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Touring the tea estates of southern Yunnan

For the Labor Day holiday I head for Yunnan's Myanmar border region. This time not for cycling, but to sample the region's rich tea culture. Together with my tea instructor Mabol and three fellow tea lovers, I travel for a few days from one estate to the next, fueled by an endless supply of tiny cups of tea.

The tea tree Camellia sinensis originated in Yunnan and was first cultivated here for its medicinal properties during the Shang dynasty[1]. Even after thousands of years, tea culture is thriving and still developing. The fermented ripe Pu'er tea called shoucha (熟茶) — pressed into bricks, disk-like cakes or other fancy forms — is a unique Yunnan type that was invented in Menghai (勐海) in 1975. As such, Yunnan can be considered one of the epicenters of tea culture. I'm eager to find out more.

Late in the evening I fly into tiny Lancang Jingmai Airport in Pu'er Prefecture. A driver brings me to the Jingmai Abaila Estate, a gorgeously laid out complex of traditional wooden houses, connected by walkways, and perched on a forested hillside. Early the next morning I am woken by the loud clicking, whirring and chirping of forest insects and birds. We spend a leisurely time sampling different teas from the estate. One of the teas presented looks like little brown granules. Silkworms chew the tea leaves, and what we are drinking is effectively worm poo extract. It's quite delicious.

After tea, we leave our jungle paradise for lunch in Wengji (翁基). Our host is from the Lahu minority, and apart from being an excellent cook, he also turns out to be a great musician. He sings a few Lahu songs for us.

Wengji is a beautiful, small village with traditional wooden houses and a temple, where visitors can get an impression of the old ways of tea processing and buy local products.

Not far from Wengji is a recently built tea temple celebrating the mythical Lahu and Bulang minority founding fathers of tea culture with a gigantic superhero-like statue. We have a rest in the cool interior of the temple and Mabol regales us with stories of tea.

In the evening we pack up and go to the Dai village of Manggeng (芒梗), where we stay at the Budai Family Estate (布傣人家), and get shown around the tea processing facilities by Yiran, the owner. There are fascinating machines that roll the tea, a job that was a labor-intensive process when still done by hand.

On the second day of the tour, we start off even more relaxed than the day before. We share in an al fresco tea ceremony at the ancient Dapingzhang Tea Plantation (大平掌古茶园). Seated on the forest floor, we take turns brewing and pouring tea for each other, learning by watching the true tea masters, Mabol and Yiran.

We explore the ancient tea plantation until it's time to visit Bolian Tea Manor (柏联普洱茶庄园) where we learn how to make our own Pu'er cake. The traditional way requires balancing on a rounded stone and pressing the tea cake dry by dancing on the stone, or rather making awkward hoola-hoop movements.

It's a full day already and it's not finished. We drive on to Menghai and visit the Six Famous Tea Mountains Tea Factory (六大茶山公司勐海厂). Here we enjoy a special tea evaluation. Pu'er tea grown in Yiwu (易武) and Menghai is brewed over increasingly long intervals. We learn how to note the subtle differences between teas with staying power over multiple brews, and an initially impressive flowery tea that fades quickly after the first brew.

Dinner is a Dai feast accompanied by song at the lush Ancient Rainforest Tea Estate (雨林古茶庄园). Exhausted, we roll into Jinghong (景洪), where we spend one night.

From boiling hot Jinghong we travel up to cooler altitudes. A steep road winds around hillsides planted with bananas and rubber trees. These bring us to Yiwu, once one of the nodes on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Here we get into the bustling vibe of the third annual Tribute Tea Festival. We sample tea at the local tea fair, where local growers present their best brews. It is also market day, and there is a small fun fair with local minority families flooding into town in their traditional best.

On the last day of the excursion, we don't do much apart from drinking more tea in Yiwu, after which it is time to go back to Jinghong for one last Dai-style dinner together. My fellow students and my teacher head back Kunming, while I spend one more day in Jinghong to process and ferment everything I have learned and tasted over the last few days.

I will continue to study tea when I return to Kunming. Having tasted tea grown on estates, surrounded by the lush and peaceful countryside, the names and geographical circumstances are no longer abstractions but good memories, to be savored over a pot of Pu'er tea.

Article:  Vera van de Nieuwenhof;   Pictures: Mabol Mei Zhong

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