This year has been interesting. We’ve spent the past month travelling around Xishuangbanna. We managed to rent/borrow a 4×4 for most of our time here & could travel a bit further afield and visit more remote places.
Driving in China is really a test of nerves. Despite having a comprehensive system of road traffic regulations, it basically comes down to a few simple points.
1. The bigger vehicle has right of way. Lorrys->Buses->Jeeps->Cars->Motorbikes->Electric Scooters->Bicycles->pedestrians
2. If you encounter a smaller vehicle, use the horn excessively and continue to drive in any direction you wish
3. Use the horn and flash the lights some more while watching out for drunken kamakaze motorbike riders swerving across the road with 1-4 men, women and children clinging onboard
Despite this test of nerves and inevitable hair loss, being able to drive opened up a new level of freedom and control in making our puerh this year. For some of the mountains this year, we worked with a friend living in Xishuangbanna who has facilities for processing the fresh leaves and we hired a couple of people to help us with the shaqing (kill green) and rounian (rolling) of the leaves. This enabled us to buy fresh leaves from the mountains and drive them back to process them ourselves completely by hand, ensuring greater consistency of the processing and more confidence in the source of the leaves. We also made a small test production, working with a farmer in Yiwu to collect fresh leaves from Guafengzhai and process them by hand back at his studio in Yiwu.
Unless staying with the farmer, having built up some relationship and overseeing the whole process, when buying dried maocha from the mountain, the only control one can have is to buy or leave the finished tea. The leaves have already been picked and processed with whatever skill (or lack of skill) the farmer happens to have. It is difficult to verify exactly where the leaves have come from and often farmers are less than wholly receptive to requests for hygiene, for complete hand processing and for extra care to be take with the leaves. Some farmers like to process the leaves completely, earning a higher profit in the end, but others are content to pick the leaves and sell the fresh leaves at the end of the day or, better yet, allow you and some hired tea pickers to pick their trees and pay them by weight for the fresh leaves.
As in previous years, working on our own, I could see that instead of helping the situation in Yunnan, we were contributing to what I saw as many of the problems Yunnan was facing. Turning up at a farmers house for a few days, staying with them and buying their leaves wasn’t helping to influence the farmers to care of the trees or the environment in any meaningful way. Once I was gone, life would return to normal and the only thing remembered would be the wad of cash in their hands. This approach has concerned me for some time. It’s so prevalent in the mountains, with expensive 4×4’s full of Guangzhou businessmen turning up with no concern for the effect their cash is having on the minority people and the remote environments. This is one of the main reasons we teamed up with our local friend for some of our teas. He lives there all year round, travels regularly to the mountains and builds up long term relationships with farmers in a way that would be impossible for us on our own. He is also one of the few people I’ve come across in Xishuangbanna, actively trying to educate local minorities to care for the environment, to handprocess their leaves and to protect the ancient trees. I hope in future years we can work with him more and more.