, due to different processing and growing methods, teas can vary from village to village. Some tea farmers just learned how to make tea a few years ago. There is a lack of skilled tea makers and advanced equipment. Because of this, there are still a lot of tea farmers that make a living by just selling fresh, unprocessed tea leaves.
Of course, it is a tough job to make tea. One must climb up into those big trees to pick the tea leaves, and all those tea leaves must be processed within 24 hours. There are very few hours for sleep when making tea, especially in the busy spring season. We helped YuBai collect raw pu’er tea every afternoon during our stay. We felt like steamed dumplings after spreading out the tea to be dried on bamboo mats in the large greenhouse. Thanks to this trip, we learned how to better appreciate a nice cup of tea!
(Wrote in Oct, 2014)
(Jing Mai Village in October)