Tea Travel Stories
DRAGON PHOENIX BIRD VALLEY
Oolong Tea Harvest in Central Taiwan
Gao Shan (high mountain) area in the Dragon Phoenix Bird Valley sits 2500 meters above sea level in the Nantou area of central Taiwan. The finest of high mountain Oolong teas are produced in this region from many tea gardens and small family run tea factories.
Tony Lin, a delightful man who is president of Lugu Tea Farmers Association was kind enough to coordinate our stay in his village. Luku is a small tea town near the bottom of the high mountains, surrounded by tea gardens and where tea tasting competitions take place each year.
The 5th day of our journey started out sunny and beautiful as the sun shined through our bamboo-constructed accommodation. A driver arrived in a large van around 9:00 that morning. As we drove up to Gao Shan, winding back and forth up narrow roads with no guardrails, I sat in the front, which seemed life risking. Our driver spoke no English but smiled and danced to techno music while he chewed beetle nuts, a native nut that grows on palm trees. Taiwanese wrap the beetle nuts in fresh leaves and chew them for stimulation similar to tobacco and even caffeine.
As we reached the mountaintops, clouds were rolling in and it started to rain. Gao Shan views were stunning, with a multitude of lush tea gardens sloping down into the valleys. As we arrived, the tea ladies were already in vans leaving the area. My sadness mounted, as this was the day we had been waiting for. Of cource, without the right amount of rain the tea plants will not produce, but unfortunately no tea is picked while it’s raining.
We decided to explore the gardens and were invited into a tea factory to see men at work fermenting the tea. It was necessary to see the complete steps of oxidation and fermentation of Gao Shan Oolongs. Each man showed us the step he was doing, as it was much a production process to semi-ferment the tea. The full process of this type of Oolong fermentation is repeated 55times from the squeezing of the leaves in fabric to tossing them into the drum layer, where a circular motion of lower heat tosses the leaves to help twist the leaves into balls naturally. The tea is finally dried for about 1 day. The smell in this building was like no other. It was the freshest, greenest, floral aroma I have ever inhaled and it made my spirit rise, realizing where I was in time and how fresh the tea was. You could smell and taste the mist of the mountains as we tasted a few teas Gong Fu ceremony style that had just come out of the dryer that day.
We were scheduled to leave the town of Luku the next day but I suggested to the group we must come back up the mountain if the weather was nice. I did not want to leave the Nantou area until the sun was shining and we could see the beauty of the tea ladies picking the tea on the mountain sides. We agreed to stay. The next morning I awoke to the sun shining through my room window and was immediately charged and motivated to get back up the Valley as soon as possible. As I walked downstairs to meet everyone they were all excited to see the nice weather and pursue our mission again. A different driver picked us up and drove us straight to Dragon Phoenix Valley. The views that day were spectacular. You could see all across the mountains and valleys without a cloud in the sky. When we arrived, the harvest operation was at its prime. As we got out of the van a few women turned to greet us with Nee Hao (welcome) and lots of smiles. The tea women each seemed to have a consistent rhythm, as they worked together in unity. They sang songs and laughed amongst each other, probably at me being a man from a far away place so interested in what they were doing. I could not believe the sight before my eyes. How beautiful the day was and how perfectly delicate the weather. I walked all through the tea gardens to get a closer look at the tips of the tea plants the women chose to pick.
The vibrancy of the camellia sinensis plant glistened in the sunrays and I have never seen something so vibrantly green. I did not notice any harsh chemicals or anything unsanitary or dirty in tea gardens either, which was comforting. The women in this area are paid per kilo of tea they pick. They are not pressured to pick a certain amount of tea per day, even in the prime season of spring when the freshest Oolongs are harvested. A women averages 30 kilos of tea per day making around $75-$100 US dollars a day.
I walked for about a mile down the mountain where more tea gardens were spread out and different workers were doing the same type of harvesting. I hitched a ride back up the mountain on the back of a man’s scooter to meet back up with the group who was in the van driving down to find me.
This day will remain in my thoughts forever. A spiritual and mental teaching for me, and to bring this hands-on knowledge back to America is something I look forward to doing more of in the near future.