One could be forgiven for thinking that this part of our trip, the journey into China is about cycling, catching up with friends or even a cultural eye opener into a new country. It’s all these things but don’t look now, there’s an elephant in the room: tea. Yes we’re cycling the mountains of Yunnan with a clutch of old ladies but a little bit of old lady behaviour is never too far away from us when we’re at home, having a good cup of tea in fine china always goes down well. Of course it was no accident that we’re pushing pedals uphill and braving China in Yunann, pu’er tea is from here and one of our favourites so today we add another layer to this old lady tea story. Dare I say it but the 50km of cycling ahead of us acts as somewhat of a distraction, today is tea factory day.
The road flings us down the hill we climbed two days earlier at breakneck speed and across the plains of rice paddies surging ever forward to a greater understanding of tea. Charlie does do his best to streak out on his own sailing past a regroup stop and onward down the road, luckily he is on the right path so a bit of a wait at the end sees no need to return as I did two days ago. All this riding, fun, drama and scenery are however only precursors to the tea factory ahead. Lunch predictably goes down a treat nestled into a restaurant that is more like a converted mechanics garage than an eating establishment. Three uniform roller shutter doors open up our world to a busy road just a few metres away as we nestle into our functional concrete box of a room wondering how long ago the faded pictures of trashy girls were taken down from the walls. Safe to say it’s all about the food here and that’s just fine with us.
We’ve joked along the way that we ought to really have a good crack at finishing just one meal that is put in front of us but to this date we have not come close. Today is no exception. Liberated by the burning calories of cycling we gorge unrestrained yet still plate upon plate of food is left to cool on our tables to signal our meek defeat once again. Waddling now we are finally into the tea factory and first stop is the cooking room. This is serious business and we’re told that we cannot take photos before being escorted into a large open warehouse space sweltering with the heat of a sauna. Pu’er comes in two main forms, cooked and uncooked; what makes pu’er quite unique is that it’s cooked form is left in piles of over five tonnes to ferment or compost as we might say in gardening terms. That’s right, it’s composted tea. Unlike garden compost however it’s monitored with the art of ages, checked every day, for moisture content, turned and aerated with the utmost care. Further information remains a close secret, that’s all we’re getting for today. On a bare concrete floor mountains of tea ferment and steam under blankets overseen by the watchful eye of a hallowed technician; this most refined of delicate skills takes place in the most rudimentary of locations, a curious situation for a product of such reverence.
The cooked pu’er lies behind locked doors to us once again now as we continue to amaze ourselves at the basic nature of much of this machinery. There are no LED panels, no smooth moulded forms to speak of as we are surrounded by a range of sorting machines that aesthetically belong in wartime trenches rather than at the crux of one of China’s great industries. Forming no function more sophisticated than shaking a lot and sieving out larger and smaller grades of tea it makes sense that they’re simple machines I guess yet still the simplicity is a surprise. While much of China’s illustrious ancient history is hard to find under the swell of modern capitalism tea remains one of the true bastions of Chinese cultural antiquity, maybe clunky old machines are simply appropriate. Antiquity or not it seems that Chinese industry relies on people in place of technological development, labour is cheap when you’re still pretending to be a communist state.
Serious business behind us it’s time to lighten the mood, we’re pressing our own biscuits of tea. Pu’er often comes pressed into a hard brick allowing for the fermentation to continue rather than being exposed to oxygen like loose leaf tea. Exactly 357 grams of tea is placed into a metal canister and steamed to soften it. We fumble around to replicate the expert packing and shaping of the factory workers inevitably having our best efforts undone and redone to big smiles: next stop dancing. After having our tea pressed lightly we load them up under heavy stones and stand on them to further press down the tea into its desired shape attempting to roll the stone around with our feet, I think they just want to laugh at us and we’re happy to laugh at ourselves too. After a final tea tasting lesson we are critiqued as beginners for liking the cooked pu’er; purists like the raw version as it appears we have a lot to learn. Finally like colouring in time at a preschool we design our own hand made paper wrappers and we have our own tea to take home, a piece of true Chinese culture of our own.
With the fun, frivolity and serious demure of the tea factory behind us we ride single file to the city of Menghai for the night at a nice hotel, hot showers and big beds. From our top floor window Menghai, or Lego land, sits before us as row upon row of blocky un-designed buildings extends to the distance like it’s popped up overnight. It probably has. Bright lighting strips adorn otherwise staid buildings in a gaudy attempt at eye catching bling with questionable results while massive wide avenues reveal copy paste style architecture as far as the eye can see. Menghai is big, busy and over-archingly soulless in its appeal or lack thereof, a child’s afternoon with blocks on the lounge room floor. Thankfully for the G8 we take our own biscuits of genuine Chinese culture from this city that has so little while Menghai remains little more than a shower, a toilet and a bed.