This is the story of my recent journey to the most beautiful ancient tea tree forest I have ever encountered. But, before I saw the gorgeous ancient trees and met the incredible tribe of tea farmers protecting them, I first had to undertake an arduous trek to get there.
After flying to Kunming, I then drove six and a half hours to Jinghong in southern Yunnan near the border of Burma and Laos. Then, after a break in Jinghong, we drove an additional four hours to Jingmai – and we’re not talking fresh paved concrete roads; I was nauseous most of the trip as we drove past the typical Chinese tourist areas over rock and dirt to the starting point of our hike deep in the mountains.
But with the promise (potential?) of rare, ancient tea before us, we put aside comfort and carried on.
And boy was I rewarded, for in Jingmai I eventually stepped into the most beautiful forest of tea trees I have ever seen. All around me was a kaleidoscope of greens and browns cut and toned by shadows and light, while the enveloping hills and mountains were literally blanketed by ancient tea trees. No, this was not your typical “farm” collection of tea trees monocultured in neat rows. Rather, the trees were growing unbridled everywhere and surrounded by natural biodiversity, including pine trees, bamboo, innumerable flowers and herbs and – incredibly! – I even found wild reishi mushrooms growing there!
As my friends and I continued our trek in Jingmai, I heard some movement to my right. When I looked over I saw a man with dark skin, long jaw and wide nostrils appear. He introduced himself as Shai Bao. He had a big bag filled with fresh tea leaves he was plucking from the ancient tea trees. He had a big smile and seemed as equally happy to see us as we were to see him.
Little did I know that this humble man before me was the nominee of his people to serve as the “protector” of the ancient tea trees around us. And until I learned this and even after, he was just the smiley and kind farmer who took us in.
For Tea Master Shai Bao was anything but the homonym ‘shy’ of his first name in English, and although his Mandarin wasn’t very clear, he was very engaging as a host and conversationalist. We felt welcome in his presence, as if he owned the mountain and had welcomed us into his home.
After a few minutes of talking, we heard some more rustling in the forest and another man and a woman wearing a colorful, traditional Bulang dress appeared. appeared. The man – who turned out to be Shai Bao’s brother – looked similar to him except with a stronger build. We also sighed in awe of the beauty of this rare woman who was in her fifties, yet still healthy and agile. She, like the two men, was carrying a big bag of fresh tea leaves she had just plucked.
They then escorted us back to his village and shared with us their story. It was then when we learned of his position and the rest of their history. As it is, they are part of the Bulang tribe. The Bulang have a rich history in tea throughout Yunnan, Laos and Burma. They offered to take us on a tour of the mountain and we couldn’t pass up this wonderful opportunity to see this ancient tea tree forest with such warm Bulang guides.
During our tour, I noticed alters by certain ancient tea trees. These alters, they told me, were placed there because they believed that these particular ancient tea trees were powerful spirit rulers that they must pray to and pay homage to.
They offered to take us on a tour of the mountain and we couldn’t pass up this wonderful opportunity to see this ancient tea tree forest with the local Bulang guides.
I noticed interesting alters by certain ancient tea trees. These alters they told me were placed there because they believed that these particular ancient tea trees were powerful spirit rulers that they must pray to and pay homage to. I noticed some people left money at the alters, I believe must have been tourists.
But the reverence didn’t stop there. At the top of the mountain, there was a huge alter made of many wood poles. They told me it was an ancient ceremonial area for their people. These people have a deep spiritual connection with the ancient tea trees and exercise their connection regularly.
Then, they invited us to have some tea they had just finished making. Once again another offer we couldn’t refuse!
The Bulang Ancient Raw Puer tea he had was so fresh! It tasted so good, no astringency and a unique tasting Puer unlike any other I have ever had. The Qi energy was smooth and made me quite happy. He also brewed us a rare treat of ancient tea tree black tea from Jingmai he had picked. It was wonderful. We brewed it over 15 times and it filled my body with warm energy.
I told my friends after seeing this ancient tea tree mountain that if I had to choose, I would only drink tea from 3 place:
- Here in Jingmai with Shai Bao drinking Bulang Ancient Raw Puer;
- On Wuyishan with members of the Wuyi Farmers Collective drinking Wild Snow Oolong;
- Or drinking unheard of Pu’er with Tea Master Chen Mei of the Dai tribe the ethereal wild forests of Yang Ta.
All three places have not only incredible ancient tea trees growing in biodiverse forests, but also lovely, eminently human Tea Farmers devoted to protecting and producing amazing tea.
Until next time, Happy Hunting.