Yunnan, home of the miraculous Pu-erh tea, is a land of swaying banana groves and the sweet-sour smells of fields of pineapple.
I arrived from the scent-laden capital of Jinghong after a white-knuckle ride in a jeep. Drought has obliterated much of the agriculture and searing heat has cracked the earth and sent dust into every crevice. My face is coated in a fine red sheen of dust when we reach the slightly cooler Pulang Mountains. With no wind, the air sits heavy and a heat haze amplifies the fertile landscape, reminding me it borders Burma and Southeast Asia, to which many of the region’s people are closely linked culturally.
It was from this sub-tropical land of heat and mist, amid Li-do’s ancestor’s forests and others like it, that tea made its way along one of the great and largely unsung journeys of the planet onto the Tibetan plateau. No vegetables grow in the high mountains, so tea became an essential source of vitamins in the high-calorie Tibetan diet of yak butter, beef, and lamb. The ancient Dai, Pulang, Wa, Hani, and Lahu peoples packed the leaves into molds and bamboo husks, secured in tree bark, then fastened them aboard mules, horses and humans. From here tea was whisked off into the distant kingdoms of the fierce Tibetan clans and beyond. It was a journey that would pass through more than a dozen cultures and twice as many dialects, each with their own versions of tea preparation.
The route, which in time gained the name of ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’, is legendary to those who travelled and benefited from it. The most precious cargo, carried along it for 1,300 years and increasing in value with every step on the road, was the bitter tea that becoming lovingly known to the Tibetans as ja kabo.
“The health of these trees and the health of the people have always been linked,” says our guide. After paying my respects in this sacred grove, we walk back to Li-do’s town in the Pulang Mountains. The Pulang (also known as Pu) and Dai people are tea’s original cultivators and producers, in time passing their precious skills onto the Hani, Lahu and Wa. Their commitment to the tea trees carries far beyond economics. Within these forest walls and within these humid enclaves there has always been an animistic edge to beliefs and for many the ancient trees are a living, breathing part of the culture itself.
The tea-green that is the dominant color of the region is a background to their bright tribal costumes. The local Dai, adorn themselves in the carefully immaculate tones of orange, yellow, and blue, woven with gold brocade, while the Hani flash with pieces of silver and gaudy pink embroidery.