The mountains seen just off of the highway were covered in tea shrubs. Unlike green teas, Pu'er tea is allowed to grow on the shrub for a longer time. I heard the amazing fact that all tea is really the same plant--Camellia Sinensis. Growing conditions, picking times, and processing methods are what make for the amazing variety of teas. The leaves for Pu'er tea are bigger and thicker than green tea. I have been to green tea farms where they have shown me that the leaves are soft and tender enough to eat right off of the shrub. This is not to say that one should eat tea leaves as a small in-between-meal snack. The point is is that the leaves are young and tender. Pu'er leaves and thicker and do not need as much gentle care. Also, they are left to dry out in the sun, rather than dried and toasted in iron pans.
Once dried, the leaves are pounded with an enormous stone weight and pressed into the disk shape. It is then wrapped in paper that has been carefully folded like a package. The bricks of tea resemble what I can only image look like an illicit substance. Considering that this region of southeast Asia happens to be near that crossroads between Burma, Laos, and Thailand, I imagine that tea like this has been used to hide other goods. In fact, when I took the night bus from Jinghong back to Kunming, our coach was stopped on the road and bags were searched at a military checkpoint. I was awoken from my bunk on the sleeper coach, a little disorientated, with a flashlight in my face. Bags were pulled off of the bus and sleepy-headed travelers questioned on the side of the road. I handed my passport past the beam of the flashlight and went back to sleep as soon as it was handed back to me.
For about 15 dollars I bought a disk of the raw Pu'er. It is called raw because the leaves are still green as they have not been totally oxidized. Oxidization naturally takes around 2 years. Before scientists in China figured out the best way to speed up that process, the price of Pu'er used to be extremely high and aged Pu'er extremely valuable. Tea shops in Jing Hong still sell disks of Pu'er for $1000 but a non-connoisseur is not getting more value out of spending the extra money. Like most tea in China, it is used for gift giving more than it is for drinking.
After returning from my trip, I held onto this disk for a long time before I finally decided to break it apart to enjoy. I found that drinking Pu'er at home was the best. I would drink it on my day off (Mondays) while listening to David Gray and cleaning my home after long weekends of teaching. At that time (2010-2013) I had a little system. I drank green tea at work, tie guan yin tea at tea houses, and Pu'er tea at home.
The act of drinking can be quite compulsive. Both coffee and alcohol cannot be enjoyed for any serious length of time the way tea can be. Tea works much differently. Drinking it feels restorative and drinking more enhances the benefits. The same cannot be said about coffee. Around 2010 and going into 2011, I was writing a lot and just starting to get serious about photography. Life back in Yichang was taking on new meaning. And in the fall of 2010, I was a little depressed. The tea was rejuvenating and always sparked memories of that trip to Yunnan. Life in Yichang could not compare with my memories of Yunnan and so I became a little obsessed with those memories, my photos, and the tea. I had a boring job. The students were expert at learning as little as possible. My colleagues were incredibly passive aggressive. Although it may sound strange to some, that tea was a comforting consolation.
The 2010-2011 school year, after I returned from Yunnan, would be my last at the primary school. I had had enough. the experience was wonderful in that it had taught me that 3 years was a good maximum of working at any giving school. The first year they roll out the red carpet. The second year they ask you do to do more. When they have felt out your limits the relationship limps. In the third year, they want even more for less money and turn their back on you. You may have a few allies but the weather had most certainly changed. This was my third year. I had made friends with my office mates and was able to get useful information about my classes by bribing the office leader with almonds and chocolates that I kept in tea tins at my desk. All I was learning were upcoming days off, test dates, and other information to help me plan. Although that information was harmless, I was getting more information than the school, officially, wanted to give me. the office leader got criticized. I only knew this by how cold she became towards me for no apparent reason. I knew what happened when I confronted the school leader in charge of foreign affairs. I asked her about it directly and she admitted it.
Sometimes the answer can be read in the bottom of a teacup.