Li Family ~ Yunnan, China

After a long 30 hour journey, I arrived in Xishuangbanna and travelled by taxi to Nannuo Mountain with my friend Elyse. The small village where the Li family resides is about 30 minutes drive from the city of Xishuangbanna. The family was just coming home with the day’s harvest of fresh tea leaves when we arrived, and we had the opportunity to watch Li Shu Lin process tea leaves. He is the maker of London Tea Club’s Sticky Rice Sheng Puerh and Nannuo Small-Batch Shou Puerh. Afterwards, we had dinner together with shots of homemade wine, several Akha drinking songs and then a long night of sleep upstairs in their home. The next morning, we walked down the hill to the noodle stand for breakfast and then sat down for tea.

I brought a vial of our popular Sticky Rice Puerh tea to Li and his wife Cai and they found it hilarious that his image was on the label! Cai showed us the Nuo Mi Xiang plant which gives the tea its sticky rice flavor. The plant grows wild on the mountains but she also has a small pot in her garden. Nuo Mi Xiang isn’t abundant until May/June so Li chopped dry leaves to scent the batch he was currently making. We sampled some of the fresh tea, along with many other of the teas he was working on.

Everyday began and ended around the tea table, beside which sat three kettles constantly boiling more water. We sampled dozens of tea over the course of our few days together. Below from L to R: Moonlight White tea made with wild purple leaves, shou puerh blended with osmanthus, hand-braided tea and purple sheng puerh.

While visiting one of the family’s tea fields, Cai explained their farming philosophy (basically, let the trees be), gathered greens for dinner and pointed out wild purple tea leaves and reishi mushrooms. We passed by a large Akha gate on the road that leads to Menghai; once a days drive away, it now takes only 30 minutes to get to the big city. The village also has a tiny post office now as well, so the farmers can ship the teas to Menghai instead of making the 30 min drive to the post office there. Throughout the walk, we saw families tending tea trees, making tea, drinking tea, photographing tea… it was beautiful to be immersed in a region where tea is life.

The next day we drove further to a different tea field, where the family has two prized ancient trees both ~800 years old! We spent the morning clambering through the branches, filling baskets with fresh leaves. Cai and her niece “Yasmin” sang songs and spoke of their love for the trees. My favorite messages from the ladies:

Tea is Medicine. If you love and care for the tea trees, they will love and care for you.

Their reverence for the mountain is apparent in how they live - grounded in Akha culture, aligned with nature and high up on their beautiful mountain close the heaven!

After filling our baskets, we had lunch in a smoky hut where family friends barbecued meat and served sticky rice, pickled vegetables and amazing sauces. Fresh tea leaves and camphor leaves were boiled in bamboo that had been cut and filled with spring water nearby. On our way down the mountain, we stopped by a hidden tea house filled with perfect tea vignettes around every corner.

Back down at the village, leaves from our ancient tree harvest were spread out to wither on a tarp. After withering, the leaves were pan fried to stop oxidation, then rolled (by hand for this batch) before being dried and then sorted (again by hand). After a sunset tea session and late dinner, several of our travel companions stayed up to hand-straighten the tea leaves while they were drying. The rest of us retired to the local guesthouse and passed out.

The next day Li and his family drove us to a neighboring mountain where we enjoyed a long leisurely lunch (with moonshine, always) with a Lugu family. Lugu, Akha and Dai are all different ethnic minorities of China. After lunch and more than a few shots, we embarked on an epic hike up to the King Tea Tree. Nobody knows exactly how old the tea tree is, but it’s so large that it must be at least a thousand years old! The King Tea Tree was over 2 stories tall, overlooking a vast, beautiful valley. I was terrified and could only focus on clinging to the scaffolding while my friends yelled words of encouragement. Hence, no pictures from the King Tea Tree!

Along the way, our guides gathered berries, greens and medicinal herbs from wild native plants to enjoy with tea and cook for dinner. I was amazed by the abundance of the mountain, and the self-sufficiency of the local people who live off the land.

After several long days visiting the tea fields, we recovered with a day at home drinking tea and having snacks around the tea table. Cai always made sure we had the best foods to pair with the family’s tea: fresh pastries, peanuts, apples, honeycomb. Elyse spent several hours making a matcha layer cake which she served with some Nepalese and Indian teas before we left Nannuo for the city.

We ended the trip with several days back in Xishuangbanna, where we enjoyed the pottery studios, night market, street food and city-wide water fight! Coincidentally we were there in time for the “water splashing festival” celebrated by the Dai people.

Another 30 hour journey later, I was home in Silicon Valley with new teas and teaware, jetlag and quite a bit of withdrawal. I am so grateful to our hosts Li, Cai, So Han and Elyse for an amazing week in tea paradise. It has been a dream to experience the mythical ‘birthplace’ of tea, and I look forward to visiting again.