After a 9-hour high speed rail from Yixing and an hour-long taxi ride we made it to Chaozhou old town, which would be our home base for the next few days. It was about 11pm once we’d dropped off our bags, stomachs rumbling and blood sugar low we raced out of the guest house door to find a noodle spot recommend by a tea friend. Upon taking my first bite of the Chang Fen (肠粉) pictured above I slowly realized noodle by noodle exactly why everyone raves about Chaozhou. With each bite the fatigue of the day’s transit faded behind the sounds of our own merriment, and my excitement for the days to come began to build exponentially. I peeked at my watch, it was a bit past midnight as we returned to the guest house and saw many shops still open, with a few individuals gathered around the tea table in each shop, drinking fragrant cups of dancong (A famous oolong style of this region which translates to ‘single bush’) – many were even using charcoal braziers and Chaozhou water kettles. I found this fascinating; charcoal braziers are something quite rarely seen in highly casual tea settings among western tea consumers, but it was very obviously normal here – just a part of the rhythms and culture of daily life in Chaozhou.
Trying to recall it now, the next day was quite a blur. We met with a friend early in the day and spent well over 10 hours drinking tea. It was certainly after midnight when we departed and made our way to a bar, sorely needing alcohol to cut the caffeine buzz from dozens of sessions of 7-10+ grams of dancong tea tightly packed into gorgeous Chaozhou clay pots. As I lift a cup of osmanthus fragrance dancong to my nose now while writing, memories of a few teas we drank on that glorious day come to mind: Ba Xian, Lao Cong Rougui, Kuzhong Lao Lancai; but one exemplary tea stands out from the crowd of amazing teas we experienced - Gaolu. Our tea friend had invited something of a local tea expert to join us – a Mr. Yang Dairong, who was a government worker that had been in the forestry service, tasked with identifying, cataloguing, and dating the old tea trees on FengHuangShan. Mr. Yang was highly knowledgeable on all things dancong, and full of humor to boot - but in my mind he was something else entirely…the Dancong Santa Claus. He rocked up with a small bag full of sample tins, and as we would get ready to move to the next tea (albeit at a pace too slow for him, at only ~2.5 teas per hour) he started digging through his sample bags looking for that perfect next tea to knock us into a new world of dancong appreciation. Gaolu was one of those very samples. The tree that this tea came from no longer exists, it is believed to be one of the species written about in Lu Yu’s Cha Jing. This sample was from the 90’s and Mr. Yang, who prior to this had been insisting the tea pot be packed with 10+ grams of tea for most sessions, told our tea friend to only brew 3 leaves... you are reading that correctly. 3 leaves, not 3 grams. The pale brew that these 3 leaves yielded was subtle yet powerful in flavor, tasting like a punchy green kugua (bitter melon), but it’s Qi blew me into another world entirely – in fact it was such a strong Qi that at first, I found it uncomfortable and startling, it took me a few moments to realize that this intense high was in fact these 3 tea leaves – Gaolu. Once I relaxed into it the tea took me and everyone else for a ride.