Lao Banzhang is a very famous village. It is quite far from any town, about a hundred families live there. It is located in the North east corner of Bulang mountain, at the limit with Hekai. The inhabitants of Banzhang are Hani, a typical ethnic group in the hills surrounding Menghai. It is not so easy to go to Lao Banzhang, no bus go there. Two dirty tracks connects this place to the outer world but during the rainy season, the village can be isolated for several days. Lao Banzhang is a common subject to bring up in the pu-erh world.
The village center
Lao Banzhang was an unremarkable village a few years ago. It came on the show after Menghai Tea Factory issued a Banzhang cake that became very famous. The price of Mao Cha is uncomparable with the nearby villages. It is still the most expensive tea of Yunnan and compete with Da Hong Pao and Long Jing prices.
There's a lot of tea gardens around Lao Banzhang. Most of the old trees grow in a natural forest, between Lao Banzhang and Xin Banzhang. The environment is similar to Hekai: high concentration for old tea trees, bamboo and medium trees. The ground is clear and the slopes are mild: it is easy to move in the gardens.
A small part of the old trees are shaped, like in Yiwu, this is done to make the picking easier. Rows of younger trees can be seen here and there, they seem to be only a few years old: the price increase pushes the farmers to maximize the output. Yet, the ancient tea gardens of Lao Banzhang look very good, the average size of the big trees is impressive, only a few villages in Xishuangbanna have such a concentration of super big tree.
There seem to be three varietals of tea trees in Lao Banzhang: small, middle and large leaf. This parameter can help to discern genuine from fake. When eating the raw bud, freshly picked on a random tree, a deep and intense Huigan develops into my throat. This is very characteristic of the Banzhang taste.
Some of the trees give particularly bitter leaves, this special varietal of tea trees is widespread in the Bulang area. Here, in Lao Banzhang, the percentage of ''bitter trees'' is quite low in comparison some other villages in Bulang Shan (Lao Man E, Mengsong, Man Xin Nong...).
There is some young natural tea gardens outside the village, as well as conventional Taidi. Ancient tea trees makes half of the Lao Banzhang production, this is more than the average.
In this village, many families only harvest the trees and bring the fresh leaves to a big processing unit, owned by Chen Sheng Cha Chang (陈升茶厂): the third largest factory in Menghai. We can assume the process in this factory is very well done. We were not allowed to enter the factory, it is a bit awkward because, usually, the people in Xishuangbanna are very welcoming and are always happy to show you their equipment.
Chen Sheng Cha Chang
In Lao Banzhang, the new wealthiness of the inhabitants seem to make big changes in their lifestyle. There is so much money flowing in that village. The house are expanded or rebuilt in a wild way. Since the village is surrounded by tea gardens, some trees were even cut to make room for bigger houses. Development doesn't seem to be very well managed here, yet, the families can afford to send their children to high school and university.
The houses grow faster than the tea trees in Lao Ban Zhang
In the evening, a peculiar business is going on in Lao Banzhang and the nearby villages. Fresh leaves come from all the Bulang area to be processed in Lao Banzhang and sold at a much higher price than they would be otherwise. Pick up trucks loaded with fresh leaves or processed mao cha enter the village while a few buyers wait in front of it. The nearest village, Banpen, is only 3 km away, a significant part of the Banpen tea is actually sold in Lao Banzhang.
Lao Banpen, a Lahu village near Lao Banzhang
Among the tea amateurs, there is a real quest: finding a pure Lao Banzhang cake. Many cakes on the tea market are sold with such appellation. It is true that there is a lot of fake or blend, even the cakes coming from the very Chen Sheng factory, which has a processing unit inside the village, is said to be blended. Maybe there is no point in trying to get ''pure'' material, the important is to have a good tea. Moreover, Lao Banzhang has tea trees on a large area, and two genuine Lao Banzhang can have slightly different tastes.
Lao Banzhang in the background, seen from the neighboring mountain
The main characteristics of Lao Banzhang tea is a deep, long lasting Huigan, a heavy Chaqi, and a mild bitterness. It is very appreciated because of its balance. It has a bit of everything and is harmonious.