Day 2: Lucy and Henry's journey continues at Emei Shan's Organic Tea Gardens.
We did not think it possible, but Day 2 on Emeishan brought an even deeper understanding of tea - in the life of the mountain and its people. Having visited a traditional tea house in Kuan Zhai Xiang in Chengdu days previously, we had been introduced to an exquisite ‘snow shoots’ tea (named after its high altitude origin) which almost tasted as though it had been scented with flowers. We had been fortunate to meet the tea house owner's daughter Ms Jia, who told us that their tea gardens were in fact located high on Emeishan. On a whim, we email Ms Jia to ask if her gardens are anywhere near our guest house. Luck would have it that Ms Jia is on her way to Emeishan to celebrate the Qingming weekend with friends. We are collected by the group, made up of Ms Jia, three artists and a photographer, and taken to an idyllic tea house nestled in the wild tea gardens. Ms Jia's tea house if family owned and not open to the public. Designed in very traditional style, and built around a courtyard with a still pond at the front - the feng shui and utter beauty of the house are inescapable.
Almost as soon as we arrive, we are treated to a gong fu tea ceremony of green tea picked just 10 days previously, from the gardens we look over. The fresh tea is presented in a porcelain Cha He, showing off the size and majesty of the leaves. The traditional Jingdezhen Gaiwan is warmed before the leaves are added, to gently heat the leaves from below. This releases the aromas, which are inhaled as the gaiwan is passed around the table. The Gaiwan is then filled to the neck with hot water, and the lid used to gently swill the leaves. The mastery of the ceremony is perhaps most evident in the judging of the infusion time. Traditionally the infusions will be short, as the leaf to water ratio is high. The Gaiwan lid is placed back on to the body at just enough of an angle to keep the leaves in the body whilst the infusion is shared between many small cups. As we happily sip the light and floral infusion, through murmurs of appreciation, the leaves patiently wait in the gaiwan ready for their third, fourth and even fifth infusion.
Late afternoon Ms Jia asks if we are feeling adventurous, and want to climb the mountain to visit a tea garden. Within minutes we have set off as a group. The path is steep, slippery with mud, rocky and exciting. We grasp large bamboo stems to steady ourselves and manoeuvre from one bank to another. Ms Jia's tea trees are the traditional cultivar of the region, thus geared up to thrive in the challenging climate. The altitude and cool temperatures (heavy snow in winter) would not be hospitable for many varietals. Ms Jia's mother re-introduced the trees in the early 1990's, and at the time her choice to not use any pesticides was radical. Her mother passionately insisted that the natural terroir would produce the best tasting tea.
Every year the ferns and wild flowers grow high above the wild tea bushes. They are chopped down, and simply left to decompose where they lie. In the circle of life they become part of the incredibly fertile, dark, nutrient-rich soil.
On descending the steep mountain (including me falling over at least twice) we are invited to join Ms Jia and her friends for a home cooked Qingming dinner at the Tea House. Every carefully prepared dish is 'of the mountain' - smoked pork with green pepper, spiced sweet corn, day-orange lily flower soup, medicinal and fresh stir fried roots, Zhu er gen, and omelette with freshly steamed tea leaves. After dinner we enjoy an experimental black tea, that Ms Jia's family are in their 2nd year of trialling in production. The tea is warming, smooth and with notes of muscatel, reminiscent of the deep brown soil feeding the tea trees.
As we gather around a glowing fire pit for warmth, the evening is rounded off with a sipping glass of 'Chinese wine' baijiu - which by this point in my journey I had learnt to be cautious of! Not so needed in this case. This baijiu was locally made, using Spring water and a local grain from the mountain. It was naturally sweet, smooth and a final taste of the riches Emeishan has to offer.
When thanking Ms Jia for her warm hospitality, she casually said that our meeting had meant to be. Locally they have a saying that ‘Tea brings great people together’. A sentiment Henry & I certainly experienced in our 2 days on Emeishan. For me it is not only that tea brings great people together, but that it brings all people together - a universal language of hospitality, shared enjoyment and open hearted appreciation for what nature can produce.
Hand-picked and steamed green tea from the humid plains of central Sichuan. Whilst the tradition of steaming green is more usually associated with green teas produced in Japan, the steaming process actually originates in China. The steaming process enhances the fresh grassy flavours of the succulent tea leaves.