Yunnan or ‘yun’nan’, to locals and Han Chinese is exactly translated as ‘south (nan) of the clouds (yun)’. It is a geography that takes a certain pride in its priorities of life and in its frontier history. Food, mountains, drink, and an ability to slow things down a bit when the world around endeavors to speed things up, are all part of the Yunnan weave. Only formally taken into the Chinese ‘fold’ during the reign of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century, this region, in its time, had been ruled by indigenous Yi and Bai peoples; it had been a kind of penal colony for the Dynasties’ rougher elements, and a vital trade and transport hub along the South Silk Road and the Ancient Tea Horse Road. It is also still known for its smuggling and tight mountain passages that wander through a thousand valleys. Throughout all of this interesting and life-giving change, it has hosted ancient tea trees and some of the most colorful and intense tea markets anywhere – tea being one of those few luxuries seemingly shared by all within the province. I was once told that Yunnan was “the province that runs on the slowest wheels in China”…something must have clicked, because Yunnan, with its indigenous-heavy flavour of food, pace and slightly exotic essence, is, for most of every year, my home.
Yunnan’s provincial capital of Kunming was widely considered a ‘hardship’ posting by political administrators of the past, though today the city seems to lie somewhere between its ‘eternal spring city’ moniker and ‘striving to become bigger and bigger still’. Kunming does, however, hold a gem of the ancient world…a proper tea market, a cha chang. It should at the very least…it is the ‘tea province’ after all.
Fifteen minutes outside Kunming’s ever-widening downtown bustle, any taxi driver worth his shoes will get you to the ostentatiously named Jin Shing (Gold Star) Cha Chang.
My own taxi driver (and his shoes) gets me to the arches announcing the imminent entry into an unofficial tea zone. Along the same main street, but falling under the shadow of the market, lie a supporting cast of tea table shops, tea wrapping shops, water boiler shops specifically for tea, tea cup shops – an entire service industry paying homage to the green leaf.
Rain squalls bend this way and that in the grey air and surfaces are covered in a summer sheen of fresh rain. There is that narcotic waft of rain hitting hot asphalt floating about. Every step further into the tea market might prove anticlimactic to the first time visitor or anyone expecting an ornate and cerebral worship to tea’s delicate and often over complicated habits. Here, very little ceremony is paid to anything beyond that which makes a good pot of tea, and a sale.
This is a rough and ready wholesale tea market where bulk tea is sold and where a surprising jumble of stunning teas can be had for very little money. Tourists don’t often make it out here, which instantly qualifies it for special status. The less the fuss, the more likely it is to be a good tea…in these parts at least.
Jin Shing itself is a huge block of alleys with vans, boxes and shops running riot with tea in shapes and consistencies. Everything from bulk produced teas for mass market (which aren’t necessarily the worst teas) to classic, genuine old teas that the odd buyer might give an appendage for – me for instance.
Outside the market area, cargo vans and trucks wait in the same spot every day for their turn to make deliveries of the eternal green. On some days, tons of tea are transported within their cargo holds; on other days, ‘mere’ kilos are whisked away aboard scooters. Credit cards are rarely accepted. Tea is still a commodity whose value is in instant cash…in one case, while peeking at a ledger, I saw a column of names all with red checks beside them – every name represented a fully paid up customer. Product for money – no debts, no IOU’s – part of an older more tangible world, when things were on the table and clearer.
Part of the joy in being amidst wall-to-wall tea is the informality with which this vibrant leaf is treated – not that it isn’t appreciated – it is everything and more to its handlers and sellers, but the fact is that tea is still something entirely of and for this world. Women outside of shops sort the riff from the raff. Piles of tea sit in silent, waiting heaps, their future destinations yet to be decided.
During my errant wanderings (and incessant slurping) through the market alleys, I find some great bargains, with the added bonus of meeting sellers who aren’t interested so much in conning you as they are in impressing you. Kunming (as with many big cities in mainland China) is rife with tea shops hustling gorgeously wrapped, opulently served teas, poured by young women whose knowledge and skill in tea’s ‘real’ qualities is next to none…and of course the real tragedy is that the teas they are procuring are often complete frauds. Here in the un-fancy market areas, most sellers are delighted to serve any tea that one fancies and chat the day away. Spend enough time in one shop and a meal will be served to counter balance the enormous (and coveted ‘buzz’) from all of the tea consumed. In one tea fed frenzy of liquid lust, a bulk tea seller excitedly leads me into a small room tucked behind his cash station and I stop dead.
On a hastily assembled shelf lie a series of tea ‘tubes’ – appearing misshapen and almost dusty – row after row of genuinely old tea that has aged naturally over time, without the artificial ‘turbo-charged’ fermentation process most commonly used in the present incarnations of ‘shou’ (cooked/fermented black Puer). My host tells me that this little room is only “available” for those who actually know an old tea. Once a week on a designated night, he tells me, his buddies come over to crack a wedge off and share his good ‘old tea’ fortune. He and I both have the pinpoint eyes and rib-cage sweats of those in the throes of tea ecstasy. The subject of old tea gets my host into a veritable froth.
Unlike the trend of accumulating and drinking old tea, which has gripped and confused an already complicated and often ignorant marketplace, this sort of consumption amongst friends (who can actually determine a genuine old tea) is a tribute to the old ways of sharing. When I query the seller about old tea, he can’t quite keep the sneer off his face and states with a nice bit of venom, “Most people wouldn’t know an old tea if they bathed in it”.
Teas that are genuinely old and aged are rare and guarded. They often appear to be ‘rotten’, or entombed in their own imperfections of shape, but in a little bit of wonderful irony, it is these that are most often the legitimate heirs to the term, “old tea”. If one was to believe what one sees and hears in tea shops, one would think that every second shop has a thirty or fifty-year-old tea simply lying around errantly waiting for the masses to realize its virtues…not so. Genuine old teas are whisked off to safe houses to be consumed or gloated about – not left lying around casually.
Needing something bitter to reactivate the tongue cells, I look for a burst of something green and unfermented, and find a corner tea stall with its teas spread out like spices for inspection. Flattened leaves, balled and coiled leaves, roasted, toasted and fried leaves all claim their small spaces on nearby plates.
Minutes later I have inevitably defaulted to a nicely astringent unfermented Pu’erh, and minutes after that, I leave with two bags of ‘goods’ tucked under my arm (and one in my backpack), including a wrinkled little bag with a hunk of ‘old’ dusty tea. ‘Never leave empty’ is as complete a philosophy as I can think of in the world of tea.