I arrived at the Weng Family Village, one of fours villages in the Longjing village area which produces the authentic tea. Walking through the village its immediately apparent the wealth here; for a Chinese village the houses are built incredibly well, and there were expensive cars parked outside every one. Towards the top of the village is a well, the sign explained that it was the original Dragon Well, from which Longjing takes its name (longjing means dragon well in Chinese). Several old women sat on a bench next to the well, and as soon as I approached they got out their buckets, asking me if I wanted to wash my hands and face with the water. Nothing comes free in this world, and it seemed odd how pushy they were offering these buckets “for free”, so I politely refused them. They then started pestering me to go and buy tea at one of their shops. I left, and continued to stroll, hoping to find a decent shop where I could try the local tea without being pestered.
I was in luck, I chose one quiet looking shop at random, and this old lady was sitting inside with a sweet smile. She invited me to try some tea, and I could immediately tell she was different. It turned out that she was a member of the Weng family, and had been growing tea for generations. Her husband was the tea master, and she was in charge of running the shop. She also told me I was smart for not touching the well, as althought it was the real Dragon Well, the water inside was currently polluted as so many people had moved into the village and built substandard bathrooms that essentially pumped sewage straight into it! These were the same people pestering visitors at the well in question!
I tried her green tea, as well as a Longjing black tea…. something I never even knew existed! It was really good though; a light and fresh black tea, very different to your normal Chinese blacks. Anyway, I will leave it there, and let you enjoy the video of my trip there.
Jirisan is a mountain range in the far south of South Korea. The surrounding county, Hadong, is home to Korea’s “wild tea”, which has been cultivated here for over 1000 years.
I arrived late in the afternoon with my wife and we took a bus through beautiful scenery following the river to the village of Agyang. We got off the bus and walked up the hill to a quiet and quaint little village of traditional Hanok houses. There were a lot of shops selling pottery and tourist souvenirs but they were all closed, it seemed as if we had the village almost to ourselves!
After a dinner of local noodles we found a small shop selling the local tea and had our first try. It was the first pick of the year, before the rain season. The green tea was smooth and had a note of toasty rice to it with a fresh finish. We drank about three pots and then headed to bed.
Ssangyesa Temple: the Most Important Site in Jirisan
We got up early and took a 30 minute bus ride to Ssanggyesa, passing many tea plantations on the way. When we arrived the first thing we did was go to see the original tea plantation which was started by Dae-Ryeom, who was sent to China as an envoy in AD828. Since then, the field has been preserved and the current tea trees are unkempt, left to grow naturally, and so it is called “wild tea”. I picked a few buds off a bush to take back and brew later.
After that we headed up to the temple, which is the first Korean one I have been to. A major difference from Chinese temples I noticed is that it is an active place of worship ad cultivation, rather than a tourist site. As you enter the temple signs appear in multiple languages asking for silence. There were several natural wells you could drink mountain water from, which I collected to brew my tea leaves I picked with.
The temple is also famous as being the place where abbot Jingam created Korean Buddhist music after studying in Tang Dynasty China.
Hiking up the beautiful trail behind the temple the only people we saw were monks on their way to a meditation retreat in a bamboo grove. There were truly wild tea trees growing on the side of the path, which looked as if they had been heavily picked, I’m guessing by the monks who do produce their own tea.
Later, we headed back to the village for lunch, which was a vegetarian meal consisting of lots of small dishes, one of which was tea leaves pickled in vinegar (unfortunately, I can’t say I was a huge fan of it).
In the afternoon we first visited a small shop and sat with some local monks drinking a black tea. The Hadong black tea was fairly light, quite similar to Tanyang Gongfu, a Chinese variety from Fujian. I personally think it would have been better had it been brewed with more leaves. After we left the shop we saw a very old woman by the roadside selling herbs picked from the mountains. She had some rough tea leaves in a bag for a very cheap price, which we decided to buy. As you would expect from rough leaves the flavour was fairly course and bitter, actually it reminded me of cheap green teabags you would buy in the UK supermarkets.
The Tea Museum
Just below that original tea plantation I mentioned was the Tea Culture Museum. The museum exhibition itself is really of little interest, with some inaccurate information on the history and classification of tea, and some pieces of ancient teaware, but one part that did interest was offering hands on lessons on making green tea as well as performing tea ceremony. Unfortunately the making tea lesson was only available to groups of people who prebooked, but we did get to try our hand at Korean tea ceremony.
I will talk about the ceremony later, first I want to mention the teas we tried and bought in the museum shop. The green tea was excellent. We tried a “pre-rain” first flush, the cream of the crop so to speak. It’s flavour was bold and powerful, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately this tea was way out of my price range, so I went for a third flush, which still didnt come cheap. We also tried a Wulong, which to me tasted very similar to a light black tea, different to Chinese or Taiwanese wulongs.
On the whole, the Hadong wild teas are very good, especially the greens. They are expensive which I think is due to several factors; the small amount grown, the organic and fully handmade processing and for Koreans it is a national pride. I have often found, like in Britain, the Koreans will pay much more for locally made produce than for imports, while China is exaclty the opposite.
In the tea cultural centre they were offering free classes on tea ceremony. The lady who taught us was very cultured and polite. The first thing we learnt was how to properly sit, and how to handle the tools. Sitting should be kneeling, but you must not step your feet on the cushion as you kneel down. When you handle something you should use your right hand, palm up, and the left hand also palm up pointing at your right elbow.
To start the ceremony you bow and say to the guest “차 한잔 드십시오” (tsa hanzan te sip siyo), which means “please enjoy a cup of tea”. The tea ceremony is more ritualised than a Chinese ceremony, but simpler than the Japanese one. The ceremony is full of Confucian etiquette, with a definite hierarchy of who is given tea first and who drinks first. It generally starts from the oldest male present.
The room was layout was very beautiful, all wooden with tea sets layed out on the floor and a risen platform at the front where the teacher would give lessons to larger groups. It gave me the feeling of an ancient Chinese Confucian academy. I think Korea does a very good job of protecting and preserving the traditional culture, but they don’t always give due credit to their Chinese influences. I wish in the future I can see China work harder to promote these kind of activities as they have so much to offer.
After hiking the trails in the tea plantations (read part one here), the next day I decided to visit the old village of Xiamei (下梅). Xiamei was an important hub during the Qing Dynasty where tea producers would bring their tea from the mountains to sell to traders from port cities like Fuzhou and Xiamen who would then export it to Europe.
The village is remarkably well preserved, and not only are the old residences still lived in, but the guildhall and temple are still the centes for village life, with ceremonies and gatherings taking place regularly.
Upon entering the village you have to buy a ticket, which gets you a free guide. Normally, I have no interest in having a tour guide, but this time I was pleasantly surprised, as she really went into detail about the culture and history of the village. I think this was mostly due to the fact that my wife was Chinese; if it was just me as a foreigner, the guide probably would have just given a really rough overview, assuming foreigners have no clue about Chinese culture.
The village is built around a stream, and on either side are many shops, some of them selling tourist junk, but a lot of them selling either tea or traditional handicrafts which you could see being made then and there. These shops were mostly wooden buildings and were fairly worn out looking. Most of the villagers just seemed to sit around playing cards of Mahjang. The residences of the wealthier people were back from the stream, hidden behind large stone walls.
These large residences were impressive buildings of local Fujianese style, and much of the interior was well preserved. Many still had family shrines in the main hall, and intricate woodwork decorating the walls. What I felt incredibly odd, was that the tour guide would just take us straight into somebody’s home, and grandma would be washing clothes or cooking while we just stood there listening to the tour guide. Apparently there was some kind of agreement, so the residents got a portion of the ticket fees. I did feel also that the residents were considerably poorer than whoever would have lived in the houses during the villages heyday. Despite the grandeur of the buildings themselves, there wasn’t much in the way of luxurious furniture; the people mostly had worn out stools, and piles of junk.
Still, I found that this village, possibly due to its distance from any large city, had more of an authenticity to it than the popular ones around Shanghai or Suzhou. People still went about their daily life, and besides us I didn’t see any other tourists.
As an avid drinker of Wulong tea, Wuyi Mountain is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. A dramatic range of limestone peaks and cliffs nestled in the northwest of Fujian province, straddling the Jiangxi and Zhejiang borders, Wuyi Mountain really is the postcard image of China. The range is known mostly for it’s teas, among the best in China. Black tea was in fact invented here, and it was the teas grown here that were first exported to the west during the days of the British Empire (check out this excellent book to learn about that For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History).
I visited here for three days, and had two goals: visit some sites related to tea, and take in the amazing scenery. Much like with European wines, which have DOC, Wulong tea grown in Wuyi Mountain is divided between the tea which is grown within the national park area, and the tea grown outside. The plantations within the national park area are hundreds of years old, and the tea plants are divided according to their strain, with different teas grown in small terraces tucked between dramatic cliffs which provide varying amounts of sun and shade. This, combined with the different soils, amount of air moisture and even how the wind blows through the mountains all has an affect on the flavour of the tea, and two terraces right next to each other can produce totally different tasting tea.
On my first day I hiked through the tea plantations, a 3km trail which took me many of the original tea trees of several varieties, as well as a 3000 year old archeological site, to finally finish at the Water Curtain Cave. The trail begins with a short shuttle bus from the park entrance to the actual site. As soon as you pass the car park you are straight into the plantations, wedged between two karst peaks are the tea plantations, with stone tablets or wooden posts naming the various tea strains. Some of them I drink regularly, such as Shui Xian and Rou Gui, others, such as Qi Zhong, Rou Jin Gui and Jin Guan Yin I have never heard of before. The majority of the tourists only walk the first 500m to the original Da Hong Pao trees, stop for some photos and then head back. Da Hong Pao, aka Big Red Robe, is the most renowned Wulong tea from Wuyi. The legend goes that an Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was sick, and so some villagers sent him some tea. The tea made him better, and he was so happy he awarded the tea plants with imperial robes. The six tea plants still stand there today, perched on a cliff with big Chinese characters etched into the rock next to them. They used to be picked once a year, and the majority of the tea was kept by government officials or given to foreign dignitaries on state visits. About half a kilo would be let out the to public, and the auction started around 5 million rmb. Since 2005 the tea has not been picked, and the plants are just sitting there having their photos taken by tourists.
Once you continue on the trail from there, the tourists almost disappear, and the scenery gets absolutely spectacular! The trail has a lot of steep ups and downs, and sometimes you are balancing on stepping stones across streams. The water is crystal clear, and has hundreds of tiny fish. I decided to cool my feet off, only to have the fish gather and start to nibble on my toes! Further along the trail, right next to where the orignal Shui Xian tea plants are located, are some caves high up on the cliffside, which are covered in wooden scaffolding. This is the site of an ancient culture of people, who lived in the cave and built a small village there. Not much is known about who they are, its likely they faced persecution, and so chose such an inaccessible location to live for self protection. At least they had stunning scenery to enjoy everyday! (read part 2 here also check out my article on the Origins of Black Tea for China Daily).