A King of Puerh Tea Trees

It seems there’s no end of “Kings” of puerh tea trees. Every area seems to have it’s own ‘Cha Wang’ (Tea King). The trees are big, old and invariably over picked. Their leaves sell for tens of thousand RMB/kg, sometimes hundreds of thousands so, despite all efforts to protect them, there’s plenty of incentive for farmers to pick them under the cover of darkness.

Lao Banzhang Tea KingNannuo Tea King
[ Lao Banzhang / Nannuo / Bada Tea Kings ]

This year, in a bid to avoid the chemicals that are becoming more and more ubiquitous in famous mountains in Yunnan (more on that later), our travels took us to the Zhen Yuan area of Simao. This isn’t an area famed for vast swathes of ancient tea gardens, like many of the mountains in Xishuangbanna, but they do have many ancient trees, and they do have good tea.

What really makes this area special though is the Wild tea trees, especially those close to the village of Qian Jia Zhai. We’ve been drinking a lot of wild puerh this year from different places, so we were curious to go and see these ancient trees.

As we travelled north from Puer (Simao) city, the rubber trees of Xishuangbanna were replaced by shining strips of plastic, covering the seedlings that make Yunnan the world capital (according to the local tourist board) of tobacco. It was interesting to note also the signs in Puer airport, which I imagine once advertised tea, were now proclaiming Puer (Simao) as being ‘Capital of Coffee in China’. They had just hosted the World Barista Championship and I guess were keen to advertise this growing cash crop.

[ Tobacco Plantations in Simao ]

The roads seemed never-ending, but finally we arrived at Qian Jia Zhai at around 10pm & were delighted to see that it was a little bigger than most tea villages. They had a hotel, which we checked into, and we managed to find someone who’d still cook us some food at that time of night. Surrounded by curious locals, who’d had a stream of Koreans and Taiwanese visit, but were curious to see this ‘golden haired’ westerner, we managed to find out a bit of information about where the ancient trees were and unfortunately that we’d have to go to see the local government representative in the morning to get permission to go into this protected area.

[ Early morning in Qian Jia Zhai ]

In the morning, after an early morning stroll around the village to take some photos, we sat down for some noodles & discovered that we were sharing the table with the very same government representative that we needed to meet. He informed us that we needed to have already gotten a form stamped in the in the county town of Zhen Yuan (over an hours drive away), but he might be able to help us out – though no foreigners were allowed in. Thus ensued half an hour of petitioning on my behalf – ‘I’d travelled so far to see the trees’/’I was trying to promote their local tea’/’I was a tea lover and of course would in no way harm their trees’. These requests seemed to win him over, but despite several calls to his superiors to see if an exception could be made, the response was still no.

Slightly disheartened, but accepting that nothing could be done, we drove to the end of the road and began the 2 hour ascent to the tea trees. The idea was that I could go half-way up the mountain, and wait by a waterfall while Kathy and our friend from Menghai continued up into the protected area to see the trees. I consoled myself with the thought that at least she would see it, and I’d be able to see the photos!

Time passed. I took a few photos of the waterfall, and a few more. I chatted to a few local people who were climbing the mountain – all of them bemused by the silliness of the bureaucracy. I drank some tea and looked at the view and patiently waited. Another group came climbing up and began to chat to me. They also couldn’t understand why I had climbed half-way up the mountain but couldn’t go further & encouraged me to join them. I explained that the government official in town had told me that I couldn’t go. One of them picked up his phone, talked for a minute in local dialect, then told me not to worry – he outranked the official in town and would be happy to bring me up the mountain – of course I should come and see their King of tea trees. I had come all this way after all!!

And so I joined my new group of climbing companions. They consisted of several foresters, working in the protected area, a couple of government officials and several journalists writing for Puer Magazine (a Chinese publication). We continued our journey up and all of a sudden the scenery changed. The rocky, dry mountainside was replaced with lush forest. There were shady glades with the river flowing gently though and beautiful plant-life. I could see immediately why this was a protected area.

There were a few tea trees, 6-8m tall, then some more – even bigger, then more…. and more. I was amazed – I’d seen tall wild tea trees before, but never anything of this size. They must have been ~20m tall, with 100cm girths – and not just a few, there were a lot of them, the bigger ones numbered and recorded.

[ Scenery and wild tea trees inside the protected area ]

We continued on – all of us, apart from the foresters, out of breath and needing to stop every now and again to rest. The 2400m altitude combined with the long steep climb was taking it’s toll on all of us. I was glad that the unfit government officials and journalists were with us, so that it wasn’t just me and the foresters – who looked that they could have jogged backwards up the hill without breaking sweat. As the climb grew steeper, our small group spread out according to levels of fitness. I tried to put some extra effort in to keep near the front, slightly out of a little pride about not wanting to be a westerner slowing down the group, but moreso to outpace one of the journalists who seemed to be burdened with distinct inability to enjoy even a moment of silence and who had fixated his verbal attention on repeatedly telling me how he didn’t really like British and American people (because of Iraq/Afghanistan etc.), but that I seemed ok and that he would make an exception for me. Needless to say, after a few rounds of this conversation I widened my stride, preferring a little extra burning pain in my leg muscles to more of his rant.

The King of Trees

At last we neared the end of the trail. There was a small (vacant) guard’s hut, a shabby barbed wire fence that couldn’t have kept out very much at all and a couple of signs prepping us with information about the as-yet unseen ‘No 1 Tea King’ and prohibiting us from drawing on the tree.
I don’t know what to say about the ‘No.1 Tea King’. The signs have told you all the factual information, and the photos capture some of the majesty of the tree better than any words. Perhaps I’ll just leave you with the pictures…

And to finish it all – lunch and an impromptu concert in the foresters’ hut.

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