Travel

In search of the perfect cup of tea

Savoring China’s divine drink at its source. Saturday, 16 March

By Lisa See
Photographs By Tuul and Bruno Morandi

We are deep in the tea mountains of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in China’s Yunnan Province. Villages inhabited by the Dai, Bulang, Lahu, Akha, and other ethnic minorities lie across ravines or peek out from the forest. Glancing up a hillside, I spot people perched in the uppermost branches of some tea trees.

Our driver pulls over, four of us climb out of the car, and then we hike up a narrow path to reach the workers. The women wear scarves—some handwoven, some embroidered, and some decorated with silver balls and other trinkets. The men’s faces are cragged and as dark as saddle leather from lifetimes spent in the sun. We pepper them with questions: How old are these tea trees? How many generations has your family worked as tea pickers? Do you process your own tea? These folks don’t seem too surprised to see us or to hear our questions. It’s tea-picking season in Yunnan’s tea mountains, and over the past few years more and more visitors, including myself, have come in search of Pu’erh tea—the most valuable and collected of all the world’s teas—and to explore the birthplace of the drink.

Tea is the second most popular drink in the world after water. It was discovered in 2737 B.C. by Emperor Shen Nung—also known as the “Divine Husbandman”—when some tea leaves accidentally blew into his pot of hot water, or so the legend goes. For more than 4,700 years, tea has traveled the world, so that today it’s grown in India, Nepal, Japan, Kenya, and other mountainous countries between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Tea takes many forms—black, green, oolong, dark, white—but they all come from an evergreen plant called Camellia sinensis. For centuries, tea has been used as a form of money and to pay tribute. It has also been taxed as a precious commodity. Tea is also central to China’s three great schools of philosophical thought. Confucius taught that tea could help people understand their inner dispositions. Buddhists believe that drinking tea is one of the four ways to concentrate the mind—along with walking, feeding fish, and sitting quietly—to help link people to the realms of meditation. Taoists say that tea, which they accept as an ingredient in the elixir of immortality, puts you in harmony with the natural world. In other words, tea drinking is infused throughout every aspect of life in China. It’s a part of every day and for every level of society.

Many people start the morning by dropping a handful of tea leaves into a flask to carry with them and refill with more hot water throughout the day. On just about any corner, men can be found sitting on upturned crates or at modest open-air shops, drinking tea from glass jars and reading newspapers. Towns and cities across China have tea shops for the everyday man and woman—with shelves lined with rattan-covered flasks, gaily coloured tins filled with different types of tea, and big pots over open flames for heating water. Many customers still wear their old blue Mao suits or green military jackets. In big, wealthy cities, there are tea emporiums with interiors designed by Hermès and other internationally known designers, where the clientele sips brews worth thousands of dollars from elegant cups and poured by women wearing traditional silk qipaos. In offices, so-called tea girls pour fresh brews for file clerks and billionaire bosses. For the country’s elite, tea is seen as a status symbol, an investment opportunity, and the ideal gift to cement ties or broaden guanxi—connections. Even a low-grade tea can be precious to the owner. Sharing it means sharing a treasure of taste, welcoming, and friendship. At home, when guests come to visit, the first question is always “Ni chi le ma?”—Have you eaten yet?—which can be answered with a yes or a no. The second question is “Ni he cha ma?”—Do you drink tea?—which can be answered only with a yes.

I am a lifelong tea drinker, but I’m hardly an expert, which means that I need guidance on this trip. Many travelers go on special tea tours or stay at hotels or guesthouses that specialize in visits to the tea mountains. Others journey by themselves, relying on luck to meet tea farmers, processors, and dealers. I’m traveling with Linda Louie, the owner of Bana Tea Company, a small online company focused on Pu’erh; tea importer and seller Jeni Dodd, who does tea presentations; and Buddha Tamang, the owner of Horizon Bardu Valley Tea plantation and factory in Nepal. They are tea professionals, while I’m just a writer. As low woman on the totem pole, I ride on the bump in the middle of the back seat for most of the trip. Parts of our journey have been carefully planned, with appointments along the way, but a surprising number of our encounters are the result of serendipity: pulling up to a house at the forest’s edge to talk to a tea farmer who urges us to sample his tea; walking through a town, peeking into a tea factory’s courtyard, and being invited in; or wandering along a side street, seeing what looks like a tea shop, and starting to chat with the owner, who soon kills a chicken for our lunch.

Linda, Jeni, Buddha, and I first meet up in Guangzhou, where we visit the Fangcun tea market, the largest in the world, covering several square blocks. Then we fly through Kunming to Jinghong, where we’re greeted by Li Lin, a retired schoolteacher, who now works as a driver during tea-picking season. He’s exceedingly careful behind the wheel, telling us, “If I get in an accident with foreigners, it would be very complicated.” Soon we reach Menghai, a small town that serves as the launching point for visitors to the tea mountains. Although it’s late, our hotel and the one across the street are aglow with lights and noisy with revelers. It’s tea-picking season, and these are tea lovers, collectors, and dealers, who’ve come to do business and, apparently, party into the wee hours.

The next morning, after a traditional breakfast of congee and a bowl of warm, fresh soy milk, we go to the lobby to await the arrival of Tea Master Chen Guo Yi. He sweeps in with all the charisma of a movie star. He wears loose pants that billow about his legs and an untucked denim shirt. He travels lightly across the floor in kung fu slippers. All eyes are immediately drawn to him and his entourage. People ask if they can take photographs. Tea Master Chen is that famous. Later, I’ll see billboards with his likeness drawn 10 feet wide.

He first takes us to his Guangzhou 88 Qing Dry Store Tea Company, where his partner, Mr. Liu, leads us through a tea tasting. He warms a gaiwan—a special type of covered cup used for tea tastings—and small teacups with warm water. Then he mounds the gaiwan with loose tea leaves. This tea is from the village of Laobanzhang, known as the home of the king of Pu’erh teas, which are prized for their musky, masculine qualities. Tea from this area can cost as much as $8,000 per kilo, yet there’s a kind of carelessness to the way Mr. Liu pours it, allowing it to slosh over the rims of the cups, symbolizing abundance. This is without doubt the most expensive and delicious tea I’ve ever tasted, and I’m extremely lucky to be a guest. Even our driver gets to try the tea, although he takes a rather dim view of the extravagance. “In 20 years, if the government changes,” he warns, “I’ll be OK, and all of you will be in trouble.”

Tea Master Chen asks me to look for the hui gan—returning flavor—that is unique to Pu’erh. As I sip the tea, flavor rises from the back of my throat and fills my mouth with a minty, refreshing sensation. This is not your grandma’s Lipton tea. Most tea comes from tea shrubs that are grown on terraces on vast plantations. As a result, the leaves have a consistent taste. How they become Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, or English Breakfast tea is a matter of processing and post-processing. Pu’erh, on the other hand, comes from the ancient tea trees that grow wild in Xishuangbanna Prefecture. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old, with many more than a thousand years old. No one has watered, fertilized, or sprayed them. Since they’ve survived on their own for so long, the taste of the leaves from each tree is unique. Unlike other teas, Pu’erh can be brewed multiple times. The first brew lasts only a few seconds, while the 10th or even later brew can take as long as five minutes. With each infusion, the flavor changes, coming from different parts of the leaf and invigorating different parts of the tongue. But what makes Pu’erh truly unique is that its nature changes with age in the same way that garden leaves turn into mulch. (Pu’erh can age naturally or through artificial accelerated fermentation.) And, like wine, its value grows over time. People collect and savor Pu’erh teas that are 10 to 50 years old. The tea can sell for $10,000 and up for a few grams.

Tea Master Chen takes us to the Tea Horse Ancient Road Scenic District, in Menghai County, which features demonstration tea terraces, re-creations of tea warehouses, rooms for processing tea, areas where men and horses slept and ate, and all the paraphernalia that accompanied tea caravans. For over a thousand years, men carried 150-pound packs of tea on their backs through rain, snow, heat, and humidity overland in different directions: to the capital, toward Hong Kong and Guangzhou, to Vietnam, Myanmar, India, and Thailand. The most important route was to Tibet, where the tea was traded for war horses, hence the Tea Horse Road. The trade routes were active until the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War, when they were repurposed to include moving troops and medical supplies. By the time World War II ended and the civil war began, using the Tea Horse Road to transport tea had become obsolete.

“Tea reminds us to slow down and escape the pressures of modern life,” Tea Master Chen expounds as we walk through the exhibits. “It allows the newly wealthy to escape the poverty of the past and the poor to appreciate the finer things in life. Our citizens can be wary of what the government might do, so tea is also a safe way to invest our money. I consider Pu’erh to be a drinkable antique. Tea is alive, and every sip, through the powerful senses of taste and smell, opens our hearts to remember family, love, and hardships overcome.” While these sentiments may be particularly true for the Chinese, people in other cultures also see in tea an opportunity for respite, comfort, and tranquility.

A couple of days later, Mr. Li drives us to Nannuo Mountain. Chen Xin, the proprietor of the Fujin Ji guesthouse, welcomes us with a tea tasting. The lodging is rustic, but the compound is tidy, and the views are magnificent. Chen Xin’s daughter and a friend make dinner using ingredients mostly grown on the property: snow pea and fish soup, pork with mint, fresh bamboo shoots, sautéed green beans with chilies, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes. After dinner, under the flickering light of oil lamps, Chen Xin leads a sing-along for his guests, featuring popular Chinese songs as well as Akha and other ethnic minority love songs.

One of our prearranged meetings here is at the home of Ahtu, who’s the patriarch of an Akha family well-known for the quality of tea they grow. (The Akha don’t have surnames. Instead, the last syllable of the father’s name becomes the first syllable of the son’s name, continuing for generations.) Ahtu’s village, as are all Akha villages, is easy to find. The entrance is marked by a gate decorated with carved wooden figures: a woman with engorged breasts and a man with his genitalia in proud, exuberant form. These sculptures, along with carved spirit animals across the gate’s beam, protect the village from bad spirits.

Ahtu’s sister, Ahbu, serves as our hostess. We sit in the family’s tea pavilion, composed of four bamboo posts with a roof made of thatch, while she pours teas, using local spring water. When she speaks, she tucks her legs delicately to the side with her hands clasped in her lap. She tells us she picks between 10 and 20 kilos of tea leaves a day during harvest season. “I’m slow and careful,” she says, “because tea is a gift from God.” As we sip the liquid, she explains that tea from Nannuo Mountain has unique floral notes with hints of rock sugar sweetness. She reminds us, “You’re drinking history.” I ask about the changes that have transpired in the tea mountains over the past decade. “We were fameless in the past,” she answers with a smile. “We always had to work. We walked everywhere. No one was fat. My family started to be less poor 12 years ago. That’s when we got electricity and bought our first television.” She used her own money to buy the family’s first washing machine.

Ahbu and her sister-in-law teach us every step of artisanal tea production: how to pluck tea buds between the thumbnail and fleshy side of the forefinger, gather them in a basket, and later lay them out for their sunbath, which allows the initial wilting to begin. “We want the leaves to absorb the sun’s fragrance,” Ahbu explains. We each have an opportunity to “kill the green” by tossing leaves in a giant wok placed over a roaring fire. The aroma is intoxicating. The leaves crackle. It’s hard work, shoving gloved hands along the heated wok’s surface, then lifting and tossing the leaves, but it’s not as exhausting as the next task. The hot leaves are placed on a woven bamboo mat and kneaded like dough to extract even more liquid. “If you don’t love tea,” Ahbu says as we lay out the leaves to rest overnight, “you can’t make good tea.”

Then it’s time for Mr. Li to drive us down the mountain to Menghai and then up another road toward Yiwu, one of the ancient collection centers for what were once called the Six Great Tea Mountains, a starting point of the Tea Horse Road, and the home of the “queen of Pu’erh teas,” which are known for their feminine, alluring, and radiant flavors. Today the town is in transition. Most of the original buildings on the main street have been replaced by concrete storefronts: beauty salons and barbershops, cafés, and small enterprises selling dry goods, produce, and meat. Construction noise and dust fill the air. That said, our hotel is modern and clean. It’s been built in a faux-Chinese palace style and caters to those who’ve come in search of Pu’erh.

On our first morning, we eat at an open-air stand, where fiery broth boils furiously in a big vat and then is poured over freshly made noodles. A side table offers condiments to add to our bowls: fresh chilies, cilantro, hot sauces, and a variety of pickles. We sit on kiddie-size chairs around a low table right on the street. The other customers are like us—men and women seeking tea. Most of them are Chinese, but there are a few Koreans and Japanese, too. Many of them are on the instant-messaging system WeChat, making plans to visit farmers or talking to dealers about the volatility of tea prices. There’s a gold rush atmosphere to the goings-on, a sense of people hunting for an unknown vein, of buying their way to knowledge. Every person seems to be checking out the other customers: How prosperous are you? Can I compete with you? Can I beat your price? One man sheds his caution, opens a valise tucked between his feet to show us bundles of hundred-yuan notes, and asks, “Where are you going today? Who do you think will have the best tea this year?” We’re vague about our answers, just as he’s coy when it comes to responding to our inquiries.

Yiwu is home to 40 tea factories—not counting all the mom-and-pop establishments—and every family picks and home processes tea. We drink expensive teas that have “hints of apricot” and cheap teas that cost about five dollars a kilo and leave the mouth as puckered as sucking on an unripe persimmon would. We drive on dirt roads that seem to lead to the middle of nowhere, but it turns out we aren’t quite as much in the middle of nowhere as we think.

One day, bumping along a narrow dirt road that runs through a tea terrace, a van comes at us from the opposite direction. It’s filled with tea tourists from Japan. While the drivers negotiate how to get the two vehicles past each other, the visitors from the United States, Nepal, and Japan stand together on the hillside, trade tea stories, and take photos.

On our last day in Yiwu, our foursome veers off the main drag to search for the historic starting point of the Tea Horse Road. It’s as if we’re stepping back in time. Many original houses—hundreds of years old, made of unfired clay brick, with upturned eaves—remain. As we meander through the serpentine pathways, we see wide rattan trays filled with freshly picked tea leaves stacked on garden walls, lying on patios, or perched on verandas so the leaves can have their sunbath. Before each house and in every courtyard, women—many of whom wear the traditional dress of their ethnic minority—sit around other wide trays mounded with processed tea leaves. These they sort a leaf at a time, according to grade and color. It’s unbelievably time-consuming, yet everywhere I look, the women are chatting, gossiping, and sometimes singing to while away the hours of meticulous work.

We reach the clearing that marks the start of the Tea Horse Road. Huge camphor trees provide shade as they must have in the past. The road itself is made of cobblestones and is about five feet wide. It’s easy to imagine horses neighing, the bells that decorated their halters jingling, men shouting orders, meats being cooked over open fires, and teams of laborers grunting as they hoisted the heavy packs onto their backs to join their caravans. Today the clearing seems a little lonely. Some children play in the lower branches of a camphor. An old man—toothless, bent with age, and supported by a homemade walking stick—takes an afternoon stroll along the storied road.

There are those who say tourism has ruined Yunnan. Kunming has become too modernized. Dali has lost its charm. The Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang are too crowded. But Xishuangbanna Prefecture’s natural wonders and deep cultural experiences are still mostly pristine, and tea offers a unique way to explore both. Some tea aficionados will tell you that tea requires a lifetime of study and dedication to fully enjoy it, but it can also be experienced at its most basic level. To walk any street, visit any kitchen, or go to any wedding in China is to understand the adage “Drink tea, make friends.”

This story was published in the April/May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine (US). Follow author Lisa See on Twitter @Lisa_See. Wife-and-husband photo team Tuul and Bruno Morandi are based in Paris. Follow them on Instagram @bruno_morandi.

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