Excursions in Xishuangbanna: Biking along the Lancang River and a visit to a Pu'er tea producing family

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October 13th 2011
Published: October 14th 2011
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We are back in Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna prefecture, the three-county region at the very southern tip of Yunnan province that we have been exploring for the past week. While we are enjoying the ambiance of this small tropical city, we are also using it as a base for further excursions to the countryside: a pretty great bike ride along the river yesterday and an incredible visit to the Yiwu tea mountain today.

Yesterday morning Kathy, Karen, Jim, and I rented bikes in town and followed the city bike paths and dodged traffic until we got to the outskirts on the east side of the Lancang (a.k.a. Mekong) River. There we found the river road, which, contrary to the report in Lonely Planet, is not built up and touristy. Heading south towards Menghan the road winds along about 50 feet above the river through palms, bannanas, and rubber trees, interspersed with Dai houses on stilts. Some of these are completely old fashioned with wood shingle roofs and wood poles and farm animals in the area below the house. Some are more modern, with brick posts, and cars occupying the space previously used by farm animals.

The area has a feeling of prosperity, apparently from the rubber harvest. We stopped for a coke at a small country store constructed of bamboo with bougainvillea covering the front. Next door was a latex buying station. People were coming in with 5+ gallon containers of the rubber tree sap (on motorcycles, bicycles, and on foot) and it was weighed in and poured into a small tank truck for transportation to somewhere for processing. We need to find out more about this. This was a great way to see the river and the countryside.

Today started with a small disappointment but turned into one of those incredible high-point experiences. We we close to hiring a car or a van to take us south towards Mengla, where we hoped to see old tea trees. Jacob had just about arranged one for us when we were told that all drivers were booked with Chinese tour groups.

Plan B was to find a local bus to Menglun, about 1 1/4 hours southeast on the new, fast road. Then we'd see what we could find to get us up to the tea country. We had no guidebook to the area or definite destination, but, with
Jacob and drying teaJacob and drying teaJacob and drying tea

At the house where we drank one-day-old pu'er
Jacob's ability to get information from the locals, we figured things would work out well. From the small Menglun bus station we found a small bus up to the town of Yiwu, the center of one of the six original tea mountains. We started to understand what this designation meant as we climbed up from a landscape dominated by rubber trees to bannana plantations and finally to hillsides full of tea plantations. Through all of this we were climing through incredible tropical greenery (including more shade-tree bamboo) and steep, peaked, mountains that soared way above us with lush tropical vegetation all the way to the top.

At Yiwu Jacob found a local van driver to take us to see a reportedly 800-year-old tea tree. So, we found ourselves on a narrow stone-paved road, still climbing, leaving the tea plantations behind for a woods that included tea trees interspersed with other trees and native vegetation. Some of these areas we called "tea meadows". Whether these trees were originally planted or seeded naturally it seemed like wild tea to us, and that what we called it.

After the requisite visit too the old tree, which was very interesting to see, the driver continued on the road, through more incredible mountain scenery, finally descending to a picturesque small village with tea leaves drying in large circular bamboo baskets on every wall. We pulled in at one house where the driver told Jacob we could drink tea with his friends. So we sat on the porch of a small wooden house with a huge mountain before us, talking with a few family members who took a break from their labor to share tea with us.

They used some leaves from one of the flat bamboo drying baskets that had been picked just the day before and were already ready to be brewed. The tea was incredibly smooth, even though it was only one day into the aging process and this was the worst it would ever taste. This is likely the only opportunity any of us will ever have to taste one-day-old pu'er tea.

We are incredibly grateful to our driver for giving us this unrequested bonus visit and to our hosts who were so kind and welcoming to us neophyte tea afficianados from so far away. They answered many questions we had about pu'er tea, the seasons for picking, the rates people could pick leaves, the prices they got, the elevation of their village (about 2000 meters, compared with 550 m for Jinghong). We offered to buy some of their tea but they had none for sale because the wholesale buyer had come through the day before and the main picking season is in the spring anyway. We will never forget these people and their village a Mahei high in the mountains of Mengla County in Xishungbanna.


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