I don’t seem to be able to escape tea. On the other hand, in case that sounds like a complaint, I’m not sure I want to. It’s been good in several ways, including for my photography. For a start, I no longer put milk and sugar in, which has to be a step up. And then, it turns out to be a much richer subject for shooting (and video) than I’d thought. Most of my recent five-week trip to China was spent up and down the Tea Horse Road, and when I returned to Shanghai found that that’s mainly what Shanghai Television’s Arts Channel wanted to talk about. The interview was the day before I left, and broadcast last Sunday, and just yesterday put on to the on-line catch-up site. It’s here…. (wait a minute for the ads to finish):
I have to say I was impressed by the work that went into it, particularly in post-production. It was also very good to be working with producer Sun Menglin and director Wu Junyi. It wasn’t all about tea, although that made sense as a starting point for Wu and Sun: to let the audience wonder how some guy from Lancashire had the nerve to talk about Chinese tea (I kind of wondered about that myself). After that, Wu indulged me by letting me get on my hobby horse of real-world photography versus conceptual. That was clearly going to take the programme way over length, so Wu plans now to put that extra footage on their social media platform. That will probably get me dis-invited to a few gallery openings.
The weeks before the interview were an extension of that narrative work I wrote about in the March newsletter. My hotel client LUX* is opening two new properties next year along the Tea Horse Road, in Shangri-La (the ridiculousl but successful re-naming and re-branding of Zhongdian) and further up the trail to Tibet on the slopes of Meili Snow Mountain. Why I said earlier that tea has been good for my photography is that I now have a compelling reason to explore deeper into northern Yunnan. There are valleys and mountain ranges there that are completely off the tourist radar. I based myself this time in Benzilan. Yes, where indeed? Even most Chinese have never heard of it. Benzilan is a one-and-a-half-horse town with a four-and-a-half-star hotel (the LUX* one, voted this month one of the world’s best new hotels by Condé Nast Traveller), nestled in the warm, dry gorge of the Yangtse, which is here rather charmingly called the River of Golden Sands. It’s in ethnic Tibet, and if the idea of warm Tibet sounds strange, consider also that the crops here are walnuts, maize and grapes. The local wine is a sort of OK table wine, but as of last year, Moët Hennessy are producing a marketable wine in a small valley north of here.
In fact, their location is Adong, for me a special place because I shot there seven years ago for the Tea Horse Road book. My co-writer Selena Ahmed suggested it, as she’d been there previously and found not only a beautiful old section of the trail lined with azaleas and paved with stones polished slippery smooth by centuries of clattering hooves, but also three old men who had actually been muleteers more than 60 years earlier, in the closing days of the ancient road. They were still alive when I reached there, and I photographed them for the book. Two have since passed away, but it was a privilege to be in Adong in its pristine state, a village known to the Victorian and Edwardian plant collectors like Frank Kingdon-Ward and George Forrest. This area is the source of our national obsession for flowering plants in the style of rhododendron, azalea, camellia and magnolia. And more.
Why did I write pristine? Well, there’s the price of progress, sad to say. In 2014, Jancis Robinson and Nicholas Lander wrote an essentially glowing report in the FT about Moët Hennessy’s operation
From the perspective of wine enthusiasts, what could be better? French expertise applied to new remote areas (and in fact, the reason there are grapes here in the first place is because of French Lazarist missionaries who came here in the late nineteenth century and planted them so that they could have wine for Mass.). The price? Some things overlooked by our luxury goods-oriented society. At the end of April I accompanied a group of European journalists visiting Yunnan for the first time, and as part of their four-day visit I suggested a detour to Adong, where I knew that our contact from before, the good doctor Sonam Dorje and his wife could provide lunch and discussion. When we reached the valley entrance, a side trail off the precipitous Mekong River gorge, I was surprised by the newly surfaced road. The lack of this in the past had been the reason for the continued use of the old trail, which had skirted the back of a mountain to reach the county town, Deqin. It was quicker to walk or take ponies that way than to attempt the rough drive that went a more roundabout route. The reason, as Sonam told us over lunch, was the Moët Hennessy winery. The journalists latched on to a story. How did he feel about it? Well, he said, there’s good and bad. The good is that it’s bringing jobs and prosperity to the village (actually two hamlets, Upper and Lower Adong). One of his sons is now studying viniculture. And the bad? He’s seen an increase in respiratory illness, and the walnut crop has halved, because of the fertilisers being used. Ah, fertilisers. I’ve heard this before. Anathema at the top end of tea growing, but par for the course with wine. There’s one more knock-on effect, purely selfish disappointment for me: the villagers can now afford and, better still, use cars, and are happy about that. So no-one any longer uses the back trail, the centuries-old Tea Horse Road, to Deqin. There are now only six horses left in the entire village. Well, life goes on.