Teatime in Yunnan: Puer, more than Chinese tea
Sightly annoyed, tired, dirty and ultimately lonely we walk out of town. From the last underground station, the city extends further, and we cross empty neighbourhoods, bridges and roads. Blindly, guided only by hearing, we follow the noise of speeding cars running on the highway south. The afternoon is beautiful, and the sun tenderly pets our backpacks, but exhausted, we barely pay attention to pleasant warmth. It takes us a while to reach a spot where we can hitchhike and before we even think of which sign to write, the night turns off the daylight and on the highway lamps. It’s been 365 days since we left our home in Sofia, we feel stranded in Yunnan (China), and we are not in mood for celebration. We are having a bad travellers day.
Kunming under the rain
Kunming was huge. One of those Chinese cities whose presence makes our ignorance evident. Till just a few weeks or months before we would not have even suspected its existence. And there it was, with its 6 million people and a half (more than Madrid!), its commercial roads, its shopping malls, all the offices and companies and the grey hectic feel of a capital – a regional capital, but in the most populated country on Earth. Kunming had taken us by surprise. A silent truckdriver had dropped us in a random street of a neighbourhood in the suburbs at that dead hour of the night which is equally away from dawn and from dusk. We felt like visitors from another universe that had just landed into a city for the first time in their lives. And for a good few hours we simply walked, trying to find our way to the center in the dark. When the morning broke with it came a storm. We simply sat on the steps of a bank, watching thick raindrops fall and a million silent motorbikes squeeze in between dripping umbrellas, growing puddles and feet rushing to work. We had come down to Kunming from the hills of Sichuan, moved by need more than wish, with the only purpose to get a last shot of prescribed rabbies vaccine and make our way to Laos before our visas expiry date.
We had barely slept for a week, hitchhiking day and night in a rush resembling the pace of those heading to work, squatting in the newly built old houses of pretty touristic towns along the way. Lijang, Dali or Shangri La bring memories of dusty floors. No Couchsurfing replies, no friends, no internet and not even a guidebook of Yunnan in our hands. We took hours looking for a hostel that turned out to be rambles of a contrusction site, and we walked all around to find an Embassy that did not exist enymore. And the hospital we had arranged happened not to have the vaccine in the end. Even finding an entrance to the underground was a nightmare. And the rain poured on us, who had nowhere to hide. In between a few helping smiles, we felt surrounded by more “mey yo” (there isn´t, in Chinese) than guiding fingers. There are times in one’s travel when everything looks grimm and lonely, and unfortunately that was Kunming for us. We were two and together, but on a lonely island in a sea of misunderstandings. “Can you speak Chinese?” – Somenone replies when asked for directions. “No. Sorry. Do you think I would try to find my way with signs if I did?”. After the magnificent alien realism of Xinjiang and the colourful friendliness of Tibetans, in Kunming we felt overwhelmed by the most individualistic side of China, one where we felt lost in translation, deserted, misunderstanding building up in all directions.
365 Days of Travel
“Let’s just set the tent and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be another day. A new beginning. The start of a new year on the road. Let’s sleep till tomorow comes”. We walk back from the highway plunging into the sort of landscape one expects to find in the outskirts of an industrial city. A large concrete bridge shelters the improvised toilet of some truckdrivers who are closing their curtains and getting ready for a night in the cabin. We search for a soft spot to pitch the tent, but as it usually happens when one is in bad mood, we can find none. We cross the evening shadows towards a lit building. By the door, a group of young people receives us with smiles, assuring with certainty that the food in the resaurant is delicious. Spirits high up, they ar just coming out of a wedding party. We doubt that our budget can get us anything else than rice and cabbage, but feeling desperately optionless we decide to give it a try. And what a strike of luck this is! Despite our sullen faces, the rice and cabbage come accompanied with a piece of wedding cake, a shower and an invitation to spend the night in the yard. Gratefully, almost in shock by the turn of events, we thank in all languages we know, setting our improvised home. Probably, we think then, our trampy stroll around Asia, a travel in between gaps and along roads, where we sleep more often in yards and floors than on mattresses and beds, could meet no better or more meaningful aniversary celebration than this one. The year is duly complete.
As we spread our temporary camp, a large fluffy rabbit crosses our sight. And we both know that the other one smiles. It’s long to explain how the sight of any individual of this species will always make us sigh with the unexplaianble certainty of being set right by the whims of fortune. A leaping hare will always bring us the calm we need, reminding us that there is a solution to every dilemma, and a safe place at the end of a path. The rabbit is a memory of other journeys, of shelterless travels in our own continent, of following and finding. It’s a good omen, if we dare believing in such stuff. The night of our travel aniversary we sleep sound and safe in a restaurant by the roadside of Yunnan.
Hitchhiking to Laos
In the morning we make it back to the highway just on time to find two Chinese hitchhikers in our spot. Damn it! We walk. Cross the bridge that yesterday saw us underneath itself and into the race field of ferocious cars. A walk along the highway has never been a pleasant one. A few rides with positive vibes garnished with a tasty meal and we start feeling back on track, the roaring highway smiles at us, and we have not been waiting long when we are picked up by a curious character in a tiny car. A girl from the city. Glasses, straight black hair and a soft and carefully maintained beauty. Resembling a porcelain doll, she speaks shily and in a low voice, curiously peeping through our travel stories in between English mistakes and strikes of innocent laughter. In the back seat, a large peaceful white dog spreads saliva over my lap in an unmistakably friendly manner. It will only be in a couple of hours, when we get out of the highway for dinner in a small town, that we realize the girl and the dog are not travelling alone. Dao, her partner, parks his car next to hers. He has been riding all the way behind us and is curious to meet the strangers sharing a seat with his dog.
Puer had always been nothing more than the name of an exotic tea for us. The red water with flavour of earth with which my dad would fill our cups on a Sunday afternoon, and the gift that he will invariably get for Christmas. When we see the name of the tea written on a map we imagine a tiny village perching on green slopes. A small family memory promising to appear by the art of magic in Yunnan. But large road signs by the highway begin to jeer at our georaphical knowledge. Are we heading to a city that has given a name to the tea instead of to a village named after the tea? A few cups of hot water with green leaves and one dinner later we get to know that Puer is indeed a city, the place where Dao comes from, and their destination tonight. By the sort of magic that highway encounters produce, it becomes our destination too.
A home in Yunnan
There is an unexplainable magic in entering a foreign home for the first time. No book or museum will ever tell so well the feeling we experience when brought into the living room of a stranger. A home in Yunnan. How does the kitchen look like? Do people share rooms? Who washes the dishes after dinner? What sort of pictures hang on the walls? In the small wooden house where Dao grew up, a crowd of family members and neighbours gather around. They want to see Dao as much as they would like to stare smilingly at the unexpected strangers. Boris dips into the wonderland of homemade liquors while I insist that I am truly much more into tea than spirits. A doze of real puer would suit me better. And to my surprise, at the touch of the dry leaves, the water turns green instead of red, and a wonderful bitter taste runs down my throat. Amazed, I realize Puer does not taste at all like it did back home.
In the times when tea was carried by horse, when caravans rode unasphalted roads, the leaves were transported from from Yunnan to Beijing, in a long and arduous travel that would take at least 3 months. Just like with the black English tea on the sailing ships, by the time the tea reached the capital it would be rotten, and the fermentation that the travel accidentally triggered would enhance the plants qualities and flavour. What I am drinking today is “natural” Puer tea – someone translates with an iphone – which is called MaoCha. Loose and unfermented leaves with the bitter flavour of green tea, dropped in the boiling water as the simple Chinese custom requires. From these very same leaves, other types of tea are locally made: Seng Cha, raw and compressed leaves or Sou Cha, the Puer that I knew, which undergoes a fermentation process of months or years in bamboo barrels until becoming dark, copper like, and with a characteristic earthly taste. They explain that, just like with the best of wines, there are tea seasons, marking the quality of every year’s harvest, and that one can find tea stored from 50 or 60 years back. I wonder if any manmade process could ever imitate the flavour gained during three months of horse travel and decide, against it, that what we drink has probably nothing to do with the historical Pu-er of the caravan times, buried under tones of pages in the books of history.
By the time my mind comes back to the house, we are already immersed in a loud farewell, and moving somehwere else, to another home where we will spend the night. White walls, modern furniture, neat decoration, a comfortable bed for the first night in ages, beer and more tea. It feels like a day at home, just the view of a tropical garden from the kitchen window reminding us that we are far far away from anywhere we know, in a land of characters instead of letters, of tones, of words and silences we can barely understand, in the land from which tea came to us. We speak of travels, of politics, of identities and life and art. Dao runs a gallery in Kunming, loves mountains, and shows us an impressive collection of nature photographs that makes us wish to come back before we have the chance to leave. I wonder how Kunming would have looked liked if we had met them in the street instead of by the highway. Or even, if we could have ever met them in the city, would they not have been too reserved to talk to us in a park. There are encounters that probably only the invisible fortune of a journey can arrange, the unexpected nature of finding a hitchhiker on your way and deciding its worth picking him up from the roadside.
The Art of Tea
Camellina sinensis. That’s supposed to be the Latin name of the bush through which we swim the slopes. A large-leaf variety of this plant, which apparently only grows in the South West of China and neighbouring zones (Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar). “Old trees are the best” – explains Dao, pointing far away. Unlike other forms of tea, the puer variety apparently tastes best when produced with old leaves from old trees. And the most valuable of all grow wild and hairy (yes! hairy tea leaves) in tea mountains beyond the edges of town. There, tea gatherers must go and find them – like tea hunters searching for a hairy and old prey around the hills, I picture them in my mind, while we walk and talk along the hills surrounding the city.
We are a bit in a rush to make it to Laos, less than two days of visa left and one never knows how hitchhiking will go. But back in town we tell Dao we can’t leave the place without some bags of tea, and we make it to the market for a short stroll around a display of tea sculptures. Because there is one more curious thing about Puer, that it comes in fancy shapes: Bĭngchá (饼茶) disc tea, round and flat; Túochá (沱茶), shaped like a bowl; Zhuānchá (砖茶) that is a brick…and a million more. There are even towers, letters, and dragons…”Many are just decorative – the shop owner says – We would not drink that horse, for example”. But we can take some of this and some of that, and a few hundred grams of this one too, we go around filling paper bags with our last yuans.
Just a few hours and kilometers later, we reach the edge of Yunnan, the manmade border that says tomorrow we will step into somewhere else. There are no Daos and no homes and no friends around once again, and just like we came into the country a couple of months back, we have reached its other border without local cash. One more rooftop, on more squat for our last night under the Chinese stars. In our camping stove we cook rice and tea beforea falling asleep, realizing that a cup of puer will from now on always be a cup of memories. Sitting in Dao’s living room, it brought me back home to a family afternoon, and at home – in Sofia or in Madrid, whenever we get there – it will always have the scent of a home in Yunnan, it will be a reminder that kindness hides behind unexpected turns. And that we should always, always, trust the good luck brought by a jumping hare.
DO YOU KNOW THIS GUY?
Dao runs a gallery in Kunming call Sheyi. In a last minute rush, the only contact we got was an art catalogue with his website (www.18531853.com), which no longer seems to work. If by any chance you know this guy or his artspace or can give us a hint of how to get back in touch, please let us know. We will be most grateful.
Happy encounters to you all!
This post is part of the series “Teatime Stories”. Tales of everyday life, of travelling encounters and sometimes even of tea. They won’t tell what to visit, what to do, how to travel or where to go. They are the windows through which we peep into the mundane realities of those we meet. They are the untold stories of normal people, of their worries and wonders, of their homes and kitchens. To read more of them, click here.