A few months ago I bought a new bicycle. The classy British Brompton had long been on my list of dream bicycles. One that allows me to travel in a slightly different mode.
Introducing: Xiao huo huo
The bike I cycled to Japan with is a Surly Long Haul Trucker Deluxe, built like a tank. She’s strong but heavy. She’s built to conquer pretty much any kind of terrain to be found in this world with a full load hanging off her sturdy frame. If the Mighty Nightshade were a person, she would be a stoic. Silent and strong and entirely indifferent to my suffering when struggling uphill. She has always inspired me to push on, to get where I want to go.
Meet Xiao Huohuo 小火火 ‘little fire’. A pretty coral Brompton M6R foldie with 6 widely-spaced gears that can also tackle serious inclines, if at an even slower pace. Her small but sturdy frame can carry all the gear I need for solo-cycling wild-camping adventures. But, she also folds into a nicely portable package in under two minutes. This means I can more easily include leisurely stretches on trains, buses and cars. She’s definitely more whimsical than the Mighty Nightshade. A new kind of freedom beckons, with more space for laziness and spontaneity.
Planning a tea trajectory
Last October, I put Xiao Huohu the Brompton to the test, when I took her to the hills of Xishuangbanna. When I started planning my trip, I naturally built my itinerary around tea. Following historical trails is something I love. However, this circuit is based on how much I think I can cycle every day. It does incorporate fragments of the old tea trading routes of Yunnan and well known tea places that have been thriving throughout the centuries.
This loop takes me from Jinghong to Nannuoshan, Menghai, Jingmai, Lancang, Pu’er and finally back to Jinghong. Names laden with meaning for tea people. Full of history, geographical and biological knowledge, culture, tradition, joy. The Tea Horse Road historically connected Tibet with China via Yunnan. It also ran through Heyang, my village in Yunnan. It is about 4 hours by plane and 3000km from Shanghai to Jinghong. The border with Laos is only about 150km away, and at some points on my route I’m only about 20km from the Myanmar border. In other respects this area is a world away from Shanghai too.
I’m not carrying a tent because it’s a test ride. I also want to save space on the rear rack of the Brompton to stock with tea to buy along the route. It’s my second trip back to Yunnan, after a visit to Dali earlier this year.
See the forest for the trees
The trip starts when my plane glides through a valley blanketed in tea bushes into Jinghong airport. Here, I finally meet with Vivian, my teacher of Eastern Leaves. Following an online course with her as I moved from Dali to Plovdiv helped me transition to Europe, bringing tea with me and diving deeper into the practice.
I have continued to immerse myself in the tea universe and it’s helping me to be consistently grounded and content. Every morning I practice my simple tea ceremony and write – simple, but transformative when practiced consistently. The world outside offers no certainties, only new disasters unfolding and uncertainty, but for one hour every morning I frame a moment and spend this quiet time with myself and with tea, before the noise of the day floods in. With my recent return to China we finally got the chance to meet in person.
We spend a couple of lovely days together and it feels as if we are old friends. Talking and eating and of course drinking copious amounts of tea in the light and airy studio in Jinghong. I buy a teacup that is my current favourite – a local artisan uses soil and wood ash from the tea mountains to make his cups and gaiwans. There is a faint glitter at the bottom of my hazy dark grey cup, shimmering through the clear tea. It reminds me of fading stars in the quiet, cold and nearly colourless moments of the early morning before the sun rises, before light and colour and sound swell as the world awakes.
When Vivian and her husband Lorenzo take me to their tea trees on Nannuoshan something happens. We walk up the path, the forest shrouded in mist and silence. A soft rain falls. I’m simply happy here, amongst these gnarly trees, colourful bark covered in lichen, with friends who are the kind caretakers of these trees. I say out loud what I hear inside – ‘I need to be here’. It’s really quite simple – this is my place.
From Nannuoshan I continue – after a huge Lahu lunch with Vivian and Lorenzo in the tea-trading town of Menghai I check in for the night, ready to start cycling the morning after.
Before I leave Menghai I share tea with Xi, a friend of Jeff Fuchs. Her family owns a tea shop and her mother is there too – three women drinking tea and chatting. Tea, again, connecting people across cultures and continents. I’m grateful for the moment as I am nervous to start my first multiple-day cycling trip with a new bicycle.
The road out of Menghai is easy enough – a long flat ribbon through a valley. It’s quite busy so it’s not the most inspiring cycling, but I enjoy being on the bicycle and tasting the freedom. I visit a Dai Theravada Buddhist temple and buy colourful good-luck charms from the ancient ladies at the entrance gate. When I encounter my first climb my untrained legs balk and I put the Brompton to the hitchhiking test – within minutes of sticking out my thumb we get picked up and dropped off at the top of the mountain. The driver happens to have a huge bag full of gushu sheng pu in his trunk, raw Pu’er tea from old growth trees in Jingmai. He scoops big handfuls into a plastic bag for me as a parting gift and I’m on the road again, downhill on the Brompton.
Jingmai – old tea, new tourism
I end up doing a little climb after all, to Huimin, a small town by the highway and gateway to Jingmai. Jingmai was very recently added to the list of protected UNESCO world heritage sites for its ancient practice of carefully cultivating tea trees in the forest, leaving them semi-wild. The Bulang and Dai people of Jingmai have been living in a balanced symbiotic relationship with the trees for at least 1000 years. They process tea in many small village factories, piling the tea for fermentation on the floor, drying the tea in big flat bamboo baskets and fixing the tea in huge woks on open fires. It’s beautiful handwork with a lot of expert knowledge in the hands and eyes and ears of the people.
The protected park area is picking up in tourism but thankfully still largely undeveloped, although nearby huge property developments are under construction. An ambitious English-speaking employee at a newly opened tourism office in Huimin directs me to a bus to the heart of the park. The drivers try to guide me to the most commercial villages where everyone sits waiting for hordes of tourists to sell tea and honey to. I sit down for tea with one lady who is entirely unimpressed with my love for tea. I manage to escape the persistent bus drivers and end up hiking and hitchhiking on my own to more authentic villages, where I can enjoy the views and sit down in peace with lovely tea families.
After a day of exploring Jingmai I continue to Lancang Lahu Autonomous Prefecture. It’s a pretty non-descript town but the road to get there is absolutely wonderful. Steaming forests, gradual climbs, little traffic. I spend a night in Lancang and continue to Pu’er City. Another stunning road with little traffic. This is a problem when I get my first flat tire and try to hitchike the last 5km to Pu’er City. I have to wait about half an hour until a small minivan picks me up. Luckily, the Brompton fits neatly into the last bit of space available on the jampacked van. In the hotel in Pu’er I fix the flat in minutes and am free to explore the city. A dusty museum has minority costumes on display. Behind it is a large tea market where I have tea with a lovely tea shop owner.
It’s a sleepy city with not much else to do, so after two nights of good rest I continue. By now, I am eager to do more climbing.
Closing the loop
After Pu’er I have my best day yet on the bicycle. 80km of steady climbing through lush jungle providing shade. There is little traffic, so even if I wanted to hitchhike I wouldn’t be able to. I spot the recently opened Kunming – Vientiane railway line cutting across a valley and through hills. This connection was long anticipated. I take a moment to stare at the gigantic pylons supporting this part of the Belt and Road project.
At the end of the long day I’m sunburnt, tired and hungry. I’m also very disappointed, when the police in the small town where I want to spend the night refuse to register my stay. I have to book a car to Jinghong and miss out on the last day of cycling. On the upside, I get to spend another day drinking tea and chatting with Vivian and Lorenzo at the Eastern Leaves studio. I return to Shanghai with a renewed and very clear sense of connection to Yunnan, and to tea.