Shy and smashed buckleless in the backseat, Xiaoyao and her whole family sped me from the airport to their village. They spoke to me and laughed nervously when I could only smile in return. In the morning, we wove through thick traffic three to a scooter, munched on strangely delicious street snacks and sipped fresh soy milk from plastic bags with straws stuck in them.
Few people spoke English beyond Hi and Bye--which is more than I could muster in their dialect by the end of my trip. Xiaoyao’s nine-year-old niece skipped ahead to a concession stand. She pulled some bills from her Hello Kitty purse and purchased a large plastic bag of treats. She swung it alongside herself as she skipped and sang and snacked. I assumed it was a Chinese style cotton candy, but, on second glance, it seemed dark and slimy… with toes. She was, all a-glimmer, eating chicken feet. My first impression of Chinese culture was this: happy children, bellies full of China and heads filled with North America.
We spent days in the tea markets of Kunming, tasting and buying teas freshly harvested from within a few hundred miles. Xiaoyao translated for me as we sipped hundreds of teas for hours. The green and white teas were floral, fresh, sweet, and bright. Assessing the black teas required a skill I had not yet learned: tasting the future. Freshly harvested black tea doesn’t have all the character it will have after a few months’ time. I tasted pure gold, light, bright flavors, and purchased them knowing by the time they reached Oregon they will have gained the body, depth and complexity I so love.
Then we went to the top of the world. The tea mountains stand 10,000 feet high and a few hours’ flight from Kunming, the capital of the province. A young man in a jean jacket and white collared shirt met us outside the airport terminal. I tried to greet him by his name and everyone laughed. Xiaoyao told me, “no you are calling him short. It’s like this…” and she repeated the same sound I heard before: shauw dwan. I repeated, and everyone laughed again.
Xiaoduan drove us a long way to the base of the tea mountains and then up its winding, dirt roads. I bumped up against the glass then bounced so high my head hit the ceiling. Below the steep edge of the road I saw miles of tea gardens interspersed with forest, orange groves, vegetable plots, bright yellow flowers, and every so often a little village tucked into a fold of the hills.
I sat in the back corner of the car listening to their tones and exchanges, trying to guess their meanings while holding a look of gratitude and interest on my face. I learned that the tea farmers themselves had built these roads. Not long ago, tea was very difficult to transport out of the mountains. They barely had roads adequate for horses. Now, scooters are the primary transportation mode and cars are a tight squeeze. We often made 5 point turns, two wheels kissing a cliff and the other two lodged in a ditch.
We slept that night in one of the rooms in Xiaoduan’s tea factory. He constructed his own screens to spread the fresh tea leaves out to dry—a much cleaner method than many factories who still lay their leaves on the floor. We saw the large bowls where skilled workers fire the leaves and the fire pits underneath that heat them.
Observing the community of the tea mountains—those who only rented land, to families who had single small woks off the side of their kitchens, to people like Xiaoduan who both owned plenty of space for processing tea, also owned acreage for growing tea, and bought more tea from many surrounding families—I learned that there is far more economic mobility in this segment of the tea industry than I had imagined.
Late into the night, tucked up close to the stars, they drink tea and laugh and laugh. Brothers, cousins, friends. I thought that there were “owners” and “workers,” much like Indian tea plantations whose organizational structures are shadows of their colonial histories. Mountains, though, have a way of avoiding mono-crops and economic exploitation.
We went to a place called Bing Dow and a man in camo jeans and an ill-fitting hat showed us his six 1000-year-old tea trees. Not so many years ago, the roads in the mountains were too poor to transport tea efficiently out of the mountains. He barely made ends meet. But as China’s economy boomed, their upper class clamored for Bing Dow.
Now, his tea yields the highest profits in all the world. He had become a multimillionaire peasant. He led us into his white-walled, clean and bright tea room and we sat around a large, intricately carved tea table. I can’t imagine how he got it up these roads. He washed a handful of wild, copper green leaves in his gaiwan and poured the tea into small cups for each of us. “Be careful,” Xiaoyao warned. “Don’t drink too much.” I sipped the earthy, astringent liquor slower than the others. They talked—people sit and talk a lot in China—and I stopped minding that I could not understand the conversation, I stopped trying to look alert.
Their words washed over me like air. The pattern in the wood grew exquisite: the rich mahogany glowed brighter, the carvings seemed to come alive, and except that I’d begun to burp, I believe I might have left my body and the room altogether to glide down amongst the tea gardens and look down at our lovely planet.
Below are some teas we buy from the area. Our blends have ingredients that come from many different places, but the tea itself is from this area.