Meeting with a tea master like Mr. Zhou and Master Han is no easy task – both members of the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Cooperative wild pick each tea leaf deep in the forests of the Mt. Ailao National Forest Preserve. On our first day alone, we drove sixteen hours: from the city of Kunming deep into the lush mountains of southern Yunnan.
Through the entire drive, we didn’t see a single tea bush. Small villages passed by with sugarcane, bananas and tamarind along the winding river valleys. Zhenyuan was the end of the road. A relaxed little mountain town, there were none of the flashy signs and lights selling tea like you would find so many other tea pilgrimage sites.
From Zhenyuan, we switched from bus to van for another four hours of winding up narrow mountain roads – first gravel, then dirt. Finally, the road itself stopped and we got out and walked. Only at the very top of a high ridge on Mt .Ailao did we get our first glimpse of tea.
Unlike the terraced plantations across much of China, the cooperative’s tea grows wild wherever it pleases along the mountaintop. These plants have thick, massive leaves and reach up to twelve feet in the air. The tea grows between hedges of tulsi, evergreens, wildflowers, and dozens of Chinese medicinal herbs, and the air is rich with the smell of aromatic foliage.
We walked with Mr. Zhou and Mr. Han up the winding mountain roads, taking in the rich smells of the forest. Small patches of corn were interspersed between wild tea trees, evergreens, tulsi, medicinal herbs and wild berries. Mr. Han took a turn off the road and gestured for us to follow him through the underbrush. He wanted to show us the trunks on the wild trees.
“Some of these trees are 2000 years old. They look short, but take a look at the trunks.” He pulled back the branches revealing a massive thick trunk.
“These root systems go down deep. They draw from soil untouched by man, from fresh mountain spring water. These trees will be here much longer than any of us.”
We were compelled to ask: “Why aren’t they as tall as some of the trees deeper in the forest preserve?”
Mr. Zhou sighed and shook his head. “They were difficult times. Everyone was starving. The trees grew so tall they blocked the sun. We had no right to cut them down, but we needed land and sun to grow food. You can’t eat tea leaves. There could have been other ways, but that is what the cadres decided to do. As soon as they left, we dug out the tobacco and corn. The deep root systems on these trees sent out sprouts immediately. In another 20 years, these trees will be two stories tall if they are left undisturbed. My job is to make sure we respect this land. We only pick once a year to give the tree the energy it needs to recover.”
Both men are a true environmentalists. Each saw how easy it is for man to reverse 2000 years of growth on an arbitrary whim, but he also sees how easy it can be to become a steward, to restore the land and protect the heritage of the oldest tea in the world for future generations.
Hidden in a small valley between two peaks is the cooperative’s workshop. Welcoming us in, we marked the occasion with a gaiwan of fresh 2014 sheng pu’er. While we have had many of their incredible pickings, this was unlike anything we had experienced. Above and beyond the flavors of the forest- tulsi, cedar, moss, etc, – this tea had an unmistakable caramelized flavor like kettle corn. Han explained why this tea could be so unique- both masters have always upheld a commitment to picking tea in a way that expresses the land, but this year, he has started limited pressings where every leaf is picked from the same tree to express the real history and microclimate of a single plant. The results were astounding.
A bamboo grove surrounds the two buildings perched on a hillside. The bamboo bark is used to wrap the cooperative’s pu’er bricks. One building is for hand processing tea and the other is a kitchen for everyone to meet up and eat after picking tea all day. The cooperative is building a dormitory for everyone to use in the spring so that they can stay up in the mountains longer when needed. Master Han made sure to show us his one tumbler that he can use to dry tea after picking.
“I never use this equipment unless some big company bothers us and wants too much tea. Everything we make is hand processed. Every leaf is hand picked, hand turned over a single wok, and pressed. All the tea you share in America- make sure people know how much goes into it.”
“I do what I love. It would be one thing if I worked like this and the tea was boring and unremarkable, but I know at the end of the day that it is worth it. There is no tea like this anywhere else. Come in, lets steep up some of the fresh harvest.” Mr Zhou gestured us onto the porch of the kitchen building for a truly unique tasting. We tried the same tea, picked at the same time from trees of different ages. We started with 300 year old trees, then we moved to 500 year trees, 1000 year trees, and finally 2000 year old trees.
We’ve gained an entirely new perspective on pu’er. Normally we think of aging the leaves as the main factor in influencing flavor, but age can also come from the maturity of the tea plant itself. Mr. Zhou explained that the older the tree, the deeper the roots. The deeper the roots, the more complex & rich nutrients and pure water the plant can absorb. Indeed, the older the tree, the more complex the flavor, with sweeter aftertaste and more nuanced texture. The tea from the oldest trees tasted as smooth and rich as a sheng pu’er aged for eight to ten years, even though it had been picked fresh just months before.
The pu’er the cooperative produces is a piece of the past, it is a look back in time thousands of years. For them, the more people that come to appreciate Qianjiazhai, the safer the mountains will be for future generations to enjoy.
Our whole trip to visit Qianjiazhai was truly humbling. To get from our headquarters in Minneapolis to the forests of Qianjiazhai took over eighty hours of transit time. The cooperative’s home is far from the cities, protected from development by the extremity of the landscape. The trees grow in the mist of the high mountain peaks among wild flowers, and every herb imaginable. They are fed by deep mountain springs and nourished by soil untouched by development. The trees are picked only once a year and tended carefully by everyone in the cooperative to protect the leaves for future generations. The leaves are processed entirely by hand. We feel the deepest gratitude for the chance to work with people as passionate, honest and devoted as the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Cooperative. After visiting it is difficult to comprehend how any of us should have access to something so beautiful.
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