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.