The misty Wuyi mountains in northern Fujian are known for their teas, but so far the international tourist is relatively unaware that the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also one of the best trips the east coast of China has to offer.
The mountains were always a darling of poets and sages and for centuries misguided emperors would punish subordinates by exiling them to this paradise. After these naughty courtesans composed enough poems and drank enough Wuyi Cliff tea, word reached the palace that this area bordering modern day Jiangxi and Fujian Provinces was actually a portal to heaven.
Soon afterward, emperors began building temples here—Daoist, Buddhist and/or Confucian—and retreating to the area every so often to perform rites and rituals to ensure the aid of Heaven in governing their vast territories.
Today most of those temples are in ruins and the altars and rites are gone as well, but you can still take a raft ride down the Stream of Nine Bends 36 peaks, 72 caves, 99 prominent rocks and 108 scenic spots, sip tea made from one or more of the 365 different tea plants that flourish here and commiserate with the maiden of Yunu Peak, who was separated from her lover by the jealous Jade Emperor.
Ancient Heritage, Fragile Paradise
The government recently banned any more visitors to the Wuyi Mountain Nature Preserve. The region's million-plus yearly tourists were starting to harm the ecosystem and the historical treasures embowered within it. The ruins of the ancient Han capital of Chengcun, as well as the ruins of several dozen temples dedicated to the Three Main Faiths, are part of what attracted UNESCO: Man and his Biosphere require that an area displays the harmonious interaction between humans and nature—and for millennia that was the case in Wuyi.
The tourist rush of the past 10-15 years threatened to shake up that ancient balance, so both UNESCO and the local government felt it was time to act—thus the ticket ban. But even if you cannot get into the preserve (which is a good thing) you can still raft down the river, peep the ruins and coffins along the riverside and take part in that old Fujianese pastime: tea drinking.
The Tea Mother
If you do make the trip to Wuyi (check out Ctrip.com flight options here), then by all means sample as many great teas as you can possibly fit in a busy schedule of river-rafting and temple viewing. UNESCO granted this area World Heritage status primarily based upon the biodiversity of the flora and fauna—the Wuyi mountain range has remained virtually unchanged since the last Ice Age—and that diversity counts for the tea here as well.
Fujian has all five of the classic Chinese tea varieties: White, Green, Oolong, and Black as well as Flavored (basically flowers with green or white tea). But these varieties only account for the processing of the tea—the real head-spinner here is that the province has 365 different species of tea plant. Scientists trace an organism's origin by pinpointing the spot of that organism's greatest diversity (peppers in Mexico, coffee in Ethiopia, humans in Africa) so it is quite possible that tea originated in the Wuyi mountain range.
Number one on your list should be the dark aromatic oolong tea known as Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). This oolong's flavor profile might be characterized as an earthy loam mixed with smoked flower petals. Or something like that. It's delicious and Wuyi is its hometown. Grab yourself a clay pot and get brewing.
The next three should be the "other three" of the Four Great Bushes: Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle), Tie Luo Han (Iron Arhat) and Bai Ji Guan (White Rooster Comb). These oolong teas are named a bit after their appearance. Da Hong Pao is slightly reddish-brown in color and has longer leaves; Shui Jin Gui is a dark gold with shorter fatter leaves; Tie Luo Han is dark and solid and Bai Ji Guan is fluffy and the lightest colored of the four.
So if you are lucky enough to get the 'real' version of these teas and not the lesser non-cliff grown tourist version, then you too will most likely consider building a temple here in the misty mountains. Even if you get the lesser version, you probably won't be able to tell anyway, so enjoy it no matter what.
The other oolong you should drink is the ubiquitous Tie Guanyin (Iron Goddess). This tea was not originally grown in the Wuyi Mountains, but it is possible to get there these days. A fragrant, delicious tea, the Tie Guanyin comes in many varieties from soft green types to deep, dark earthy types. Try as many as you can.
After the oolongs, be sure to grab a handful of the local black, the famous Lapsang Souchong, which derives its notoriety from the smoky flavor of the pine boughs that are used when roasting the tea. The name might look weird to people familiar with Mandarin or pinyin and that's because it reflects the Cantonese pronunciation and the old Western way of writing. In Mandarin you would write it as La Ying Shan Xiao Zhong, which means La Ying Mountain Small Variety.
It is basically impossible to get your lips around a cup of the real stuff, so don't worry about it too much. The real Lapsang Souchong costs big money (i.e. the real stuff grown on a cliff in the Wuyi Mountains)—as much as 100 USD per gram or much much more, so be content with a 40 RMB cup of black that has a bit of smoke to it. Or, if you must have the best, then make that your quest—I encourage you!
Fujian also produces the world's best white teas. White teas are popular these days because the delicate, virtually un-processed tea is good for the skin and the Yin in general. Varieties to keep your eyes open for are the Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Tip), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow) and the Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow). Yinzhen is considered the best variety due to its early harvest time and hands-off processing (to keep the white tea as "virgin" as possible) while the Shou Mei is acknowledged as having the strongest taste.
Fujian is a big destination for domestic travelers and a lot of that has to do with the tea and the history of the mountains which are both familiar to most Chinese. But foreign tourism is expected to pick up as more and more people who were introduced to tea become interested enough to follow the supply chain back to its source. If you decide to trace the origin of that variety of white you're drinking to where it's made best, remember that the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian are also UNESCO-recognized historical landmarks: icons of a relationship between man and biosphere that reach back for millenia. Enjoy!