Recently, I scrolled through old photos from my time living in Taiwan. I was reminded of the freedom with which I’d travel from place to place. I’d travel from Tainan, the city where I lived, deep into the mountains of central Taiwan on a scooter with my dog in search of tea. There was no shortage of adventures and freedom of this nature at that phase of my life. Buying tea in the mountains was a dream I’d had for over a year at that time. Once I heard that you could go up to the tea farms, I was very interested. When I told people that this is what I wanted to do, they would warn me, “If you go to the mountains to buy tea, people will lie to you.” The bait-and-switch was said to be a common practice. And it might be. But I was lucky enough to not experience it. I followed the recommended protocol. For example, once you decide on a tea, do not leave the tea. So I stayed by the tea’s side. Eventually, I started to do business with very busy and very experienced tea vendors. When we would sip a tea one vendor said, “I can’t sell you this tea. It is already spoken for. But if you want this tea, I can make one that is very similar.” I’ve had good luck with both methods of buying tea, by trusting the process.
Tromping through the mountains buying tea is really hard work. It is an adventure, and it is an endurance test. Out there, the meals don’t come at regular intervals. The rest might not either. And the effects of drinking so much tea, sometimes on an empty stomach, combined with the extreme travel conditions, are strenuous enough to make most people turn away. It is one thing to find a “tourist destination” on the side of the road, pull over, and buy tea. Technically, this is buying tea in the mountains. It is another experience entirely to go deep into the mountains, far off the beaten path in a hunt to find some special treasures.
Timing trips into the mountains can be tricky. If you are early, the tea is being processed. I’ve been to places like this and was yelled at when I asked if they have any tea. “Can’t you see we are making tea?’ You can also go too late, after the tea has been sold, or at least after all of the choice tea has been sold. I’ve found that if you do find yourself at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is best to move on. There is always another mountain just around the bend, and it’s best to try your luck at a different tea mountain than sit around and get yelled at.
The people who live in the mountains, the people who farm in the mountains, they are a different kind of people. They are tougher. They are hearty. They don’t seem to be afraid of hard work. Mountain dogs are wilder and mountain chickens are tastier. Like the old song describes the people of Ah Li Shan, “The women of Ah Li Shan are as beautiful as the water and the men are as strong as the mountains.”
Searching for tea in the mountains can be lonely, but it is not as lonely as the COVID lifestyle. I am glad that I did a good deal of this adventuring while I was young. But I really hope to be able to do it again. Despite the difficulties, I dream of taking my kids when they are older and searching for amazing tea in the spirit of adventure.