Enshrouded in the mist of the lush mountains of Yunnan in southwestern China, there stands an ancient forest of wild tea trees that have been around since the beginning of time. Carefully nurtured and tended to by generations of Blang and Dai tribes for over a millennium using sustainable agroforestry practices, Jingmai Mountain and the surrounding area is the birthplace of China’s most famous and revered tea: Pu’er. Its tea cakes, hard compressed discs of tea leaves, once served as valued currency of trade and exchange in the old days.
This year, “the cultural landscape of old tea forests of Jingmai mountain” was named China’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. To learn more about what Jingmai is like and what the UNESCO status means for the area’s future, we spoke to WildChina founder, Mei Zhang, about her recent visit to Jingmai mountain, her stay with a local tea producer, and her meditative mornings in the fog-enveloped peaks of Jingmaishan (Jingmai Mountain).
- Mei’s first visit to Jingmai Mountain
- What makes Jingmai Mountain special?
- Hiking trails in the area
- The UNESCO status and the tea from Jingmai Mountain
- The best way to experience Jingmai Mountain
- What impact do you believe the designation of Jingmai Mountain as a UNESCO World Heritage site will have on the local area?
- Jingmai Mountain travel recommendations
Can you tell us about the first time you visited Jingmai Mountain?
My first time to Jingmai Mountain was this past summer of 2023. I went there to look at tea making and the ancient tea tree which the area is famous for. I was also interested in finding out if it would be a suitable field study site for my ongoing Ph.D., which focuses on conserving and rebuilding the ancient Tea Horse Trail in China as a destination for recreation and outdoor education.
In your opinion, what are the things that make Jingmai Mountain special?
Jingmai is one of the most famous areas for producing Pu’er tea, which has become so popular in the past two decades that it’s created a lot of wealth for a lot of the tea-growing villages. What I found interesting when I visited was the impact that this new wealth has had on some of the villages.
For example, tea growers in some Pu’er tea-producing villages have started replacing traditional architecture with concrete structures. During my visit to the nearby area, I couldn’t help but notice the transformation – the quaint old villages giving way to what now resemble small towns with tightly packed concrete homes. The charm of the traditional architecture has been somewhat diminished in many of these ancient tea-producing communities.
My journey to Jingmai Mountain, however, left a different impression. The drive into the mountain from the main road is a visual delight. The meticulously paved road winds its way through the landscape, with the overarching trees creating picturesque canopies above. As you venture deeper, you’ll encounter villages that have retained their timeless allure, virtually unchanged for the past six decades.
Here you will find wooden houses crafted by either the Dai or Blang ethnic communities featuring thatched or wooden roofs. The traditional architecture still stands proudly, enveloped within the mountains. As the morning fog arrives, it blankets these beautiful houses in a mist. The sight is so serene and enchanting.
My visit took place during the summer, which is a season often accompanied by rain. I developed a particular fondness for the rainy days there. The villages are all surrounded by lush banana trees, ancient tea forests, and further down the hills, stretches of rubber trees, fields, and more. Outside the houses, the raindrops play music on the broad banana leaves, creating a mesmerizing, magical rhythm. When it rains, it is nothing short of breathtaking.
When the rain ceases, the sunset is a sight to behold. On the other side of the mountain, there lies another village, bathed in the golden sunlight, with the mountain tops shrouded in mist and clouds. So that’s the scenery that I witnessed this summer.
The people of that region are remarkably warm and hospitable. I had the privilege of being introduced to one of the villagers, a person my friend and I barely knew. With just a simple message over WeChat, her response was an immediate invitation to stay at her house. As I arrived in Jingmai on a bus, I contacted her. She immediately replied and offered to pick me up from the bus stop which was an hour’s drive away.
We spent our time in her home, where she treated us to an array of intricate local dishes, prepared with fresh fish and mushrooms she had foraged from the nearby forest. I attempted to pay her for her generosity, but she would not hear of it, emphasizing that I was a guest and a friend, and friends do not pay. This remarkable host also happened to be a tea producer with a charming tea house. She served us exquisite tea that she had made. In the end, all I could do was purchase a few cakes of tea, each sourced from her ancient tea trees in the forest, as a token of my gratitude. It was a truly lovely and heartwarming experience.
For those looking to explore on foot, are there any hiking trails in the area that you would recommend?
Though there are many ways to explore the area on foot, Jingmaiis not widely recognized as a hiking destination, yet. However, I think that is about to change. As of September 17th, 2023, Jingmai Mountain was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status for its ancient tea tree forest, marking a turning point for tourism in the area.
During my time in the Jingmai area, I had the opportunity to hike along two distinct trails. The first one is easy to find since it was established for public use by the local tourism authorities. This trail winds through the enchanting old tea tree forest. However, I must emphasize the importance of having a local guide, as the signage can be unclear in terms of distances between points A, B, and C. Nevertheless, the experience is truly breathtaking as you find yourself meandering amidst these towering ancient trees. Some of the tea trees are truly remarkable measuring half a foot to a foot in diameter.
Another trail, which I found quite appealing, consists of the paths the villagers traditionally take to reach their rice paddies, tea forests, or rubber plantations. These routes lead to fields closer to the Lancang River, where you will descend about 5 kilometers from the village I stayed in, and then ascend the same distance on your return journey. The trail is broad and, while the villagers now prefer motorcycles, I enjoyed the rustic beauty of hiking along it. You will encounter chickens roaming freely, fishponds with ducks, and more, making it a very picturesque hiking trail indeed.
If you inquire with local villagers about hiking trails, they may tell you there are none because they rely on motorcycles for transport. In this case, knowing what you are searching for is crucial to finding these hidden gems.
On the subject of tea and the UNESCO status, could you tell us what is special about the tea from Jingmai Mountain?
A visit to a tea plantation is still an unexplored delight for many, but it is essential to clarify that Jingmai Mountain’s tea is starkly different from typical plantations. Many plantations in China are highly industrialized and designed for large-scale production. This is especially common in eastern China. In these settings, tea trees are meticulously pruned to about a meter (or one yard) in height, and the harvesters use baskets for efficiency, trimming the teas in uniform rows to facilitate collection.
Jingmai Mountain, however, is not like this. The tea here does not come from plantations but rather from trees, genuine tea trees. These trees vary widely in age, ranging from 50 to 200 years old, with some legends suggesting that some of the trees have thrived for over a millennium. The notable aspect of Jingmai’s tea trees is their growth pattern; they don’t adhere to regimented rows. Instead, they flourish within the natural forest environment, benefiting from the entire ecosystem’s energy, which adds a unique richness to the tea’s character.
The soil here undergoes a natural enrichment process as it decomposes fallen leaves and organic debris. It’s a bustling ecosystem beneath the surface, with earthworms and a diverse array of microbes that facilitate the tree’s growth. These ancient tea trees thrive without the need for external fertilizers or pesticides, which are often essential for maintaining a tea plantation.
These remarkable trees are not only organic but also self-sufficient, drawing their essential minerals and nutrients directly from the surrounding natural environment. This distinct feature imparts an unparalleled superior flavor to the tea they produce, setting it apart from the rest. This place is stunning, incredibly safe, and infused with organic beauty. The exquisite taste of the tea just seems to connect you with the nature here.
In your opinion, what is the best way to experience Jingmai Mountain?
In my view, the most enriching experience is to immerse yourself deeply in the local culture and the lives of the people, getting to know them intimately.
If you’re planning a trip to Jingmaishan (Jingmai Mountain), I strongly suggest considering a homestay with one of the villagers. While the accommodations may not be as opulent as a 5-star hotel in Beijing or Shanghai, this choice offers a profound connection with the local way of life, an experience you won’t want to miss. I would even recommend hopping on one of the local buses, which are charming minivans that ferry people around. It’s a fun way to explore the area and engage with the local people. The bus driver fulfills a multifaceted role, he also serves as the local delivery person, ferrying packages for people all around. He has an outgoing and friendly personality, which makes the ride even more delightful. Travel the local way, which will not only reduce your carbon footprint but also provide a much more enjoyable and authentic experience.
What impact do you believe the designation of Jingmai Mountain as a UNESCO World Heritage site will have on the local area?
I think being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a double-edged sword. It’s great, but it can also make the place very vulnerable. Let’s talk about the good part of it. The process of applying for the UNESCO World Heritage designation is rigorous and there are standards that you must meet.
For instance, the safeguarding of traditional houses is a paramount requirement. Consequently, the local villagers understand these houses hold a special designation, making them off-limits for demolition. In support of this preservation effort, the government extends financial incentives to ensure these historically significant houses remain intact, cherished for their rich heritage and exquisite architectural design. There are additional regulations categorizing houses into distinct groups. Some must maintain their original exterior, allowing for interior renovations. Another category pertains to houses in a state of disrepair or of more recent construction, lacking in aesthetic charm, permitting their demolition and reconstruction, provided the new structures conform to the latest standards.
This designation emerged through a collaborative effort with the local Blang community, fostering an appreciation for the immense value of their traditions and culture, which the world acknowledges and seeks to preserve. This recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a source of great pride, endowing their culture with global recognition and instilling a profound sense of dignity.
Another significant benefit lies in the newfound fame, which has the potential to generate economic prosperity and increased revenues for the residents. This could very well translate into higher tea prices, boosting their income and overall wealth. However, there is a legitimate concern about the immediate impact of mass tourism.
Without the establishment of well-defined and carefully managed parameters for tourism, there’s a real risk of the region transforming into a bustling theme park, with the local population becoming a part of the tourist attraction. This unchecked surge in tourism, with millions of visitors – 5 or even 10 million – could rapidly erode the tranquility, charm and beauty I just described.
So that is the main point of concern. I hope our extensive experience with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites has provided us with valuable lessons, and I hope that we can apply those lessons to ensure the preservation of this remarkable site.
For those who are concerned about Jingmai becoming overly touristy as a result of the UNESCO status, what would you recommend?
I would urge you to visit now, while it’s still pristine. I would also encourage you to venture beyond the established tourist areas. Explore the charming villages, and follow the local trails that villagers use to tend to their crops and farms. By delving into these less-traveled paths, you will discover the unspoiled beauty of the region. Also please be mindful of your impact and tread lightly, avoiding large tour buses. I would rather that we all play a part in preserving the natural beauty of this place rather than contributing to its decline.
For a related reading, here’s an article on traveling the ancient tea horse road in Yunnan.
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