from the north
This is not about the dragon from Game of Throne, this is about a green tea from northern China called Dragonwell (Longjing). It is a pan-fired green tea originated from Longjing Village, Hangzhou, Zhejiang in southern China. Typically, the Dragonwell tea is identified with its flat sparrow-tongue shape and green-yellowish color dry leaves, and when it is brewed right, it has a roasted fava bean note as well. Known to be the number one of all the Chinese teas since 1920s for a long time, the Dragonwell growing region has grown out of the Longjing Village and a complicated zoning and grading system is in place now. I have mixed feelings about it often because for those who just want to enjoy a good cup of Dragonwell, sometimes the price you pay the tea does not reflect its quality at all. However, the Dragonwell from the north connected with me in a more direct way.
TOUCH FROM THE FAR
Wenxian, a county in Gansu, where this Dragonwell grows, is said to be the northernmost tea growing region in China. It was just a couple of hours away from where I was born and my parents spent more than a decade for their most prominent youth in the 60s under series propaganda movement. On the path of the must-pass route of the Ancient Silk Road, with all the diverse landscapes you can imagine and all the stories from the books and people, Gansu carries the images of deserted lands, endless mountains, abandon Great Walls, fainted cave paintings, hijabs, animal bones, mining workers, hand-pulled noodles, and far more than what I can depict...
I had often pondered myself with the question why my parents left that place which I am fascinated about. All of those felt so far away though until the moment I tried this Dragonwell. I would have never guess it is from Gansu. Suddenly, all became connected.
Soon, the summer after, after 40 years of my life, and more than a decade in the US, I urged myself to visit with my kids and parents for the first time. I have way more questions answered than I thought and had too many unexpected beautiful moments there even though it is rough, far and underdeveloped there.
DROP, THEN, THE LIGHT
Now you might wonder who is the person in the photo and how he is related to the Dragonwell we are talking about?
Zhao Zhong is the founder of Green Camel Bell, the first environmental protection NGO in Gansu. He was introduced by Elyse from Tealet who brought Zhao to the Global Tea Initiative Symposium in UC Davis. If we all heard about the pollution in Bejing, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, would be its peer in the country if it was not more on the level of pollution. Among all the projects GCB has been involved, Wenxian was one of them.
The story needs to be told from the time when Zhao Zhong first founded GCB in 2004 when he was looking for a way to continue his environmental volunteering work after the university. Being an outdoor adventurist and a mountain climber, Zhao has been appreciating nature since childhood and enjoyed climbing many of the snowcapped mountains... One climb in April 2007 at Sundankansan Mountain in Tibet shifted his life completely. He fell through a fissure and dropped 82 feet into the thin air... He managed to descend himself to a safer spot to stand and wait for his partner to bring back help. He got rescued 33 hours later.
He didn’t know for sure whether he would be saved. Surrounded by ice with dropping body temperature and fatigue body, carrying those hours through the bright daylight and also the pitch dark night, Zhao thought about many, many we don't have time to question ourselves anymore with our busy life.
“I was thinking about so many things for my life. What matters, what doesn’t, what I liked, what I didn’t. All became very clear at that moment…”
After his rescue, he decided to quit his regular job as an electronic and nuclear scientist and work on GCB full-time. High prestige and well-paid job in exchange for leading an NGO in China? Many doubted about his choice. Zhao moved on with his decision anyway.
During the 1950s, cultivations of Dragonwell tea already started in some of the ares in Wenxian. It has a similar microclimate than the original tea growing region in the south. After the 2008 disastrous earthquake, most of the aids were flowing into the neighboring province Sichuan where the earthquake was centered. Zhao and his team rode out three days after the earthquake to check where might be an area they can help. They found Chayuan, a small village in Wenxian, blocked away deep in the mountain which cannot be easily spotted by the officials. It was left behind regardless the damage they got. With fundings GCB got, they worked there intensively for the next three years to help them rebuild. GCB introduced green materials to build their new homes, and the “ecological toilets”, which separates dry from wet waste to prevent them releasing to the rivers. A local primary school was built as well with stable design and locally sourced wood. Even more, GCB helped setup a small tea cooperative for the village residence to grow and sell Dragonwell tea.
MORE COST FOR THE CHANGE
With about 500 registered residences, among which half would go to the bigger towns and cities and only some would come back during the tea plucking seasons. Families are living different places, this is not just here, not just in China. As an environmental activist, Zhao sees all the challenges from different levels CGB is facing to make changes. With the bigger movements to protect the environment, like returning the farmland to nature, many policies have made or guiding people to change how they use their local resources which they have been relied on for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is them who had made a big sacrifice to protect the environment. When there is less land to farm, when medical and educational expenses is soaring and the additional cost to rebuilt, growing tea here is providing an alternative way to make the ends meets.
Tea might be just a cup of drink for us, for those tea farmers it is the part of the reality they live in and for me it is part of the story I have to tell for now.