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 second part of a two part piece Jeff has written for us.
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.
Up some stairs and past an elevated ‘floor’ of withering tea leaves covered by a clear plastic roof, we pass into a sitting room that appears to be a depository for tea in every possible form. Tea’s carefully manicured aesthetics are nowhere to be found. Here tea is both product and food with little need for pretense of anything else.
Bags billowing with tea fill out a quarter of the room, with tea cakes and bricks lining the wall space while a tea table and a half destroyed couch make up the ensemble. A grey kettle sits on the table awaiting orders
Ren’s father appears, a slight handsome man with delicate features, and we sit while tea is prepared. A simple bamboo draining table sits with cups and a flared serving cup, the chung, and that is all. No precious pots, no cylindrical smelling cups, no trinkets of bamboo….nothing to distract from that which is central to this little event: the preparation and consumption of tea. Ceremonies, famed for their detailed movements or chronology in other tea cultures have no reign here. It is in many senses an entirely practical preparation in a land of practicals.
My young host’s eyes gleam slightly as grabs a handful of leaves out of a huge bag for my inspection; leaves from the ancient trees that we had just returned from. Children here from a young age drink tea almost exclusively and I can see that he, like me, is in need of a cup (or six) of tea. Slightly twisted and completely understated, there is no hint in the dried leaves that he presents to me of what lies in wait for the palate. Tea’s from this region are designated Pu’erh by its proximity to the ancient market town of the same name. The tea we are about to consume is typical of what is consumed here,’ raw’. Pu’erh here is served green or raw and in loose leaf form. No textured forms, no stunning moulded teas here – the emphasis is on the taste.
Ren’s hands are a magnificent blur of activity as he pours off the first serving, removing the bitter froth and awakening the leaves. The second serving thankfully makes it into cups and in quick succession into my greedy mouth. Up until now there has been nothing even remotely pretentious in anything I have seen or done and the tea, which blasts onto and into my palate, is no different. Pungent, vegetal and bitter it departs into the throat with an almost sweet tang. The session of drinking is interrupted finally by a lunch – prepared by the father on a simple fire that hums in another room on the bare floor.
Buzzing with the stimulants and phytochemicals that rush through my bloodstream the meal settles the tea ‘high’ slightly…but not for long, for as we finish up the meal the father is already ushering me into the tea room for another tea session. Slumped forward with minute cup after minute cup brought up to my mouth one of tea’s other great Asian uses comes into play: its digestive abilities. Another hour passes as the ‘tea high’ seems to reach a climax…and continues still.
Sweats run along my ribs and I feel that welcome ‘high’ return as the cups surge into me. Cup after cup course in with no discernable drop in potency reveal another of tea’s ‘great abilities’ – to repeatedly endure onslaughts of boiling water while still able to provide potent flavours and stimulants.
For all of tea’s rampant abilities as a healer, aid, food and provider; for all of its appeal as something that transcends time and space in painstaking ceremonial rituals, tea for these tribes that have grown and cared for tea still represents a unifying fluid. A simple need served up without fanfare bringing people together regenerating not only the body but the community as well.
While the Asian world is full of poetic adulation for tea, here in the south of Yunnan they refer to a simple long standing belief regarding tea and people, “the truth is in the sip”….in my case that would be ‘sips’.
I leave some hours later in a pleasant state of ‘tea high’ with a renewed appreciation of both my hosts and the fluid that brought us together.