Sunday, July 13, 2014

Korea's "Greatest" Tea Tree • 한국 최고 차나무

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Image of Korea's first tea tree 

After packing up and leaving Cheong Seok Gol, we piled into a couple of vehicles and headed towards Korea's oldest tea plantation, where the first tea seeds had been planted nearly 1200 years ago, in 828 by the order of King HeungDeok of the Silla Dynasty. The seeds had been a gift from the T'ang Dynasty in China.

I squeezed into GoSan Sunim's (the monk tea master) boxy little SUV with eight others, as we wound through the valley. About halfway up the slope, when it really got steep, his car just wasn't able to pull us any further, and rather than roll back down the mountain, we poured out the back and walked. I was actually glad we did, despite my already-scorched flesh being re-exposed to the burning sun (It was only mid-May, but there were UV warnings that weekend, and we were pretty high up. The view of the rows of wild tea bushes, stretching across the mountain like a bright-green corduroy blanket. It was worth taking in. A famous tea field in Boseong, about an hour to the west, is the most popular tea-tourist destination but I much preferred this scene. It is also public land and anyone can come and harvest tea from these bushes.

Back to the 1200-year-old tea tree, last year I'd seen a picture of an ancient tea tree on an info panel and was hoping to find it this year. I just had no idea that it was the first Korean tea tree. I mentioned to Prof Ahn, who was squeezed in the front sit with his daughter, that I'd thought (don't know the Korean word for "assumed") that the original tree was dead. That's when I found out it was the same tree from the panel that I'd hoped to find.

Once we'd all gathered at the top of the tea garden and fully absorbed the view, I looked around for the old tree. Unable to spot, I figured maybe we had to keep going further up the slope. There was a wooden stair case but it only lead to a small viewing platform a few meters up, perched over some sun-bleached branches, worn down to stumpy limbs and totally parched. That couldn't be it! The picture I'd seen was full of leaves, covered in grey bark and green lichen. It didn't look anything like this. It was ALIVE! Unwilling to accept what was painfully obvious, I asked Prof Ahn where the old tea tree is. "There," he answered. Looking beyond the parched stump, towards the bamboo grove above, I repeated, "Where? I don't see it." "That's it. You were right, it's dead. It died ten years ago."

As the last windows of hope, fantasy, and delusion came crashing shut, I was able to look and see a polished stone marker, eerily similar to a grave stone, on which was inscribed, with great irony, Korea's Greatest Tea Tree; 한국 최고 차나무 (韓國大茶樹) 2003년5월9일). Actually, I'm pretty sure it is a grave stone.

It was sort of like when I found out that Nina Simone was still living, only to hear he news of her death the next day. Ten years ago! I mean, in a span of 1200 years, 10 years is practically nothing! I've been in Korea for nearly ten years! What if I'd arrived just a few months earlier and come straight here? Well, honestly, it still would have been a few years before my path lead me here. I missed it. Nothing could change that and certainly nothing is bringing that skeleton of a tea tree back to life. You'd think the info panel at the BOTTOM of the mountain could have mentioned something!

We'd planned to take a group photo at the tree, but Prof Ahn refused and instead made us gather in front of a nearby info panel. I think he was at least as upset as I was.

And with that, our 2014 tea adventure in Ssanggye Valley came to an end, as we descended the slope and boarded our bus back to Seoul.

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rows of tea, harvested by machine

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rows of tea, left wild and hand picked

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Korea's "Greatest" Tea Tree

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Uhg!

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roots of a 200-year-old tea shrub

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