I climb the steps through the rainforest to the ramshackle stone temple gate, dwarfed by the nearby banyan trees. Beyond, there is a new Buddhist pagoda, its upturned eaves sheathed in gold spires, its flanks decorated with murals depicting the Buddhist saints. I sit in the shadow of the gate, a mangy kitten poking around in the dirt beneath me, and turn to the camera.
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I begin, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who–”
I stop. The kitten has stuck its head up my shirt, and is licking the sweat off my back.
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I repeat, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern–”
I stop again. The kitten has clambered up my shoulders and onto my head.
You are leaving the house, but today you are on camera. Are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday, or their exact duplicates? Are your shoes tied in the same way? Is your hair the same? Do you have your passport for military spot-checks? Were your sunglasses on your head or in your pocket? Are your feet presentable, because you might have to unexpectedly be barefoot on camera? Was the mosquito repellent sticker visible on your shirt? What hand did you hold that packet of tea in yesterday? Have you been burned by the sun? Is there a kitten on your head?
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I venture, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who some say were the first to cultivate tea.”
I have finished the line after only three takes. The kitten pads along my thigh and mews up at me approvingly.
People keep inviting themselves along, and a refusal often offends. They don’t understand that any extra body on the production is another person who can trip over a chair in the middle of a take, whose mobile phone will go off when I am speaking, who will be taking the single free chair for the few seconds we can sit down on before being dragged off for another piece to camera.
If we are invited out to dinner after a twelve-hour shoot, sometimes it doesn’t constitute “relaxing”. Sometimes it means we can’t choose our food. It means folding our aching muscles onto tiny stools in some Thai restaurant, and being forced to try unknown dishes that might give us the squirts all night. It means that everybody has to spend another two hours speaking Mandarin, which only two of the crew have as a native language. Our would-be host still refers to me in the third person, along the lines of: “Can he use chopsticks?” It means we are not in staggering distance of our hotel. It means we owe someone a favour, which in China just accretes tasklets and obligations like limescale. So: no.
We are very far away from the cities of China. I ask my driver the name of the mountain on the other side of the valley, and he replies: “Myanmar.” The Blang tribe live out on the flanks of the mountain Badashan, supposedly the home of tea.
Yuyang, a Blang lady, leads me up into the hills. But we are not going to the neat rows of terraces of the tea plantation. Instead, we are clambering up to a tall stand of trees, said to be over a thousand years old. Little tea trees look like shrubs, each attached to a yellow square of insect-encrusted flypaper. But even these little bushes are over eighty years old, kept low by the constant bonsai of stripping off their youngest leaves. The trees are really trees, growing wild in the forest. I’m not actually afraid of climbing the tree to get to the young leaves at its top, but I do fret that my weight will permanently ruin what might actually be the first ever tea tree to be cultivated. So, I leave it to Yuyang to clamber up like a monkey.
The tea leaves are laid out to dry overnight, and then roasted in a large bowl-shaped depression cemented into the side of the house like a giant’s wok. A fire crackles underneath, as Yuyang’s brother Aizhang lifts and flings the tea leaves against the wok, wearing little string gloves. It is hot work and he seems oddly unused to it. After a few minutes, I realise that there is a tumble-drier-like device next to us which probably does all the roasting automatically when there is not a film crew in town.
After forty minutes of Two Men One Wok, the tea has nicely browned. This is called “killing the green,” since the tea leaves now look like tea leaves, and can be dried further and pressed into cakes for transportation. But that’s another story.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).