Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It’s tea time again

Two things travelers have to know about transportation in Malaysia. Firstly, there is not much information available. Secondly, it’s kind of hard finding buses or trains, which locals are using, compared to the easy accessible commercial tours provided. Third, Malaysia is a small country and what looks far away on the map, is usually only a few hours’ drive and last, most buses no matter where they go to include Kuala Lumpur in their itinerary. So traveling in a circuit is hardly possible with public transportation, because the road system is star-like, connecting all the interesting destinations with KL, but not directly.
From the wild jungle I took an overnight bus to the remains of the British Empire, the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. Actually I should call it an into-the-night bus, because after surprisingly seeing the Twin towers of KL again, we arrived at the final stop in Ipoh in the middle of the night. There I had to spend 6 hours until another local bus would leave to the highlands. You cannot imagine how incredible warm it was in the bus station and that I had problems falling asleep!
A bit exhausted after my 20 hour journey I finally arrived and wondered if it was worth to take the slightly cheaper, but local transportation solution. Since I still had to keep my time schedule in mind, because in the end of January I was expected to be in Indonesia, it could only afford to stay in Cameron Highlands for 2 days and one night. Without wasting time I took the first cheap hotel room, had lunch and headed towards the tourist information. Obviously they had a pretty good package, which would allow me to see most of the attractions in my limited time! Convinced that it’s not always the best to do things on your own, I took the deal for the next day. The rest of the day I was walking a short distance to a close by waterfall and relaxed. Honestly, the jungle run from the days before was still notably in my legs.

The next and already last day started kind of early, because at 9 am my tour started. At the meeting point we noticed that it will be only two Scottish, I and of course our guide, who will be driving through the tea plantations, enjoying the lookout from the highest hill, walking through the mossy forest, watching the tea factory processes and finally visiting an insect farm! It was quite a lot to do until I had to sit in another bus only 6 hours later. So, let’s hurry with the story…
Our tour started with a drive through the tea plantation and various explanations from our guide. As I had seen similar fields in Darjeeling and different ones in Assam, I kind of new a bit of the tea plant already. Not very surprisingly, but also not expected Malaysian tea from Cameron Highlands is not picked by hands as it’s common in India, but gathered with diesel harvesters, which basically cut the tea tree like a conscienceless hedge trimmer! Stated on the tea estate’s homepage, it all sounds fine: “Tea used to be plucked by hand as the workers move laboriously through the long rows of low tea bushes. Today, innovation and research within the Company has led to mechanization and upgrading of its operations with the development of several labor and time-saving methods.“ I think it’s a rape of all tea lovers, because marketing makes them believe they drink some really special drink and additionally it’s most likely associated to attributes like environmental friendly or natural, but in the end it’s only a big business trying to use the cheapest production method, which generates the biggest or fastest outcome. Honestly, looking behind the stage and seeing how the profit maximizing tea industry made me sad… In India I learned that the tea plant uses 20 years to develop seeds, but here in that plantation it will never come so far, because the trimmer cuts all the attempts of the plant to flower and produce seeds. At least the landscape was nice as usually ;-)

The next destination was a lookout point on the top of the highest hill in the highlands. From there we were supposed to see as far as to the coast, but clouds during the rainy season prohibited that perfect view. Still it was nice letting our eyes crawl over the rainforests. Those forests were also one of the four vegetation zones, which we were observing in the next hours. It’s quite unique that there are so many different sections in such a small area.

As we were walking down the mountain, we saw bushy trees and small flowers at the top, followed by a zone called mossy forest. Our guide was promising us that we’ll see forests like in the movie Avatar and it almost was looking like an animation! Each square centimeter of trees, stones and the ground was covered with moss…

After the mossy forest we stepped into an area where heaps of pitcher plants were growing. In various colors, sizes and life stage we were able to see nature’s beauty from very close.

Sooner or later it was time for a break and according to our schedule we were heading to the tea factory, where we got a slight insight into the manufacturing processes of tea. As we knew about the harvesting conditions of the tea leaves already, we started with the transport to the factory. Deported there, a tea leaf makes its way through a two days processing of containing withering, rolling, fermentation, drying and sorting. Withering will stop the tea leaf to grow fungi, rolling creates the twisted wiry looking tea leaves and breaks them for enhancing the next processing step, fermentation is turning the leaf progressively darker as their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released, drying under well maintained temperatures again prevents mold and fungus to grow and last but not least in the process step of sorting, different qualities will be distinguished. Again heavy machines are in use.

After all, we had seen so much tea stuff today that of course we had to try a freshly cooked tea while again enjoying the landscape and a piece of cake, hehe. Despite the fact that some production processes could be reconsidered, the tea was very good, but a bit bitter though.
As the day passed by, it was time to go over to our last program point. At the insect farm we were introduced to all insects, which grow bigger than you think it’s necessary, and some smaller reptiles. Unfortunately my camera battery died in the middle of the show off and so I could take pictures of the 30 cm sticky insects, leaf imitators and the snakes, but here you go with some of them…

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