It was my first visit to Yunnan, one of the three poorest provinces in China, where millions live below the poverty line. When traveling across the region, the lack of wealth shows. Leave the handful of major cities and the roads become much more difficult to navigate. Apartment buildings become single-story brick houses, which in turn become tin shacks and wooden huts. But its landscape is beautiful, and its bounty plenty. The most famous of Yunnan’s products is pu’er tea. The prototypical brew is served in practically every Chinese restaurant around the world, regardless of whether or not the rest of the menu is legitimately Chinese.
Good pu’er is one of my favorite hot beverages. I used to have it every Sunday during dim sum brunches with my family. Whether in a Midwestern Chinese buffet spot, an Asian fusion restaurant in Milan, or any standard family-style Chinese diner, a pot of pu’er automatically appears on the table before you order anything. In a culture where eating until you are about to burst is a normal part of most meals, pu’er’s supposed digestive benefits make it indispensable. Being in Yunnan made me hopeful about spoiling myself with some good tea.
To my disappointment, pu’er tea doesn’t proliferate the province like I thought it would. Teahouses are easy to locate in Kunming, the capital, but they feel contrived, built to cater to the expectations of tourists instead of cultivating their own character. Shops that sell pu’er dot the city, but vend the same stuff that’s sold in any grocery store around the country.
In a culture where eating until you are about to burst is a normal part of most meals, pu’er’s supposed digestive benefits make it indispensable.
Yunnan lacks airports, so traveling from one town to another requires spending twenty-odd hours on a sleeper bus. The ride is never kind. It’s often plagued by minor issues like engine problems or leaky water tanks. The trips take much longer than they should. On one 26-hour journey, we make frequent stops so that the engine could cool down. Engine components have to be replaced several times. The water tank leaked and had to be refilled whenever there was a hose nearby. We stop at the equivalent of greasy spoon roadside diners, where ¥20 gave you three sides and a bowl of rice, plus soup. No tea is served, but every carbonated drink and fake juice ever conceived by mankind can be found in the lukewarm fridge. They even sell glass vials of glucose solution, marked “FOR INJECTION” but sucked out in a single gulp with a plastic straw. At one stop, I spot a few bulbs of pu’er stacked like a pagoda—a common decorative motif—behind the counter. I ask if I could have a cup of tea. The cook laughs as he turns and saunters back into the kitchen.
Tea trees grow along Yunnan’s Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called pu’er. Some of these trees are over a millennium old, and harvests take place during spring, summer, and autumn. The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, Pu’Er, where dozens of manufacturers produce their own blends according to recipes passed down for generations. The leaves are fermented for at least three months and up to several years, ending up as either sheng (raw) tea or shou (ripe) tea. Longer fermentation periods produce much more complex flavors, and aged pu’er can go for tens of thousands of dollars for less than a pound. Before the fermented tea is packaged, it is pressed into various shapes: bricks, cakes, mushrooms, melons, pellets for single-person use, and any other shape that can be formed with a mould.
The Chinese think of pu’er much like the French think of Bordeaux. Terroir matters. The period of aging matters. The blend matters.
At one of our stops, a few men are using the communal water pipe, a fixture at every stop. Friends from the US and Western Europe have mistaken it for an opium pipe, and I’ve seen pictures of it in news reports about drug use in China and Burma. We had been driving by field after field of tea trees, and old women could be seen plucking leaves and placing them in massive baskets strapped to their backs. Yet tea culture didn’t seem to be present by the tea plantations. The tea I wanted to drink was so close, but seemed unattainable. I was carrying two packets of pu’er cigarettes, a novelty picked up from a tourist gift shop, but the idea of slicing one of the smokes open to make tea—as I was told could be done—seemed a little uncouth.
Pu’er has a storied history. It is what 10th-Century Tibetans wanted from China, so they traded war ponies for bricks of the stuff. The Tea Horse Roads, along which men carried more tea than their own bodyweight, are now abandoned. Tea porters no longer exist, but the routes are considered a national heritage in China.
I was carrying two packets of pu’er cigarettes, a novelty picked up from a tourist gift shop, but the idea of slicing one of the smokes open to make tea seemed a little uncouth.
I ask some fellow passengers who are sharing the water pipe about tea in the countryside. Why is it nowhere near as available as in the city? “Because tea is kept as something special here,” one says dismissively between hits. “It’s enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. It’s not something that’s just part of a meal.”
That’s when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making pu’er. They’re part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, it’s not an afterthought during mealtime. Pu’er tea bulbs are more like Murano glass vases than the loose leaves you might have in your pantry.
The repairs are complete and we ride on. There aren’t any street lamps along the pockmarked mountain roads. We’re miles away from any city. Darkness engulfs the tea fields, wild, or otherwise. The tea farmers have long retired. Stars glow in the sky. They’re the same stars that the tea porters saw each night on their way to Tibet after unloading 80 kilos of fermented tea cakes from their backs.
I try to take in the aroma of the land, but all I can smell is exhaust.