Black Pottery Disappointment

One day when we were wandering local Kunming markets and tea shops , we came across a beautiful pottery called “Hei Gu Tao” which would be in translation as a ‘Black Ancient Pottery’ .

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We found the black UFO shaped disks as a very good idea for storing pu-erh tea cakes and big jars for storing loose tea leafs. The main advantage of this pottery is actually the weight . It’s very light, compare to other clay made pottery. Lifting up the big jar feels like it’s made of some hard plastic but not the fired clay.

We spent a some time to track down the place of production ( although it’s not the original place where this pottery technique was invented ) and decide to take a shopping trip. The small town located in the middle of the mountains of Puer area , between Wu Liang and Ai Lao mountains.

There are 3 main roads from where is this place accessible and how “lucky” we are, all of them are in reconstruction 😦 We are taking the way from Simao which is completely closed so have to go around  ( via Menghai route ).  That changes original travel time from 3.5hrs to 6.5 hrs by small local bus. And leaving from there after ,  head to north,  that takes another 8hrs.  Siran is not happy and suggesting to change it for trip to Menghai instead, so we could find some nice shu pu-erh at least. I feel like this obstacle is for purpose and have good feeling in gut that we gonna find something cool.

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Completely exhausted arriving late afternoon to this small sleepy town where economy stopped due to the hard accessibly and no people on the streets gives a feeling not being  in China at all.

Surrounding mountains and small river with park aside makes this place very relaxing. Direction signs for tourists and typical cultural billboards  are revealing original intention of supporting local economy , but the new highway which is till being build  ( almost 3 years now ) from Simao and should eventually bring some “food flow” , is still not finished.

Giving a short stroll trough the town, trying to find some shop selling the black pottery. We have found only one. There are also not many tea shops around either.

As we learned later , despite the surrounding tea mountains , this is not the place where people would buy some tea in shop because they go directly to the farms.

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118 kg 2014 sheng pu-erh tuo cha

Next day we are asking locals for the place where this kind of pottery is made and getting one simple direction along the river. Arriving in small village located at the edge of the town after few minutes walking entering the gate of the small manufacture.

Boss is not there but workers seem to be busy, mainly the one in the courtyard which was the initial disappointing finding. The truth behind the beautifully satin black pottery.

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We finding out that they use coal during the low heat processing in old brick kiln to achieve this black color right after the burning stage in the modern gas kiln where the necessary higher temperature is reached.

As we are aiming on tea business and tea related pottery , we don’t feel it would be safe / healthy to use this type of clay for storing or brewing the tea in it.

After boss arrives we are invited into the exhibition shop where all those beautiful jars or tea cake storage pottery are presented , but we already know that is just wasting of time for us. All dreams about to offer our customers / tea drinkers something unique , has been shattered into the thousands pieces.

I’m curious and checking other stuff like the tea cups.  I’m told that can’t put very hot water in to it 🙂 Boss says it can break because the material just doesn’t cope well with sudden high temperature. As we later research on dedicated websites, we learn that actual problem is, that coal dust could get released into the water because it’s not well compounded with the clay it self.

They also have some pottery pieces made without coal in just simple yellow-white plain clay color, but there is nothing impressive to bother with. Also we know the wholesale prices from other source and boss gives us triple price tag on each item ( we were asking only from curiosity at that stage anyway ) without any space for negotiations.

As we could see their work flow, and heard about the new shop being opened in Kunming, we can expect those things to appear in larger scale soon.

 

There are two families who are involved into the local pottery production , so we decided to visit the second one as well. Second master has more color / design varieties but since we saw the technique of processing, we are hold on with decision to buy anything.

What we found unique on this “silver” pottery is that it’s hard to break. Woman just purposely dropped the cup on the concrete floor from her hand and nothing happened, just dropping steel sound like. The side pictures of the broken jar’s lid where the silver coating wasn’t done properly.

After longer research on Chinese internet we have found an article claiming that back in 80’s some company ran a test on black pottery ( but made in different province ) and didn’t find any health issues ( any substances dangerous to the human body ) , however we decided to “put this to the ice” until we learn more about Yunnan Hei Gu Tao …Yunnan Black Pottery.

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Additional pictures from local park

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Mang Fei Failure

After more than 20h arriving to Yong De totally exhausted. Realizing that bus is not really an option for trips like this one. Bus drivers are no longer allowed to drive over night ( due to safety ) so need to stop for 8h somewhere , which left us sleeping in small uncomfortable beds with another 60 people in the bus , crying baby and snoring old grandpa. Smelly socks of some farmers adds to the whole “authentic” environment.

Not many tea shops around , as we would expect and finding one in sort of “tea market” with 4 shops.

Young tea shop owner is quite eager to lets us try all of his teas and we are getting pretty  “tea drunk” after few hours , when I lost the track of how many teas we tried.

Mang Fei puerh tea

Tasting Mangfei puerh tea

His white tea is very interesting and we are comparing Yue Guang Bai processed by two different ways .

traditional ( left ) / new ( right )

The main difference is in the last step – drying , in which the new one is dried quickly on the hard sun . Traditional way is in dark dry place ( according the story in the night under the moon , that’s where is the name “yue guang” – moon light – coming from , “bai” – white ) . Places like Fujian produces this tea by new technique and call it Bai Mu Dan.

Appearance differences are noticeable as the black leafs in new processed one are missing.  Speak of the taste difference , the new way processed tea leafs are missing the bitter touch of the traditional ones which makes an impression they are much sweeter.

The tea boss also trying to do his own white processing and experimenting with different steps like withering.

We are also comparing sheng pu-erh . Trying two same area teas , which apparently one of them is organic and the other is also organic 🙂

The first tea apparently comes from the garden where soil hasn’t been treated with fertilizer. The other one was. Understanding of “organic” term differentiates from area , tea farmer or vendor.  This guy basically told us that non organic teas are being treated by various methods against pesticides, organic are not, but treating the soil with fertilizer doesn’t count as non organic approach in both cases.

Simply said, the one is from arbor tea tree and other is bush tea “tai di cha” , which is noticeable from the first cup. His organic differentiation makes sort of sense in point of using the pest solutions on bush tea ( table land tea )  and due to commercial boom of sorting the trees into the “taidi, qiao mu, gu shu, dan zhu,mu shu” …etc. he decided to use this one.

The main problem in recent years , as he complaining to us , is the way which tea farmers  picking / plucking the tea leafs. In Mangfei is normal to pick in ratio 1 bud 3-4 leafs, but the problem is that tea farmers don’t leave a spare leaf on plucking stem and even worse the rip out a whole lot with piece branch bark known as ” ma ti ” the horse hoof.

That wouldn’t be a problem if it happens in small amount , it is common after all. But in past years the “ma ti” and long stems are present more and more.

Farmer can fill the basket faster and make more money , but badly plucked tea leafs make a bad impact on the next harvest because those ripped places is hard for tea tree recover. Besides those “ma ti” are quite bitter and excessive amount doesn’t make any good for overall tea taste.

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Mang Fei 8g sample of sheng pu-erh tea from the local tea farmer.

The other problem is the outsiders. Many tea makers or dealers come from various places like Menghai and trying their luck with occupying tea trees by simply putting their sign next to the tree saying “this tree is property of ……” Local farmers had to pull out few of those this year but sometimes it returns later in the way of revenge by breaking branches for example.  Some tea business people don’t believe farmer claimed tea tree age so they  stick big nails into the trunk to see. What they see? Apparently if the wood under the bark is white, the tree is still young.

There were cases, not here though, when people even steal or try to steal the tea tree over night. Usually it ends up badly in both cases. Tree will just die.

The tea farmers here also have money related issue in way of non paying customers. As we learn later on , many farmers have been owned lots of money from many tea vendors , companies or other contractors. Usual scenario is that some “big” boss shows up and buying few tons of tea with promise to pay later. Simple farmer in faith of long term cooperation goes for this naive deal and unfortunately in many cases not getting paid.

After few hours of sitting in his tea shop being flushed by tons of information and the “tea shower” we are invited for traditional Dai people dinner.

Next day morning we decide to try some local – Yongde tea factory , just to see what / how quality differs from small tea biz owners. We are also curious about the storage conditions here in Yongde , since the humidity is not that high as in Xishuangbanna for example.

We are trying their sheng puerh from 2017 which is not rally good and “shui wei” , the watery taste could be experienced all over. That’s what most of last years teas are like that unfortunately. ( due to the bad weather ).

2014 was kind Ok ,but traditional way of processing still has left the smokey notes imprint in to their 357g tea cake. We really liked 2011 sheng and thinking of taking few tongs but after all we decided to go for the last stock of their 2008 Ye Sheng Sheng Puerh and 2014 Da Xue Shan which impressed us with it’s settled taste in matter of the storage.

Getting hands on their 2010 shu puerh and like the the taste due to the unique fermentation and storage specific for this region.

Afternoon we are heading to the Mang Fei village to see the tea farmers. Visiting one family with two generations of tea making tradition.

Mr. Zhai’s family has substantial amount of small arbor trees below 100y age which most of them being harvested by big companies like Mengku Rongshi and used for the various blends.

He has a decent selection of teas from this and last year ( gu hua ) autumn harvest but unfortunately we couldn’t find a any outstanding flavor which would consider to buy except one “dan zhu” . The single tree growing in the hard accessible place and has very deep sweet notes coming out from the back of the tongue and vaporizing trough out the nose. Really nice!

Just one problem. …..The have only half kilo left , because this tea tree just can’t offer more ( 2kg this year ) .

When we are back in hotel , trying some older teas from the tea shop next door which has been just closed down due to the owner problems. The boss went into the money owning problem and was found in the river.

There was not much difference between his  2007 and 2003 year in taste , only in wet notes intensity, which makes me understand the way of this business was rolling down.

Later on we are visiting other areas around , villages, tea farms and tea makers / factories . Except of pu-erh and green tea they are also trying to make here white and black tea.

Black tea processing  requires a bit of extra skill and equipment which unfortunately they are lack of ,  so it is noticeable in taste.  Most of their black teas are “shai hong” style and their “ye sheng hong” –  a  Balck tea from wild trees – concept offered to us is not that impressive.

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Wild tea tree – Ye Sheng

Having a nice dinner with local “bai jiu” ( home made spirit ) and very good conversation about the future tea business in this area. Seems like locals are aware of pu-erh tea boom and overpriced market which going to deflate one day, or even it’s happening already in some places. Tea farmers have no any other income and we believe that those around 60 tea producing families in Mangfei village are going to have a problem soon. From local statistics we know that tea farmers can’t sell 30-40% of their tea each season in past few years. And yet, they still keep their prices quite high which is not really competitive with other surrounding areas.

Apart of the few places , the most of the tea trees are around 100y old only . Despite of locals calling  “gu shu” everything what is not just “tai di”  ( table land tea ) small bush tea , they still can’t to succeed / compete in national tea business.

Most of Chinese tea drinkers are focusing on the tea tree age and size rather than taste and so the vendors.  During the conversation we also agree , that organic tea is the way to go in the future. Some of the tea gardens already have Chinese organic certificates. At this time the international one is still very expensive for them to get. Although we are not entirely sure if that would be necessary for them , since exporting such a already pricey tea material ( compare to regular bush tea ) would be a profitable business.

Picking up the tea leafs from even very young arbor trees is done by hand and it is not easy labor as harvesting a bush ( table land ) tea by using tools or some machine.

That’s why many big tea companies got some arbors cut down to the easy accessible picking size and this way caused their , sort of , devaluation.  ( big tree is vaulted higher ) . If leafs from originally high tea tree are better / tastier than ( from the exactly the same tree ) after being trimmed – we can not confirm. We haven’t got an opportunity to do precise comparing yet, but as mentioned above , in way of the tea has been evaluated in China ,  this “adjustment” does have an impact on the price .

After spending a week in the area , running around many villages and tasting various teas which tasted almost the same , we come up with decision not to buy here anything this year. That’s the failure which tea lovers and traders , who search for good quality tea / equivalent price,   have to face.

The problem with a dull and vegetable taste of most of the Mangfei sheng puerh this year is the weather and processing. Of course that “qing wei” ( green taste ) is normal in fresh teas , but apart of that , no “hui gan” or “sheng jing” . We tried the last years ones and despite mentioned “shui wei” ( watery taste )  they were much “thicker” in body, had some after-sweet kicking and “zhuang hua” ( natural fermentation ) which gives to the tea at least some front taste.

The high price problem comes from few reasons and the one of them is that tea farmers are ” contracted” with local vendors and tea processing companies , so they are not willing or can’t  offer a wholesale price even with bigger purchase ( a ton might make the difference ,but we are not in this case ). They know the price for which is sold their tea by local vendors so their offer is same without any space for negotiation. We keep hearing common excuse around ,that price has been raised by government in order to help farmers improve their economy and live , but in fact that’s just a little part of the truth.

The price gone up on fresh leafs not on processed leafs or work like picking those leafs , and its not that big difference from previous years. We founding out,  that the massive margin on top of the tea price is set by mentioned vendors and contractors , who keep farmers in believe, that this is the value of their tea which they should be selling it for to any other “outsiders” like us ( who try to get tea directly from them )

Simple tea farmers have no idea about the tea trade world out there and competitive prices. They just know famous villages like Bing Dao or Lao Bang Zhan,  where tea is sold for thousands, so they just “play the ball” with all that mentioned group ( local vendors, tea processors , contractors ) . Somebody might object : “poor farmers are trying to make more money for living” and we agree with that. But tea business like any other one is about the offer / demand . Demand is related to quality / price ratio mainly , and of course supported marketing development. Non of it is there 😦

Mangfei tea is well known as the base tea for blending due to the low price and sustainable taste / quality. The price has significantly gone up not due to the mentioned demand or quality increase but due to the desperate marketing strategy of retailers or processing companies. ( as already mentioned )

Trying to explain that for the price of their 1 kg tea we can buy 2-3kg of the same quality / grade tea in any other village in Xishuangbanna , is not helping at all . We are just getting a stubborn reaction : ” But our tea is special ”

At that moment we “got a point” and decided to leave:-(

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Dai Tao – pottery from Dai Ethnic Minority

My wife gets an idea that we should get some pottery from Yunnan Ethnic minorities and first what comes in her mind is Dai Tao – the pottery from Dai Zu ( Dai Ethnic group ) .

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After long 9hours bus ride from Kunming we get to Jinhong late evening very tired and leaving Dai Tao search for tomorrow. Next morning we are wandering around the local tea shops and asking about Dai pottery but not getting any valuable information, but woman at the reception in our  hotel  directing us to the Gao Zhuan village.

 

The new build  ( around 2010 ) village designed in something like Thai style, annually attracts millions of tourists. As we learned later, last spring festival 100 000 people passed trough the main gate in one single day which puts this place in category 5A ( 5 star ) tourist spot same as Lijian, Shi Lin ( stone forest ) , Yellow mountain ,Great Wall or concert of Pink Floyd 1994 in Prague ( I just remember that one:-).

We got a recommendation for the shop located on street which was build purely for vendors and its not in fully operating yet.

The shop is full of pottery but not much related to tea ceremony. Only simple gaiwans without any decoration and just 2 would worth to think of and they are defected anyway . The other are either not interesting or have a tourist price tag- 80-100$

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Even if  they have free rent there ( as we told by seller , that the local government supports ethnic culture ) , the prices of products are not even close to what we can afford for our shop.

Their workshop is located downstairs and as it appears , for the moment they have just one master. Few students ( monks ) learning how to make the pottery including the teapots.

After few hours of drinking tea with seller and trying to negotiating reasonable price we are giving up on this shop and going back to the asking locals mode , which leads us to the small Dai village called Mang Zhang  located just an hour away from Jing Hong. We are taking a bus next morning with all bags planning to stay overnight.

Passing the main gate is already obvious that this please has been “turistified”. Restaurants, street signs pointing to different activities like pottery craft, Dai paper craft or local clothes / dress. ( I know , hard to believe it without the tourists on the pictures )

Dai pottery ( slow wheel ) made on hand rotating stand is available in first restaurant for trial. For 10CNY u can try and another 10CNY can take product away.

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I cant resist and try to make a Dai paper which we sell for wrapping pu-erh tea cakes.Process is very simple but smashing boiled tree bark with wooden hammer, requires a bit of energy alright!

It needs to be separated in as small as possible strings which are mixed with water after and turned into the fluffy kind of estate. Portions of that fluffy mug is applied on the flat square strainer sink into the water pool and bark bits spread evenly all over.

Then just slowly lift the strainer up, water will come trough out and let it dry on the sun. Quite a fun for 10CNY.  But still , the fact that lady says from which angle my wife should take a picture and framed photo of her with some foreign family who came on holiday last year with kids, doesn’t make me feel being in authentic village but just in another cultural zoo:-( Although must say is not that bad as the previous Gao Zhuan.

After buying a small pack of tea from local grannie ( actually not bad sheng pu ) , we are waking around the village searching for the pottery. Still can’t find what we need and from seeing the output of locals I believe they just stared / re-started recently for the tourist purposes.

We were lucky be there before weekend , because apart of the regular accommodation i Dai house ( not the classic one ) , you can also rent a caravan, but that will cost you more than renting 3 rooms in that village.

Am I surprised that Saturday is all booked out?

Anyway, I must say we had a very nice day there , good noodles for 6CNY and wonderful rest in hammock in hot afternoon, but we still haven’t got what we came for:-(

Second attempt and failure again. I’m about to give up , but on the way back we have chat with local grannie and she finally point us to the right direction.

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We are going  to another village were we meet the real pottery makers. Small company run by local family who managed to make apart of the traditional big size pottery also decent gaiwans and other small thing which will suit for the tea ceremony.

They have a very small manufacture at the back of the shop with few workers and nice wooden hut in made as a presentation room.

Except regular gas kiln firing the traditional way on wood is still available.

When we are talking to the owner of the shop one of the workers brings us tea and  smiling at us all the time without saying any word. What we learn later , she is The Master …… The person who is behind of most of the art in their workshop.

Yu Feng , the real Dai Tao pottery master.

Feng’s family inherited and preserved  technique from their ancestors and at the moment she is the only one real Dai Tao master in China. Since childhood she started learning how to make pottery from her mother. Not as another kind of teapot/ Pottery master,she wasn’t making potteries very often for commercial purposes , most of the time she was just teaching students who were interested to learn the ancient Dai Tao slow wheel technique.
Long time ago , there were many Dai villages making the pottery their daily life use. The interesting thing is , that only women were allowed to transmitted the Dai Tao pottery skill ,and only men were allowed to learn Dai characters and pass that experience to other men. When time goes by , the ancient  technique  of making pottery almost disappeared.

We took few pieces for try , see if our customers like it and we hope to cooperate with them more.

Dai Tao Pottery in Yunnan Craft shop.

 

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Pasha autumn sheng pu-erh tea

This year we decided to get in touch with our Pa Sha farmer and try his autumn tea.

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Before that we spend some time in Menghai and going around the shops tasting not only the shu pu-erh but also this years sheng.

Prices ,of course, are fluctuating in wide range so the taste , but something they all have common.  Apart of the general “gu hua” autumn taste with touch of “mei li” ,  the “shui wei”  ( watery taste )  is also in present. This characteristic is usually associated with summer harvest but this year was very rainy so spring and autumn leafs were pretty much affected.

Please do understand , this is not a defect or some serious unpleasant taste. It just downgrades the tea ranking ( so the price ) ,  since is not as rich in flavor as normal tea , and adding fact that autumn leafs  are already weak  , makes you put more a bit into your teapot or gaiwan.

In past few years local tea economy has changed significantly as many tea farmers got “smarter” . Places like Lao Ban Zhan or Bing Dao will make you wonder about how profitable tea business could be. From small wooden huts and riding horse or cheap Chinese motorbike in spam of 5-8years they all moved into the luxury villas and driving expensive SUV cars. The funniest part is as you,as a foreigner , come there by bus choosing the cheapest option , they will still tell you: ” You foreigners are rich! You can buy our tea no problem !”

Well we are avoiding those places but unfortunately this all pu-erh boom ( which firstly appeared in 2007 ) is spreading like virus all over the Yunnan again . Each year at least one village or place gets promoted where price increase inevitably follows right after.

Yet, there are still many  genuine hard working farmers who are not affected by this pu-erh tea boom.

The bad weather 2017 was right but also good excuse for farmers raise prices ,but despite sudden raise 3-5x higher price than last year and lower quality, they still found the buyers.

Booming and constantly promoted tea culture along with increasing tea tourism ( don’t worry , foreigners are not even 1% of it ) who are able to spend few thousands for 1kg of arbor tea tree , makes some tea farmers no longer willing to sell their tea for wholesale prices in their house equipped with nice wooden tea table , hi-tech water filter and accommodation for few guests..etc. ( That’s the business idea which they were missing before , but learned quickly. )

And of course downgrading factor , which has been long time around , is mixing gu shu ( old tea tree ) with  ( in better case ) with small arbor or the  worse one, with bush tea.

We also visited this trip our farmer in Nan Nuo Shan , and she was telling us story when  some tea businessman from Hubei set up high tech night vision cameras all over the garden and processing area to make sure he gets what he pre-paid for. And she felt kind of upset / angry with this.

I couldn’t hold my self to tell her: ” You can blame only your selves here on that”.

They were cases when farmer with full basket of expensive tea leafs on his back coming down from tea garden with customer, said he needed to go to “behind the bushes” ( go to WC ). Well , he had a different basket waiting for him there and swap it. Customer spotted when farmer came back because the first one had a broken strap.

Other case would be that tea on the top of the batch is very different from the bottom and some farmers feel very annoyed when you taste the tea from different places of the same bag /box.

Many tea bosses are mixing the tea as well. Of course the main reason is the price. Whether they honestly admit that or not, is on you to spot.

Other reason is that by mixing tea from different places and trees ( arbor, bush or Bada ,Pasha etc ). you can reach wide spectrum of flavors , which gives to seller more “types” of tea on the shelf and so the price range. Same like with coffee.

That leads to those “fake” teas. They are all teas at the end anyway ,just the label is not right. We took a nice Bu Lang Shan 357g sheng pu-erh wrapped in Lao Ban Zhan cover , as was previous customer’s request. ( close in location and taste but price very different ).

We are going in farmers humble house with motorbike in front gate. His neighbor has a SUV and proper house , so I guess its a question of time when he “wakes” up.

Few big trees in front and many small at the back will tell you what you can expect. As we learn after, his family has only 62 trees.

His Chinese( mandarin ) is very bad so my wife as a native speaker finds very hard to understand him. Me,  as a foreigner,  with probably a bit better mandarin holding a conversation and price negotiation after all:-) ( Since we both use same range of vocabulary and broken accent , we understand each other quite well:-)

We trying a mixture of 100-200y old tea tree material ( autumn ) and we like the taste. 2017 Pa Sha Qiao Mu – autumn . Despite rainy weather , this batch doesn’t have much of early mentioned “shui wei” and surprisingly rich in flavor almost like spring one gained with pleasant “cha qi”.

We are also taking some of the summer harvest ( noticeable different )  2017 Pa Sha Qiao Mu – yu-shui, which we share with our customers as free sample with at least 100g purchase of autumn one.

 

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Menghai shu pu-erh search

On the way to Xishuangbanna mountains for autumn tea we decided to stop by in Meng Hai , the town famous for shu / shou ( ripe / fermented / black / cooked ) pu-erh tea.

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There are few tea markets around the town and many shops scattered randomly in the center. Big or small companies ,all sell shu cha in different forms ( loose / pressed ) or qualities.

You hardly find a tea boss being local person , mostly they are from Guandong, Hunan , Sechuan …etc. People who came with some investment and business mind set. Simply said : the money which local people don’t have ( actually need to say : didn’t have ) and idea how to run tea business ( that is also rapidly changing , as you can see the prices of mao cha ) .

We are going trough the shops one by one and trying their shu pu. First day we struggle to find any drinkable and we are not even started to talk about the price. Obviously all shops are loaded with fresh shu from Ba Gong Li ( means 8km )….name of the place which is 8km from Menghai . The place where it all happens ( fermentation , processing , pressing ,wrapping …etc ) . As the tea is very new it’s full of “dui wei” – the unpleasant odor of fermentation.

To choose right one , you need to be able smell it out and taste it out which tea will loose this “dui wei” in some time in dry storage. Most of the teas taste is influenced by this not welcomed scent which might not fade away within next few years and Kunming dry storage is a certainly good way to accelerate this process .

One of the factor of much lower quality of shu pu in past few years is the increased demand.

Particularly last two years ( 2015-2017 ) the rocketing prices of mao cha made many tea businessmen and tea companies focusing more on shu cha which consequently put more load on shu processing companies. As they have higher demand but same capacity , to please the customer ( actually to make more money ) , the speeding up the fermentation time for each batch.

Why they all make more shu pu-erh than sheng? Simple answer. It cheaper. The tea leafs taste is mostly influenced by fermentation so it doesn’t really matter what kind of material ( type of tree or origin ) you use. Mostly its a mix of cheap bush tea leafs.

As we know,  different mixtures with same fermentation can give different taste ( different tea leafs have different reaction on fermentation. )  and so the same tea leafs with different fermentation ( time, temp. moister, way and intervals of tossing fermenting leafs )  .

The whole point is that very good shu pu-erh made from arbor trees now or in past few years would be logically very expensive. There are some arbor shu pu around,  mostly which don’t sell well in sheng pu-erh estate ,  but you can get much better shu pu made from  bush tea.

Firstly , just because bigger range to choose from and mixtures to match your taste buds and  secondly , the shu pu-erh masters have much bigger experience to ferment  bush tea leafs , since much more orders are with this type.

Other think you can spot out in Menghai is that there are no many old shu pu around. One reason is , they are just sold out.

The other is , they get mold after few years because of excessive humidity.

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One tea boss told us he stores his teas in 7th floor to avoid high moisture. Whatever it works or not , we don’t know , yet his teas had a strong wet notes. As in already fermented tea its hard to estimate the age ( few years difference ) of course you can see various dates on package. This is normal practice even in Kunming. I’ve seen some Hunan tea boss buying 2016 shu and wrapping it with 2006 year emphasizing that wrapping paper and print design must to look old.

Of course this is extreme difference and you would be able to even smell it out ( if you are familiar with old shu pu ) , but the factors like different storage ,fermentation and tea leafs makes it all more complicated and difficult to guess right age and therefore more speculating space for local tea businessmen.

And that’s on what basically Chinese tea business is build on. Age , origin and type of tea tree. The last is the actual flavor. People who have no clue can buy shu pu-erh Lao Ban Zhan – gu shu for 30CNY big 357g cake and think how good deal they got without knowing that in last mentioned years nobody would waste any old tea tree material to “downgrade” it by fermentation not even mentioning  the actual price.

Second day I’m already tired of drinking all that wet earthy tea which makes me even more convinced that focusing on small private producers ( small batch shu pu-erh ) production , was a right choice.

Bad quality shows up also a way which normal consumer wouldn’t suspect. Shu pu in orange or mandarin, recently very popular , very good seller.

Reason? Of course , good idea, but this has been around ages ago.

Price – Taste

You can stuff almost “anything” into this fruit because original flavor of tea inside gets mostly covered by orange taste. So cheap material + claiming expensive labor ( very varies ) = high profit.

We try brew the tea without the fruit first, simply braking it and steep many time to make sure there is no mentioned “garbage” inside.

Since my wife has a fermentation master in family I leave choice on her. She patiently going trough the stinky bags and trying one by one. I’m just sitting quietly, sipping my tea and making smart face expression:-)

Third day we finally selected few teas for our shop which are ready to drink now or will be good in few months when “young shu pu-erh scent” will fade away.

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Zitao Myth

It takes less than 3 hours from Kunming to get to Jianshui by train and I feel excited like little child in Christmas day because we are finally going to get some Zi Tao pottery for our shop.

From local train station we are taking direct lift by mini van ( mian bao che ) to the zitao village. We are finding out that there are 2 main places divided by main road running at the edge of the town.

The new and old one.

 

Walking along the street we randomly visiting pottery shops to have an idea about the prices and quality. Most of them are just retailers without self producing background and so prices are quite high.

The new place during the day is very quite and sleepy. No people at all . To make potential customers feel comfortable walking through the street in hot day and do some shopping, the cold mist is sprinkled from the top of the shops.

 

Really posh place though and the prices of teapots are reflecting that.

 

We come back to this place later in evening and its more alive. It gets filled with local people and small street food vendors ( mostly Hui Zu ) with BBQ.

Crossing the big road we are standing at the edge of old village which has been partially renewed , sort of. Basically new build of traditional Chinese architectural concept has been set up just in front of this place for accommodating pottery shops purpose.

 

The place looks really beautiful, traditional “si he yuan” square concept , big kiln where traditionally pottery was fired in the past or even going to a public toilet feels like walking trough the typical Chinese garden in forbidden city.

Since my wife’s parents origin is Jianshui , she still has some relatives here and I feel lucky because one of her cousins is actually teapot maker. We are finding out that his shop is located just right in the hot spot of this commercial place and I already have bad feeling about that.

Relatively young cousin managed with help of his father to create very fancy shop. All in wood with traditional calligraphy decoration. “feng shui” water pool made of stone with small golden fish inside and some funny rotating stone teapot in the middle filling the cups around with water makes me feel like being in some Disney Land.

 

Big table with water stream inside to move the cups around , made on special order from Guandong province , doesn’t look cheap either.

Getting know  , basically , my family member I’m learning that he started making a teapots just few years ago by attending classes of some local master and now calling a master him self. His teapots are not bad , just price starts from 150$ and when I told him for what prices we sell to our foreign customers , he lost his loosing  interest.  No wonder, his shop is made to aim rich Chinese tourists who are willing to spend fortune not for the high quality teapot , but for long story they hear about the it’s origin.

I’m getting bit frustrated by this fact and my hope to get some decent teapots for good price is gone. Having a walk around the place , visiting the other shops where cheapest item is a simple cup with lid – 120$ which I’m getting offered as an option after saying : “Sorry I cant afford your expensive teapots” . Of course I couldn’t avoid to local grannie saying : ” You foreigners are rich ” .

We didn’t come here to waste the time, money and hear some stories about the teapots, but to buy some, so we decided go further into the village.

It all happens on one street and some shops are already upgraded from simple shelf and cheap furniture to a fancy store with old looking wood and bamboo decoration. And of course,  with upgraded prices.  WechatIMG320Some shops are proud having a pottery made by old style , traditionally fired on the wood, so they put it into the glass box with spot lights like some jewelry. Well , the price is like that alright. ( approx. 1$=6.5CNY ) .

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The fact is that many local people were originally farmers and they switched to teapot business because its relatively easier and more profitable. When we had a chat with our hotel lady we found out that prices of the teapots now are almost the same price as 10y ago. The reason being for that is , that 10y ago not many people here could make a decent teapot so some experienced teapot masters coming from different provinces were selling for high price.   Now ,although there are many people doing it , the prices are high up because of economy and boosting tea tourism from rich cities like Shanghai, Shenzen , Beijing etc.

Locals will tell you long story about long history of zitao pottery but looking at the output products its not that obvious. No wonder, they have long history indeed , but mostly with “Qi guo ji” which is special pot for cooking / steaming the chicken and other big pots. To make a small teapot requires much more skill and that’s the part where most of those “masters” fail here.

 

Not only body shaping but also details like a sprout ( nozzle ) which we found very funny made in many teapots. The water comes out smoothly no problem, just overall look of the teapot is kinda funny with the trumpet shaped nozzle. As we find later , some people even buy good ones from other makers.

 

We haven’t found any master who makes GOOD teapot from the beginning to end and as we learned later, those people doing it at home and already have shops owners knocking on their door with offer to resell their products. Some of them don’t even make teapots anymore, just became teachers ( pottery masters )  or supervisors in bigger manufactures.

 

Of course you will see people making the teapots right at the back of their shop, some of them are real, some of them are fake ( they just have the pottery wheel there for show ) , but looking at the products you can get an idea about their skill level.

We ended up in one shop run by boss from Jingdezhen who , as he said, came to Jianshui because the clay price is very cheap. And he is right on that one! His teapots look good and his much longer experience with teapot making makes me even more confident to do the business with him. Only a slight problem. The prices are too high , even “buy more – get cheaper” doesn’t make big difference. We are leaving it to the next day when we find the answer for the price tag questions after seeing a courier delivers new teapots to his shop. He was just a re-seller  😦

 

My wife is getting annoyed with this and suggesting that we take this teapot matter too seriously and we should just buy something and try it . I’m persistently going from one shop to another and trying to find out good teapots for good price.  Find the real teapot maker by giving detailed cross questions. The fact that my wife can speak local dialect so  helps as well as her experience with marketing and dealing with people. Many times she could determine if the seller is honest or just making another story.

Why we need all that? Well , if you re-sell somebody’s stuff , u are bounded with minimum price and can’t go lower, but if you make it your self and see somebody buying more than one pot, you will be willing to go bellow your expectations in faith that person will come back next month for more.

And since at the beginning  its very difficult to find out what is the reasonable price for zitao  teapot , we need to see how much it comes from the source.

Some people are honest and tell you: ” this is mine, this I help to sell it to my friend” and of course their stuff is cheaper. But many sellers would just claim all products as their own.

As we are walking further down to the village we can see all the clay processing from beginning. Zitao has 5 basic colors : red, yellow, gray, blue-ish and white and by mixing them they get various color tones. In our trip we just saw 3 types.

 

The stones get crushed and mixed with water , then crushed in smaller pieces till it changes to thick liquid which is processed and then pressed hard to squeeze water out.

It comes out in big cakes which are either used directly for making big pottery or compressed into the smaller tubes make it easier to transfer and sell.

 

The 20kg of this clay tube costs approx. 5$. So grab your teapot and weight it to get an rough idea of material costs 🙂 ( of course there is some wastage and pot is also heavier before being fired ).

So what makes the prices so high? Well , many factors. As  mentioned above, the final product on the shelf is mostly going through the many different hands and each gets its own profit. Other thing is the  “cultural value” as locals are trying to increase buy paying some local master who is good at calligraphy. As we were told ( asking about 2 identical teapots , but one with calligraphy ) that master is known among the locals so the price is higher. Well, we never heard of him and she said locals know, so they would appreciate his art.

 

Ehmm,… The teapot price is equivalent to one month wages of local worker , so I’m not buying this.

In fact , we saw the master at work. He is an old man alright , but using the book to copy characters doesn’t make me convinced much. Our calligraphy master Fan De Hui can stroke out 30 lines poem from Qing dynasty in Xin Kai typeface with his eyes closed after drinking half bottle of local “bai jiu” 🙂

With another rising price factor mentioning above , along with tourism, there is also need to escape from increasing rent  by building the house with shop , in which case many locals have already succeeded. Other factor is learning expenses . Our young cousin paid around 600$ per months ( average income of local farmer ) to his master in period of 2 years, and naturally wants his investment back.

If you think about it , takes 1-2y to make simple style teapot and 5y to make some decent shapes , if you are not completely useless and pushed by need to make some money for your survival.  Not many people doing it longer, even if they claim 10y+. If you sell 1 of those fancy teapots a week, you are making more money than doctor in local hospital or engineer.

 

Buy more = Get cheaper – We got that offer almost everywhere but problem is that each teapot maker from 20-30 pots he/she had, only 2-5 were decent ones or other would be as reselling for friend without negotiable price. So we actually couldn’t buy a big bulk from one maker and ending up with buying from four different people.

 

I know , this article doesn’t look really encouraging to buy some zitao pots, but need to say, there is a beauty in that. There are many hours of work behind each teapot we selected for our shop and we managed to get them  ( as we were told by local friend ) for  prices as local people.  It takes us only one day trip to get Jianshui pottery taking the train from Kunming and spend 20$ for return ticket ( 2 people ) , so our costs are very low. However we feel happy to manage get some decent pots for reasonable price.

Jianshui Purple Pottery at yunnancraft.com

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The truth about the Feng Qing black tea

After 14h on bus coming from south of Yunnan ( near Myanmar borders ) we dropping our bags in hotel and go for dinner. Its too late for tea market so we are leaving it for the next day.

 

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In our hotel reception I spotted few bags of tea and ask about it. The woman ( owner of hotel ) is apparently also doing tea business and as it happens ” How lucky we are!” , her brother has a tea garden with old tea trees 🙂

Well, it’s important to know , in China , people here all brothers and sisters and after few smart  questions we are finding out that actually she just a has friend works in tea factory and trying to make some extra cash so passing over some samples to her to push it to hotel customers.

Good beginning, already looking forward all those stories I’m going to hear in market tomorrow.

Next day, right after the breakfast we heading to market. Its a bit of walk from town but greedy “tuk tuk” drivers gives are no other choice. We are getting into the first tea shop.

With testing the local famous Fengqing black tea we have to also listen all those same stories about how they have their own plantation, how their tea is organic and others is not etc.

What entertains me most is the box with Ye Sheng Hong says ” tea from 1600 years old tree” with price tag 460CNY for 1kg:-)  ( just regret I didn’t take a picture of it that time ) I wonder how much would be a price from this kind of tee in real , but can’t resist temptation to try it.

It’s a regular black tea from bush ( table ) tea leafs mixed with “ya bao” to make a sweet front taste but cant cover up the raw potato taste. Yep, that’s what was the taste of many local teas in the market and we were told : ” this is the flavor we like, we get use to drink this taste”.  The unpleasant scent of boiling raw potato can be  experienced from the hot gai wan lid and also during many infusions.

The truth is, as we learn after, this discomfort odor comes from the bad processing of tea. Very low temp. and short time heat post processing in order to keep the tea leafs and buds “beautiful” has an opposite effect in taste. And as they all here pretend to be doing the black tea for 10 or 20 years, the actual fact is less than half , and so does the experience.

Very trendy marketing strategies are popping out from every 2nd shop. The one of the funniest one is “Dan Zhu Hong or Pu-erh tea” ….tea from one tree. So I just asked tea boss whether he can distinguish if the tea comes from 1 or  2 trees 🙂 After few more “itchi” questions he turned to be more honest 🙂

We are going trough the shops one by one , choosing the right one to sit in and try their tea. When we just trying one qiao mu hong ,the  small truck from Bao Shan comes over and driver starts to offload boxes of tea. Im curious and going to have a look. Jin Ya, Jin  Luo, Da Song Zhen, Jin Si…etc. , all those famous Feng Qing types of tea in Baoshan version coming out from the back of his truck . And , yes, in very low price. Grannie is not happy with quality but when getting a few boxes for almost nothing and reselling few kg to some Shang Hai tea tourists for 5x price saying its local Feng Qing Hong Cha, she is not complaining anymore. We just sitting at the corner and quietly observing all this show how locals do the “real” business.

We are tired of the market, after seeing this I just want to leave from this town at once.  Getting sick of that “game” based on lies , tricks and cheats. I knew the tea business is tricky and Chinese people are “smart”, but didn’t expect this.

 

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We are leaving the market and decided to try one of the local tea factories. Getting invited and for the starter old boss with his son offering try some Gu Shu Cha.  After few cups I’m not happy , feels like just regular bush tea. Saying this to my wife in English which happens the young son understood and passed the message to grandpa.

Reaction was immediate! Grandpa called his “servant” to bring another tea. this time I brew it my self and getting the right sweet buzz under my tongue:-) After few infusions we are getting in price discussion and old man offering ridiculous price with words: ” I see u understand the tea, u know your self , this one is real old tree tea. As I see u are experienced , I wouldn’t dare to ripping you off” .

Well , said that, Im just reacting with half price , saying Im respecting him being honest , but this kind of tea Im getting much cheaper. Without blinking an eye grandpa comes up with 50% discount 🙂

After a while new customers are coming and worker taking them to another room.  Old man is taking the same pu-erh “gu shu” ( the 1st one ) and adding on side of try a bit of the real “gu shu” ( the 2nd one ) , and like a child trying cover it with his body this act when spotted that we are seeing that.

“Is he for real?” I’m asking my wife. I couldn’t understand how boss of big tea factory can behave like this?

samples

We are getting to the black tea tasting. Their tea is ok, without any “potato notes” but price is similar or even higher as on the local market. Another day gone and we still didn’t get our black tea supplier. We almost giving up.

Next day after breakfast we decided just to wander around the town. Its bit messy and noisy from the small old trucks. Granny picking up the fresh tea leafs from bush beside road and drying them on small try in front of her shop, gives kinda authentic feeling that we are in the Tea Town, but we still haven’t figure out how to go around all those lies and cheats.

As we walking around I see a man offloading the tea on the path in front of the tea shop. We have chat with him and finding out , he is the farmer who supplies some tea shops in town.  Without hesitation we asking about his farm and getting an offer to visit.

 

When we got there, we are learning about him ( Mr.Wu ) and his wife.

They used to sell the fresh green leafs from their tea garden to the local big tea factory.
Didn’t take long when they realized options of their own tea business and set up a small tea manufacture.

Mr. Wu got him self employed in cooperated factory first, to get an experience with processing the tea ( since he was just picking fresh leafs up to that time ) and few years later bought a second hand equipment for tea processing.

It is hard for them to compete with big tea factories around,
but as we observed their garden with production , there is no sign of chemicals, pesticides so we decided to choose them as our  Feng Qing black tea supplier.

 

Teas from Wu Family in our shop

 

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Calligraphy Master

Visiting the Calligraphy Master in his humble workshop in north side of Kunming city in Yunnan province.

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Fan De Hui – the calligraphy master and student of famous calligrapher 周慧珺 Zhou Hui Jung
( refer to google for more details ).

Since childhood he was learning and practicing calligraphy as it was tradition in his family. Later studied in Yunnan University where practicing and mastering the calligraphy skills.

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After studies he started working in art studio which didn’t make much money and same time doing some private orders to get extra cash which he invested into journeys to various calligraphy exhibitions. In one of them he met his new teacher Zhou Hui Jung . It took him lots of effort to get to her classes but it was worth for him in any aspect.

WechatIMG56Picture from on of the exhibitions , Fan De Hui with his teacher and daughter.

Fan laoshi mastering Yan Zhen Qing,Li,Xing,Weibei and other typefaces, which he passes over to his new students either in the workshop or visiting other school in Yunnan.

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open class and exhibition

His works are powerful and come in wide variety structures with a strong visual impact.
Because of his proficiency in Chinese traditional culture , his works are usually done in ancient style poetry with essays.

Participating in many exhibitions in China along with other countries like
Japan and South Korea where he has become popular as well.

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calligraphy exhibition in South Korea

We came to visit the master to see his works and get designed the stamps of our shop and some calligraphy designs for our new packaging. We go through the various types of calligraphy and choosing the Han dynasty style for stamps and the classic Xingkai writing for packaging.

Yun Nan Gong Yi – Yunnan Craft and Yuan Cha She – Yuan Tea House , Han Dynasty style.

Drinking very nice tea from old tea trees from masters private collection and admiring other works ( special orders from other customers ).

After cultural enrichment and being doped with some really nice Gu Shu Cha we decided to put some of his works in our online shop.

Fan De Hui profile on Yunnan Craft

 

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Yiwu Pu-erh tea farm

 Organic tea garden – Yiwu , Yunnan Province , China.

farmer : Xiao Zhu  – farmer’s garden 

 

 

(Tea garden of young arbor trees hidden in the forest of Yiwu mountains.)

 

We got an opportunity to put our hands on spring harvest of Yiwu tea leafs from the beginning to the end.

 

 

Picking up the leafs from the arbor trees and then spread them out all over the “bed” ( it is like bed without mattress ) to wilt/wither them for a while.

The tea leafs are pretty warm  as they already started their fermentation process in the basket on the way down from the mountains. The perforated net allows to leafs “breathe” and cool down so the natural fermentation is rapidly slowed down and withering time can be extended which has an important role in taste of the tea and many tea producers experimenting with this part of process . Sometimes go too long and move into the black (red) tea stage.  Some tea manufactures use very efficient cooling system equipped with vents.

purple tea leafs

( As purple tea leafs seems to be a very rare and expensive , in Xiao Zhu’s farm occasionally this type of leafs can be found among the regular green ones.  )

Few hours later the main and the most difficult part of process takes stage.

 

 

Kill green ” Sha Qing ”  – the process which stops enzyme activity in green leafs and therefore stops oxidation / fermentation. Big companies, factories use drum shaped fry machines which guarantees each batch being processed same way and therefore almost similar flavor. Farmers or small producers using big wok pans and processing by hand.

Time, temperature , size of the batch ( amount tea in wok each time of processing ) and technique of flipping over the tea on the pan are the key elements influencing the final flavor and therefore quality of the tea.

  • Time too long – it would be too smokey and kills the sweetness
  • Time to short – turns bitter and watery ( weak taste )
  • Temperature too high –  tea would be roasted like peanuts
  • Temperature too low – you would make a green tea rather than pu-erh tea.

As you can see, the temperature regulator is fully manual and timer is the nose of the master ( he can smell the right flavor and stops the process ).  Each batch is between 5-8kg of fresh leafs. You can do more but its harder to control and you more than likely burn some of the leafs and not fry properly ( evenly ) same time. Smaller amount you would have to flip over much faster and therefore also difficult to keep it under control.

As you can imagine , each batch will have slightly different flavor , so even if the final products like tea cake can differ a bit.

After that immediately put on bamboo trays to cool down and then mechanically rubbed on special machine.

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In some very poor places this process is also done by hand and its very hard.

Naturally sun dried and then separated from the “Huang Pian” yellow leafs. By taking  these leafs out , the final tea is rated much higher ( higher grade ) but most of the farmers prefer to keep them mixed when making the autumn tea. Huang pian it self have quite sweet fruity-plummy taste and farmers use them for daily drinking tea.

The final stage is pressing into cakes , balls or bricks and wrapping.

 

 

Then it will show up in our shop 2017 Yi Wu Da Shu

 

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Pu-erh tea sanctuary

Lahu-village

We are in south-west of Yunnan going to some remote La Hu Zu ( Lahu people ) village located deep in the mountains at 2000m alt. The old muddy zig-zag road is too long and we have to transfer in another village where we are waiting almost 4h for the next bus which of course goes only once a day and we are lucky to have a seats.

After few hours the engine of local coach gets overheated and we stopping somewhere in the middle of the forest.

engine   Starts raining and burning engine smoke fills the bus ( driver opened engine cover inside the bus but didn’t bother open the door to get some fresh air in ).

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We are getting in the village late evening and looking for some food, finding out there is nothing except plain noodles with chili and grilled sausage in local «restaurant» built from wood planks and plaster boards.

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Few local drunks at the table and some teenagers having a few beers makes it really authentic. My wife is about to cry and with giving up voice says she wants to go home. To cheer her up a bit I’m replying with sarcasm: “We didn’t have any honeymoon, so there is one now 🙂 ”, and munching on my noodles without considering the fact we have been eating them 3rd time today.parek   Its not only us who came for the tea here, some tea businessman from He Nan is getting winded up by some drunk guy from Lancang who claims to be a tea farmer possessing an old tea trees and offering ridiculous price for whatever tea. The  businessman gives him detailed questions about his garden and trees in there, but man just keep rolling the same sentences as before.

Many “chancers” are here like that. Siran is not bored either, local drunk women is trying to wind her up as well but she is better prepared then her competitor , showing photos of her self with some old tea trees from different area ( as we learned later, not more then 100y old trees around here ). The drunk young ones are laughing at her, hearing when she makes up the stories about having her own tea plantation.
Suddenly, out of nothing, those teenagers starting to fight with each other, without any previous shouting. Since its not a real fist fight , looks like 10y old kids pull and push each other, rolling down on the ground and knocking down the furniture, Im not paying attention to much and having a laugh when Siran gets freaked out.
The fight is becoming like a snowball and gradually more and more people are getting involved , including the seniors and it escalates to the smashing bottles stuff. It stopped to be funny anymore and when one of the young ones grabs the timber log and starts smashing things around, it just time for us to pay and run.
Getting in the tea house of the family we are staying in and trying various teas they have collected from the locals. Many of them are very smoky, too smoky. There is only one which stands out and we take it, but unfortunately they have last 1kg left. – Nuo Fu Lao Shu

There are few more to try but we are so tired and its too messy in my mouth after tasting all those bed teas before. There is only one bus a day which is 7:30 am and we don’t want to stay another day here, so have to get up 6am to try some other teas.
Its a 1st I’m drinking sheng pu so early morning. Finally we are taking some small ( Nuo Fu Xiao Qiao Mu ) and big trees ( Nuo Fu Da Shu ) batch  and we also really liked their autumn Gu Hua  ( Nuo Fu Xiao Qiao Mu – Gu Hua ).

Getting also some black tea , shu pu samples and more importantly, connection with nice people making organic tea.

 

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