Everybody knows about Yunnan, this western province of China famous for its exceptional culture, nature and gastronomy. But have you heard about Xishuangbanna? This magical southern region of Yunnan is a true concentrate of all these qualities. 12 of the 56 ethnic groups of China inhabit the area and, besides this stunning cultural diversity and beautiful jungles and hills, xishuangbanna is mainly renowned for its historical production of Pu’Er tea!
We were lucky to spend a day trekking on one of the 12 ancient tea mountains of Xishuangbanna with local guide Lijuan, also owner of the Mekong Café in Jinghong. An amazing activity for amateurs of tea and History, but also for trek and nature lovers.
Trek in Xishuangbanna : Pu’Er tea, a fascinating history
We started our trip by visiting the local market, at the foot of the mountain Nan Nuo Shan. You can buy many fresh products and local ingredients there including wild berries, deep-fried wasps and living bamboo worms. But mostly you can find all the different varieties and shapes of the famous Pu’Er tea. It can be pressed in bricks or round cakes, in loose bags, plated with ribbons, it can be green, red, raw, ripe, young, aged and fermented, from spring or autum harvest… Such a large choice! Lijuan explained us everything and helped us to choose a small present for Quentin’s Mom. Without her, we wouldn’t have known what to pick!
After the market, we set off for the mountain. We followed sure-footed Lijuan up a small forest path while she was telling us in very good english about local history. It is fascinating! Do you know that tea is part of Chinese History since nearly 5000 years? Shen Nong, an herborist known to be the creator of traditional chinese medicine, first used it for its medical virtues but tea soon became an appreciated beverage.
- « Xishuangbanna is the original native habitat of tea plants, and Xishuangbanna is also the core region of Pu’er tea production. The history of Pu’er tea can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty when Pu’er tea was called ‘Pu Tea’ and was cultivated and produced in a large scale for the first time. In the Song and Ming Dynasties, Pu’er tea gradually spread to the central plain region of China. And Pu’er tea reached its peak in the Qing dynasty and enjoyed nationwide popularity, and it was particularly valued in Beijing. Emperors of Qing dynasty loved the Pu’er tea very much. », Lijuan told. « They were ordering huge quantity of it. So, from Xishuangbanna, the Tea Horse Road was created, on which were traveling long caravans to the Capital on one way, or to Tibet, Myanmar and India on the other. »
- « And why are we calling this tea Pu’Er? » we asked.
- « Because the traditional trade center is in the city of Pu’Er, just east of Xishuangbanna. Every tea cakes were authenticated, taxed and sold from there. The Pu’Er tea is truly believed to be one of the best in the World! Of course you can find different qualities and, as a good wine, this tea is the only one that gets better when aged. You can keep it for years and years! »
Something to delight collectors! The young woman, guiding people in the area for more than ten years, knows everything on Xishuangbanna’s history. On the way, she told us a lot of funny anecdotes and answered our many questions which made us forget about physical effort. Furthermore, the walk was quite enchanting, very far from the restlessness of Jinghong. We made our way through a lush vegetation and the high canopy above protected us nicely from the heat of the day. Tea trees grows along the path, planted in the middle of the forest. Some of them are more than 300 years old. The oldest we encountered was 800 years old! A real time travel! Those ancient trees, protected from disease and insects by the surrounding forest and balanced eco-system, don’t need any chemical treatment. The tea leaves coming specifically from the ancient mountains is therefore 100% organic! Besides, the oldest tea trees also produce the best teas!
Trek in Xishuangbanna : a story of people
The path Lijuan had chosen also passes through a lot of small villages owned by the Akha minority. Our guide explained that the minorities Akha and Bulang are nearly the only ones to cultivate the Pu’Er tea, living traditionally in the mountain area where tea trees are growing naturally. As for the Dai minority (major minority of Xishuangbanna), they are living in the « basins » or low-lands and river-lands where they cultivate mainly banana and rubber.
For last 10 years, the villages on the mountains have known a real economical « boom ». Customers are getting more numerous every year making the prices climb up extravagantly. Usually, the price for a good quality Pu’Er tea is around 85$ a kilogram. The best teas can be sold for over 1600$/kg! Consequently, big three-story houses are replacing more and more the old traditional wooden houses. But Akha people are still very attached to their culture and traditions, which are still quite easy to find on the mountain. For example, when we got to the first village we were lucky to witness a party going on. A pig had been killed in the morning and the whole village was cheerfully preparing an enormous feast!
A little bit further on, a small wooden tea house lost in the jungle welcomed us for a degustation. We discovered the beautiful Chinese ceremonial of preparing the Pu’Er tea which develops perfectly all the delicate notes and flavors of the dried leaves. A delicious and very relaxing experience! Lijuan then told us everything about the different manufacturing processes, still largely hand crafted, used to create all the different varieties of Pu’Er.
In early afternoon, after a nice picnic in the forest, we started our way down the slope. On the way, we stopped to the house of a friend of Lijuan, who invited us for another tea degustation. While we enjoyed our delicious warm cups, we met his mother who showed us all the traditional clothes of the family that they wear for special occasions such as wedding, festivals… They were absolutely beautiful, entirely sewed and embroidered by hand! She even insisted for us to try them! Quentin was soon wearing a pretty jacket, while Mariette was even lucky enough to try a traditional beaded head set. The old lady, happy about the result, went to her room to change and came back fully dressed! She was absolutely gorgeous! Don’t you think so?
After many cups of tea, we said goodbye to these charming people and finished the hike. We walked nearly 20km today but with all the interesting things we saw and learnt, it seemed like we didn’t even notice it. Thanks to Lijuan, this hike was something very special that we will remember a long time. We ended the day by sharing a Dai barbecue from a small stall at the foot of the mountain. Yummy!
This day was really culturally and humanly amazing. We really enjoyed this experience and understand the necessity to hire a good guide to discover this area of such intense and interesting history! Lijuan was perfect. Sportive, she won’t hesitate to bring you in remote places for several days, on foot or by bike. In addition to treks on tea mountains, she can also bring you for an excursion around traditional Dai villages or other minorities of Xishuangbanna. If you’ve got enough time and money, this is really the perfect way for you to discover this amazing place!
For a trek in Xishuangbanna, a guide will cost you around 400CYN/day/person (including transportation, meal and accomodation if on a several day long trek).
If she is not here, ask « to talk to Lijuan about trekking » and the waitresses of the Mékong Café will call her for you.
Adresse : Jinglan Guoji F1-104 Menglong Road Jinghong Yunnan China