Last year I traveled to this mountain sacred to Chinese Buddhists. It is off the beaten tourist path, as the much more popular mountain of Huangshan is only a few hours south. Having been to both mountains, I can say that Jiuhuashan is much less manicured. The land here is preserved and protected not due to a desire for tourists, but out of respect for the hundreds of Buddhist shrines and temples lacing the mountaintops.
The sleeper train I took from my city arrived in the nearest town at 2am, which meant I had several hours to kill before I was able to begin the ascent to the Nine Glories (jiuhua). Through the post-midnight rain, I was able to negotiate a bed to crash in for a few hours as well as a black cap up to the mountain gates for a few hundred kuai. However; before I had even dozed off, it was already time to begin the ascent. I arrived on the mountain by 6am, a feat I hadn't anticipated, and although I had brought tea to fuel me, I was without any source of hot water. Remembering a friend from Columbia waxing reminiscently on the joys of chewing coca leaves, I popped a few dry bulang raw puer maocha leaves into my mouth, sucked til they unfurled and began to slowly chew as I hiked.
That first day was miraculous, finding empty shrines and hermitages, caves and cliffs, I wandered as if in a dream, slightly sleep-deprived and buzzing on the caffeine I was leaching out of the tea leaves in my cheek. As I was hiking, I had the strangest feeling of truly being alone in a vast wilderness (which in most places in China, does not come easily), but the people I met were few, and more often they were locals, monks, or nuns subsisting in the mountains. Hiking up and down peaks, I was drawn to the source of the mist between two gorges, a powerful river, the rush of which I could hear around every bend. I decided to hike down to it, and upon reaching a stone bridge across the rapid current, I saw a small agricultural settlement beneath the peak which held aloft the famous Tiantai Monastery.
Wandering into the village, I was very quick to spot tea: a few gardens with leaves just past their prime for picking (it was June after all). As I wandered all slack-jawed and awed through the bushes, (there was no objective to this trip after all) a man emerges with a few scampering dogs from one of the houses. Waving and greeting him in my broken Chinese, I asked if these tea bushes were his, and if he made tea. He said that yes, they were his, and indeed he makes tea; however when I inquired after maybe buying some, he told me that his spring tea was already all gone, consumed, sold, or given away to family. However; he directed me to the house of an elderly woman who likely had some spring tea left over, and together we set off for her house in the valley.
When we arrived at her white washed concrete house, he knocked once, didn't wait, and simply walked in calling her name. I followed tentatively, noting the electric woks in the kitchen, and the spartan cleanliness of the place. We found her coming in from her garden with a few bundles of Chinese Mugwort (aicao), I later found out that, as it was the Dragon Boat Festival, it signified the end of Spring, and the beginning of Summer. At this time, it is customary to place bundles of mugwort around the entrances and doorways of your home.
When I inquire about tea, she tells me that I've come a little late, and that she only has her personal stock left, the tea she intends to drink until next spring, but agrees to sell me some. She pulls out a large bag of about 2 or 3 kilograms and shows me the tea. Holding up one leaf as an example, she excitingly explains that she is very careful when she picks the tea and only selects the new growth of two leaves and a single bud. I asked where she harvests from, and she shows me the small plot beyond her house contained by a woven bamboo fence. I asked who grew it, picked it and made it, and she was the answer to all of these questions. When I expressed a desire to acquire some, she insisted I try it first, she gave me a paper cup, filled it half the way full with dry leaves and topped it off with hot water from a thermos laying about. I say in a small bamboo woven chair, with the tea cooling on the old, scalded and stained end table, and looked out into her backyard, marveling as mountain mist occasionally swirled in to obscure the view of cliffs and temples in the distance. It was one of the most serene tea sessions I have ever had, and I was humbled by the presentation of the tea, brewed very strong, grandpa style, in a paper cup, and yet... and yet...
I bought only 500 grams (one jin) and she told me that next year I should come earlier so that she can make a special batch for me, and reserve me some of the choice harvest. She had no means of contacting her, other than her address and her neighbors phone number, so I vowed to return in 2018 to acquire some fresh mountain green tea.
All in all, I was impressed with the tea, for although it is not qing-ming, most likely yu-qian (harvested in the thick of April) the tea she brewed for me was rich and deep, full in the mouth, thick in the chest and with a generous amount of both Umami and Chaqi. Even now, drinking it nearly a year later, the fragrance is still strong in its freshness, like the scent of mist traveling though pines and trees. I am in love every time I brew a strong cup of this tea, and after one bowl, or two, or three, I am at utter ease, content to simply watch the clear water of this world, grow disturbed and murky, and then slowly settle clear once again. The vast distances are obscured by mist, all all is right, then the mist dissipates and all is also right.
This is just one story of how a love of tea and serenity can be a rewarding pursuit in itself, no need to add sugar, or milk, or honey. Just tea.