Journey to The Origin: Nannuo Shan Ancient Tea Trees
Nannuo Shan, China, is a place that seems unaffected by the changing world around it. In a country where fast-paced change seems inescapable, Nannuo Shan marches to its own tune. Preservation of this region of Yunnan can be attributed to the local Hani minority people who inhabit the mountain, and deeply value its protection. Hani have found a way to maintain their traditional culture, local ecology, and gently-paced lifestyles, despite the whirlwind of development surrounding them. Preservation of culture and conservation of ecological conditions were but two of the astounding features that The Tea Spot team noticed on our trip to Nannuo Shan last April, where we first connected with the tea masters who craft our Wild Harvest Green Pu’erh tea.
We arrived by van, driven by a dear friend and soon-to-be mother Yuan Meizhi (Yuen may-jur). She escorted our team several kilometers up the mountain, passing through two small villages that seemed to be inhibited by more roosters than people. Although these towns felt small, it was apparent that they were flourishing with life. The abundant livestock roamed around the villages by their own free-will, seeming carefree and content. This laissez-faire attitude was also reflected in the people of Nannuo Shan. Unlike urban China, people of Nannuo appeared relaxed, and walked with an air of cool confidence.
These people were not caught up in the hustle and bustle of the world around them. They lived slow, lived happily, and what soon became apparent to us, lived quite comfortably.
As I translated Yuan Meizhi’s commentary into English for our small cohort, I found myself telling the story of Nannuo Shan. These people were among the poorest residents in China until the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Around that time is when the world found out about their lush natural landscape and ancient tea tree gardens. Starting then, demand for Nannuo Shan tea skyrocketed, which lifted the local residents out of poverty. During our trip, it felt evident that this area was experiencing a transformative time in their history. The residents clearly had money now – we saw a few brand new Ford pick-up trucks and a couple of larger houses being built. Despite the apparent influx of cash, the forests remained untouched. This harmonious balance of old and new became more clear when we arrived at the residence of a local Hani family.
The household tea operation was a family-run affair, consisting of two brothers in their late 20’s, their Hani wives and parents. The little structure next to the main home included all the necessary equipment for processing traditional Nannuo Shan tea. The lower floor had two large wood-stove woks for high-heat fixing of fresh tea leaves. The upper floor felt like a greenhouse – a warm, bright room encased by glass, where tea was laid out to air-dry. After having tea with the Hani brothers in their home, we were eager to get out to the jungle.
We entered Nannuo Shan’s famous old-growth forest, where 300-plus year-old tea trees were growing wild in all directions. The jungle had a high canopy that protected it from outside light, providing an atmosphere that made you feel as if you’ve entered another world completely. Sounds felt softer, muted by the moss and damp earth. Rich vegetation crawled out of every inch of soil. The world before our eyes was exploding with deep verdant greens in lush tones that I had never seen. The air felt cool and comfortable – moist but far from muggy. It became clear to us why the tea from this jungle had such deep, rich flavor – this place was a perfect microclimate for thriving plant life. That afternoon we stumbled around the forests of Nannuo Shan like kids in a candy shop. Like countryside tourists in Manhattan. Wide eyes up and out, tripping over tree roots that were thick as Rocky Mountain tree trunks. We felt at home.
Exploring that surreal landscape took several hours that went by in a flash. We eventually returned to the Hani brothers tea processing room, where we watched the men get to work on that day’s harvest. On the first floor, we watched the two brothers stand side by side over their respective woks, churning the fresh leaves over again and again by hand. We were there in April during the annual Spring harvest, the busiest time of year for a tea farmer.
Although their day was long, the brothers were in high spirits. Their harvest was going well this year, and on this particular day, they had four funny-looking American tea travelers to keep them entertained. They had cold beers resting on their side tables, and they would occasionally take breaks to snap a picture with one of the travelers in our group. A gorgeous 6’2 blonde-hair blue-eyed Tea Spot employee that they nicknamed “Ali Shan” (after a famously tall tea mountain in Taiwan) was just as intriguing to the two brothers as the rest of the scene was to us. We watched them work, and tried to help out when and where we could. We drank, we laughed, we learned about Hani culture and Nannuo Shan tea. Then, it was time to move along.
We bought 1kg of their homemade tea, processed just a few days earlier. I added the older brothers contact information and told him, “四⽉月再⻅见,兄弟” “See you next April, brother.”