The tea fields of Pu’Erh
We had an early start from Menglian in order to reach the organic tea fields where our tea is grown before lunch. We headed West, towards the Burmese border, getting within 10 miles of it, before turning up a very steep and rough rode, into the mountains.
As soon as we left the town the scenery was stunning. We ascended the mountain road so quickly in the 4X4 that we soon understood why we had been warned to bring warmer clothes. In the town the temperature by midday reached 30 degrees but at higher altitudes in the winter months it drops fairly rapidly to a cool 15 degrees. Still warm enough for me! At two points our way was blocked by huge diggers, moving the rich red earth in preparation for a new road. It is a little unnerving to come face to face with a mound of earth and a big yellow digger as you come speeding round a corner. At least it didn’t take long for the obstacles to be removed. The men operating them certainly had the right tools for the job and we were on our way.
The Pu’Erh area gives its name to the world famous type of fermented tea which the region is famous for. It was traditionally traded along the tea horse road in bricks. Apparently it goes very well with beef and lamb, hence its popularity in the north. The tea fields we were on our way produce not only Pu’Erh but black tea (Hong Cha) and green tea.
After travelling for two hours we arrived at the entrance to one of the tea fields and began our tour. At this time of year, the tea plants are starting to slow down their growth and there was likely to be only one more harvest before the fields were closed for winter but there were still buds growing. The best tea is made from only the bud and no more than two leaves. We were invited to pick a bud and chew it, I’m surprised fresh tea isn’t used more extensively in the kitchen for cooking and smoking. It’s amazingly refreshing and tart. The scale of this organic project is unlike any other in China. Every measure is taken to ensure that the international body responsible for awarding this estate its Organic status in 2012, the IMO, will find no problems. DanYun Fairtrade have worked tirelessly since 2008 with Xinjiang tea to ensure this will remain the case. Traditional methods are used in pest control and for natural fertilisers. The plants and trees grown for shading the tea plants can also be used as a compost and as natural ‘insecticide’.
There were nothing but tea fields for as far as the could see and it is a very peaceful and serene environment, even though in truth it is the scene of great activity in the summertime when the hills are teeming with pickers.
We later became aware that the area’s proximity to the Laos and Burmese borders places it in the Golden Triangle, which is an area infamous for the production of Opium and once the driving force behind the world’s heroin trade. It seems the idea was to convince the local people who relied on this trade to turn their hand to an altogether more sustainable and more importantly LEGAL for of agriculture. So, Mr Xu, the owner of the Xinjian Tea Company went prospecting and found suitable areas in the PuErh region and then set about convincing the local people to consider tea cultivation, which was no mean feat. Firstly, other than growing opium and traditional crops for sustenance the local people, including Wa, Lahu and Dai people did not have experience in growing cash crops. If they could not eat the produce they could not understand the long term benefits of growing something like tea. On top of that, having only recently been convinced to use fertilisers and pesticides on their traditional crops and seen the benefits, they did not understand why it made sense to grow crops organically.
Ye Yi and KaHe village
After our tour of the fields we headed back to one of the Wa villages we had passed on the way called KaHe, to meet with one of the farmers who worked the organic fields and have lunch with her. When we arrived at YeYi’s house we were invited upstairs and into the dining room. YeYi’s house is one of the remaining traditional houses built in the traditional style, on stilts with room underneath for storage and keeping animals. They kept pigs in the yard where her husband and a friend were shelling maize. All over Yunnan the harvested maize could be seen drying outside people’s houses and it is a very important crop. As we entered and were welcomed by YeYi, we were invited to sit around a newly bought table in a room full of yet more maize.
The Wa have more in common with minority people over the borders with Burma, Laos and Thailand than they do with Han or mainland Chinese people. They have a number of distinct festivals and traditions including the New Rice festival, Sigangli festival and the hair dance! YeYi was a very welcoming and friendly lady who cooked us a wonderful lunch. She explained that they do not often as well as we did that day but they had killed a chicken which was cooked with chilli, steamed with rice and made into soup. The steamed rice was almost like risotto and I have never tried anything like it in China before. We also had red rice, and pork with vegetables. During lunch, YeYi explained how her life had changed since she decided to work with Xinjiang tea. She had faced a lot of opposition when she first made the decision 10 years ago, to travel to Tengchong to learn more about the project. Her husband was very vocal and tried to prevent her from going by force but she was determined and now it is very clear who is the head of the household. She was one of only 3 women to start the project and the only person in her village. Now all but two families in KaHe are tea farmers and those two families are old couples who can no longer work. They are taken care of by the rest of the village.
She is very proud of her motorbike. Before she bought it, it would take her a full day to walk to Menglian to visit the market, leaving before sunrise and getting back very late at night. There were no roads and she would have to walk all the way. Now she can be there and back in four hours. Her husband will not learn and so she drives. She has two children, an 18 year old son who is in the army and a 16 year old daughter who is at boarding school in Menglian.
It is clear that she is very grateful to DanYun Farirtrade for all the work they put in to ensure that she and other farmers working on the T-Project receive fair wages and are genuinely helping them to not be left behind and remain relevant in the modern world.
It was a very humbling experience and before we leave she agrees to change from her modern clothing into her traditional Wa headdress, sarong and tunic. It is all handmade and very beautiful. We can’t help but feel that some of this has been laid on especially for us and it’s certainly true that some traditional aspects of culture in Yunnan are being lost, but despite that the intimate setting really does make this a special moment.
When she learns that we are English, YeYi is very impressed and wants to know everything about our country. It seems that the idealistic stereotypes of our nation are no longer confined to the urban middle classes in China as technology spreads media to even the most remote corners of the world. She has notions of Downton Abbey and for once I allow those ideas, at least in part, to remain. We are invited to return for the New Rice Festival and I wish we would be able to make it. Maybe one day.