[[EDITOR'S NOTE: this memorable travelogue details the recent trip of Lew Perin, founder of the indispensable BABELCARP database, to China. It was a truly tea-rich experience, and these notes -- sent one by one, and collected as they arrived -- offer the reader some vivid snapshots of how one finds, purchases, and savors tea in the environment that actually produces it: cha dao at its richest and most nuanced. Enjoy the freshness of these messages, which are published here by the author's permission.]]
Hey nice people: As many of you know, Gunthilde and I are off on our China trip. I'm not going to give a long report right now, though there's lots to tell. I'm in a coffee joint in Hong Kong right now, and the atmosphere is kind of hectic. But I assure you, we're thriving. Tomorrow at noon we fly to Yunnan. More later.
Hey nice people: OK, I have a more relaxed setting to write from now.
Note for non-tea fanatics: There are going to be some tea references here and in later messages. You might want to look up mysterious phrases in the website in my signature.
Our 16-hour nonstop flight from NYC to Hong Kong was tiring but probably the best way to do it. (Though the polar route, according to a flight attendant I spoke with, is a cosmic ray bath; their contract stipulates that they be required to work that route twice a year at most.) Gunthilde hardly slept, and I slept not at all. It was pretty productive for me, with a lot of reading and electronic Chinese flashcard practice, until eyestrain made me stop. Our plan was to gut it out, take melatonin when we arrived at our hotel Sunday evening, and then sleep, hopefully forcing our body clocks to snap into east Asian time by Monday morning.
(It sort of worked. It's Tuesday evening now, and we've had 2 semi-normal days since then on the physical-health plane. We've had periods of being slightly out of it, but nothing really bad, and we've felt sleepy at the "normal" time and slept through the night both times.)
When we got through customs, we were met with great kindness by the first of two Hong Kong families to extend themselves to us in this trip. Our friend S, a HK native who came to NYC as a girl, got her sister and two nephews to pick us up and drive us to where we were going to stay. They are sweet people, and wanted to do all kinds of things for us. We, of course, just wanted to go to bed. They brought us to our budget lodgings in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Kowloon neighborhood that's a combination of glitter and grit. Our guest house, to use the local parlance, is a block of rooms on the twelfth floor of a run-down building, administered by some enterprising, friendly people. When H, one of the nephews, saw the building, he wanted to get us out of there immediately. But we had a look at the room, and it turned out to be immaculate, if tiny. So we stayed put. It's OK, really: quite secure and actually quiet.
Monday morning we got acquainted with Tiffany at the Best Tea House in Tsim Sha Shui. We drank some very good tea and heard the story of her life.
Later that day, we got onto Hong Kong Island and took the tram to the Western District to hunt for the shop that sells good, low-priced old Pu'er from broken bingcha that a friend had told me about. His instructions proved perfect. We hung out with one of the owners, a guy who around westerners calls himself Danny. His salesmanship, if that's the right word for it, was at the extreme laid-back end of the spectrum ("Why do you want my business card already? Let's drink some tea and then you'll see if you want to do business with me.") His tea was good, and he sure got the sale.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around some of the older parts of the Sheung Wan and Central neighborhoods. We lucked upon a guy with a stall in an alley who carves chops and rubber stamps. We made a deal with him to have a stamp ready by this afternoon (Tuesday) that we could use to make neifei for the Pu'er bingcha we'll make in a week or two if all goes great. (As I write, I do have the stamp.)
Later on, we met our second HK family. Our friends, the best tea dealers (note the absence of capital letters) in New York, are a young HK couple. His parents, the Ws, live mostly in HK, but Gunthilde and I have known them, too, for a few years. The Ws, who are in fact in HK these days, had arranged months ago, when we were first planning our trip, for us to have dinner with them in HK, and Monday evening was the occasion. So we met Mr. and Mrs. W around 5, and then wandered around some of the spiffier downtown neighborhoods until their daughter and son-in-law were ready to join us. Then we went to dinner at a private club, the Shanghai Alumni Club, that the son-in-law belongs to.
Dinner was amazing on a culinary level: a long succession of Shanghai specialties. But much more importantly, it was a sweet experience of being welcomed into a family. By the time it was over, it was decided that Mrs. W was going to accompany us to Yunnan! Hmm, my obsessive study of Chinese suddenly seemed less crucial to the success of the trip.
Today we mainly wandered around HK Island. We had dim sum with Mr. and Mrs. W in an old place outside the modern area, washing it down with ferociously strong Tieguanyin.
Tomorrow morning we head for Kunming. The three of us, not the expected two.
Hey nice people: Let me first deal with a mechanical thing. There are some of you who may need to get in touch with us urgently (hope not!) We do have a cell phone that works in China now. The number is 139-8768-3149. You need a country code if you're calling from outside China. Remember, though, we're off New York time by 12 hours!
We've been in Kunming since Wednesday afternoon. It's a huge city, having grown rapidly over the last decade to its current population of 6 million. Unsurprisingly, the older parts of the city are -- at least in our cursory experience -- the most interesting, but they're under assault by the forces of modernization. The oldest part of the city is really fascinating in a seedy, charming way. Even in the most modern parts, though, people walk slower than in Hong Kong (or New York!)
The buses are about like the New York transport system -- crowded but civil -- though with more beggars. The sidewalks, at least in the part of town we're in, are alive until late evening.
This city is Pu'er crazy. We spent all of yesterday walking around the city, and I swear we passed by at least 50 Pu'er shops. And that was without venturing into the tea markets. That's for today!
Yesterday's highlight was Cuihu (Green Lake) Park. It's a very big park in a leafy part of town, spread out across and around a lake, as you would imagine. Pretty much everybody inside, and it was heavily populated, was relaxed and ready to smile at anything or anybody pleasant. We spent about a half hour listening to a bunch of elderly musicians sing and play their way through a Chinese opera. They were wearing street clothes, and they were alive to what was going on around them in a nook in a sort of concourse in the park, but their performance was intense. They were really making music. The male lead was a grizzled guy with a raspy voice, but he knew how to use it. The female lead was younger, and her voice was younger too; it had a penetrating, feline quality, and she had it under complete control. The percussionist got a wild range of sounds out of his small kit, punctuating the singing with lively commentary.
Kunming still has lots of evidence of communism: banners on the broad main streets and some older people -- only older people -- still dressing as if the Cultural Revolution were in full swing. Not to mention the street names: our hotel, for example, is on East Wind Road, and this morning we have an appointment on Building Infrastructure Lane. But you could easily get the impression that it's being drowned out by the flood of Western-style garb, advertising, and, to use the term loosely, culture that you see on those same boulevards.
Hey nice people: Lots has happened since Friday morning.
Friday was a big tea adventure. It was also the occasion for when a friendship that has grown via email alone blossoms into a face-to-face one. (I could swear that there's no word for that! Am I losing it, or is that a fact?)
Rob Henrich is a young American who's lived in Kunming for about three years. He and a partner have gone through the arduous bureaucratic steps to form a Chinese company, completely legal by Chinese standards, to sell tea to foreigners. He and I had been corresponding for a while, and he'd been very helpful to us in planning our trip.
Friday morning we met Rob where he lives, not far from Green Lake Park. Then we went over to the far northern part of the city to the biggest of the three tea markets in Kunming. "Big" is an understatement: there are about 600 shops and wholesale businesses there.
After a stroll to give us a sense of the vastness of the place, we stopped to drink a couple of Jingmai Shan teas. (For you tea fanatics, this was not 101Tea; they do not in fact control the whole mountain, it turns out.) There was a young raw Pu'er, which was not earth-shaking but certainly a step above the tea we'd had in a shop in the old city earlier. There was also a Dongfang Meiren (Oriental Beauty), I repeat not from 101Tea. It was probably better than the 101Tea version, though of course there was no cup-to-cup comparison, and unquestionably a beautifully manufactured tea, with immaculate leaf-and-bud sets.
But the best part began later that morning when we walked over to the shop of a company that Andao is partnering with. They're called Shi'er Xiansheng (12 Gentlemen), which is a Song dynasty tea reference. They specialize in old-tree tea, authentic old-tree tea, by contrast to a lot of the competition, they insist. They are Pu'er aesthetes. They have an aesthetic of Pu'er that rejects what they see as the new-fangled approach that they see as having come in from Taiwan in the nineties, seeing this as a green-tea or oolong approach. Let Pu'er be Pu'er, is the way they see it. By their lights, taste isn't the most important thing in a Pu'er, but instead it's the subtle sensation in the back of the throat: Houyun in Mandarin.
(Though their métier is Pu'er, Shi'er Xiansheng are interested in all kinds of tea, according to Rob. They even are interested in Indian tea, unlike lots of Chinese tea folks.)
We drank tea with Gui Dong, one of the two partners in the company. He speaks no English, and my Mandarin comprehension isn't remotely what's needed to follow him, so what Im reporting about Gui's opinions is due to Rob's translation. Gui has the aspect of a young art history professor: enthusiastic, eager to argue his case, but eager also to test his opinions against others. Quick to smile, too. We tried a few teas, including some not his own. Not surprisingly, the others came up short. (I'm not really mocking him here -- I really don't see him as self-serving; he really does burn with a passion for his aesthetic.) Unfortunately one of the teas found wanting was one brought by me: the 1993-4 Yiwu maocha from Hou De that some of the tea fanatics reading this will know. He thought it had some merit, but proved to his satisfaction (and I think I'm convinced) by analyzing the brewed leaves that it wasn't what it was represented as; rather it's a mishmash of cooked and raw leaves from a variety of origins. Not only that, he said, there was no real tea harvesting in Yiwu in 1993-4 at the trough of the Pu'er bust.
Shi'er Xiansheng has a library of several hundred cakes and bricks from the last few decades of Pu'er production which they can refer to when they need to deal with an issue.
Their tea really does do something serious in the throat. I was genuinely startled. Pleased, too. Now I have the job of discerning how much that experience was due to the tea being different and how much to having my attention focused on an aspect I'd never attended to before. The taste, too, was pretty remarkable, bitter up to a quite manageable point with a fascinating nutty quality too.
The tea session at Shi'er bracketed a lunch at an excellent Muslim restaurant. Muslim restaurants are what people in Yunnan go to when they want something less oily and maybe less spicy than their normal fare. Cleaner, too, perhaps, due to halal standards. There was a lot of interesing food, and perhaps the best thing was the simplest: a steamed skinned golden squash, presented whole but pie-sliced into a couple of dozen pieces. Gunthilde and Mrs. W went off on their own after lunch.
After the long tasting session, Rob and I wandered over to his office to wind down. He had a lot to say about the slings and arrows of doing business in China. We yakked our heads off about tea, the universe, and everything.
Wow, I didn't expect to go on so long about Friday. I'm not caught up on events yet, but it's time to push off.
Hey nice people: Sunday morning we left Kunming, heading south to Xishuangbanna, the main Pu'er producing region near the borders of Burma and Laos.
It was hectic and nervous-making navigating the bus station to find the supposedly luxurious express bus to Jinghong our travel agent had promised us. It was a sleeper, which means two levels of narrow mattresses arranged in three rows along the length of the bus, each mattress tilted at the head end like a parody of an old divan. It did not have the toilet our agent promised, which may have been a blessing in disguise, and it reeked like a homeless guy on the New York subway. Oh, and people did smoke, despite the no-smoking signs.
The trip of 540 km took all day, what with stops at several cities and one extremely slow patch of two-lane road above Simao. It was cramped and uncomfortable, obviously, but the nice thing about one's sense of smell is that it seems to ignore steady-state stimuli after a while to focus on whatever is new. So, honestly, I can say that the rank odor ceased to be an issue after a while.
It was good to see Yunnan roll by at a pace. And on a scale a human could take in, unlike what you get flying. The statistic that Yunnan is 95% mountainous took on a tangible reality.
Another interesting thing to take in was the way agriculture in China takes place in the most unlikely, tiny places, wherever possible, as if it were water seeping into any crevice available. People grow crops on the outskirts of towns and in the centers of towns on vacant lots. They farm the strip between the north- and southbound lanes of the expressway. (Of course, that farmland was undoubtedly connected to other farmland before the expressway was imposed on the peasants. It was really seeing peasants walking alongside, or worse, running across the highway.)
Anyway, around 7:30 we pulled into Jinghong, a steamy city on the Mekong (Lancang in Mandarin.) It's a strange mix of cultures. I find myself thinking of it geologically, in plate tectonics. It's as if, starting maybe 10 years ago from what I hear, the resurgent, booming China plate smashed up against the sleepy Indochinese ethnic minority stew plate. So you have glitzy, pompous hotels like the one our travel agent booked for us at absurdly low off-season rates, lined with luxe Pu'er shops and booze shops (sometimes shops that sell both, and cigarettes too); but nearby there are streets where people hang out and peddle tropical fruits and snacks, and the hanging out and peddling are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other.
Monday we walked all around Jinghong. The highlight was the vast arboretum of the tropical agriculture institute. You could spend a whole day there easily; we were there most of the afternoon. Just an amazing variety of plants, some gorgeous, some intensely fragrant, some just plain weird.
We also managed to arrange a trip for Tuesday to a tea mountain to buy tea leaves and then press Pu'er cakes. But that's a big subject, and not for now.
Hey nice people: Tuesday the 15th was going to be the big day of the trip, for me at least. Not to create artificial suspense, that is the way it turned out.
With the invaluable aid of Mrs. W's fluency in Mandarin, we'd arranged to be taken into the mountains by Ma San, a jolly man without more than a word or two of English. We'd considered two other guides. One goes by the name of Mr. John when dealing with westerners, and he came recommended by the tea friend who's been very valuable in planning this trip, the guy some of you know as Bearsbearsbears. Mr. John, though, when I called him, said he was way up north and wouldn't be back in Xishuangbanna until we'd be gone. There was also a recommendation for a guide from a very helpful lady at the elegant tea garden down the block from the hotel, but she didn't seem the type to go tramping around the mountains herself, so this seemed hearsay. Ma San, by contrast, had the favor of Rob Henrich, whose advice seems more golden all the time.
Ma San is a Yi (the largest minority in Yunnan, about 3 million) who, like many or most of his compatriots, goes by a Han name. Ma is indeed his family name, and it's one of the commonest Chinese family names, but San isn't his real given name; it means "3", and is just a reference to his birth order. His real given name is Wen Xin, or roughly Language/Culture New, and Mrs. W, who has a sensibility that allows her to judge Chinese given names, considers it elegant.
I'm going to go into the gritty monetary details, because they're really essential to the story. Ma San was to get 200 kuai for the day. (Kuai is what everyone calls the Chinese currency that's officially called Renminbi, or RMB for short, or Yuan. Last time I looked, it was about 7.6 kuai to the US dollar.) No issue there; he certainly earned it. What dwarfed his fee was the cost of the maocha we'd buy. (Look this up on Babelcarp if you don't know what it is; there'll be more terms like this later)
I was prepared for prices of nosebleed altitude, for everyone with any interest in Pu'er knows that for the last couple of years there's been a Pu'er boom akin to the dotcom era or the Dutch tulip craze. MarshalN has detected signs that prices may have crested lately, but they certainly haven't come down enough to help me a lot.
Actually, I think I've detected a sign that the boom may go bust soon. I've mentioned that there are vast numbers of Pu'er shops in Kunming. (I'm not talking about the huge, mainly wholesale tea market, which is a phenomenon in itself; I'm talking about retail shops.) By now I can report that there are similar numbers of Pu'er shops in Jinghong. But they're empty of customers! That's right, strolling the streets, passing dozens, maybe hundreds of Pu'er shops, you almost never see a customer in them these days. So these shops clearly aren't making money. The shops are sitting collectively on a mountain of Pu'er, and it may not matter that much or most of it is fake in one way or another, for when these shopowners hit the wall, a lot of so-called Pu'er is going to be offered at significant discounts, which should affect the whole market.
Anyway, returning from this speculation (in more ways than one), I can say Ma San told us that maocha from old trees from the Menghai area would run about 800 kuai/kilo, while corresponding tea from Nannuoshan would be about 400. Menghai is a pretty name with a lot of history behind it, but I sure didn't think Menghai trees bear leaves that are twice as good as Nannuoshan trees. So we set off for Nannuoshan, just as Bearsbearsbears did before.
It was a wet day. Actually, I think the Xishuangbanna rainy season, which notionally starts in early June, has already begun. We headed for the Nannuoshan range in Ma San's microbus, stopping on the way for a look at a famous, supposedly 800-year-old tree. There are other tea trees reputedly much older in Xishuangbanna, but sorry, I can't claim to have worshiped at their roots.
We tooled slowly upward through alternating rain and mist. There were lovely views along the way where the vehicle wasn't completely hemmed in by, well, jungle, for want of a better word: not heart-of-darkness but more like cloud forest. Occasionally we would see a small field of taidicha, the kind of tea we did not want to buy, in the distance; qiao mu tea, the kind we wanted, is harder to discern from a moving vehicle because it blends into the forest. We also passed people from the Hani minority who dominate Nannuoshan, some afoot, some riding motorcycles or other vehicles over the slippery road.
Eventually we had to go on on foot. Before too long, we came to the house of the first farmer whose tea Ma San wanted us to try. We went up to the second floor. (The houses of all the non-Han minorities we've encountered so far are traditionally more or less open to the elements on the ground floor, with human life taking place on the second floor; traditionally animals hung out on the ground floor in many cases, but now it's more likely to be various vehicles and mechanical equipment in tea-rich Nannuoshan.)
The farmer had a setup for tea brewing and tasting more or less like what you'd find in a Chinese tea shop: big, rustic wood tea table emptying into a waste container, electric water heater, gaiwans, cups, tongs for handling cups for sanitary purposes, etc. Only there wasn't any glitz. The tea table wasn't varnished, in fact there wasn't a painted surface in the room, just rough-cut wood.
So we started on the teas. The first farmer was a young guy with sharp features and a dark complexion and a graceful, darting way of moving. There were two different teas this farmer had. One was slightly fresher in its appearance and dry-leaf aroma, but this isn't necessarily a plus in a tea you expect to improve with age. Both were pretty imposing before brewing, really pretty as leaves, and with penetrating aromas. In the bake-off between the two teas, as Ma San and the farmer took turns brewing, it was hard to pick a winner. One had more sweetness and aroma, the other more body and strength. Both had hints of the houyun Wei Dong insists on, we thought (I'm including Gunthilde and Mrs. W, of course.)
I was getting just a bit uneasy about the way these guys were brewing the tea: considerably harder (more leaf, longer steeps) than I would. But, I thought, there was a point to it: you want to see all the tea has to show you, so you push it hard. This is what Indian tea tasters do to an extreme, subjecting delicate Darjeeling first flush tea to 5 minutes at boiling temperature. So I nervously accepted it.
So what were these teas going to cost? Well, 500 kuai/kilo, not 400. Hmm. We were going to try another farmer, no? Sure. So we told the first farmer we appreciated his hospitality and we might be back to do business. (Or not.)
Buzzing from drinking a lot of strong tea, we 4 set out on foot farther up the mountain to the next village. We had brought umbrellas! After maybe twenty minutes we reached the second farmer. He was a taller and older guy, rangy, with Han features. Once again, upstairs to his tea room. This setup was more worn -- I'm tempted to say weatherbeaten -- though he did have an amazingly powerful water heater with a compartment for sanitizing maybe two dozen cups at once.
Once again, two teas. Once again, one was fresher and sweeter, the other had more presence, somehow. But this farmer was really overbrewing the tea to the extent that I just couldn't develop confidence in my judgment, and the two women had the same qualms. So I asked to do the brewing myself. No problem! We set up once again to compare the two teas. The farmer left the room. This time both teas tasted better than they had before, if I do say so myself. But slowly a consensus candidate made itself known; this was a nervous process, for a significant amount of money was riding on it, not to mention the prospect of living with this tea for a long time and giving cakes to some of my best friends. And we liked this tea better than the first farmer's teas.
So how much was this one going to cost? 350. Big improvement over 500 kuai/kilo, of course. At this price, it wouldn't be a problem to swing 5 kilos, which would resolve in the factory to 14 cakes, which is to say, 2 tong. But hey, we were in the land of bargaining, so maybe we could get the price down a bit? Oh, but the farmer himself had gone off on some errand, and the kid -- son? employee? -- left behind with us lacked the authority to drop the price. Sure the farmer had a mobile phone, but we couldn't raise it, which wasn't exactly surprising in a place like Nannuoshan.
So this was one of the times when all the doubts inherent in the position of being a gringo, so to speak, descended on us. Was all of this a carefully planned bit of theater put together by Ma San and his Nannuoshan buddies? Was this tea even gu cha at all or just lowly taidicha hauled in from elsewhere? (We'd actually seen lots of old tea trees in our hike up the mountain, and no taidicha fields at all since dismounting the vehicle.)
So we gulped, and decided to go ahead with it. The maocha was measured out, the kid was paid, and we set off down toward Ma San's vehicle, me with a sack of tea over my shoulder. Ma San had a small plastic bag of the same tea: his commission from the seller, evidently. I wasn't particularly offended by this, after thinking about it a minute, and I was actually encouraged by the recognition that he thought the tea had enough merit to take it as payment.
We got in the microbus and went down to a factory that presses bingcha. Sorry, we're swamped; too big a backlog. On to the next factory. They were willing, and for a smaller fee than I expected (50 kuai for the 14 cakes.) And the recently pressed cakes they showed us were beautiful. So we handed over the mao cha plus a gang of neifei I'd stamped with my Hong Kong-crafted rubber stamp, each reading
Could we see them press the 14 cakes? Uh, no. We could watch them press cakes, but not our cakes. They had a backlog, and they were going to do their work in the order in which it had arrived. Besides, we couldn't just take the cakes after they were pressed anyway; because of the steaming during pressing, the cakes would need to dry overnight before they could be wrapped so they could be taken away.
Another moment of buyer's remorse, or at least the buyer wondering if he should feel remorse. It could all be a scheme to snooker the gringo. But I figured I didn't really have much choice, and I also figured Ma San probably saw himself owning a budding reputation it might be smart to protect. So we told them to go ahead.
When Ma San had dropped us off at the hotel, Mrs. W had an announcement to make. She had just enlisted Ma San to go back up the mountain and snag another 5 kg of the very same tea and run it down to the same factory so that two tong would be ready for her when Ma San picked the finished product up Wednesday for delivery to us. This from a woman who had never shown a great interest in Pu'er before!
Hey nice people: I think when I finish writing this I'll be in the unusual position of being up to date with actual events. This, I suppose, is a sign that we didn't handle Jinghong/Xishuangbanna as well as we might have. We've pretty much sucked all the juice out of Jinghong, and we aren't about to set out on an expedition today with a 5:30 plane to Dali to catch, so this is true downtime. Most of the interesting stuff you can do in Xishuangbanna is out in the mountains and tiny villages, and that takes a combination of planning and willingness to bushwhack we didn't muster except for the Nannuoshan expedition.
Back to Wednesday, the day after Nannuoshan. Gunthilde and Mrs. W were at the famous blind massage place in Jinghong for the whole-body treatment. As it turned out, Mrs. W decided she'd just watch, for she was nervous about the masseur figuring out where her money was. Gunthilde's masseur was on the whole very good in her estimation, enough so that as I write the two of them are back with the blind masseurs for foot massages. G's masseur, with Mrs. W translating as usual, wanted her to know that he'd heard masseurs in New York made $100 US for an hour's session. G, under his forceful hands, suppressed the urge to inform him that before you could practice in New York you'd need to get state certification after laying out $30,000 for training.
While this was happening, I was right here at my habitual Jinghong Internet cafe. Ma San had said he'd deliver the goods between noon and 2:00. Around 12:15, my cell phone rang. I'm proud to say that, without Mrs. W, I managed a conversation in which I asked if he were at the hotel, got his confirmation, and told him I'd be there in 5 minutes. I ran back to the hotel through rapidly intensifying rain, and took possession of the 4 tong. All smiles, we shook hands, and he clapped me on the back. As promised, Mrs. W's 2 tong were marked with her Chinese name. I've decided not to open our 2 tong until we get back home. I don't know if this is a sign of confidence or if it's just that I'm not sure I could put them back together again well enough after inspecting the cakes that they would provide the same protection in transit they now offer.
Late Wednesday afternoon we walked off into the southwestern part of Jinghong, aiming for the sort-of-famous park dedicated to the Xishuangbanna ethnic minorities. At Yiwu Lu, we paused so G could take my photo standing under the street sign: as close as I would get to Yiwu mountain this trip. The park itself was going to seed in the way facilities that charge no fee do in the new China. It was OK to walk around its leafy expanse, but the exhibits were decaying and the tropical aviary was locked, though the birds were still there. The Wednesday evening minority song-and-dance extravaganza promised in one of our guidebooks had decamped to a paying venue a couple of years ago. (Don't get me started on the Bradt Yunnan guide, just published in England, available in the USA only by direct order from the publisher, and less up to date than the Lonely Planet China guide published in early 2005!)
Thursday morning we walked to the #2 bus station and took a minibus to Menghan or Ganlanba, depending on whom you ask. It's a much smaller town than Jinghong on the Mekong about halfway to the Laos/Burma borders. Walking around Menghan, we got some of the flavor of a sleepy market town that Jinghong must have been a decade or two ago. Menghan is much more Dai and much less Han than its bigger neighbor. There are neighborhoods where all the architecture is Dai, and pigeon-sized chickens roam walled compounds. But the signs of jinghongifacton were impossible to miss: dust, noise, and hectic activity from the construction of modern villas and apartment buildings.
We saw a pagoda in the distance and decided to head for it. It turned out to be the Man Chun Man temple in the emphatically for-pay minority park at the edge of town. It's very worth visiting: a real, functioning outpost of Dai/Thai Buddhism and full of remarkable architecture and decoration. Walking around the huge park, which includes a few Dai villages in which people actually live, was good, too. But it was a bit eerie being, as far as we could see, the only tourists actually walking around. (Tour buses seem to enter the park only to deliver spectators for the daily bogus water-splashing festival featuring a promised 100 beautiful Dai girls. We missed it, so I'm unable to verify the count. I don't doubt you could google to find out what the real water-splashing festival is about.)
Walking back from the bus station, we blundered upon a terrific market, chaotic as usual but by far the biggest we'd seen in Jinghong. We bought some ripe mangoes that sadly lacked that almost alcoholic tang of a great mango. But the lichees were sublime, by far the best I've ever tasted.
OK, as promised, you and I are now up to date.
Hey nice people: Hello from the tourist utopia of Dali. I doubt I'll get up to Dali in this installment, though.
Friday the 18th was going to be pretty much just a day of downtime in Jinghong. But after lunch in our habitual noodle joint -- wait, I feel like interrupting the narrative here for a speculation about the China tourist economy, or something like that.
The noodle joint I was referring to is excellent and, by our standards at least, dirt cheap. You can easily eat well there for 4 or 5 kuai. And I mean well: very fresh food, good ingredients, and often, imaginative spicing, at least, compared with my experience. It's semi-open-air: sheltered from above and open to breezes on two sides, as is appropriate in that climate. Its clientele, as far as I could determine -- and remember, my senses are amplified by Mrs. W's linguistic and cultural acuity -- is almost entirely local people. The weird thing is, it's in an extremely valuable location on Jingde Lu, one of the spiffiest streets, and it's part of an extremely glitzy hotel-and-condo complex. So this downmarket noodle shop occupies valuable street frontage and pays rent to a landlord who put vast amounts of money into the property, but the noodle joint couldn't possibly be paying enough rent to justify the investment, unless I'm missing something big.
I know that the noodle shop is just one data point, but really, there's more. Our pompous, expensive hotel in Jinghong gave us an almost embarrassingly low rate, and they're obviouly losing money these days, not just from us but from not having enough customers. I suspect they aren't full except for the couple of "golden weeks" a year when Chinese tourists clog the tourist infrastructure. I wonder if parts of the China tourist industry are in a speculative, over-investing frenzy caused by the inability of Chinese investors to send their money overseas, same as ... Pu'er! (Some readers will notice an intellectual debt to MarshalN and Rob Henrich here.) And speaking of tourism and Pu'er in one breath, a lot of the street-level tenants in the expensive, possibly speculative, buildings in Jinghong are Pu'er shops without customers. So, hmm, contra my earlier musings, maybe those Pu'er shopowners aren't paying such high rents after all; maybe the landlords figure better this deadbeat tenant than the eyesore of an empty storefront?
OK, end of parenthsesis. Friday, after lunch, we headed over to a lovely tea garden we'd noticed the night we arrived in Jinghong. It's a place shaded by lots of well-tended vegetation where customers are served tea in little teahouses surronded by leafy tranquillity, one party of customers to a house. It cost a lot to set up, without a doubt. So we settled down for an hour or two of drinking sheng Pu'er, paying 120 kuai for the experience.
The girl who served us, it almost goes without saying, has virtually no English; remember, Jinghong is set up for Chinese tourism, and this place probably was built by somebody who noticed that the Chinese middle and upper classes had gone Pu'er-mad. The stream of information from her, mostly through Mrs. W, of course, as the girl deftly brewed and poured maybe twenty steeps from the same leaves, changed and grew increasingly interesting as the afternoon wore on.
The tea was obviously pretty decent from the beginning, and of course, I've already said it eventually justified 20 steeps. We asked the girl what it was; she said 2-year-old Yiwu leaf. (Yiwu, huh? Yiwu is like Darjeeling in that there's immensely more Yiwu tea sold than is actually produced, which is to say, there's lots of counterfeit out there.) We said there wasn't any houyun, really (remember, "throat feel"); she conceded that, but she had a fallback position: this kind of tea doesn't develop houyun til it's 5 years old. We avoided asking her why we were drinking it then, but we did needle her by saying our Nannuoshan leaf had houyun before it was even pressed.
At that point, she seemed to see that mouthing her employer's propaganda wasn't particularly useful. She told us that she was from Nannuoshan. Hani? Yes. I showed her a couple of pictures saved on my cellphone-camera-computer. She didn't recognize the first farmer, and the lighting in the picture of the second farmer was too dark to make out his features. But when she saw the picture of the entrance to the second farmer's village, she said, That's my village!
Speaking of Nannuoshan, she started talking about how expensive the purple bud Pu'er from Nannuoshan was. I hadn't known it was from there, but I showed her a printout of the Babelcarp database that showed the Chinese characters for the tea. I'm not sure if that was what did it, but at some point she seemed to decide that it might be worth while taking a very different tack with us.
Not showing the greatest loyalty to her employer, she said she was the first of her tea-farming family to come down the mountain. Why? They'd decided that someone in the family needed to find out as much as possible about the part of the industry down the mountain. They wanted to eliminate the middlemen, you see. All the middlemen, that is: sell tea directly to foreigners. We exchanged some contact information.
After we'd wrapped up the tasting session, she let us have a close look at the brewed leaves. Not terribly big, and you couldn't see any secondary veins; by some accounts this marked it as taidicha. So we put it to her, and she admitted that this might not be pure tall-tree tea.
Later that afternoon, at the Jinghong airport, we witnessed what might be another high-water mark in the Pu'er craze: a duty-free (I suppose) airport Pu'er shop. This one seems to be sponsored by the Menghai factory. They were trying to sell 7532-blend cakes for 800 kuai apiece. That's for an average weight of 357 grams, in case you don't know.
As we got ready to board the Dali-bound (well, Xiaguan-bound, really) plane, we got a chance to feel at one with the oppressed masses. In the lashing rain, first-class passengers got umbrellas for the maybe 100-yard portage, but the rest of us got soaked.
Hey nice people: Dali, or at least its old city, is a place that attracts lots of what one guidebook calls "backpackers with credit cards." Well, ouch, but we like a lot about it. It's an amazingly well preserved/restored gem of the traditional architecture of the Bai (not Dai -- that was Xishuangbanna) people, who ruled what is now Yunnan for much of the middle ages and are still going strong.
We're staying in a sweet family-run Chinese guesthouse on Hu Guo Lu (Defend the Country Road), which I've read the locals call Foreigners' Street (that would be Waiguoren Lu, right?) There are countless vendors of crafts and antiquities, ranging from dubious to quite good, on this stretch of the street, and no end of places to eat and drink. But it doesn't really descend to the level of honky-tonk, and anyway it's easy to get out of this part of town into the area where the locals go about their business pretty much unafflicted by the likes of us. There's something very relaxing about this city.
Dali has a beautiful location between the huge, blue Erhai Lake and the imposing Cangshan mountains. Its climate is really pleasant: warm, even hot, during the day and cool at night, with rather low humidity.
Not much to report of a tea-related nature, except that I was able to experience something that already had a Babelcarp entry: San Dao Cha. I recommend it, even though there are additives to the actual tea leaves!
We spent several hours today walking outside the actual city to (and around) the famous Three Pagodas site that dates back many centuries. It's really beautiful from a distance, but in the time since our guidebooks were written it's been annexed to the New China in the sense that it's been thoroughly walled off from anyone unwilling to pay a 121 kuai (how'd they arrive at that precise number?) admission fee. We three felt offended by this (maybe you'd call us petulant), so we left the tour groups behind the walls and went walking around the walls, catching glimpses of the tall pagodas at intervals while absorbing the life of the villagers who live around the site as they went about their Sunday rounds.
By the way, while this stretches credibility, some people reading these messages have expressed interest in seeing the pictures we've been taking on this trip. (Warning: they're kind of crude, since they are being taken on my 640x480 cellphone camera.) I'm dimly aware of the web sites like Flickr that allow you to upload photos for all to see, but I have no idea of their relative merits. I welcome advice on this subject.
Hey nice people: Greetings from bewildering, Internet-starved Lijiang, where you can elude the swarming tour groups if you try hard enough, but you'll definitely get lost in the twisting stone streets if you do.
This is going to be a short one, because I have to run. I just wanted to add one definitely tea-related item to the last (Dali) report. One of my readers, the tea blogger MarshalN, read the Nannuoshan story and sent me a scary message. You'll remember that one of the reasons we couldn't take possession of our tea at the factory on the day we brought it there was that the cakes needed to be steamed before they could be pressed, and then they'd have to dry out a bit before they could be wrapped. Well, MarshalN said we should check our tea cakes to see if they had dried out adequately, because in the humid climate of Xishangbanna in late May that wasn't something we had a right to assume.
When I read his message, it made perfect sense. I really didn't want to end up with skunky tea after all the time, effort, and anxiety. So Gunthilde and I set out to open a tong despite our fears about getting it back together again in a way that would protect it in transit. For those of you who haven't seen one, the tong is a beautifully designed form of packaging (I wish I knew how and when it was invented.) Seven individually paper-wrapped cakes (really discs maybe an inch thick each, I'd guess) are formed into a tong when some overlapping semi-flexible bamboo husks are bound into a cylinder by maybe three thin metal wires that get twisted so they won't slip. It would have been great to have a pair of pliers, but ... there's always the pick tool on a Swiss Army knife. Gunthilde's inspiration was to attack the tong from the bottom, not the top, and I'm sure she was right.
So we got the tong open, and without breaking a wire. We carefully unwrapped the bottom cake, flaked off some leaves, and I'm happy to report, it seemed perfectly good. Dry for some value of dry, and it smelled good. By the way, one of the neifei I'd given them was there, relieving some of my anxiety about bait-and-switch. And, yes, we got it back together again, wires and bamboo intact.
And the next time I read my email, there was a warning about too-humid cakes from another friend, the Internet tea writer sometimes known as Samarkand. Great minds think alike, indeed.
Hey nice people: We flew into Kunming this morning from Lijiang on our way out of Yunnan. But we expect to have a good day here.
Lijiang was a place we could have done better by had we had better information. The cab from the Lijiang long-distance bus station dropped us at the north entrance to the, uh, pedestrian-mostly old city; impossible to be driven to the door of the guesthouse we'd chosen. Immediately, drivers of pedal-powered baggage carts descended on us, and they wouldn't take no for an answer. But that isn't the way to win us over, we three, and we plunged into the swarm of people clogging the tourist oriented parts of the old city and tried to figure out where the guesthouse was. The immediate impression that the Lijiang old city gives is of a kind of ethnic minority Disneyland; the density of tourists and tourist-oriented shops and restaurants is much higher than in Dali, and you have to work much harder in Lijiang to get to where you can start to develop a feel for the people who actually live there. But we did make it to the guesthouse after maybe 15 minutes of lugging our gear, puzzling over twists in the lanes and the possibilities offered by other alleys branching off.
We picked a guesthouse in the old city on the basis of recommendations on the Chinese Internet that some nice people from Shanghai staying next door to us in Dali had found. It was shabby but fairly clean, and maybe nothing to complain about at 100 kuai a night. And it was interesting, at least at first, to be in an old Lijiang building looking down on the courtyard at its center. It was also fun to eat breakfast in the courtyard the first morning (Tuesday the 22nd): congee with optional peanuts and pickled vegetables, and how about a hard-boiled egg? But the place didn't wear well. We got increasingly irritated by the noise, which was pretty extreme even for Gunthilde and me, who live in a ground floor apartment on Sixth Avenue in New York. The owners of the place hung out in the courtyard until late at night watching TV with friends or gambling at cards or mahjongg. And in the middle of the night, were those cats fighting or mating? We didn't care; we just wanted them to stop.
But I don't want to whine a lot about Lijiang. Let me just observe, for the sake of anyone wanting to stay there -- and we'll get to some reasons why you might actually want to spend some time there -- that you can do much better with lodging than we did. You can get a cabbie to drive you to the old city entrance on the west side of Lion Hill, about midway up the slope. At that point you start walking slowly downhill and look into the many guesthouses along the stone street, which range from very cheap and basic to sort-of Zen/Big Sur elegant. (The cheap ones are cheaper than our guesthouse.) In all of them there are rooms with a stunning view of the roofs of the old city and the high mountains rimming the Lijiang valley floor.
The first night, after settling into the guesthouse, we went to the nightly show put on by the Naxi Orchestra. (The Naxi are the locally dominant minority group, related to, and physically resembling, Tibetans.) The guidebooks call this a must-see, and I think they're pretty much right. The orchestra, which is about 20 people playing traditional Chinese instruments and (some of them) singing, supposedly is the best way in China to hear music that comes down to us in a nearly unbroken chain of transmission from more than 2,000 years ago, though not all of the music they play is billed as that old. The core of the band is a group of a half-dozen or so guys in their eighties, but there are people in the group as young as their early twenties, I'd estimate. I found that the instrumental music had some fascinating textures, but to me there was a sameness about it as the evening wore on. I'm aware that this may just be my ignorance speaking, but ignorance is all I have.) The vocal music, though, was something else. The band has three Naxi women singers, each I'd guess around thirty years old give or take, and each of them was a real virtuoso and a distinct, forceful musical personality. For me, they were like trumpet soloists in a jazz band.
Tuesday morning, we managed to bust out of the theme-park part of town, climbing Lion Hill into the park there, a big, serene expanse of trees -- the cypresses stand out in my memory -- with the wonderful Wang Gu pagoda at the top. We spent a couple of hours there enjoying the views of the city and the mountains, some of them snow-capped in late May. The afternoon was nothing much, largely devoted to arranging a trip to some of the country around Lijiang and the flight back to Kunming. But we did a tremendous amount of walking around the old city, weaving in and out of honky-tonk parts and some really delightful ones. That evening, Gunthilde and I tried two Naxi specialties in one late snack: yinjiu (the local wine, about as sweet and heavy as a medium sherry but smelling like plum) and some deep-fried yak meat. The latter was fried with a lot of an herb that Gunthilde thinks was mint, but I'm sure she's wrong: a strange combination of lean, chewy and greasy, but tasting quite good, I thought.
That evening, I noticed a Pu'er shop that looked a bit different. (Yes, Lijiang is as cluttered with Pu'er shops devoid of customers as the other cities we've visited.) No souvenir Pu'er coins in the shop, and a couple of bookcases full of tea books for sale. Attracted by this highbrow air, I went in for a browse. Only a browse; tea buying was over for the trip. What I saw was jaw-dropping. I really think this may be the farthest-flung foam on the crest of the wave of Pu'er madness. There was a new cake -- or, at least, there was no indication it had been aged -- from Jingmaishan, which isn't the fanciest tea mountain, with a price sticker of 5600 kuai. That's 7 or 800 dollars a cake, more than $2/gram.
Wednesday we swallowed our snobbism about Chinese tour groups -- well, my snobbism, anyway -- and went off on a bus with nine tourists, all Chinese, on a tour of some of the major attractions in Lijiang's hinterland. It didn't involve being led around by some person with a flag like the ones in Lijiang's old city, but it was a tour. I have to say it was pretty nice. The leader was a bit of a ham -- he actually sang a song to welcome us before the amplification system broke down -- but the bus was comfortable, the vibe from the other passengers was companionable, and most of the places we went were
worth visiting. There were three stops for shopping, but the other passengers seemed to expect and even welcome this. We saw the first bend of the Jin Sha river, which is what the upper Yangtze is called: the place where the river decides it's going to water the historic core of China rather than heading for Indochina like the Mekong and Salween. We also saw the Haiwei pagoda (I think that's the name), commanding a long view of the Jin Sha. But most of all, we walked into Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and which my words fail.
If we ever go back to the Lijiang area, we're going to spend very little time in the city itself and concentrate on the mountains and villages.
Hey nice people: Thursday the 24th was our last full day in Yunnan. Sleep-deprived early in the morning in Lijiang, we hustled to make the plane to Kunming. After the cheesy Lijiang guesthouse, the good old Camellia Hotel (delightfully called Chahua Binguan in Mandarin) seemed the ultimate in luxury, and we lazed around there a bit just to decompress.
In the afternoon we took the #52 bus (1 kuai, like all Kunming buses) to its southwestern terminus near Dian Chi, the big lake extending southfrom Kunming deep into the countryside. There we wandered around Da Guan (Grand View) Park, named for the beautiful, centuries-old pagoda it surrounds. It's a very big park and an ambitious one too, with a big sculpture garden with stylistically up-to-date works from many countries.
On the whole, Da Guan is far better maintained than the charming but threadbare Cui Hu Park, the haunt of those old musicians I mentioned in an earlier report. It's no accident, I'm sure, that Da Guan charges 11 kuai admission and Cui Hu is free. In general, any public facility in Yunnan that shows the fruits of much recent construction, maintenance, or even guarding will charge an admission fee. Iwonder how many people in the neighborhoods surrounding Da Guan basically never visit "their" park because they can't justify a buck and a half US for an afternoon's enjoyment. I also wonder if this quasi privatization is typical of China as a whole. (I assume this is a recent trend; it hardly expresses a Communist ethos, right?)
Anyway, we floated around the park for a couple of hours. Occasionally I'd talk with Rob about his progress in arranging the evening's big dinner with the three of us, Rob, his Andao Tea partner Jake, and the guy Rob has been known to call Wei Laoshi (Teacher Wei, and the epithet fits.)
At one point, we crossed paths with a bunch of maybe a dozen teenagers of both sexes, nice kids but bumptious and, I'd guess, showing off to each other. One of the boys said Hello to me in English, loudly and comically, and mimed a request to this sandy-haired foreigner with the graying beard: would I let his friend use his mobile phone to photograph him and me together? No problem, I said. Then I found the Mandarin for it: Mei wenti. At this, laughter and cheers broke out. So they got their photo. I should've asked Gunthilde to snap the kid and me, but didn't.
Gazing across Dian Chi at the mountains on the horizon was sweet. It's remarkable to be able to do this in a park 20 minutes by bus from the heart of a big city.
So we took the #52 back to the center of Kunming. We crossed the hectic boulevard Dongfeng Xilu, browsed the bird and flower market a bit, and arrived at the restaurant, Lao Fangzi. Anyone with the vaguest interest in food who visits Kunming should consider eating there.
We six spent a blissful three hours in the courtyard of the restaurant. Wei Dong, who obviously knew the menu well, ordered. The stream of dishes coming from the kitchen were all old-style Yunnan cooking, but they were very different from the fare at our noodle joint at Bai Ta Lu: neither oily nor, for the most part, very peppery. There was a wide range of flavors and textures. Some of the spices and herbs were totally unfamiliar to me, let alone major ingredients like "stinky" fermented tofu, reeking but tasting great, and fried fermented rice puffs carrying a mild alcoholic charge.
But the best part of dinner was the conversation, ranging across two languages and many topics. We touched on tea, to be sure, but not just Pu'er: for example, Wei wondered why in supposedly single-lot Darjeeling tea you see that different leaves clearly show different degrees of oxidation. We talked about the differences between Chinese and Japanese culture and how westerners interested in Asia tend to gravitate toward one but not both. There was talk about the outlook on life of Yunnan's minorities and rural people. Lijiang ten years ago and today; how the new Chinese economy is turning inside out the unspoken class structure that developed under Communism; the investment bubbles in Pu'er and tourism; the decline of the Manting Lu hippie haven in Jinghong; styles of walking and personal space management on the streets of Kunming and New York.
It was a particular joy getting to know Jake, a British who's lived in China for many years and is married to a Naxi woman. He enjoys thinking out loud on all kinds of topics, and he likes to run into ideas for the first time.
The next morning the weather was ominous, and we drifted around the antique shops on Bai Ta Lu, some of which had things Mrs. W considered museum-worthy. Then it was time for a quick bite and the plane to Hong Kong.
Hey nice people: Friday the 25th, we arrived in Hong Kong's airport in the early evening. Mrs. W's husband and HK son were waiting for us; unfortunately, not all of our baggage was. The big backpack with my clothes and one tong never hit the luggage carousel. So we walked over to the airport's counter for such problems, where we were met by an earnest young woman who happened to share the Ws' family name (no relation; millions of people do.) Miss W took this problem seriously and was going to move heaven and earth to get the bag to our HK guesthouse by 11 that evening. She'd advise us when it was found via Mr. W's cell phone and/or the phone at the guesthouse.
So all five of us, plus almost all the luggage, drove over to a restaurant that I suppose was the nearest one to our Kowloon guesthouse that met the Ws' lofty standards. It was a bustling, unpretentious seafood place that I think you would never even notice if you walked by it on the street, so as a public service I'd love to give you the location, but if I managed to figure out the tiny characters on the toothpick sheath in front of me the result would be a bunch of Mandarin useless for navigating a Cantonese city.
The seafood that emerged from the restaurant's immaculate tanks to be sacrificed for us was: carp for a soup with the sustaining power of the best Jewish chicken soup; estuary grouper of a remarkable sweetness; astoundingly good jumbo shrimp; and a hunk of a huge fish that apparently has no English name but has delicate white flesh. All of these were prepared in ways that above all showed off the just-right doneness of the recently deceased, but they were deftly seasoned in ways I could only begin to analyze, so I won't try.
The conversation was warm. There were stories of the Yunnan trip, most of which you've already read. There was news of the W family. There were a number of laughs. Two hours passed in such a beguiling way that when Mr. W's phone rang I realized that I'd forgotten about the missing bag. The call was from the airport, and the bag was on its way to the guesthouse. But we got there first.
The next day, our last full one in HK, took us in the morning again to Tiffany at The Best Teahouse, where she brewed the bit of our tea I'd flaked off when Gunthilde and I opened a tong and a cake during the humidity panic. While Tiffany liked the aroma, I have to say that the fear that what we got was really taidicha has returned. We'll have to see what we think when we get back to New York and can play with the tea in a relaxed setting.
That afternoon, Gunthilde and I were off to the Shatin neighborhood of Kowloon. We climbed up to the 10,000 Buddhas temple, an effusion of what you might call the More The Merrier school of Buddhism that you just have to see to believe, but, while I didn't try to count them, there could be that many in the building. And the walk up to the monastery is terrific, too, lined with hundreds of gold-colored Buddha statues, all different, many humorous, and some just plain weird.
Then we went over to the HK Heritage Museum, a beautiful building with a welcoming staff. They have an excellent collection of Chinese pottery going back to the Neolithic age. There's also a collection of Tibetan Buddhist art that gripped me like no other assemblage of this kind of material I've seen before. But I was bothered by the way the captions sanitized away any occurrence of sexuality, and even females, in the works.
Sunday morning, ridiculously early, we headed for the airport to subject ourselves to the 14-hour flight on which I'm writing this.