The Cradle of Pu’er Tea: Xishuangbanna, Yunnan
Where it all started.
It is hard to describe how the cradle of tea might look like, hard to define the morning haze over endless rolling hills and even harder to capture the spirit of the people living among those thick forests. A somehow mystical atmosphere reigns over those ancient trees, a kingdom of forgotten tales and flavors that even the modern tea traders to not dare to disturb.
If tea is what you are after, Xishuangbanna is where you have to go.
Forget about comforts, traveling south of Yunnan is not easy and requires a strong sense of compliance to the myriads of ‘surprises’ that this land will certainly offer you. An entire region survives on such a fragile ecosystem, several ethnic groups are scattered throughout the area, each one of them with a precise role in the wheel of…tea life.
If your starting point is Jinghong, waste no time in this newly built city. Head to Menghai, approximately 1 hour drive southwest. Here is where people from all over China are based to trade tea, married to locals and living a secluded tropical life away from the pollution. Despite the fact that the majority of the local population is divided between Dai and Hani minorities here, Menghai is a gateway to the western tea mountains, the land of the Bulang people, their colorful dresses and incomprehensible dialect.
I followed some of them to a remote village called Laomanhe (老曼娥), to hear their stories and get close to their ancient trees. A girl told me that the most ancient tea tree has its roots right here, near this village. The tealeaves of the ‘father of all trees’ were taken and distributed all over what we now call Tea Mountains. But it all came from here, believe it or not.
What I do believe is that the Bulang life is undergoing great social changes. Local girls refuse to marry local boys and want to move to the cities. The villagers who made money with tea business are rebuilding their homes with no sense of ethnicity, destroying what’s left of those magnificent old villages on the hillsides.
Passion. This is what has driven this people for centuries. This is what keeps that flame up, their soul unsold. Passion for simple tealeaves, the eternal tea cycle linked to their life, generation after generation. Mr. Li and his family welcome me to a world of tea made of rigorous routines. From the nurturing of the trees, through the harvesting, the frying, and the drying… all to get to that cup of flavored water that I still hold in my hand.