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China day 4 : Mr Nankang & the ancient tea trees of the Bulang


The next day we rose early to enjoy a mountain breakfast of Bao, black rice porridge and eggs....mountain food for the day ahead.  We were to spend the day with Mr NanKang who I had previously met in 2017.  Mr Nan was in fact the motivation for writing our book : after experiencing this beautiful landscape and the flavourful tea produced here Mr Nan had firmly taken my hand and told me to share the story of this place, these people and their ancient tea trees more widely.  When the opportunity came to write our book it was this man and these mountains that first came into my mind.  It has become incredibly important for me to return here and personally deliver a copy of our writing, including his story.

The mountains that I introduced to you in yesterdays blog are incredibly important in the story and history of tea.  Mr Nan is an elder and community leader in the Bulang minority group.  This group [represented by their symbol of a bud and two leaves] is one of the oldest in Yunnan province and as the symbol suggests tea is central to their culture and their lives.  

Stepping outside into the sunshine the kettle was already on for the workers building a bamboo pagoda at the house : tea is always at the centre of life here. 

Leaving the house we jumped in the car to head out into the mountain.  A little way along the forest road Mr Nan stopped the jeep and got out, heading into the tea area that bordered the road.  

Crouching down he explained his dis-pleasure at the new tea bushes growing among the older trees.  Planting these here, he explained, is not acceptable.  The integrity of the ancient tea trees and forest must not be compromised.  He made a note and was clearly going to address this later in the day.  This commitment and role as a custodian of the land and tea trees here is central to Mr Nans life and to the life of the Bulang group.  We hopped back in the car and headed onwards to the golden temple that we had seen from the pagoda the day before.

This beautiful temple has been built by the community here with a large slab naming every single donor no matter how small or large their contribution to the structure was.  The view is breathtaking so we took a while to sit, enjoy the calm and explore the serenity of this small complex 

'You carry on up the hill' Mr Nan gestured pointing up to a small cobbled lane that was closed to cars and was to lead us through the ancient forest.  He would drive and meet us on the other side.  This walk was to be a peaceful one, surrounded by nature....

...we were able to come off the main cobbled path to explore the tea forest - each of the trees owned by individuals or villages.  You can view the video below to get a taste of the atmosphere and sounds of the ancient tea forests.  

 

We rested a while underneath the oldest tea tree in the forest 

...before continuing along the path passing signs to remind people of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the forest : here it is forbidden to pick from or to climb the ancient tea trees.  

Arriving at the other end of the path we passed through a large wooden gate that signified the exit/entrance to the ancient tea forest.  

All through the forest we had been treated to the loud sounds of the thriving insect life here - we were lucky to see just one of the residents on the path

Joining back up with Mr Nan we headed to the temple of the tea ancestor further up the hill.  Stepping into the wonderfully calm atmosphere of the temple Mr Nan shared 'Tea is our gift to the world. Our tea ancestors tended tea trees here 1800 years ago and today tea is the media for me to carry the faith of my group'

Designated as a world heritage site Jingmai Mountain is in the southwestern border area of Yunnan.  As described on the world heritage submission 'In about 180 A.D., a branch of Bulang, an ethnic minority group, discovered tea when migrating to the region of Jingmai, and tried to cultivate tea trees in the forest because of limited land and the climate and soil conditions favorable for tea trees. In the 3rd century, Bulang people gradually mastered the tea cultivation techniques, and began to domesticate, cultivate tea trees and trade tea products, thus started the 1800 years’ history of tea cultivation, settlement and development in this area and passed on from generation to generation'

Entering into the temple Mr Nan shared more about how the local people hold belief in and worship the tea ancestor 帕哎 who you can see represented above.  He shared how the Bulang had traditionally been nomadic hunters before settling in this area - an area which he explained the Dai were already settled.  It was quite difficult to follow the richness of the story that followed but in essence tea brought unity between these two minority groups 'The most important thing today is that the Dai and the Bulang group continue to work together and to protect the environment for the next generation - they should not leave - this is the most important thing to ensure' he shared.  Walking around inside the temple we observed 6 statues - three to the left and three to the right of the tea ancestor.  'These represent wind, water, earth, insects, tea and soil - all the elements that our people should respect and live with in harmony' explained Mr Nan.  I have to admit to not following a particular religion but there is no place of worship I have felt more content in - with the world in the place we see it today it seems to me that we should all spend more time thinking about, respecting and protecting the natural world around us.  Here humans and the land exist in harmony - I had heard about and Mr Nan also shared that a grand ritual/festival is held each year for the ancestors who discovered tea where tea trees are worshipped and respected.  All of this keeps the preservation of the land and the ancient culture here at the forefront of peoples minds.  Something Mr Nan is determined to do.  

Sitting outside the temple looking over the village I reflected on the harmonious relationship between human and land here.  It is clear that the lives of the people here - now a mix of the Dai, Blang, Hani and Wa nationalities - are closely intertwined with the ancient tea plantations and the forests that surround them.  These groups live in harmony here with tea culture at the centre - the ancient forests protected by the wisdom of those who hold skills and knowledge passed from generation to generation.  Indeed the world heritage submission for this area reminds us that 'Jingmai Mountain is a part of the Ancient Tea-Horse Route, through which tea culture spread all over the world and made great contribution to the development of the tea culture and civilization. It is a historical testimony of the important contribution of the Chinese nation to the industrial development of tea , one of the major beverages of the world'

Eventually the time came to leave.  We took in one last drink of the view and got back into the car to head back to the house where we took some lunch including this deliciously spicy dish with tea leaves

Over lunch I shared some of our vision with Mr Nan - that when we partner with a group such as his we ensure that it truly is a partnership.  That we are committed to sharing the wider story of where the tea has come from and that we maintain an ongoing dialogue between producer, us the tea merchant and the consumer.  We enjoyed a great conversation surrounding this and the future of the puer market and as lunch finished we headed upstairs to the platform overlooking the forest to continue the conversation over tea.

The kettle on Mr Nan was to treat us to the traditional way that his ancestors made tea involving Sheng puer and wood from the fire.  You can watch for yourself in the video below - and I can tell you that the result was delicious and the fragrance from the tea unbelievable.

Tea was served on a bamboo table on leaf coasters from cups made by Mr Nan overlooking the ancient tea forest - does tea get much better than this?

We talked about a range of topics from the age and the size of the forests 'Only tea trees over 100 years are considered ancient. The oldest here is 1300 years old and across the mountain we have 28000 mu of ancient trees.  All the tea inside the gate you passed through earlier is ancient tea - everything outside is newer trees. ' to the importance of cooperation and a shared goal between communities across the mountain 'There is an alliance between all companies on the mountain.  This alliance is in place so that we all work together to protect the environment.  I talk to everyone about why it is so important to follow the rules for the protection of the mountains. When I visit the tea expo in larger cities people are astonished at how we manage to produce such great tea with no organic pesticide and no organic fertiliser.  I explain about the integrity of our company and how we follow the rules of our ancestors'  

As we sipped our tea Mr Nan expanded on this 'The Puer tea market is in chaos- individual sellers are pushing the price of puer ever higher, people are cheating - bringing in tea and mixing it with our ancient leaves, piling it and saying it is puer.  I cannot manage the market - I can only what happens in this mountain that I live in.  We must operate with respect, integrity and honesty, no cheating.  Human life is shorter than the life of a tea tree so to protect it is a huge responsibility. No matter whether tea is prosperous or not you must respect it. This is my duty'

Mr Nan and his community are both the users and defenders of the ancient tea trees something which there is great pride in preserving.  It was very humbling to witness and be invited into this world and hear Mr Nan describe the tea as such an integral part of life here.   As we enjoyed our last few sips of tea together he shared with me the video below - of a traditional song from this area celebrating tea as a gift to the world 

 I then had the opportunity to share the book with Mr Nan and share how he had inspired its creation - it was wonderful about 15 minutes later to see him sharing it with some other interested tea visitors from Beijing - the book fulfilling its purpose of connecting people across the world through a shared love of tea

As I took one final look over the rooftops adorned with the sign of the Bulang Mr Nan invited me back 'come again next year and use this as your office' - I'm not sure that is an offer that can be turned down.

And then, it was time to leave and head to Jingmai [below].  With my head and my heart full we loaded up the car and promised to return soon - just like the last time as we shook hands I knew I would be back soon - and indeed we have been in regular contact since leaving - working on new projects and deciding what teas to bring you.  Until then we hope you have enjoyed the journey so far and feel inspired to start or continue your journey with puer tea from this fascinating region.  If you are interested to try tea from Mr Nan we will be adding it to the website in the next few days and you can also enjoy in the Tea House! 

 



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