We left Xiamen behind and went on a plane. We haven’t been on an aeroplane for over a year now and while we have seen our friends repatriating and having to navigate queues for check-in, transfers and bag collection we had none of that… except that we did have 5 minutes of queuing in the wrong queue for Amsterdam that looped the terminal twice! Thankfully the men went off to check that we were in the correct queue which of course we weren’t!
Having got ourselves in the correct check-in queue we successfully made in through having the right health codes, check-in, bag drop, body searches, document checks and hand luggage check (I forgot about the buried bottle of sun cream in my bag), we grabbed a Starbucks (I had already purchased the Xiamen mug) and arrived at the gate just as we were being called. All perfectly timed. 3 hours later and we arrived at Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province. At every city we arrive in, we must register for a green QR health code that means we haven’t been anywhere high risk. On arrival at the airport everyone tested irrespective of where we had come from.
110kms from the Myanmar border and 170kms from Laos we are in the south west of China in a place that apart from the locals, does not feel Chinese. The sign-posts are in Chinese, Dai (a minority) and English. The food is a mixture of Dai/Thai and with over 1500 words similar between the two it is really easy to see how this area blends in with its neighbours.
I had been eating dinner in Suzhou the night before the holiday and I mentioned that we were going to Xishuangbanna, one of the women at the table said – ooh I have a guide’s name that I can share with you. And so Sam the guide was befriended on WeChat. He offered two hikes one through the rainforest at 18kms and the other through tea plantations a 15km hike. We wanted to do both, neither were billed suitable for kids and as it ended up, it was just Martin and I that did the tea hike.
I now know more about tea than I have done ever and we did parts of the hike that gave rainforesty vibes (if not actual rainforest – then it was because we were in a forest when it rained). Martin and I were suitably dressed for hiking. I didn’t have any closed toe shoes with me so had to opt for my trusty Merrell walking sandals. At some parts of the hike I did wander what was beneath the mulch. Thankfully we were on a concrete road and 2kms away from the car when we saw a king cobra. – well I saw a snake that I initially thought was a hose that someone was reeling in. But Sam id’d it as a King Cobra about 2m in length. It didn’t hang around for a decent photo. The other wildlife we saw were termites, chickens, chicks (my new word for them is chicklings), a grasshopper, several butterflies, 2 mountain crab and teeny weenie bees.
Our guide was from the Dai minority though the villages we walked through are home to the Akha minority. No matter how we entered the villages, either by foot on a forest track or on a concrete road, built by the state, each village is accessed through a gate. These gates are decorated on either side by a powerful strong man and a woman and some had dogs too. The main gate had a side gate either side of it and these side gates are to be accessed by “bad” people – including twins. The powerful men are well endowed…
On our journey through the villages we saw polytunnels which are used for drying the tea in all weathers, many also have mini brick ovens built into the side of the house for roasting the tea. We also saw ramshackle houses and houses that were very ostentatious. Those houses have very old tea trees. The older the tea tree, the more money you get as you sell your finished tea. In 2007, science got involved and said that the older the tree the better the tea and so those people owning the old trees have got a great stock and investment.
We visited the “King of Tea Tree”. We were asked if we wanted to go on a big path or a smaller path. We chose a path that was less travelled. A path that wasn’t a path. A route down a mountain through the “younger trees” – about 40-60 years of age. I hadn’t quite realised that tea trees were actual trees. These were not the bushes that I have seen elsewhere.
This tree is 800 years old and yielded it owners last year 280,000rmb or £34,560 or $41,000. To build a house is about 350,000rmb. 2/3rd of that would be material and 1/3 labour with it taking 6 weeks. Sadly we all can’t go out and buy 800 year old tea trees!
After we said hello to the King of the Tea Tree, which is the oldest on the mountain, we went to taste some at our guide’s friends hut. Stopping at the hut just by the King tree will cost you 50rmb per cup! We had a lot more than a cup and it was free with no pushy attempts to make us buy any. I did though. Unfermented white Pu’er tea. At 200rmb or £25 ish/ $30 for 250g I have done my bit for the local economy. But it was delicious and she gave me Pu’er tea with a hint of rose for free.
What we have found with our weather apps is not to believe them, at least in Xishuangbanna. It has told us on a couple of occasions that it was raining when it clearly wasn’t, but on our hike it was meant to rain pretty much the whole day. But it started out dry, then it rained. I used my waterproof cover on my camera bag, but Martin and I waved off an offer of an umbrella and we didn’t have waterproof coats either. To be honest we were glad of the refreshing rain and both of us were damp because of our sweat anyway. The cloud cover was low, which sadly meant the view was non-existent, but slowly it dried up and we were rewarded with immense green views.
Shortly after our tea tasting we made it to another village and an old woman, haunched double accosted Sam. She recognised him and said that he always passed but never bought anything and that he should buy something. She had a variety of dried fruits and leaves, but she also had some fresh wild fruit which she sold to Sam for 10rmb. (£1.20 or $1.50 ish). That fruit kept us going as we didn’t stop for lunch. It was a cross between a lychee (same colour with a seed in the middle) but there were 4 fruits inside which you had to peel the thick skin to get to. Like a mangosteen but smaller and without the risk of staining your clothes. You could swallow the seeds but I chose to spit mine out and maybe in years to come there will be more of these trees out and about.
I don’t know whether the farmers in the big houses are superb gardeners – I guess they must be because of the tea trees that are tended so carefully, but the flowers that we saw at the side of the roads were so diverse and some would have been just as at home in an English garden. In fact while some of the flowers we had never seen before, there was one orange flowering plant that Martin remarked his Nan had had in her garden. And this is because of some botanists who came to China and plundered some of the plants. The BBC produced an article about these men in 2018. And while I stopped myself doing the same, plenty of pictures were taken in the hope of identifying them and maybe purchasing them one day. We even saw some flowering orchids high up in the trees and the bamboo that grows locally, once it flowers it dies. This part of Yunnan province, just south of the Tropic of Cancer is a horticultural delight and a visit to the botanical gardens is a must.
Our hike was worth it. Tea trees are taller than me, and usually harvested in the Spring and Autumn. When asked how they harvest – there is apparently a saying that the climbing ladies will climb faster than monkeys. The Pu’er tea in this region is renowned in China and the majority of this tea is for the domestic market. It won’t be exported so I am glad for my little bit of it.
After our experience on the way down of glimpsing the cobra we made our way back to our hotel and out to dinner at the aptly named Flying Snake. A craft beer brewery with food. The men did their tasting and ordered Passionfruit beer while I made my own gin and tonic as the bartender wasn’t in yet.
After dinner we all came back to the hotel and slept fitfully until I woke up with a start. At first I thought it was Eleanor trying to open the door to our room, failing at it so shaking the door. Then I realised the whole room was shaking. Martin woke up too. I wasn’t too concerned as it hadn’t woken up Eleanor. What we had woken up to was an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.9. We were feeling the tremors from the epicentre in Myanmar.
It was certainly an eventful day.