Exploring China’s UNESCO-listed ancient tea forests

The Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er are an undiscovered part of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, and also regarded as the birthplace of tea itself...

4 mins

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.

Dapingzhang Old Tea Forest (Yunnan Provincial Administration for the Conservation of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er/UNESCO)

Dapingzhang Old Tea Forest (Yunnan Provincial Administration for the Conservation of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er/UNESCO)

Tea plantations in the mountain mist (Shutterstock)

Tea plantations in the mountain mist (Shutterstock)

Having seen tourism bring prosperity in other parts of the province, the local government has made a considerable investment into the region's infrastructure, and inspired by California's Napa Valley wine tourism, it has built numerous tea culture centres. Travellers after a more authentic experience can explore more than 1,000 hectares of ancient forest on Jingmai mountain, which is home to more than a million tea trees, and has now been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The city of Jinghong is the gateway to Xishuangbanna's tea forests, with meandering roads heading towards Jingmai around two hours away. From the small town of Huimin, it is about 20 km up winding mountain roads up past the Dai village of Manggeng, to reach Jingmai Village. From here, visitors can pay their respects at the Golden Temple or enjoy an alfresco tea ceremony, seated on the forest floor at Dapingzhang Tea Plantation. There are trees here that are many hundreds, if not thousands of years old. There are also numerous viewpoints scattered around, where you can look down on the sea of clouds in the valleys below. All the roads from the village to the foot of the mountain have been re-paved with cobblestones (asphalt and concrete are said to have a negative effect on old trees). Those who want to get away from the vendors and souvenir stalls can head off on the ancient paths that connect the high mountain villages, which appear seemingly out of the mist.

View of Dai People's village of Nuogang (Alamy)

View of Dai People's village of Nuogang (Alamy)

At the Bolian Tea Manor, visitors can learn how to make their own Pu'er cake, which requires balancing atop a stone press and doing the Chinese version of the hoola-hoop. There are also options to visit modern plantations, such as the the Jingmai Abaila Estate, a gorgeously laid out complex of traditional wooden houses, connected by walkways, and perched on a forested hillside. There are even modern processing centres that host guided tours such as the Budai Family Estate in Manggeng or the Six Famous Tea Mountains Tea Factory in nearby Menghai.

The Bulang village of Wengji is around 15 km away from Manggeng and is home to a recently built tea temple, celebrating the mythical Lahu and Bulang minority founding-fathers of tea culture with a gigantic superhero-like statue. The 50-metre-tall Fengshenshu (Banyan Tree of the Bee God Banyan), just outside Manjing, near the path that goes up to Ailingshan, has around 80 beehives hanging in its branches.

Sunrise on the Jingmai Mountains (Chen Yaohua/UNESCO)

Sunrise on the Jingmai Mountains (Chen Yaohua/UNESCO)

Need to know

Location: Jingmai Mountain is close to the border between China and Myanmar, an area often referred to as the Golden Triangle.

Getting there: There are no direct flights from the UK to Yunnan, but airlines, including Emirates and British Airways, have scheduled flights to the major Chinese metropolises and Thailand's Bangkok, with connections to the Xishuangbanna Gasa International Airport, some 120km from Jingmai along the G214 road.

From the provincial capital Kunming, there are flights to Lancang River Airport, which is even closer to the tea forest mountain. New high-speed trains from Kunming take as little as three hours to Jinghong. Limited first-class seats are often sold out, though second-class seats are comfortable for the scenic journey.

Getting around: Information (maps, brochures) is rarely available in English or any other foreign language. We recommend using local guides to help you explore the region. Try Lijiang Guides (for tailor-made journeys) or Kunming-based Yunnan Exploration (for trekking, tea workshops, and temple visits). 

When to go: With a rainy season running from May to September, the best time to visit is October to April during the dry season. Chinese New Year and the Dai-minority 'Water-Splashing Festival' attract hordes of domestic tourists to the region.

Accommodation: The Jingmai Brilliant Resort and Spa is located in the gardens of Bolian Tea Manor which is directly adjacent to the Jingmai Mountain. Full floor-to-ceiling windows capture spectacular mountain scenery while raised wooden walkways connect the luxury mountain villas.

Further information: Tea Horse Road: China's Ancient Trade Road to Tibet (River Books; 2015) by Michael Freeman.

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