Tea

Thu 16 July 2015

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Boh Tea Estate.

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I stayed five days in Malaysia’s Cameron highlands, originally a hill station in colonial times. Having visited the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok several months ago, I was intrigued to explore the place where the “Thai Silk King” disappeared around 48 years ago, apparently without a trace.

Jim Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands many years ago.

Jim Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands many years ago.

My guest house was in Tanah Rata at an elevation of around 1500 meters, which meant pleasant days and cool nights. On Monday I walked downhill about four kilometers to a nearby tea plantation. Over the last few days I also did some hiking on the many trails near the town. Yesterday I took a day tour which included another tea plantation, a butterfly garden, hydroponic strawberry farm and a visit to a mossy forest.

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Mossy Forest.

Mossy Forest.

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Tea

Mon 13 Apr 2015

Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.

Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.

In a patch of cultivated tea bushes, Xishuangbanna.

In a patch of cultivated tea bushes, Xishuangbanna.

From Lijiang I decided to venture to the southern reaches of Yunnan near the Burmese border. I was interested in seeing an area of southern Yunnan called Xishuangbanna, the center of tea production in Yunnan and the origin of the unusual Pu’er tea. Also, according to historians, Xishuangbanna is probably the place where tea was first cultivated thousands of years ago.

500 year old wild tea tree.

500 year old wild tea tree.

To get to Xishuangbanna, I had to suffer though two miserably long bus rides, broken by an overnight stop in Kunming. About four days ago I finally arrived in Jinghong, the major city in Xishuangbanna.

After a bit of investigation I connected with Sara, owner of the Forest Cafe trekking outfit in Jinghong. I told Sara I had heard about some ancient tea trees in Xishuangbanna and that I wanted to see some of these trees. She arranged a two-day trek in which we walked through some ancient tea forests, stopped at a tea processing plant, and passed through some of the local villages.

A whole forest of ancient tea trees!

A whole forest of ancient tea trees! (Sara, our guide, is in the photo too).

One of the tea pickers let us take her photo.

One of the tea pickers let us take her photo.

Usually two leaves and a bud are plucked together.

Usually two leaves and a bud are plucked together.

After they are picked, the tea leaves are left to wither a bit.

After they are picked, the tea leaves are left to wither a bit.

Then they are fried in big woks to stop the oxidation process.

Then they are fried in big woks to stop the oxidation process.

Leaf rolling machines.

Leaf rolling machines.

Finally the leaves are dried.

Finally the leaves are dried.

Yesterday we set out in the morning and were joined by a Swedish woman, Lena, who was taking a break from her studies in Kunming. The mountain weather was very pleasant and as we walked along Sara made sure to point out some of the interesting flora and fauna in this area of tremendous biodiversity.

I thought this white thing was a flower, but it's not!

I thought this white thing was a flower, but it wasn’t!

The “white flower” was actually a string of these tiny white insects!

Sara managed to pull down one of these fruits. Tasted a bit like a mango, but very tart. Probably not ripe enough.

Sara managed to pull down one of these fruits. Tasted a bit like a mango, but very tart. Probably not ripe enough.

Growing orchids on the roof of this village home.

Growing orchids on the roof of this village home.

Yunnan also has an amazing amount of cultural diversity and is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Xishuangbanna in particular has populations of Dai, Hani (and the subgroup Aini), Lisu, Yao, Jinuo, Bulang, Lahu and Wa, among others. We stayed the night in a Bulang village, in the home of a local family. This morning we resumed our trek through fields and forests, and walked for about five hours prior to returning to Jinghong in the evening.

Village residents.

Village residents.

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Fri 3 Apr 2015

The Old Town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China.

The Old Town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China.

Rooftops of Lijiang.

Rooftops of Lijiang.

Further north of Shaxi, higher in altitude and closer to Tibet, the old town of Lijiang was the next stop on the Yunnan tourist trail. In ancient times Lijiang also happened to be the next stop on the historic Tea Horse road.

A cake of Yunnan Pu'er tea. In ancient times, tea was compressed into cakes or bricks for easier transport over the long journey to Tibet. Just break off a piece, brew and drink!

A cake of Yunnan Pu’er tea. In ancient times, tea was compressed into cakes or bricks for easier transport over the long journey to Tibet. Just break off a piece, brew and drink!

Like Dali, regrettably, Lijiang had also undergone a certain Disneyfication and was full of the same types of restaurants, street food stalls and souvenir shops. As I walked around the “old” town I passed by open air nightclubs with young women in pseudo-traditional dress performing to a sort of generic “traditional” music that blended a Chinese style with African drums. Watching for a few minutes from the sidelines, I found the shows were reminiscent of the same laissez-faire creative license as in a Bollywood production, and clearly had no authenticity in representing any of the minority ethnic groups present in Yunnan.

Lijiang.

Lijiang.

Lijiang.

Lijiang.

For me the only redeeming factors that Lijiang could boast over Dali were its location on a hillside that lent itself to more interesting photo opportunities; and its larger size which made it easier to get away from the hordes of Chinese holiday makers. In fact, one Chinese native told me Lijiang was so popular as a Chinese tourist destination that the city kept expanding and adding on new, but old-looking, sections of the “old” town, conjured right out of the thin mountain air.

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After spending a few days exploring and taking photos, I confirmed my initial reaction to Lijiang, which was: get me outta here ASAP!

These days Pu'er tea is often pressed into fancy shapes. I think people buy these shapes to display as artwork rather than to actually break off pieces to brew tea.

These days Pu’er tea is often pressed into fancy shapes. I think people buy these shapes to display as artwork rather than to actually break off pieces to brew tea.

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Another variation of the tea disk.

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Tea…made into elephant shapes!

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Tue 31 Mar 2015

My horse needed a rest, so I stopped at the post in Shaxi.

My horse needed a rest, so I stopped at the post in Shaxi.

Met these guys on the trail.

Met these guys on the trail.

Many centuries ago, the Chinese wanted horses, which the Tibetans had; and the Tibetans wanted tea, which was grown in China; so over time a trade route was developed to rival the more northern route now referred to as the Silk Road.

Shaxi is a fine place to hang your hat for a few days.

Shaxi is a fine place to hang your hat for a few days.

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Shaxi (沙溪) is a tiny hamlet that was once a caravan stop on what some historians call the Tea-Horse trading route leading from China through Tibet and on into Burma and India. It began as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries). Today it is a historic market town that still has a vibrant Friday market and is considered to be the most intact of the old caravan towns.

Shaxi was a breath of fresh air after Dali! Not only was it much smaller but also it was without the throngs of tourists found in Dali. In fact, it had a sleepy, anachronistic feel, with few motor vehicles, several tea shops, and even a number of horses.

I found the sky in my Yunnan tea.

I found the sky in my Yunnan tea.

My hostel, Horsepen 46, is on the left.

My hostel, Horsepen 46, is on the left.

My hostel, Horsepen 46, was indeed a converted horse stable! I enjoyed its peaceful courtyard and the nightly communal dinners for 20 – the young chef even cooked up some vegetarian fare for me. 

Dinner.

Dinner. nota bene: Brown dude in back does NOT speak Chinese!

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Shaxi.

Shaxi.

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What we call black tea, the Chinese call “red tea.” The above is Chinese black tea: a Shou Pu’er tea.

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The Friday Market at Shaxi.

The Friday Market at Shaxi.

Honey at the market.

Honey at the market.

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Mon 9 Feb 2015

Teapot Art at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center.

Teapot Art at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

After several weeks back in the USA, I arrived again in Thailand early yesterday morning. My plan was to spend a few days in Bangkok getting over the jet lag, then travel through the northeastern part of Thailand to get to Laos.

Yesterday I stopped by the Bangkok Art and Culture Center to look at an exhibit entitled Japanese Tea. Some of the artwork was clearly tea-related but as I looked at some other work I couldn’t see a direct relationship between the piece and Japanese tea.

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Thongchai Yukantapornpong. “Words of Tea Tree.” 2014. (My photo of the print installation).

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Waranun Chutchawantipakorn. “Kinkaju- Ji Temple, Kyoto.” 2014. (My photo of a part of the artist’s digital Image).

My hotel was located in an area that I did not find very esthetically pleasing, as it was surrounded by shopping malls (I chose the hotel because it was in a safe area and very convenient to transportation). But I decided to make the best of it and see if I could find something of interest nearby.

Tea set at Ong's Tea Shop in Bangkok.

Tea set at Ong’s Tea Shop in Bangkok.

In keeping with the tea theme from yesterday, this afternoon I found a small tea shop in one of the fancy malls a few blocks from my hotel. The shop sold single origin loose tea leaves from various parts of China. The shop attendant also brewed and served tea to customers on the premises. I chose an oolong from Fujian province.

A Fujianese Oolong about to be consumed (by me).

A Fujianese Oolong about to be consumed (by me).

Oolong is a type of tea that has been partially oxidized (more oxidized than green tea but not as much as black tea). I had read that oolong tea leaves could be re-steeped several times and that instead of resulting in a weaker brew, each re-steeping would bring out different flavors of the tea. The attendant at the shop re-steeped my tea at least five times, and each time the tea tasted great. I was amazed!

Tea vessel at Ong's Tea Shop, Bangkok.

Tea vessel at Ong’s Tea Shop, Bangkok.

Looks like a fascinating book!

Looks like a fascinating book!

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