It is commonly remarked that Yiwu is like the queen of puerh tea, while Banzhang is the king. The soft rounded character of Yiwu is contrasted by the intensely strong, bitter flavour and powerful chaqi of Banzhang. Due to the high demand and subsequent sky high prices (up to 1800RMB/US$260 per kg) of Banzhang tea in recent years, it’s unlikely that the vast majority of Banzhang tea on the market is actually pure.
With the myth surrounding Banzhang, this was the place I was most excited to be able to go to on this trip and it was as we were driving for 2 hours up possibly the worst track I’ve ever driven on that I had time to contemplate the different terrains and contrasting flavours of each area. Just like the teas, compared with the smooth bus ride right into Yiwu village, there’s nothing smooth about Banzhang – it’s rugged and hard, not for the casual sightseer. You really have got to want to go to this place.
Time and time again we winced and felt bad for our kind driver as he scraped the bottom of his van across another rock or ridge, realising why he’d said that it was pretty much impossible to get to Lao Banzhang without a 4×4.
Suddenly the road forked, we stopped for a brief rest from the boneshaking track and viewed the scenery. We were greeted by a sign informing us of our choice… left road Lao (Old) Banzhang and to the right Xin (New) Banzhang.
It seems that up until around 1940 these villagers lived as one community and split up to farm an adjacent mountain, creating a new village and transplanting some tea trees from the old village.
Since we were to call in on one of Erduo’s friends later for lunch in Xin Banzhang, we took the left track and continued our negotiation of the hazardous track to Lao Banzhang.
Upon arriving at the town I was surprised to find a barrier in the way with some men sitting in a hut. As we pulled up they got up and peered through the windows, checking the floor of the car where we were sitting and peering into the back. Due to the crazy heights that the price for Banzhang tea has reached in recent years and the lucrative potential for selling tea from other places as ‘Banzhang’, the villagers have placed a ban on bringing other tea into the village. This goes some way towards ensuring that the tea within Lao Banzhang village is actually from Lao Banzhang, although I’m sure there’s bound to be other ways for someone with a strong wish to smuggle tea into the village.
We pulled up into the centre of the village and took a walk around. It seems that a Hong Kong company had bought all the maocha from the second spring picking, and every farmer collectively had agreed to sell only to them. If we wanted to buy any maocha we had to do it at the one official tea trading post in the town, and could only buy a few kilograms if we wanted any at all. This was fine by me, even at the current price which is 1/2 – 1/3 of last years price, this is still expensive tea at US$90 per kg.
We sat and tasted, wishing as we encountered the bitter Banzhang tea that we’d eaten something before.
This tea was bitter, too bitter even for Banzhang. Upon inquiring, we were told that because of the exceptionally heavy rain this Spring, the second picking all possessed this harsh flavour. Luckily there were a few kilos of the first Spring picking available for us to taste. This was much better. Still possessing the strong Banzhang ku [bitterness], this was much less harsh and more aromatic, with a lasting huigan [pleasant aftertaste]. “We’ll take some of this, but just a kilo each”.
Our tea was weighed out and we left, with a couple of shopping bags filled with maocha. We had a brief look around the village, before hurredly getting back in the car, on our way towards lunch to fill our aching stomachs.
Our venue for lunch was at Erduo’s friend’s house in Xin [New] Banzhang. Back onto the track!
Luckily when we reached the junction to Xin Banzhang the road became (comparitively) more smooth, and the few remaining miles to Xin Banzhang were much more comfortable. Before ariving at the village, as with Lao Banzhang, there was the standard barrier and scrutiny of the contents of our car to prevent tea smuggling. Luckily they seemed uninterested with the few kilograms of maocha we’d picked up in Lao Banzhang – presumably they’re really only interested in someone bringing sackfulls of tea into the village
First before lunch, we had some more tea. Luckily the Xin Banzhang tea was much less bitter and more easy for our aching stomachs.
Lunch was a pleasure, a feast of tasty dishes, followed by yet more tea. Having already spend more than we could afford on Lao Banzhang maocha, we declined the offer to be able to purchase some Xin Banzhang maocha, but upon our leaving, we were each presented with a plastic bag stuffed full of maocha anyway. Such kindness.
And so, after a brief look around the village, back into the van to begin our journey back home. Pretty much the end of our tea trip and a pleasant end to a very special week.