Thursday 16 April 2015 by
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.
Monday 13 April 2015 by
Day 1: Lucy and Henry's Tea journey continues at Emei Shan's Organic Tea Gardens.
On the first morning of our mountain retreat, we walk to the nearest village in search of a foot path in to the forest. The air is cold, and thick with damp mist - in stark contrast to the 30 degree sunshine we have left below. On arrival at the village, we are greeted cheerfully by a local woman tending her garden. On closer look we see that she is in fact picking tea leaves from the rows of tea bushes in her front garden. When asked if we know how to pick tea – we are happy to reply in the affirmative, and enthusiastically accept the invitation to join her. We spend a beautifully focused hour picking tea, as Mrs Li smiles and chats, telling us that she tends her tea bushes to sell to the local collective.
An hour later we continue our walk, in search of a forest path. We strike gold. To our left a sign welcomes us to the Organic Tea Gardens of Emeishan, and we start on a path that will take us slowly winding through acres of misty tea garden. Rows and rows of tea bushes separated only by wild pine trees, ferns, ravines and dozens of waterfalls. The path winds steeply up hill, hugging the often sheer mountain face. Deft tea pickers expertly navigate the slopes, with baskets on their backs filled to the brim with vibrant green leaves. The air is damp, visibility patchy and the terrain gently rocky. We are quite literally walking through cloud.
A few miles climb in to the walk and a loud roaring sound stops us in our tracks. Thunder? an avalanche? We carry on slowly in trepidation - to find a vast, bellowing, ferociously rolling waterfall. The wild beauty of the mountain astounds us.
As the light fades we slowly descend back to the village, passing banks of wild fiddlehead ferns - which we forage with excitement. As we enter the village, we join the procession of tea pickers returning from a day’s work on the mountain. We are warmly invited to the home of one picker, to enjoy a glass of Emei mountain tea with her family. We gladly accept, inspired by the contagious pride that she takes in the tea of her mountain. The Spring green tea leaves are dropped in to a tall glass tumbler, and just covered with almost boiling water. The leaves are left for a couple of minutes in the shallow water to plump. This first water is drained, and the glass filled two thirds full with fresh hot water. Our host explains that the glass should never filled to the very top, as a sign of modesty. The tea is so fresh it is almost tart – we learn that the leaves will in fact be at their very best 8-10 weeks after picking. I don't speak a word of Mandarin, but the warmth of the gestures, and the familiar ritual of sharing tea remind me what a universal language for hospitality tea is.
We thank our hosts, and head back to our guest house in anticipation of a delicious home cooked dinner (to include our fiddlehead ferns!). As we pass her garden Mrs Li waved us on our way, and warns us to take an umbrella as heavier rain is coming.
Friday 10 April 2015 by
It’s the start of China's Qingming festival, and like thousands of locals Henry & I are escaping the hum of fast-developing Chengdu as we make for the cool heights of Emei Mountain, 峨眉山.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the fabled Emeishan is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. Rich in ancient temples and history the lower levels of the mountain thrum with domestic tourism. The higher you climb the crowds quickly disappear and the only sign of life is small communities of farmers living in scattered villages. These communities all tend the only crop allowed to be farmed on the closely protected mountain - tea.
The slow and winding drive up the mountain reveals looming rock face, deep ravines, lush forest and wild tea gardens as far as we could see. Our eyes are glued to our surrounds. As we climb the temperature drops, the moisture in the air thickens and a misty sheen adds to the already mystical feel of the place. Thanks wholly to Henry's fluency in Mandarin, we are welcomed to a traditional Chinese guest house perched 2,000m up the mountain. We are the only tourists for miles, and the only Westerners to ever have stayed in the guesthouse. We can’t wait to spend a tranquil weekend living amongst this community of tea farmers, exploring the heights and drinking in the natural wealth of the mountain.
On arriving at our guest house we are quietly awed by the elegance of the traditional design, and building materials all of deep brown and red wood. The rooms are centred on a beautiful courtyard, complete with calligraphy table, erhu (harp-like musical instrument) and stone troughs of still water with glowing orange gold fish. Our bedrooms each have small living areas, where traditional Gong fu tea tables take pride of place. On the search for detox from modernity, and a deeper understanding of traditional Chinese tea culture, we could not have found a more perfect place.