PERFECT FOR: Trailblazers
WHY: Collectively, the ancient tea plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er form the largest cultivated tea plantation in the world. More than a million ancient tea trees—some more than a thousand years old and most between ten and 30 feet tall—grow in the understory of the rain forest. Jingmai’s tea plantations are under consideration for inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage list, and there is a fledgling tea tourism industry. For the moment, however, Western travelers remain a rare sight in the ethnic villages and cloud-shrouded valleys of Jingmai. Trailblazers—such as Missoula, Montana, residents Heather and Jake Kreilick, who visited the area in June 2015—are rewarded with a rare glimpse of a tea culture that has remained relatively unchanged for a millennium.
“You pass through pockets of villages, where you see people in constant production mode: building and remodeling houses, hauling tea on motorbikes, working in the tea trees, working on tea production,” says Heather, who made the trip with her husband and two children to learn about the Yunnan teas sold at the family’s Lake Missoula Tea Company. “One of the villages we went to had over a hundred [centenarians]. We were told that [their longevity] was because of their diet and isolation.”
WHERE: The Jingmai Mountain ancient tea plantations are located in the southwestern corner of Yunnan, the southwestern-most province in China (bordering Myanmar). The closest international airport is Xishuangbanna Jinghong. From here, it is about three hours by car or five hours by public bus to the base of Jingmai Mountain.
HOW: Yunnan-based tour operator Yunnan Adventure can help international visitors book flights and lodging and plan custom itineraries, including excursions such as visiting tea farms and local villages and touring small tea factories.
STAY: The exclusive Bolian Resort & Spa, Jingmai, is a Relais & Châteaux property located on a working Pu’er tea plantation. There are 30 one- to three-bedroom villas set among the tea plants and a Tea SPA, winner of China’s Best Spa Concept of the Year in 2015. Available sustainable tourism activities include visiting a tea factory, participating in a tea ceremony, and taking guided hikes. More affordable accommodations—including hostels, guesthouses, and rooms in private homes—are available in some of the villages. One good option is the Bulong Gongzhu (Bulong Princess) in Jingmai.
EAT: Jingmai Mountain’s most coveted tea is pu-erh, an earthy, dark elixir with a musty aroma. A foodie favorite for its probiotic characteristics (and known as an appetite suppressant), pu-erh is somewhat of a fine wine of teas: It gets better with age. Here, drink copious amounts of pu-erh (including raw, or green, and ripe, or black) directly from the source. Other Yunnan teas to try include oolong, white, black, and green. While you sip, snack on some crunchy tempura tea leaves, lightly battered and fried leaves served with chili sauce for dipping.
INSIDE TIP: If you want to travel without a guide, Heather and Jake Kreilick recommend creating a detailed itinerary outlining precisely where you want to go and what you want to do in each location. Before your trip, have the itinerary translated into Chinese. Carry the English and Chinese versions of the itinerary (and maps in English and Chinese) with you so that you can ask for directions, purchase bus tickets, and decipher place-names as you travel.
FUN FACT: Jingmai Mountain was part of the Yunnan trunk of the ancient Tea Horse Road, the legendary network of China-to-Tibet commercial routes. There were multiple pathways in the “road,” which gets its name from its primary use in the 11th century as a way for China to trade tea for Tibetan horses. At the time, the going rate (set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency) was 130 pounds of tea for one horse.