Hou Keng Hou Kui 2020, Part 1: Arrive at Hou Keng
Tea seasons are crazy, especially in highly prized areas such as Hou Keng, the most famous location for Hou Kui. This year I took a day trip to meet a friend who makes really good Hou Kui, and I realized just how much of a mess tea season can be.
My friend invited me to Hou Keng for the tea season. We made plans for me to come up the second week of the season. She told me the first week would have better weather but I was still welcome to come the second. I later realized that the second week, day I came up, was Gu Yu.
Gu yu (pronounced goo you) is the great rain. This is a very important pick date for green tea, maybe even as important as Qing Ming but less talked about. Gu Yu marks the end of many tea seasons. There is a big rain, which causes the weather to warm up, and the leaves grow past a desirable size. For most teas anything picked after Gu Yu is lower quality, cheap, and sometimes only drank by the farmer. For Hou Kui though, this is when the season really gets started.
Me and my friend talked on my bus ride up. Morning errands had taken longer than expected so I was set to arrive after lunch. She informed me that she would be up on the mountain and wouldn't come down till the evening. I I arrived in the village of Hou Keng and first took a stroll around.
The main village of Hou Keng is located at the base of the mounain, next to a lake. Its a beautiful scene. I remember the first time I came it felt like paradise. There are tea fields right next to the village, but they are just ok. The high quality fields are up the mountain.
This had been my second time to the village so I was familiar with it enough to walk around. As I passed houses a few people even remembered me from my visit three years ago. I guess they don't get a lot forgeniers walking around alone. I passed houses and peaked inside one every now and then.
In each house, or tea making area, sat a table full of older ladies folding leaves. What I saw this year was a machine that machanaically folded them. The ladies merely seperated the leaves and put them on this small machine that fed the leaves under a roller which flattened them. There was usually one gentleman watching the stir fry machine and one working on the baking machine. Going from house to house quickly became old because I found that the same thing was going on in each house. Same set up, same machines. After about an hour I decided to walk up the mountain.
The road up the mountain is a single road, big enough for one car, that goes up from the village. Cars going up and down this winding road must honk because you usually cant see around the next bend so you don't know what's coming. Also, if there is a car going in the opposite direction one of you must back up because there isn't enough room to go around.
You start the climb next to terrace like fields which quickly give way to woods and nature. As you climb every now and then there is a break in the trees that seperate you and the mountain edge and you realize how far up you've gone. The tea fields themselves can be so nestled in these tree that they are sometimes easy to miss. At one point I came across what looked like a zip line between the mountain I was on and the mountain across the valley. As if people over there could pick tea, then zip line it over.
On my way up it began to rain. I dont mind rain too much rain and so with the protection from the surrounding trees I was not bothered and kept walking. On my last trip I had been up the mountain and found another small area of houses which seemed to be more for tea making than living. My goal was to get to this area again. After about an hour of climbing and avoiding cars coming up and down, I began to come across building and tea making facilities. There were just two or three, but I figured I must be reaching the top. Then suddenly, the road ended.
It just stopped. I figured I had made a wrong turn somewhere and turned back, thinking I would see it. At this point I had been walking for more than an hour in the rain and I was beginning to feel the water slip through my clothes. Luckily a man picked me up in his car and drove me back to the village. The rain was really starting to pick up and I found shelter under a tent that had been set up for the chinese postal service to ship out fresh leaves. I waited there for an hour or so until my friend, who told me she would be up on the mountain longer than expected, sent the man in charge of manning the coals to come get me. He came and together we went back to a single story house where the tea was made.
In the house he was finishing prepping the coals. He would come in with a large tray of burning hot coals then cover them with ash to contain them. We tried to talk a little but my chinese is still not enough to carry on more than just a basic conversation and his accent made much of what he said unreconizable. So he went into the other room and I sat next to the goals and warmed up. The sun had set now and things were quiet. I heard a car come down from the mountain about half an hour later and could only figure it was her. I stood up as a man walked in first followed by my friend. This friend, who I was just meeting for the first time, quickly made an impression on me that I will never forget.