This week’s dream
A journey to the birthplace of tea
“To walk any street in China is to understand the adage ‘Drink tea, make friends,’” said Lisa See in National Geographic Traveler. I did plenty of both during a recent trek through the birthplace of tea, in the mountains of Yunnan province. Tea tourism has taken off in recent years, and like many others, I arrived at the height of tea-picking season seeking pu-erh, the most valuable and most collected tea in the world. And though I was traveling with expert guides who brought me to tea factories and introduced me to tea dealers, the most memorable moments were often serendipitous—such as when we stopped at a farmer’s house at the forest’s edge and the owner insisted we sample his home brew.
Throughout China, tea drinking is integral to daily life. “On just about any corner, men can be found sitting on upturned crates or at modest open-air shops, drinking tea from glass jars and reading newspapers.” Tea can also be a marker of status, which is why when local tea master Chen Guo Yi arrives to meet us in our hotel, he is treated like a celebrity. At his famous tea shop, we taste a musky pu-erh that can sell for $8,000 a kilo. Chen asks me to look for its hui gan, or returning flavor. “As I sip the tea, flavor rises from the back of my throat and fills my mouth with a minty, refreshing sensation. This is without doubt the most delicious tea I’ve ever tasted, and I’m extremely lucky to be a guest.”
“There are those who say tourism has ruined Yunnan,” but neither the region’s natural wonders nor its deep-rooted culture has been spoiled, and “tea offers a unique way to explore both.” On Nannuo Mountain, I meet a family of farmers who were able to escape poverty because of the growth of tea tourism. The local tea our hostess serves has unique floral notes, and she shows us how it’s made—teaching me how to pluck the tea buds one by one and lay them out where they can, as she puts it, “absorb the sun’s fragrance.” Several more steps follow, including tossing the tea leaves in a giant wok over a roaring fire. Though the process is painstaking, “the aroma is intoxicating.” ■