Enshrouded in mist throughout much of the year, the old tea forests of Jingmai mountain, near the Chinese border with Myanmar, have flourished since the Song Dynasty (our Dark Ages), partly due to their remote location, but also due to the sustainable agroforestry practices. By creating three-dimensional, multi-layer communities of plants, shrubs and trees, from the forest floor to the canopy, each with its own ecosystem and micro-climate, the verderers of the first tea forests were pioneers of what is now considered, modern permaculture.
By the 6th century AD, the Tea Horse Road was developed to take the tea, pressed into bricks, to Tibet and onto India. The tea was strapped tightly to the side of these tireless pack animals, their sweaty hides furthering slow fermentation, giving Pu'er tea its distinctive flavour. Stairs cut into stone and hand-cut cobbles make up much of the 3,000 km (1,850 mi) network of trails, countless 60 kilo loads of tea transported first by pack-horse, and then yak, hauled all the way up to Lhasa. Tea was traded for warhorses from the fabled Ferghana Valley, with one full load exchanged for just one Uzbek stallion.
While trucks, trains, and aeroplanes have now replaced these ancient trails, the region’s tea forests and plantations remain, as do the local ethnic minority groups who tend them – the Lahu, Bulang, Dai, Hani, and Wa. The rolling hills are also home to more than one hundred types of bamboo, evident in the local architecture of sloping roofs and stilt construction.