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China Day 3 : Into the Ancient Tea Forest with 聂江新 & 艾京 [Jingmai mountain Pt 1]

Arriving at Mr Nankangs was like arriving home.  We took the car from Mr Xus and as time passed the landscape started to change.  It was clear that we were headed for the mountains.  We arrived at the gate that signalled the entry point to the Jingmai mountains and I felt a sense of excitement.  

We made the now usual stop at the raised platform and scenic spots on the winding road up the hill and took in the incredible view in front of us.  

The road up to the mountains is winding but well paved with cobbled stones.  Bushes line the sides of the road with hot pink flowers intertwined with the greenery all the way from the bottom to the top.  This places feels like a small oasis of paradise and the promise of the tea and the people we were to spend the next two days with instilled a sense of peace in me.

We finally arrived at Mr Nankangs the hot sun beating down.  It always surprises people how hot it is here but we are very near to the border with Myanmar & Thailand.  This is also not the China that resides in many peoples imaginations - far from the fast paced cities life it is slower and more peaceful here - rich with ritual and ancestral roots of the people who have lived and worked this land for many years.  The deafening noise is from the insects and birds whose home we are sharing - not the vehicles and trappings of human existence.  We were met by Mr Nankangs second son, 聂江新 who was to be our host for the day.  Bags unloaded the first stop was of course to be lunch - with the gorgeous daughter of 聂江新 in tow and already at 2 a highly skilled motorbike rider!

We returned to the main house to taste tea and chatted as we tasted.  聂江新 explained how the community here pick the tea from 7-12pm each day and then bring the leaves to the factory between 1-3pm.  They pick a maximum of 12kg per day and due to the fact that all the leaves bought in by the community are ancient tree there is no need for any classification or separation.  聂江新 explained 'The Puer family has different characteristics - here in our community we have medium sized leaves and our tea comes from ancient trees that cover the areas around 2 main villages - Jingmai Village and Mengjing village - in the Jingmai mountains.  We choose to work as part of a co-operative, in fact this was the 1st registered cooperative in this area - registered in 2007 - it used to be around 300 families but today we are 180 families working together to create our own brand' We sipped on a 2016 Sheng puer and took in the tone of the tea and the wonderful environment 

聂江新 continued 'When I was a child no one knew about the ancient trees.  No one knew they could make a living from it.  It was very poor here before the tea business came up.  One day my grandfather said to me that if we could ever afford to buy a car then it would be on the same day that a cow would climb up the tree' [i.e. highly unlikely!]  'We used to pick the tea and process it and try to sell it by the side of the road but no-one would buy it'

Times have most certainly changed and now the cooperative work to 2 seasons - Spring and Autumn [with the Autumn season starting after the mid Autumn festival and continuing for 2 months].  聂江新 explained 'For the Maocha we are picking 2-3 leaves - processing these on the same day and pressing to order when the requests come in.  For the Sheng puer process we pick the fresh leaf, wait 3 hours, put it in wok to kill the green, roll for 15-20 mins and then sun dry for 1 -2 days.   In my opinion the tea should then sit and balance after processing - ideally for 5 months - before compression but we offer a bespoke service to buyers'

We enjoyed some fresh mountain Rambutan fruits placed on the table to accompany the tea.  This is always such a treat - with fruit this fresh and sweet to accompany the tea there is no need for the cakes and biscuits we enjoy at home - here, if you respect it, the forest provides.  Full of tea we decided it was time to explore more widely.  We started out of the house, up the hill and headed along a forest road to the tea forest.  We passed traditional homes with the sign of the Bulang people on the roof [you can see it here on the right - the leaf and two buds] tea trees growing in the garden and corn drying outside.


Walking down into the forest we were greeted by the natural surround sound of the forest.  Our two guides are 聂江新 and 艾京 [Ai Jing] his cousin - and it is wonderful to be shown so enthusiastically around the forest by two such young custodians of this ancient tea - both in their late 20's, both passionate about the land and their heritage.  聂江新 shared with us how he had left school at 15 he and started a noodle business - clearly an entrepreneur at heart - before his friends drank all the profits [we all have a story like that!] and he returned to work with his father.  His new ideas and energy will surely be a huge asset to the family business.  艾京 is a slightly different character - he served in the army before, as the oldest son, deciding to return to his home and his area of ancient trees.  As we walk around the forest he seems to have an affinity with it and nature.

As we walked we came upon an enormous and magnificent Banyan Tree.  'Look up' we were told.  We did and saw the most enormous bees nests in the trees.  As we looked more closely we could see the surface of the nests rippling as the bees came and went - busy in their work.

On the floor we saw nests that had fallen and dried out.  It is completely forbidden to climb the tree and disturb the nests - respect of nature, the forest and the creatures that live here is central to life here and the ethos of the Bulang.  All we can do is look to the nests & imagine the wonderful sweet honey that exists inside 

We continued down to the area of tea trees including some trees that belong to the family of 艾京.  Here in the tea forest 艾京 sprang into life keen to share some of the natural phenomena that exist.  Firstly we looked at these strange formations growing on the ancient tea trees

'This is 螃蟹腳 limb of crab' explained 艾京 'it is a plant used in chinese medicine for blood pressure but it grows only in the ancient tea trees'  He showed us some other trees with labels tied gently onto the branches 'a few farmers have been trying to encourage the 螃蟹腳 to grow but it has not worked'

The guys climbed the tea trees and plucked some fresh leaves and 艾京 ushered us towards a couple of his tea trees that looked a little bare. 

'We have had an attack of ants here this year' he explained 'so I devised a new technique.  When the ants attack they hollow out the tea trees so I apply a natural vinegar and it expels them.  I'm really happy with this result'

'The tea tree is then under significantly less stress when the ants leave and the leaf quality improves'  You can see the leaves on the left here look far stronger and healthier - a result everyone seemed very happy with.  

We rested a while in the forest taking in the sounds, smells and atmosphere in this protected area.  聂江新 crouched and took a snack of fresh tea leaves.  Talk turned to the management of the forests and the future of this protected environment

'No one in the mountain can use pesticides' shared 聂江新 'If they are found out they can go to prison or otherwise the government will turns off their electricity for 3 years. Another punishment is that you are forbidden from picking your own tea for 5 years' We must have looked surprised as 聂江新 smiled and continue 'Someone cut their ancient tree and they went to prison for 3 months.   Their defence was that it was too large difficult to pick but that is not acceptable - our ancestors protected the tea we must do the same'  Looking at the vast swathes of tea tree forest that cover the ground in Jingmai it is clear to see why these tough regulations that are very visible to people are necessary - there is just too much ground to continuously guard.  'At the beginning people from our community guarded the tea, we did this for 3 years.  Now the government provide this service as they recognise the importance of this area.  They also have a regulation area at the check point entrance to the mountain - here they check people are not bringing in dry tea to mix with our ancient tea tree material'

We began our walk out of the forest taking time to soak in the last of the jungle sounds.  Up the hill we turned left towards the factory, at this time dormant, but a few weeks before a hive of activity for the spring harvest.  A brand new pagoda had just been built so a little weary from our walk in the forest we climbed to the top to take in the magnificent view.  

After a peaceful time laying in the sun and listening to the forest - watching the birds enjoy the air currents - we headed down to the factory.  Fresh leaf greeted us on the floor of the factory 'we are trialling some white tea' explained 聂江新.  We sat down to enjoy some more tea starting with a 2016 Cha Tao She Puer

聂江新 explained 'We make three grades of Shu Puer here.  The imperial puer which is the top grade, then the Cha Tao and the third is a mix' He explained further 'For the Shu Puer we take the maocha tea [we always use the tea from the year before for shu puer ] and pile it for 15 days . After this we dry the tea in the for shade 60 days not directly in the sun : only the Sheng puer is dried directly in the sun.  The different types of Shu we produce all come from the same pile - all the tea is piled together and then after the piling and drying we use a machine to separate out the buds for the imperial shu puer.   The Cha Tao is 'clumped' pieces of Shu puer and these form during the piling process - we remove these at the end of the process and these make a very special tea.  We prefer to leave the Shu puer for 2-3 years before we sell it'

I asked about the third type of Shu - the 'mix'.  For this we were ushered over to a tea basket with the different grades inside.  

'All the tea in the basket is from the same tea trees - the top grade is referred to as grade 1 and then the others are referred to as grades 3,5 & 7.  'To improve the appearance of the cake when we come to compress the tea we place the grade 1 on the outside' 聂江新 explained.  We asked it we could visit the factory for the Shu Puer processing - 'it is not allowed'  聂江新 explained - something we had also heard elsewhere - the next day his father shared a few photos with me [below] that offer an interesting insight to the process also described in previous posts

It was now the turn of 艾京 to make the tea and conversation turned to his story and what had bought him back to the Jingmai mountains.

'I decided to leave the hills and go to the military as I wanted a broader view on the world - after 2 years I came back via puer where I worked at a detox clinic for 1 year - I became strong during this time and then felt ready to come home.  Growing up tea was something that we just used to process at home. Now the tea has become a trade we can use it as an income so I am now keen to learn.  I feel we are starting to learn that a more standardised approach to processing and hygiene is beneficial - we are also learning the best way to prepare the tea. When I was a child we would put the tea in the kettle and boil it. Now we spend time exploring the preparation to understand how the tea can taste at its very best'.  He paused to pour the tea 'Traditionally we did not brew in this way and this way tastes different' he said pointing to the yixing pot and glass jug 'I am now learning to focus more on the moment of preparation and enjoying and sharing the moment of tea'  He continued 'My focus now is purely on quality - when the tea is right I will start to focus on other areas around the tea'

'My hope is that our tea can be sold in a friendly way and that people will taste it and ask 'why is the tea is so good' which would lead to a conversation about who we are and why we grow tea. I would like to feel that people would come to know us as well as the tea'.  We savoured the last few drops of tea and started our walk back to the main house - it was starting to get late and we were treated to that soothing late afternoon light.

Back at HQ it was time for dinner and one particular new experience - the tea leaves picked earlier had been fried and were served deliciously crispy and more-ish - how I wish I could recreate these at home.  All this was enjoyed with a view hard to bea and background music from some very loud bugs! 

The day was over and it had been fabulous.  Tomorrow we were to meet up with the man that I had come all this way to see - the leader of this cooperative and a leader in the wider Jingmai mountains Mr NanKang.   

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