Jeff Fuchs has spent a large part of the last ten years travelling and living in Asia – his fascination with indigenous people has led into a passion and love for tea. Jeff has documented his travels along the ancient tea trade route – 6,000km over 7 months – in his beautiful book – The Ancient Tea Horse Road. We are very fortunate to have Jeff contribute to our blog as well as appear as a guest on Saturday October 17th to speak of his travels. This is the first part of a two part piece Jeff has written for us.
Long considered a panacea for life, tea’s status in Asia has been vital and unquestioned for centuries. For all of the whimsy and legend associated with tea at times tea leaves, their harvesting, preparation and consumption have always been essentially simple. It is perhaps because of this inherent simplicity that tea’s timeless potency has endured. This ‘tea truth’ can find no more loyal bastion of geography than in one of the original birthplaces of tea – a subtropical strip of lush forests, overwhelming heat and a land that can claim over two-thousand years of unending harvest, worship and consumption: the southwestern corner of Yunnan province. In the days of the Ancient Tea Horse Road the famed Tibetan traders referred to this landscape simply as Jiayul or ‘tea country’. A land whose relatively unchanged methods and adoration exists still.
Ancient tea trees, (adoringly called gu shu in China) and their massive trunks and branches cut the muddy path in front of us into segments…tea here grows on trees that explode for metres in every direction. It is literally an all-consuming forest of tea. A lean and wiry guide from the local Hani tribe smoothly eases his way through a sopping forest of rain and humid air – we are treading back to his home after visiting a precious tea forest of ‘ancients’ – tea trees that have remained happily secluded (and productive) for centuries. Centuries old trees make way to tea trees that are over a thousand years old; forests tended by and fawned over by successive generations of Hani people who have lived in these mountains side by side with their precious green commodity for as long as anyone cares to remember. The tribes of southern Yunnan refer to tea as a part of the culture, a part of the very soul of the place. Tea and its consumption here are ‘all of the time’.
Voyaging down to this region is a kind of ‘back to basics’ journey in relation to tea. Deep in the rumpled Nannuo Mountains this area is one extended tea landscape that flows and blankets for kilometers. Rice and corn stand in isolated enclaves – tea is the unquestioned green ruler of the land. Production methods, harvesting techniques and tea’s preparation have changed very little in this corner of the world and in a kind of homage to this fact the teas that are produced here are some of the most exclusive and valued teas on the globe. For all of the talk of a tea’s ‘vintage’, the fuss of its colour designation and its complexities in the mouth, tea from this region is easily identifiable by it’s simple requirements of preparation and its ‘bitter-sweet’ assault on the palate.
Padding down from our 1500 metre perches in the tea mountains, I am re-entering the town that we had set off from hours earlier that day with my understated host and guide, Ren. He glides through the lush wet forests seems as he leads me to his simple thatched home (and the inevitable tea within) that we are making our way towards. (TO BE CONTINUED)