Xishuangbanna is located in the southern part of the upper catchment of the Mekong River. The Chinese call this area ‘outside river’, and traditionally it has been quite isolated, allowing rich ethnic traditions to evolve. The Bulang ethnic community is one of the 18 minorities inhabiting a relatively small area of just under 20,000 square kilometers. According to anthropologists, the Bulang gatherers were the first to discover tea, 3,000 years ago. Unusually, the Bulang ferment and pickle the tea leaves, eating them like a vegetable. Another tribe, the Lahu hunters, still rely heavily on the surrounding forest for food, medicine and timber. Over the centuries, they bartered with the Bulang people and learned about tea from them. The Lahu developed the ‘bamboo tea’ method of processing, allowing them to store tea for their long travels. The Han ethnic community was also involved in harvesting and processing forest tea, and over time, after observing the benefits, other minority groups took up tea cultivation. Nowadays tea is mainly cultivated in industrial monocultures of tea bushes on terraced slopes, at altitudes above the rubber line, 750 meters above sea level (although selection and genetic research are pushing the rubber plantations higher and higher). Pu’er tea is a cold-fermented tea, pressed into a cake for convenient storage and transportation. There are two kinds of Pu’er tea. In industrial monocultures, tea is grown in bushes on terraced slopes, while Mountain Forest Pu’er tea comes from the traditional method of tea cultivation, from tea trees growing wild in the forest. The trees need healthy forest ecosystems, and as forests are being cut down, the quantity of Mountain Forest tea leaves is also being reduced. Annual production of Pu’er tea is 3,250 tons, but Mountain Forest tea accounts for just 5 percent. The tea grows mostly in the mountains of the Mekong region, and the Mountain Forest Pu’er Tea Community works on three mountains: Jingmai, Nannuo and Bulang. Mountain Forest Pu’er tea is easily distinguished by the variety of colors in the loose or pressed tea, ranging from golden yellow to silvery white. True Pu’er tea shows a lively combination of colors during the first 20 years of cold fermentation. The old tea forests in the tropical mountains form one of the most highly diverse ecosystems on the planet. The tea trees grow in the understory of the rainforest and are themselves home to a whole world of epiphytes, including some of the prettiest Vanda, Ascocentrum, and Dendrobium orchids, and other species with great nutritional, medical and economic value and potential. People from the ethnic communities in the Xishuangbanna mountains still climb up into the branches of their centuries-old tea trees to pick the fresh leaves. No synthetic chemicals are used on these trees. Harvesting takes place twice a year, in the spring and the fall, unlike the terraced (bush) tea, where leaves are collected year-round because farmers want to maximize their yields. In the spring, after the winter rest, the tea is stronger in ‘qi’ (life energy) and aroma. In the fall, the tea is milder, more even and subtle. Some producers choose to mix the two harvests in order to produce the tea for a particular year. In spring, the first growth of leaves is harvested around March 15. These are the leaves that grow around the apical buds and while they look small, uneven and not fully grown, they have a more powerful flavor and aroma. After seven to ten days, the second flush of leaves, growing around lateral buds, is harvested. Though still tender and soft, these leaves are fully developed and have a better appearance. They also have a milder taste. The farmers visit the same tree once every seven to ten days in order to choose the best leaves. This is different from the bush tea, where growth is stimulated by means of selective pruning so that the leaves can be harvested as often as every three days. In the fall there is only one flush of leaves, so the distinction between apical and lateral leaves does not exist. The color of Mountain Forest Pu’er tea comes with age, as the tea ferments slowly in cakes. Over time the tea develops a more earthy, woody color, though it is always bright, vivid and transparent, not flat like black tea. As it ages, the tea becomes rounder and its aromas harmonize together. Caffeine breaks down to other compounds with smaller chains, more easily absorbed by the metabolism, making the tea more healthy. This very slow process can take many years, even decades. Another type of tea, from the same trees, comes from the leaves growing from the fourth axis down a stem. These leaves are more mature and the constituents more developed although the active compounds are less vivid than in the young leaves, making the tea milder and woodier. This very special tea has a golden-brown color. The older people in the villages collect these leaves for their own use, because there is market demand only for the younger leaves. Xishuangbanna is home to over 50 percent of China’s wild plant species, with around 5,000 flowering plants and ferns, of which 153 are endemic and 56 are rare or endangered. These forests are being threatened by the rubber and tea monocultures that are claiming the slopes, while food, biofuel and fiber crops are claiming the lowlands. Conservation of the old tea gardens offers an opportunity to preserve this valuable habitat, home to a rich biodiversity.