Being one of few foreigners to spend time in Gaoshan, Yiwu, I get a lot of questions about the village, culture and life there. Having been coming and going for over ten years now, I've seen how Puer tea has changed life in the village. Here, I have put together some basic facts about my adopted home and where my first cup of raw Puer came from.
Gaoshan Village (written in Chinese as either 高山, 高山寨, or 高山村) is a Yi-ethnic group (彝族) village. There are many sub-groups of the Yi-ethnic group, but in Gaoshan lives specifically the Xiangtang people (香堂族). The village itself has grown to well-over 100 households in recent times. The proximity to the main road and Yiwu as well as the abundance of old arbor tea gardens makes it a village that has been popular amongst tea tourists and has brought wealth in recent times. The increased income has allowed many households to have rebuilt their houses with proper foundations, brick, steel and cement houses which is a huge contrast to the wood, mud and straw housing of previous generations.
Gaoshan village is roughly a 15-20 minute drive north-west from Yiwu town. Driving up
from the highway and main roads, one will have to drive past the fork to Yiwu where the new Yiwu arch is located. The turn-off to Gaoshan is relatively easy to spot in the daytime as it is a large dirt and stone road that starts with a relatively steep climb from main road which turns right instead, and is pretty level at the entry point. It has been notable that as the village expands, the roads and paths become considerably easier to traverse due to constant usage and regular maintenance. However, the roads can still be dangerous due to landslides and slippery muddy patches which still affect route especially during rainy periods. The village is situated right at the top of the peak and is one highest peaks in the nearby area, hence the name, 高山 which literally translates to high mountain.
Like most modern Chinese people, Spring festival and Mid-Autumn festival are celebrated with family gatherings, feasting and drinking. However, it's the 8th day of the 2nd Month in the Lunar calendar (二月八) that is the most important day of the year for
the Xiangtang people. The story of the festival relates to the bravery of the Hero goes off to fight enemies of the village on this day and manages to stop them from attacking further but he never returns. A variation of the story states that he returns on this day and therefore the Lunar New Year celebrations were postponed until this date of his return. The usual gathering and feasting is similar to Spring festival but includes large circles formed around large bonfires to sing and dance remembering the ancestors and spirits that help protect the people. The picture shows the Xiangtang people in Gaoshan praying to the Tree Spirit (茶祖) for a bountiful harvest. Praying to various spirits/gods is part of the tradition although I find that the current generation are significantly less superstitious than their elders.
Songs are also a key part of the culture. Traditionally, there is alternating singing between potential lovers, and if their 'conversations in song' go well, it's likely that they will continue a longer-term relationship. Many of these songs were traditionally are sung across the mountain while resting or foraging. I find that mountain villagers have much stronger voices and voice recognition than city folk, as they are able to converse across mountains and even several houses down the street with little effort.
As one of the famous villages of Yiwu, tea production is of key importance. There is a disproportionate amount of arbor trees in Gaoshan compared to other famous villages these days. The reason is that when tea prices were very low, it was more efficient to hunt and forage for food in the mountain forests or tend to their slash-burn crops during harvest seasons, leaving the trees to grow naturally with minimum intervention. The tree management style is now part of the local culture and Puer prices have aligned to keep this type of tea farming viable as a business model. Tea trees surround the village and the most ancient trees are estimated to be over 800+ years. The local tea generally has a distinct floral, honey-sweet aroma and a clear huigan sweetness, both of which are key distinguishing features. The leaf varietal is smaller than traditional large-leaf assamica Puer trees, but are still clearly much larger than the medium-small leaf varietals such as those of Yibang/Mansong.
Food and Drink
The traditional food and drink is based on what can be obtained through hunting crops. An extreme variety of wild herbs, leafy greens, roots, fruits, mushrooms and foraging, as well as rice and corn and fungi are used in addition to meats of local animals. Wealthier families kept their own livestock as they used the excess from their harvests to feed their animals. Poorer families would historically only eat meat once or twice a year. Excess fresh fruit and vegetables would be preserved typically through sun-drying or pickling. Interesting examples are sun-dried half-bananas, dried wild-olives, and pickled long-stem greens. More commonly seen dishes are: stir-fried pork with pickled lettuce, chicken soup, boiled leafy-greens, stir-fried crunchy vegetables, pork-bone and Chinese radish soup and stewed meats made with wild herbs.
The flavour profiles are a complete balance of salty, sour, spicy and bitter. Sweet foods are generally uncommon and a notable exception is the use brown or black(molasses) sugar with glutinous rice powder to make various treats such as sticky rice balls or steamed sticky rice cake during festivals. Only more recently has tolerance for sweet foods been introduced through candies and western-style birthday cakes to youngsters, since villagers were unable to afford luxuries like these as little as twenty years ago.
There are three meals a day at roughly 7am, noon and 6pm, all of which are traditionally full meals with rice and multiple dishes to be shared with the family. These days, convenience foods such as manufactured rice noodles, wheat noodles, and steamed buns are replacing more meals and more meals. When climbing mountains, villagers will normally take a bamboo leaf packed meal of rice and pickled vegetables. A more luxurious meal will likely have an addition of dried meat or sausage to be heated or roasted over an open flame.
The standard drink of choice is moonshine made from corn or possibly rice. Almost every family has someone who is the expert moonshine distiller. Typically, the alcohol level reaches between 45% to 55% although some productions have estimated to have reached as high as 65-70%. The quality varies quite greatly due to the variation in crop, weather and distillation process, but alcohol in plenty supply these days so there are hardly ever any complaints. Storage of such alcohol, pictured, is pretty pragmatic and makes for some nice puns for us English speakers such as "Do you need any gas?" or "This purified water will surely make you happy!"
Life in Gaoshan has been changing rapidly. In August of 2007, I visited and some defining memories about the quality of life could be summarized by the following: all roads were in a state of disrepair; water was still sourced from the local well and carried home; hot water for bathing was heated on the stove but many chose to bath in cold water; there was no access to gas; for the daily deed one would go to roughly built outhouses on a steep slope or with nature in the forest; finishing middle school was a luxury that most could not afford;
Nowadays, life is considerably more comfortable: roads are much improved despite areas of disrepair; water is pumped from various sources directly to each household; every household has a solar-powered water heating system and appropriate water storage; indoor kitchens can use gas instead of wood-burning stoves; toilets with proper drainage is available; high school or higher education is now an expectation.
The life of ten years ago is almost impossible to recall when visiting now. It's almost a guarantee that the next ten years will see even more change, since the government is building more highways and railways through the mountains which are always a catalyst for great change.
Visiting Yiwu and Gaoshan
If you are planning to go to Yiwu and would like a guided visit to Gaoshan and/or the nearby areas, please feel free to get in touch. We know how difficult it can be for people to get around mountain villages and that having local contacts support is of great help so we are happy to host any visitors interested in Yi-Xiangtang culture and/or tea. Details can be arranged further via Wechat, Facebook or email. If interested please make initial contact through the Contact Us page (I prefer to avoid unnecessary spam by not publicly publishing my contact details here).
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