The tea pickers of Yunnan

For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. The first leg of this journey takes us along the Lancang River, the land where the tea tree was born.

The tea pickers of Yunnan

For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. The first leg of this journey takes us along the Lancang River, the land where the tea tree was born.

You have to walk along the swimming pool to find the path. The pavilion is located below, tucked out of the way. At first your eyes cannot find it, and then it is so conspicuous you wonder how you could have missed it. Beneath my feet, I felt the smooth round pebbles and let myself be carried along by the lane’s natural slope, protectively shaded by banana trees, mango trees, and bougainvillea. The tea gardens stretched out on either side, like the fingers of a long, awkwardly drawn hand. A scrawny hen followed by her chicks pecked the base of the bushes; only the sound of the dead leaves rustling in her wake hinted at her presence. That morning, a smell of mint rose from the earth, still refreshed by the dew. I entered the pavilion: It smelled of varnished wood and rubber floor mats. Blood-red vases perched on small tables held branches bearing glistening leaves. I opened the windows wide. Withered tea flowers littered the wooden patio. They looked like little drunken bees scattered across the deck of a departing boat. I took long, deep breaths. I inhaled this silky green perfume, the smell of spring on Jingmai Mountain where, just steps away, humans first grew tea. These peoples are known as the Lahu, Bulong, Dai, Yi, or Wa and still live in these remote valleys, cultivate a few acres of land and, dressed in their colorful clothes, go down to the big market at Lancang, a whirl of dust with the noise of snarling motorcycles, selling ears of corn, wild bee swarms, tea bricks, buckwheat pancakes, or trinkets. The day before, I had eaten fish from the Mekong, white Bauhinia flowers, bitter tea leaves, and orchid honey. Guided by insistent music, I began to slowly move my body, restraining it from pursuing its panting quest born of persistent urban agitation, imposing it into silence, into controlled twists, with the careful focus on the Void that yoga requires. When I opened my eyes, there they were. One, then two, three, and finally four. The tea collectors were coming. A man, a few women, protected from the rising sun by canvas hats that covered the backs of their necks, wicker baskets around their waists. With curved backs, they repeated the same careful movements – a bud, two leaves – all day long, the meticulous selection of this tender froth in the midst of a rolling, seemingly endless green sea. When I left, a bag filled with this precious provender was on the ground. The hens were pecking nearby. Come evening, from a delicate little bowl, I could inhale that ineffable yellow scent – floral, round, and mild, with a hint of fresh, bracing bitterness: the Seng Cha of Jingmai, the taste of the original tea.

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