All the Tea in China

Work on my latest book, Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa, took me to Yunnan Province in search of tea, one half of the equation of the Tea-Horse Road, which meanders throughout western China and Tibet. I was in Xishuangbanna, the heart of Yunnan Tea country, and headed for Nan Luo Sho, one of six famous mountains of the region where the best teas are said to grow. In Yunnan tea grows on trees that reach 30 feet in height.  I was looking for one tree in particular, said to be over 1200 years old.  Called the “King of Tea Trees” by the locals, it turned out to be less than impressive and way past its prime.  Its leaves were no longer harvested, and it looked like a forlorn apple tree enshrined behind a fence.  But I soon found a better subject, younger (only 800 years old) and only 20 feet tall, but with a clutch of Dai minority women perched precariously high in its branches picking new spring leaves.

Yunnan is famous for its Puer tea, which is technically a green tea, but because of its unique method of fermentation, it yields a dark reddish liquid, with a rich earthy taste. Its leaves are rolled and dried, then compressed into bricks or flat disks.

Up to this point in my life, I hadn’t been much of a tea drinker.  Given the choice, I would usually opt for a black espresso to jolt me awake for most morning shoots.  And I had always thought of the highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony as the highest level of tea culture.  But in Yunnan my Dai host, Yan Yi Di, who owned the plantation where I was shooting, introduced me to the finer points of Chinese tea.

As we sat on the verandah of his house, sipping tea from just-picked, dried and rolled tea leaves, Yan informed me that the Chinese scoff at drinking tea whipped up from a fine powder, as the Japanese do. The Chinese gong fu tea ceremony involves many stages of infusions, each one revealing a new subtlety of taste. Hot water is first poured over a small clay teapot and tiny one-shot porcelain cups to warm them up.  Next, a pinch of tea is added to the pot, with more hot water poured to clean the leaves. That water is discarded, and the process is repeated a few times. Then comes the first taste of the amber liquid.  More water is poured, and yet another taste, this one slightly different from the first.  The idea is to prolong and enhance the enjoyment of the tea through multiple infusions, stimulating all the senses.  After countless tastes, my senses were fully activated, and my caffeine buzz kept me wired for the night.  But it was the beginning of a new taste and appreciation for tea… I was hooked.

©Michael Yamashita

Terraces of tea unfold along the hillside of the largest tea plantation in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, the number one producer of prized Puer tea.

©Michael Yamashita

Tea pickers dot the waves of cultivated tea bushes at one of the three largest plantations in Yaan, Sichuan Province, where the northern route of the Tea-Horse Road starts.

©Michael Yamashita

Mother and daughter picking tea leaves rain or shine in Puer, home of the most expensive tea in China. Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province.

©Michael Yamashita

Tea trees grow tall and wild in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, and here a fearless picker balances in the branches of a 1000+ year-old specimen. The rule of thumb is: the taller the tree, the higher the price of the leaves.

©Michael Yamashita

Dai minoritiy woman perched in a 1000+ year old tree picking new spring leaves in Puer.

©Michael Yamashita

In Yiwu, tea leaves dry in the sun outside the oldest tea factory in Yunnan. This earthy-tasting black tea known as Puer originated in this area of southwestern China.

©Michael Yamashita

Puer tea is steamed and pressed into flat cakes as it has been for hundreds of years. Here at Yiwu’s Bao Pu Shan tea factory, seven generations have produced the highest quality tea.

©Michael Yamashita

At the Xuan Tea Factory, tea is steamed and formed into cakes in the traditional method using 29 kilo green stones. Each cake weighs 375 grams.

©Michael Yamashita

Packing Puer tea for shipment in Menghai – seven tea cakes are fitted into bamboo-shoot leaf wrappers. Horses and mules once would each carry four baskets loaded with six of these packages.

©Michael Yamashita

Black tea being packed into bricks at the Namse Tibetan Tea Factory in Yaan.

©Michael Yamashita

Friendship Tea Factory, the biggest supplier of black tea to Tibet, still processes tea into 10 kilo bricks, as they have for centuries, for transport to Chamagudao.

©Michael Yamashita

Mengding Shan, birthplace of tea. Statue of tea porters bearing 160kilo load of tea bricks which they carried over the high passes from Yaan to Kanding along the Chamagudao. Human labor was cheaper then horses as they cost less to feed then oats for horses.

©Michael Yamashita

Former tea porters and shop keepers in Huangyi, where the tea trade died in 1949 when a road was built to Luding.

©Michael Yamashita

Butter tea being served for breakfast at Renchen Tsering house in Zhaxigang Village.

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6 Responses to All the Tea in China

  1. Uday Kanitkar says:

    Thank you for bringing the whole location on my desktop ! which I might never have visited !
    The photographs carry exotic places, cultures, and fascinating stories for us to enjoy.

  2. Joel Dowling says:

    Incredible photographs and reporting. Thank you!

  3. gaetano says:

    Wow, I love this reportage, I look forward to see your book soon.
    ciao

  4. Ann says:

    I love drinking Pu’er but it is my first time to see the rough process of making the tea! It seems tea made from thousand years + tree priced very expensive since my friend is dealing with kinds of Pu’er tea only!

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