Throughout the southwest of China’s Yunnan province, tea is both an economic and social necessity.
Lao Banzhang is one of the world’s most famous tea towns, a place where the locals call the leaf “green gold.” It is a stronghold of the Hani people and gives its name to possibly the most venerated tea in all of Yunnan and, some say, the world. To even say the words within earshot of tea experts is to enter a fellowship. Raw Pu’erhs from this mountain bastion sold outside are rare, powerful, and prohibitively expensive. Its value is due to unchanged harvesting methods, simple production and the primordial tea trees which run riot. The old ways here are both valued and valuable.
A forest dripping with last night’s rain surrounds the town and enormous tea trees crane their necks in a kind of meditation. My fellow-traveler-tea-addict Xiao Di and I wake with the deranged looks of people suffering from the local condition known as “tea hangover”: successive days of too much tea, too often. Heads are heavy, and mouths are raw
Here, the Hani people swoon over their ancient tea trees. Much like in Pulang, the tea is bitter by most standards but has floral hints, subtleties that catch the tongue and – in the words of one local buyer – “transport one into the very soil.” Our host, Lin, a headman of the town, is lean and handsome in a way that many of the indigenous men are. Glowing, tawny eyes and a pair of monumental cheekbones sit above an almost vulpine mouth. His manner is neat and his movements spare, but, in him, I sense a man in unity and understanding with his environment. Here, there is one industry, one resource and one stimulus: tea.
A fire cracks on the floor of the ‘kitchen’ and our host’s soft voice has barely issued the polite command “laba dow” to drink tea before I hit the tea cups with the need of the desperate. Xiao Di has already taken tea and sits in a twitchy kind of contentment. Here tea is taken before, during and after meals. Tea-time is all the time.
Local people pickle tea leaves, eat them chopped with chillis or as a garnish on food, or apply them as compresses for fevers and skin ailments. There is no poetic language in their names – they are simply known by the town from which they come. Its timeless longevity is the only accolade needed.