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We finally have sunshine! After a pretty miserable start to the Spring 2012 tea season, the clouds have finally cleared and the Anxi tea picking has officially begun!
I left Fuzhou at 6am this morning, a little bleary eyed, and by 12 I was on a bus up to Gan De (感德) where our Iron Buddha and Old Iron teas are produced. It's actually pretty interesting to compare Anxi and Wuyi Shan - Wuyi Shan is a famous tourist destination, and so feels modern and polished. Anxi by contrast is a little rough around the edges, with a more rural and earthy atmosphere.
The bus is filled with migrant workers and labourers, coming back to take advantage of the seasonal work here. As we pass the tea farms lower down in the foothills (called "outer Anxi") there are already hundreds of women crouched down beside neat rows of tea bushes, and motorbikes with big bags of loose tea leaves strapped to the back.
My friend Xiao Ma picks me up on his motorbike, and we start on the 1 hour drive from Gan De town to the peak of the mountains where our tea is grown and processed.
As I arrive, this morning's tea crop is already being brought in and processing has started, so without a moments rest, my camera comes out and I start manically taking photos.
I'll write more about the actual tea processing in a separate blog, but suffice to say that in the morning, the tea is picked. In the afternoon, the oxidisation process is begun, and then the next morning, the final processing is done. Xiao Ma tells me that this morning and yesterday, they made 50kg of tea, all of which was sold immediately to single buyers. It's great news for the tea farmer, because the rains have shortened this years picking season and so he stands to lose money unless the remaining crop sells well.
We head up to the tea growing area (about 5 minutes away from the factory) and my mind is blown away by the scenery. Xiao Ma and his colleagues are pretty blazé about it all, but I whip out the camera again and start shooting madly.
In the farm, the ladies picking tea are sitting, scissors in hand, patiently working their way through a long row of tea bushes. They work in the full heat of the sun, most of their skin covered by hats and long sleeves. There's obvious reasons that the women cover themselves (suburn, sunstroke etc.), but I'm also reminded that even rural women avoid tanning - in Chiina, dark skin is not considered to be attractive, and so women will go to incredible efforts to keep their skin light.
I'll let the photos speak for themselves, but it's enough to say that the farm and scenery were impressive. On the ride back, we stop a few times to take photos, and then we begin on our tea-tasting rounds.
Almost everyone in this small village is involved in tea, and around this time each family will repeatedly visit each other family to taste their teas. It's a social thing, part of their life, and also an important step in actual pricing of the teas. They compare, evaluate, and discuss factors that will affect how much they can charge for this years tea.
Xiao Ma's uncle invites us in to sample a few cups - his crop will sell for around 150 RMB per 500g, which is a pretty reasonable price (again, more on the economics in a later blog). Further down the road, a past prize-winning tea farmer is doing final preparation on a batch of tea that he'll enter for a provincial competition. If he wins a first prize, he'll be able to knock the price up to around 250 RMB for that type, but if not, it will be around 200 RMB.
The evening carries on like this. As we visit each house I'm picking up more and more Minnan dialect - the one word that keeps coming up is ying goh which means "England". Xiao Ma is kept busy answering all the inquisitions about me (where I'm from, why my arms are so hairy...), and I'm left free to daydream and sip tea.
Late into the evening, as we return back to the farm, all the tea farmers are still awake. They must work until about 1am, carefully managing the oxidisation process of the tea leaves.
I confess that I have a bit of a sweet tooth, and so go wandering looking for somewhere to buy a soft drink. The village is so small that there's nowhere, until a friendly man opens up his store-room for me and offers to sell me a couple of bottles of Coke. They look dustier than the Russian Pepsi from 1972 I found when cleaning out my grandfather's store-closet, but I buy one. It tastes partly of vinegar and partly of rice-wine... not a great combination.
As I prepare for bed (there's a 5am wakeup tomorrow), I muse on my guilt for my sugar cravings. Although I love Chinese tea with passion, I also recognise that I have a similar passion for other strong-tasting drinks like coffee or soft-drinks - I'm a gourmand rather than a gourmet, to put it in posh terms. I was part of a generation brought up on strong, sugary tastes, and so to sit back and appreciate the subtler, softer tastes of tea is actually difficult sometimes. Food for thought...
Don't forget to check out our previous entries from Spring 2012: