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China 2017 | Day 10 | Wuyi


And so it was that our journey was coming to its end.  What better way to finish than by visiting one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in China : Wuyi Shan.

I was last here 2 years ago and to be honest, at that time was quite overwhelmed by the place & the tea produced here.  This time - a little older, perhaps [or maybe not!] a little wiser I was looking forward to my time here.  

We came to meet a number of growers in Wuyi but this blog will focus on our time with Mr Wu whom we currently work with to bring Rock Tea [otherwise referred to as Yan Cha] to tea lovers at Comins.  Before we dive into the teas we tasted and the adventure we took through the Zheng Yan area of Wuyi I think it is important to get to know the area a little better.  In order to do this I have split this blog into 5 main sections :

1. An Brief Introduction to Wuyi
2. Areas of tea cultivation in Wuyi
  • Zheng Yan vs Ban Yan vs Zhou Cha vs Wai Shan
  • Famous Areas within the Zheng Yan area 
3. The tea bushes of Wuyi  
4. Processing Methods for Yan Cha
5. A Walk around the Zheng Yan area with Mr Wu
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I really hope you enjoy the read and that most importantly it inspires you to explore wonderful Yan Cha teas from this region in more depth.  
A small note before we start - I don't speak mandarin [yet!] so all my knowledge is acquired through observation, tasting, questions, translation etc...those of you who know tea well will also know many areas in tea are never fully conclusive so please do add to the conversation!] 
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1. An Introduction to Wuyi

Wuyi Shan [Wuyi Mountain] is a National park and designated world heritage site or reserve in North West Fujian with rocky terrain and a long and rich history of tea cultivation :- 

The region is blessed with high cliffs, weathered rocks, highly permeable and mineral rich soils which are absorbed by the tea trees that grow here.   In the national park itself tea trees grow alongside paths frequented by visitors - however it is off these well trodden paths that the real magic can be experienced as you will see later in the blog.  
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2. Areas of tea production in Wuyi : Terroir

Zheng Yan vs Ban Yan vs Zhou Cha vs Wai Shan

You may remember the term Zheng Yan from our previous posts on Wuyi tea.  Zheng Yan meaning Zheng | Original and Yan | Rock is used to refer to tea that is grown in the original area within the boundaries of the natural reserve.  Within this world heritage site pesticide use is not allowed, soils are mineral rich and as you will also come to read the surrounding mountains create rich biodiverse microclimates.  Just from looking at this last statement with mention of 'soils' and 'microclimates' you can start to imagine the role that natural environment/terroir plays here in determining the final quality of the tea.   

The Zheng Yan area of Wuyi is the 'true' origin of Yan Cha tea.  There are then [as in many other famous tea producing areas in China] 'other areas' where people may be looking to produce Yan Cha on a larger scale to replicate the famous teas.  In Wuyi the areas outside Zheng Yan are well defined.  
  • The  Ban Yan  [half-rock tea] area refers to the area around the edges of the natural reserve.  
  • The Zhou Cha area [Grown around the river of the nearby Nine Bends River]
  • The Wai Shan area [outside mountain beyond both Zhou Cha and Ban Yan].  
So what difference could you expect to experience in the cup?  The farther you go from the Zheng Yan area the less sought after the teas become.  Looking at these areas you are immediately struck by the geographical contrasts.  The high cliffs create unique microclimates in the Zheng Yan - quite simply the Ban Yan area does not share the same landscape.  More specifically our friends told us how the Ban Yan area is not monitored or subject to the same regulations as the Zheng Yan area and with inferior soil quality it is more likely that pesticides are used here [although this is of course not universal].  You start to see now how the same variety of tea processed in the same way may vary in quality if they are living in different environment.  In the cup teas from these outer areas are said to lack the 'rock charm' experienced with Zheng Yan teas.  Of course how would you, the tea drinker know or appreciate this if you don't have a space to explore and enjoy these teas in?  That is what we aim to offer at Comins.  
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Famous Areas within the Zhengyan area 
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Focusing now on the Zheng Yan area it is not as simple as just having one type of 'Zheng Yan' tea.   You have to imagine yourself walking through this stunning natural environment and that, in the course of a 4 hours walk, you will encounter different environments at every turn - high cliffs, narrow gorges, mineral rich streams.  Now you have to imagine how each of those areas may differ, how the light will hit and infiltrate each individual gorge at different times and how water may drip and drain down their sides bringing rich nutrients and minerals to the trees that cling to their sides and grow at their base.  
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[Photo : Howard Boyer]
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Tea bushes grow in all of these biodiverse microclimates surrounded by abundant plant and insect life but you can appreciate how each microclimate will create teas with different characteristics and quality in the final cup [of course it should be noted here that that even a tea with the greatest potential can be ruined by improper processing - this is also an extremely important factor in the final quality of the tea - more on that later].  
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[Photo : Howard Boyer]
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Within the Zheng Yan area there are some areas that are more 'famous' for quality teas - this is due to the specifics of the area where the combination of environment, water, soil [highly permeable, mineral rich with the correct PH] etc is optimum and the presence of high cliffs which absorb heat in the day and release it at night create a more constant temperature for the tea plants. If you read more widely around Yan Cha you will often see the 'three pits & two gullies' Hui Yuan Keng [Pit], Niu Lan Keng [Pit], Dao Shui Keng [Pit], Liu Xiang Jian [Gully], Wu Yuan Jian [Gully] referenced although as you will see from the detail on the different cultivars and also the description of our tour of the area there are many more areas which offer high quality and command high prices.  
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[Photo : Howard Boyer]
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The Tea Bushes of Wuyi :
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So far we have tackled origin as a determinant of the final profile in your cup.  Let's now move on to the specific tea bush or varietal.  Those of you familiar with Yan Cha may know that Da Hong Pao [Origin Tian Xin Yan, Jiu Long Ke : Profile Full fragrance, rich aftertaste] Tie Luo Han [Origin Gui Dong : Profile Sweet with rich fragrance], Shuijinggui [Origin Nui Lang Keng : Profile Rich, sweet & Fragrant] & Baijiguan [Origin Yin Ping Peak : Profile : mellow, sweet & light in flavour]  are the four famous bushes so often talked about in Wuyi.  What may be more surprising is the fact that Roi Gui [which stands for 'Cassia Bark : Profile fragrant with cinnamon spice] & Shuixian [Profile is more mellow - a great everyday Yan Cha] occupy the largest planting area and popularity with consumers - perhaps due to their accessibility in terms of volume and price.  Each of these varietals will have developed differently as a result of their environment [hence why the place of origin is often noted].   
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[Photo : Howard Boyer]
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Further blogs in the coming months and years will look at these varietals in more detail and perhaps, rather than us explaining them to you you are best to taste and just for yourself!  However one tea is worth a quick note of clarification and that is Da Hong Pao :
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'Da Hong Pao' was the tea that originally drew me to this area and to this day I still find it difficult to understand [so I am happy to be corrected!].  There are many legends that surround the tea but in simple terms now-a-days the name relates to the six famous 'mother' trees that visitors flock to see on the cliff of Tian Xin Yan, Jiu Long Ke.  This year in discussions with Mr Wu he shared with us that the 6 trees are in fact not a single varietal and therefore Da Hong Pao is a 'blended' tea.  He informed us that the Qi Dan varietal is often used for Da Hong Pao - but I have not had this confirmed.  This does back up the information from my last trip and the fact that Da Hong Pao is commercially at least more commonly a 'generic' term used to describe a blended 'tea of the region' - those with the knowledge and expertise may choose to rightly reserve this name only for the 6 'mother' bushes so it is always worth clarifying these points in conversation.  
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Two final points to add to this section.  The first relates to  Lao Cong which translates directly to mean 'Old Bush'.  As you will see below we tried some Lao Cong Shui Xian on this trip and, as you might expect, tea from these older bushes commands a much higher price.  It also comes with a notes of caution - how 'old' is 'old'? and is the price justified?  A topic for a whole other blog.....
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[Photo : Howard Boyer] 
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The second point to add is that outside the famous teas previously mentioned there are other popular teas that are grown in the Wuyi areas but have been brought in from other parts of Fujian province.  Strictly speaking these are not 'Rock' teas as they lack the true Rock profile - they also tend to be more lightly roasted to bring out more floral tones.  These include Qilan, Huang Guanyin and Huang Mei Gui. 
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4. Processing Methods for Yan Cha
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Through this blog and many of our previous blogs you will have seen us refer to handmade and machine made teas.  The most highly sought after Yan Cha are fully hand processed but you can also get part handmade and machine made teas.  Lets follow the tea from picking to drinking and explore how Yan Cha is made by hand.  What you will experience in this part of the blog are how numerous the stages are - compromise or mistakes at any part in this process will determine the quality of the tea :-

Picking : Firstly a word on seasonality : it is possible to buy Spring, Summer & Autumn teas from Wuyi but the Spring season is considered to produce the best teas.  Something to note here is that although the tea is picked in Spring it will not be ready until much later in the year [possibly around September or October - more on this later].  Walking through the Zheng Yan area it is clear that there are no boundaries between the areas owned or managed by different farmers so it is important that, at the picking stage, the pickers are guided to the right bushes and the initial picking is overseen to ensure that standards are adhered to and maintained.  Mr Wu shared with us that the traditional picking standard of roughly 3-4 leaves with stalks [as demand for Yan Cha grows there will inevitably be variations in picking standards for more commercial grade teas from outside the Zheng Yan area].  The time of picking in the Zheng Yan area is late April - Mr Wu informed us it was usually around the 28th but this year it was one week later in early May - the picking in the  outer areas seems to start earlier - of course it is weather dependent across the areas as in all tea growing regions.  

Once the tea is picked it must be rushed back to the village or the place of processing as quickly as possible - more on this later! 

Withering : When the leaves reach the point of processing you will observe that the initial processing steps are the same as for other Oolong teas.  The leaves undergo sun withering either on bamboo trays or on large pieces of cloth spread on the ground.  This important step is closely monitored - too much sun can burn the leaves, over-withering can result in the leaves becoming over-wilted and un-usable.   During this careful balancing act the leaves may be brought inside where they are stored in bamboo trays on shelves [an internal environment is much easier for the tea maker to control.]  As you can imagine every day is different and the tea maker must observe and question many factors including the conditions on the day of picking and the quality and condition of the leaf itself.  On the first day of our visit to the area there was little processing due to heavy rains the day before - on days such as this harvesting will be avoided.  On the second day it was sunnier and we could observe how those in charge manually touched and turned the leaf.   It is this 'touch' and the regular observations that inform the tea master when the leaves are sufficiently softened by wilting and ready to pass to the next stage.  

Bruising : This is a key step in the hand processing of teas.  With handmade teas this very manual process further reduces the moisture content and breaks up the surface of the leaves, exposing the juices from the leaves to the air and promoting oxidation.   Again observation and 'feel' is important in this part of the process - we were told to look for a reddish border at the edge of the leaves - an indication that the tea is ready for the next step - but in reality this is a much more complex science - the exact time that this stage is stopped and the tea is considered appropriately oxidised is decided by the tea maker based on years of experience.  The tea maker will also use oxidation in the leaf as a way for tea to differentiate their teas - often a topic of discussion with tea makers - more on this below.

Wok Frying : When the level of oxidation is considered optimum it must then be 'halted' and for Yan Cha this is achieved by heating the leaves to a high temperature in a wok.  In previous blogs you will have heard us use language such as 'fixing' and 'kill green' in this stage of the process.  Essentially the heat arrests the oxidation in the leaf 'fixing' the tea at that particular point in time and destroying enzymes [kill green] which would promote the development of an undesirably bitter profile.  I myself experienced pan frying by hand in Yunnan last year - it is extremely technical - the leaves must be carefully moved and manipulated by hand in the hot wok.  If you watch carefully you will see how the leaves are pushed to the centre and then rotated outwards.  Interpretation of what is being felt in the leaf is critical - leaves that are too moist must be given space for the water to evaporate, those at the bottom of the wok must not be allowed to burn.  Again we find ourselves talking about 'touch' and you can see why the quality of hand made teas is considered superior - these 'touches' can not be replicated by machine.  

Shaping : Mr Wu informed us that for his hand made teas he will then shape the teas using a by rolling the leaves on bamboo trays.  We did not discuss this in huge depth but from wider reading it would seem that this is to shape the leaves into the characteristic profile we see in Yan Cha and also to further bruise the leaves - this bruising will have an impact on the way the flavour of the tea develops in the processing stages that follow. 

Roasting : Here we see a difference between Spring Yan Cha teas and Spring Teas from other areas of China.  Where there is always a high rush to get Spring Teas to market Wuyi Yan Cha Oolongs will often not reach the market for at least 6 months and as you will come to see some will not reach their best until several years afterwards.   Lets explore this.  

Firstly, many of the factories producing hand made Wuyi teas are very small - for Mr Wu his factory is in the back of his home [you can see parts of this below with the machines for the part machine made tea and the bamboo baskets and charcoal pits for the hand made teas].  With all that is going on during harvest time there is often no time, space or labour to complete the roasting process.  So an initial roast is carried out straight away to completely halt oxidation producing a tea referred to as 'Mao Cha'.  This roughly finished tea will then have the stems and any unwanted yellow leaves removed by hand before being stored in preparation for further roasting.  This will be scheduled for later once the harvesting and other steps are complete.

    

I remember the first time I walked into the room where they roast the teas in Wuyi - it was a wonderful sight quite different from any thing I had seen before.  Leaves are roasted over hardwood charcoal which is placed in wells - [images of barbecues may spring to mind here - you certainly don't want any flames to come into contact with the tea - the roasting is performed by heat not by flames - so the white colour you see over the coals is rice ash placed over the coals]  Now, the degree of roasting is not 'set' as one single standard for Yan Cha i.e. it is altered according to taste.  Neither is it a single or simple step -  during the roasting process [which is overseen by the tea maker] the tea is continuously observed and spread to ensure an even roast and it can be roasted up to 3 times depending on the leaf.

  
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Roasting was originally a method of preservation for shipping and shelf life but is a critical step for tea makers in handcrafting unique Yan Cha teas.  The traditional method for the final roasting is to again use charcoal for heat but to use a gentle temperature over a longer time period.  This method - which can then be repeated dependent on the leaf and the desired finish - is designed to develop the fragrance, colour and taste of the tea.  Only quality leaves such as the thicker leaves from the ecologically rich Zheng Yan areas can withstand this more lengthly traditional process - resulting in high quality teas with intricacy and nuances of flavour often lacking in their commercially produced counterparts.   .
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Again - nothing is completely straightforward when it comes to Yan Cha and as I have travelled around and met different tea makers in both the Zheng Yan and Ban Yan areas the degree of roasting, also referred to as 'firing' often comes up in discussion.  You will typically hear tea makers refer to Yan Cha as low : medium or high 'fired' or 'roast'.  Much like the oxidation process for Yan Cha the firing process is a chance for the tea maker to demonstrate their skill and to produce teas with a unique profile.    
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Low roast teas are of
ten partnered with teas that have undergone lighter oxidation a combination which produces a lighter more 'modern' style of Yan Cha - easier to produce and less complex for the consumers palate.  These more fragrant teas tend to be more affordable but lack the 'rock tea' profile - they are however more accessible for those starting out on their Yan Cha journey.  Produced well mid fire Yan Cha teas  have the characteristic rock flavour and can be enjoyed soon after firing [although it is preferable to leave them for 6-12 months].  The term 'High fired' Yan Cha teas seems to be more often associated with commercial machine picked and made teas from the less ecologically rich outer areas.  Here the starting point is a far inferior leaf to a 'Zheng Yan' leaf - the high fire aims to disguise this inferiority by applying a heavier charcoal flavour.  So you can start to see that although 'Low, Mid & High Fire' Yan Cha teas can be produced in any of the tea growing areas outlined earlier the quality of the leaf you start with and the process that is undertaken to bring the final tea to your cup can be vastly different.   I have a lot more to learn in this area so I am sure I will correct myself on certain details on my next trip to Wuyi - hopefully my mandarin will also improve along with my direct understanding of our tea discussions! 
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As a final note [and already touched upon] the final roasted Zheng Yan Yan Cha is not available until September.  Even then teas that have been subjected to a 'higher' - or in the case of traditional teas 'more lengthly' firing - are often at their best once this has been allowed to mellow for 2 to 3 years.  This would explain why you often pay more for older teas. 
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Sorting & Packaging : As you can see from these photos the teas are then sorted on a large table separating out the high quality leaves that will fetch a premium price.  This long process further explores the leaves to the air so at the end there is one last 'fire' to 'finish' the leaves before they are then packaged.  

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So why does all of this matter? : By now you are probably starting to get a sense of the complexity of tea in this area - if you yourself came to look into or research Wuyi Rock Teas you may find the information about origin & varietals confusing and start to wonder why perhaps so much detail is necessary - and that is before you even reach the processing!  So why should the specifics of where a tea comes from and how it is made matter, why should we take time and effort to understand?   For different people this journey of tea education and understanding may well be driven by different motivations.  For us it is about appreciation and respect for the tea, the growers and the experience each cup presents to us.  Let us draw a parallel.  We would not consider a blended whisky on the shelves of the supermarket to be the same as a single malt from a single distillery with a master distiller in the Scottish highlands.  For us there is little point becoming 'snobby' about it - many of us may enjoy both, at different times for different purposes but we would respect and appreciate the difference in the price and the experience.  The reason we can respect this is due to education in the whisky market - by opening up distilleries and sharing information on every step from cultivation to tasting we feel we 'know' the product better and are prepared to explore and pay more for quality.  Hopefully creating spaces in tea for this discussion both visually and physically in the UK will help promote a similar discussion in tea!  __________________________________________________________________________________

5. A walk through the Zheng Yan Area with Mr Wu
So now we are well acquainted with Yan Cha and Wuyi lets return to our trip this year.  We started our time, as in years before, with Mr Wu in his office.  I love Mr Wu's office as it looks out over the Zheng Yan area and every time we sit in here drinking tea and chatting we see just how quickly the weather patterns change in this area.  From misty mornings to bright sunny days to great downpours of rain - we have seen it all over tea with Mr Wu.  Mr Wu is also extremely hospitable and has put up with many of my basic questions with great humour! 
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Zheng Yan Yan Cha cannot be rushed and Mr Wu had kindly selected a number of teas for us to enjoy over the hours that followed.   Mr Wu's gardens are in many areas across the Zheng Yan park and the teas were representative of this spread of his gardens.  He makes some teas using traditional methods and some part hand made part machine made.  
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First up was Lao Cong Shui Xian [Shui Hsien] from the area around the water curtain cave which would be near the start of our walk later that day.  The Water Curtain Cave is one of the 72 caves of the scenic area - here water hangs like a curtain over an inverse hanging cave, hiding behind the curtain of water is a maze of hidden crags.  The second tea we tried was Roi Gui from the same area.  Third was Qi Dan and Tie Luo Han from 'Hui yuan Keng'.  We then tasted a black tea followed by a Dan Gui varietal Maocha, another Hui yuan Keng with a lower bake but for double the time of the previous tea and then a Nui Lan Keng Roi Gui which Mr Wu told me was called 'beef tea' [or perhaps the translation was lost] - anyway this had quite a grassy flavour.  Finally we tried another Black tea from an oolong varietal but with black tea processing.   The tasting left us with much to ponder.  
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Before we knew it it was, of course, time for lunch - a wonderful array of fresh vegetables!
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Next stop would be the Zheng Yan area itself to visit the growing areas and to experience these wonderful cliffs, gullies and caves for ourselves.  I have been to Wuyi before but each time I return I have new knowledge that enriches my experience further.  It is always the case that I leave realising how much I still have to learn but that is the beauty of tea and is to be embraced rather than feared!  
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Only people with permits can drive up into the park to drop off or pick up their tea pickers - for obvious reasons - so we were lucky to get a lift with Mr Wu.  If you are a tea lover and have been inspired by this blog then it is worth saying that Wuyi is a place that you can easily visit yourself.  The area can be accessed by high speed train from Shanghai and the park itself [which is described below] can be entered into through either the North or South Entrance where you can pick up a bus to take you to the numerous drop off points from which you can branch out on the many footpaths around the park.  The park itself is breathtakingly beautiful - walking around it is hard to believe that you are in such a place.  

[map : http://www.chinatouristmaps.com]
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Leaving the car Mr Wu took us on a walk through the Zheng Yan area.  As we walked thorough the scenic area Mr Wu stopped to point out the most well known and symbolic tea producing areas.  As discussed each area is distinctive and it was great to stop as we entered each part and take in the environment surrounding us.

    

    

   

   

As we walked we talked and Mr Wu explained how he owns some of his own land and rents patches of land in other areas of the park.  His focus is on producing high quality hand made Yan Cha although he uses part machine processing for the lower quality leaves. The decision on which process to follow is determined by the location and the day of picking.  As we walked through the area we constantly needed to be aware of the pickers coming down the narrow paths.  Travelling at great speed they will carry between 35 and 65 kilos and will travel over an hour in some cases from origin to either the villages or the trucks waiting to collect the leaves.  

No wonder a bench provides a welcome stop.

Mr Wu shared the special qualities of different areas as we passed through them.  We talked of areas where the special environment brings early morning fog, sun in the day and then cooler afternoons creating a sort of 'rainbow sunlight' - a special frequency of light that gives the tea a soft and sweet quality.  We passed  Hui yuan Keng and Dao shui Keng two of the top 3 locations and discussed how humidity in certain areas of the park results in moss which is attributable to the grassy mossy flavour on some of the teas from these areas.  We also discussed the naming of different areas which to a non Chinese speaker are sometimes so hard to remember.  Mr Wu explained to me how sometimes the names are the name of a valley [first] followed by 'Keng' which refers to an opening in the same valley - 'Keng essentially meaning 'hole'.  It was all starting to make a little more sense until he also told me that one place can have two or three names with overlapping pieces...perhaps that is all part of the mystery of the place.  
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As we walked up and down and off the beaten track we left the crowds and saw for ourselves just how biodiverse the Zheng Yan area is - Howard who was travelling with us shared with me how a quarter of China's butterflies are in Wuyi - a beautiful sign of a healthy environment.   It became clear how the tea plants growing in these areas would gradually absorb the different flavours of the environment they grow in.   Looking up above us we saw tea growing on high ridges and old Hermit Daioist caves. Natural water dripped down from the top - this was the valley where the Qi Dan and Dan Gei we enjoyed earlier were from.  The caves in this area are several thousand years old with old wood tucked under the ridge - they once built villages here to stop local bandits - I can imagine it was far less accessible back then.  

Walking along by the river we saw older [around 60 year old] trees and strips of Sui Shen. Mr Wu informed us that one strip would belong to perhaps two or three households.  As explained before there was no marking to divide the tea bushes - there is a code of conduct here that people know their area and respect that of others. 

    

Self seeded bushes could be seen along the row which feeds further genetic variations in the area.   Walking on further we looked up to eagle rock - an impressive site towering over the park.

 

The conversation turned to one of my favourite topics : soil.   Over the millennia the rocks in this 'rocky region' have broken down so you have a lot of mineral rich stones and sand entering into the soil. The soil in the areas we passed is sand based so you don't have water logging that you see in other areas.   They are also more alkali and high in iron - the tea plants absorb all this mineral content which contributes to the distinct profile we experience when we drink the tea.   As discussed in this blog the profile varies across the area defined by river, rock, fine vs corse soils  formed from where the mountains erode.  We passed the Hui Yan temple before carrying along Zhang Tang Jian.  All along our route Mr Wu was keen to  point out famous mountains with names linked to the forms they resembled - one looked like a face, another was known as the 'hamburger'.  All of these act as signposts to different areas.  

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One of the final areas we came to and discussed was Dao Shui Keng - here we discussed how the environment in the unique Zheng Yan areas is so significantly different to that in the 'tea farms' - Mr Wu shared how the water quality here is far better than bottled or rain water - so important for the tea.  We entered or passed Jiu Long Ke which Mr Wu explained to me meant nine dragons either 'valley' or 'pass' [the conversation was a little confusing so excuse my vagueness]- we talked about how the tea plants on the top of the hill have more fragrance but those in the valley are sweeter.  

Our time in Wuxi was coming to an end.  For sure this will not be the last visit here - a yearly visit is our hope to build relationships and continue our learning.  
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So all that is left to say is that we hope you have enjoyed the read!  If you have and are intrigued then come in and take tea with us soon - and stay tuned for more great Yan Cha at Comins! 



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