Monday, June 25, 2007

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [ii]

[Once again, let me remind you that the graphic images here are essentially thumbnails: you can see a larger version of each one simply by clicking on it.]

The morning of 31 May dawned early for us in Fuzhou. We checked out of the Jinhui Hotel, scrambled across the very wide street to the railway station, and found our train. A quick adjustment of our tickets got us an upgrade to a first-class compartment together -- a much more comfortable way to spend a six-hour journey up to Wu Yi Shan, and the supplement was surprisingly inexpensive. Indeed the railway system (as we once used to know in the USA) is an excellent way to travel, and much more comfortable than by airplane; the only advantage air-travel has (and this is admittedly sometimes crucial, as it was for us two days later) is speed. On a train, it is much easier to get up and move about; if there is a dining car, one can treat oneself to a hot meal; and if one has a compartment like the one I shared with Nikky and Warren, one has relative privacy even while in a public transit system. Add to this, of course, the fact that the ground-level travel allows one to see and possibly even photograph the countryside. From our compartment window I saw a great deal of Fujian province during those six hours.

The compartment was furnished with four bunks and a table. When we wanted a nap, nap we did, and when we were awake, we sat at the table and chatted, sharing anecdotes and planning out trip. As I had skipped breakfast, I was glad for the snacks Nikky and Warren had brought us -- cold drinks, small buns filled with sweet bean paste, and nibble such as pumpkin seeds (green-tea-flavored) and strips of cured sweet potato. The latter tasted to me more like dried guava -- and looked more like Gummi worms -- than anything one would expect from a tuber.

What we did not do on the train was to brew tea. Not that this would have been difficult: the compartment came equipped with its own thermos of hot water, and a sign that read 'Boiled Water Please' -- the latter for hanging on the compartment door as needed. But Warren was leery about the quality of their water, so we forewent the in-cabin gongfu.

As the noon hour approached, we adjourned to the dining-car for some more substantial fare. For ¥82, about USD$10, the train chef prepared to our order the following luncheon:
--- Winter Melon Soup with Scallops
--- Stir-fried Cabbage
--- Iced Tea Duck
--- Sliced Beef with Oyster Sauce
All of these were excellent. The quality of the preparation was equivalent to that of an upscale Chinese restaurant in the US. The one mystery to us was the duck, which came to the table cold and in chunks, but without any noticeable tea flavoring.

Naturally enough, this all engendered some food- and cooking-conversation, during which I began to learn what a knowledgeable cook Nikky is in her own right. The quizzical 'tea' component of Iced Tea Duck prompted her to give me some traditional Fujian recipes involving tea, which I shall post separately at a later date.

I marveled aloud at the uncomplicated appearance of the soup; Warren commented that this minimalist style was typical of the soups of Fujian. (Here are a couple of his simple recipes, in case you would to try some right now:
--- Simmer in hot water: chunks of extra-firm tofu; sliced fresh ginger, minced scallions.
--- Simmer TGY leaves in beef broth.
[Told you they were simple!])

We lingered over lunch, before returning to our compartment, and soon thereafter the train arrived in Wu Yi Shan station. This is much smaller than busy Fuzhou, the provincial capital, and the air is much cleaner and fresher. The mid-afternoon sun had already warmed it thoroughly by the time we got off the train -- just how thoroughly, I would not know until we were out walking in it during the afternoon.

Right outside the railway station is a broad plaza where the taxi drivers wait for the trains to arrive. Nikky, who was born in Fuzhou, speaks a distinctive Fujian dialect as well as Putonghua (Mandarin); this fact was to have far-reaching consequences before my visit was done. It had consequences now, in that it enabled her to find us a cab driver, Mr Zhou, who agreed to be our chauffeur for the next day and a half for a fee of ¥240 (about USD$30). If he ever regretted taking this assignment, he did not say so; but we frolicked all over town (and out of it) until very late both nights. Mr Zhou also played a pivotal role in our actually finding the sights/sites we wanted to see.

Our very first stop was at a travel-agent's office, where we picked up two-day admission tickets to a variety of excursions. The fact that this was even possible had not come home to me before that point, but I now began to realize two things: first, that Wu Yi Shan is quite an important destination for Chinese tourism; and second, that almost no westerners go there. Perhaps this changes later in the summer season, but I had the strong sense that i was the first waiguoren (or laowai, as they doubtless said out of earshot) that most of these folks had seen in many a long day. (I am not counting Warren in this tally of westerners, as he is for all intents and purposes an honorary Chinese.) Certainly they stared, long and hard, as at some exotic beast. But when I smiled at the gawkers, some smiled back. Some chirped out 'Hello! hello!' -- and could not contain their astonishment when I replied with 'Ni hao!' A few actually stopped me and asked to have their pictures taken with me.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. After the travel agent's, we went to our hotel to get ourselves installed and ready for the rest of the day. This was the Wu Yi Shan Yi Li Hotel (tel 0599.525.2019), a vast complex of wandering corridors and lush gardens that seemed utterly empty except for the staff -- and us. Here I learned that one cannot expect Chinese hotels to accept foreign credit cards; the bill had to be paid fully, in advance, including a hefty deposit against potential damage to hotel property. Having already learned, to my chagrin, that not all Chinese banks will accept American ATM cards, I had Mr Zhou drive us to the nearest Bank of China branch to access some cash.

Then it was off to Wu Yi Shan proper. 'Shan' (山) here, or 'mountain,' really refers to a whole range of peaks in northern Fujian province. Among these peaks are outcroppings known as 'yan' (岩, i.e. 'cliff' or 'rock'; you can see that this character itself includes the 'shan' character, i.e. 山). These 'yan' can reach astonishing heights, the tops of which will often be shrouded in mists that refresh the greenery. The flora are as varied as they are exuberant: one doesn't have to venture very far outside the town center to find oneself in a jungle of green plants of every size and shape.

I came to Fujian to find one particular green plant, of course: Camellia sinensis sinensis. Most specifically, I came to Wu Yi Shan to see with my own eyes what are surely some of the most famous and revered plants in the wide world: the august 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao or 'Great Scarlet Robe.'

There are several versions of the picturesque story explaining the origin of this name, but they follow more or less similar lines: The emperor fell gravely ill, and was nigh unto death. Some Buddhist monks from a temple in Wu Yi Shan ministered to him, brewing a special tea with leaf taken from three extraordinary bushes known to them. Soon, by virtue of the healing powers of this tea, the emperor had made a complete recovery. When he despatched his officials to Wu Yi to collect the annual tribute, he sent with them the long robes of red silk (da hong pao) that were his exclusive right to wear. These were to be draped over the bushes as a sign of imperial favor (or, alternatively, to protect them from wintry weather).

From these three 'mother' bushes, we are told, came four 'son' bushes. Many, many others have since been propagated in turn, from seed or by cloning; but these seven originary bushes still flourish on the side of the yan where those gentle monks first gathered their leaves. So precious and so pampered are these plants that only a few grams of leaf are plucked from them. Indeed, to give them a rest, nary a leaf will be plucked in the year 2007. The 2008 pluck will be that much more of an event, when it occurs.

Unable to wait another moment, we asked Mr Zhou to drive us to see the fabled Da Hong Pao bushes. This was when the real meaning of 'shan' became evident: soon it was clear that the car was heading steeply uphill. The scenery became dramatic, then breathtaking. If you have any doubt that you are on holy ground, this is dispelled by the sight of an enormous Buddha of carven stone, lounging (and laughing) at a bend in the road. The Buddha is tended by a small enclave of monks off to one side. This is not the monastery in the Da Hong Pao story; that is farther up the mountain even than where the seven bushes are. But these monks' presence, and the towering bulk of the laughing Buddha, are a reminder that spiritual folk have since time immemorial retreated to high places to think and pray and meditate.

The Buddha statue itself is actually a recent addition. What is much, much older is the staggeringly huge character 佛 'Fo' -- i.e. 'Buddha' -- that has been chiselled and gilded into the sheer rock-face behind him. It looks as though the hand of some Titan had reached down from the Empyrean and inscribed the character, with a brush dipped in molten gold, onto the side of the yan.

As with all such extraordinary things, there is a story behind this. Apparently the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722 CE), a good and beloved ruler who liked to travel his realm in disguise so as to observe his people incognito, observed the shape of the outcropping of rock at this point, and discerned in it the shape of the Buddha. Accordingly, he later caused the gigantic 佛 'Fo' to be inscribed into the rock.

Maybe it is lack of spiritual insight, but -- try as I might -- I could see no resemblance between the rock and the Buddha. Unless the rock in question were actually another, pudgy outcropping, to our left as we were looking at the statue? It's difficult to say, but if you use your imagination as you look at this rock formation, you can see a big belly with a head atop it ... sort of.

In any case, from the Buddha Rock we continued our drive up to the parking area where we had to leave the car and continue on foot. This was when I really began to feel the intense humid heat of Wu Yi Shan. I cannot imagine making this hike in July or August, when so many Chinese do it. Much less could I imagine being one of the poor porters who carry sedan chairs up and down the mountain for ¥240. This may be a hefty sum to them, but such grueling work deserves much better pay. They were even more drenched in sweat than I was as they passed us carrying their haughty passengers down the path, like a scene out of The Painted Veil. But in any case, this was a trek I felt I needed to make on foot. I wanted to be able to stop at will, to breathe the air in deeply, to listen to the cicadas buzzing and the birds warbling against the peaceful sound of the mountain stream that flowed down alongside the foot-path. To experience all of this at my own pace, among the greys and blues and intense greens of the ravines. And, yes, to take pictures of it all for you, gentle reader. Though you may be reading this on the other side of the world from Wu Yi Shan, I want you to see it through my eyes. To get the fullest effect of the moment, you will need, not a cup of tea, but a cupped handful of the clearest, coolest mountain spring water. I took one such from the stream, and it was pure and sweet. Perfect, one might say, to use for brewing tea.

Here and there along the path up the mountain one can see, on the vertical rock faces, large hanzi beautifully inscribed. These are painted in, not with gold like the Buddha's 'Fo,' but in red paint which is carefully restored each year by calligraphic experts specially chosen for the task. These inscriptions relate to the very specific experience of drinking yan cha. One, for example, says 韻巖 [yan yun] -- a thoroughly untranslatable half-rhyme that itself speaks of the 'rhyme' [yun] or long, complex aftertaste of a good yan cha. Another one, equally, idiomatic, reads 晚甘侯  [wan gan hou], where wan means 'late,' gan means 'sweet[ness],' and hou, 'marquis,' stands for things fine or noble. Essentially, this phrase refers to the gradual sweetness that occurs as one brews successive infusions of a high-quality DHP. (The aptness of these inscriptions is brought home to you, as you walk up the path, by the rows of carefully-tended tea bushes -- Rou Gui, Fo Shou, Da Hong Pao, and even a few Bai Ji Guan -- planted here and there. All this outpouring of wild natural beauty is carefully nudged toward a focus on the cultivation and enjoyment of yan cha.

The path wound up the mountain in twists and curves, sometimes crossing over the stream, sometimes going up steps carved into the living rock. Eventually we came to a stone gate which led us into a small canyon planted with Da Hong Pao bushes. Here we passed a very old pavilion, built into the side of the yan and labeled 茶方 [cha fang 'tea spot'] and an old set of bee-hives in another small covered wooden structure.

And then we saw them. The bushes. They looked just as I had thought they would, from countless photographs, except that I had not realized just how inaccessible they are. One actually needs to climb a ladder in order to reach them. It is clear that they are very carefully tended, though apparently they do not need to be watered by hand, as the porous stone of the yan itself provides constant moistening (and minerals) to the soil in which they grow.

There they were, the pride of Fujian, just growing and being bushes. There was no fanfare of cymbals, no offerings of incense, certainly no silken cloaks, scarlet or otherwise. But there was no sense of anti-climax to our arrival, either: rather, a sense that these historic and irreplaceable bushes are being quietly cherished and protected in the safety of this natural cradle where they were born.

There is a platform, with stairs down and further up the mountain, from which one can view and photograph the bushes from a variety of angles. We surveyed the whole little canyon from there for a while, and then retired to a cha fang on the opposite side, facing the mother bushes (not the old one, which is on the same side as the bushes and the beehives). Here, naturally, they served Da Hong Pao and other yan cha -- and by 'served' I mean that one of their staff would brew and serve it to the customers. So we sat down on benches at a table from which we could look at the mother bushes, while we drank excellent tea and talked about the whole experience. As is common with such performances, there was a detailed commentary from the young woman serving the tea, culminating with an offer to sell us some. Sometimes these sales pitches can involve quite a bit of pressure; this one included a pledge that theirs was the very highest-quality Da Hong Pao on offer anywhere, at a 'fair price' that would prove to be lower than anywhere else for this particular tea. ('Anywhere else,' in this particular context, of course meant 'down in Wu Yi town,' i.e. 'when you've gone all the way down the mountain': in other words, Last Chance To Buy This Tea. A clever ploy.)

I have already said that the tea was quite good. But it seemed to me that Ms Cai's had been at least as good, and had cost less than this asking price. What to do? Warren warned that prices in such places are always -- always -- inflated, and that we could surely do better elsewhere. But look, pointed out the young woman, The box has the company's seal on it. And we represent that company here (first mention of that detail!), so we would not try to cheat you .... What to do, what to do? What snapped me out of my reverie was when she brought over yet another canister of tea -- this one made of silver-colored metal, heavily engraved and housed in a velvet-lined boxwood case. The cost was obscene. Two-thirds of it, as Warren correctly observed, was for the packaging. Moreover, it was all sealed up, so there was no tasting the actual tea inside it before making the purchase. I decided to wait and see what awaited us down in town.

Casting a final, farewell look at the mother bushes, we began our descent from the canyon. As we walked, a fine mist of rain fell on us briefly. One can see, in a very short period of time, why this is such a lush growing environment for green plants. The brook flowing down along the path was clear as glass, so we could see the fish swimming alongside us; again the soft sounds of birds and cicadas and burbling water combined to provide a gentle background music to our walk. The carved inscriptions and the small stands of tea-plants looked different, somehow, on this side of our experience in the high narrow canyon of the mother-bushes. It felt like an initiation.

By the time we reached the parking-area, all the sedan-chairs and their porters were gone. Evening was falling: time for supper. Could Mr Zhou help us find a restaurant that specializes in the particular delicacies of the Wu Yi region? Indeed he could. In short order he took us to the 農山莊 (Nong Shan Zhuang, 'Farmer's Villa,' TEL 0599.5234117), a huge inn that looked to have been fairly recently built. We were seated, in our own private dining-room, at a large round table that would easily have accommodated eight or ten people. The menu arrived, and the list of plates was not only long, but exotic. As we were to see in a number of other establishments, they offered bear-meat; in addition to this, there were several that raised my eyebrows still further: leopard (a euphemism for 'cat-meat'?) and jackal (dog?). Nikky teased me with the prospect of an Eight-Snake Soup, but in the event we opted for somewhat less exotic fare. Still, much of it was wild, and all of it was extremely fresh. Stir-fried Wild Boar, Steamed Wild Greens, Stir-fried Wild Mushrooms, Scallion Pancakes, and Bamboo Chicken Soup with ye hong gu Mushrooms (the 'bamboo' here referring to the chicken's having lived in a bamboo grove -- not in a bamboo cage). The stir-fried mushrooms alone would have been worth the trip, but everything was quite delicious. (The one exception, ironically, was the tea, which was so watery and non-descript that neither Warren nor I could even identify the type.) The total cost, once again, provoked Nikky's stern disapproval; it was roughly comparable to that of a Chinese restaurant in the US, and so I suffered no sticker shock, but Nikky felt the price was so exorbitant that she sat with the bill and carefully checked their arithmetic before approving it.

By now we were all more or less spherical in shape, having eaten enough for several dinners each. But the evening was far from over. Mr Zhou offered to take us to see how members of his own family produced Da Hong Pao tea. This was the first I had heard about his family's involvement in the tea business, but in a region that is so heavily invested in tea, such news should never be surprising.

We got back in the car and drove to a quiet residential part of town, where we were led through a garage-like area -- which had an open well of water in it -- to a cluster of very plain rooms, walled and floored in cement. Here we met Ms Yu Li Ping, whose card bears the logo of 天子神韵 (Tian Zi Shen Yun, 'Son of Heaven [= Emperor = Imperial] Divine Yun'), where yun looks once more to be the 'rhyming' notion of complex, lingering aftertaste associated particularly with yan cha. Ms Yu, a demure and charming young woman whose family has been making Da Hong Pao for four generations, led us through rooms where we were able to view the equipment and process they use for oxidizing, pan-frying, rolling, and baking the tea. The latter is perhaps the most delicate step in the process, and in Ms Yu's house it happens in a room all its own. In contrast to the other rooms, which have modern electrical equipment, this room had nothing in it (apart from the cement itself) that could not have come from three hundred years ago. When we walked in, the temperature was almost like that of a sauna. Along one wall were several circular pits, built of bricks and cemented directly into the floor, in each of which -- covered by a fine grey ash -- slowly burned the embers of a coal fire. Over each pit was a basket full of Da Hong Pao. The smell in this room, maybe 20 x 20 feet in size, was absolutely intoxicating: that unmistakable aroma of Da Hong Pao, but especially lively and fresh. My immediate thought was: I could sit all day just breathing this air.

This particular tea is made only once a year, explained Ms Yu, so what we were seeing was actually the re-baking of tea from previous years. She picked up a basket to show us how, in the fire-pits, the embers were kept covered with the ash, so as to prevent their burning too hot. She stirred the leaf in the basket, causing a fresh gust of tea aroma to waft into the air. Holding up a basket of some of their 2005 harvest, she asked: Would we like to taste some of this brewed? You bet we would. She scooped a couple of handsful into a metal tray and took it with her into another room, on the same level of the house, in which were several chairs and stools grouped around the type of elaborately-carved wooden tables favored by vendors in China. Here we sat down and watched her brew the tea, gongfu-style, decanting from a gaiwan into a serving pitcher. Each of us received a tiny tasting-cup of the liquid. We slurped it back, aerating it well so as to maximize the flavor. The wan gan hou began to spread across the palate and down the throat.

Almost immediately I had the thought, 'I am so glad I did not buy that tea up in the canyon earlier.' This tea was markedly superior to what we had been served that afternoon: fresher, more complex, and with a longer finish. The yan cha saying that Ms Yu had quoted to us, 頰齿留香 ('cheeks, teeth keep fragrance'), really came home as I drank cup after tiny cup of this tea. The aftertaste was tenacious, and well-being spread with every sip. As we drank, Ms Yu showed us photos of the family farm where this tea was grown: this was zheng yan cha, she emphasized -- 'real' or 'authentic' yan cha, i.e. actually grown within the central growing region of Wu Yi Shan. From the photos it was evident that the family's land holdings were not enormous.

Ms Yu's tiny daughter, perhaps three years old, ran into the room, hurled herself into her mother's arms, chattered away in Chinese, and then set about brewing an infusion of the tea herself. I marveled as she expertly manipulated the gaiwan (her mother handling the kettle of hot water), poured the tea into the sharing pitcher, and then poured out several cups of the tea, including one for herself. Ms Yu asked her if she knew what this tea was: 'Da Hong Pao!' said the little girl with emphasis, and everyone laughed. She watched me with huge dark eyes, then ran out of the room, returning with a tiny packet of fisted wu long cha. 'Tie Guan Yin,' she announced with a smile, and pressed it into my hand. Could I have been any more charmed? And: is this the fifth generation of the same family's tea work, getting an early start?

Then Ms Yu asked, 'Now, how about tasting some thirteen-year-old Da Hong Pao?' It took very little convincing to get us to assent to this. Of course we knew that what lay behind this display of tea, tea-manufacturing, and tea-brewing was the hope of an eventual sale; but I had put off some buying earlier for the hope of a better tea, so what if this turned out to be it? Bring it on.

The leaf was (if anything) blacker than the dry leaf of the 2005. Its color caused Ms Yu to comment on the name of the type of tea: wu long, 'black dragon' (she parsed the 'dragon' part as a reference to the long serpentine shape of each leaf). The average 2005 leaf was visibly longer than the average 1994 leaf; Ms Yu herself pointed this out, as a guarantor of the greater age of the latter (it is the repeated handling, she said, that tends to cause a bit of breakage at the delicate tips). I wondered silently how this might affect the flavor of the infusion. But I also knew that I was about to find out.

Ms Yu set about brewing the 1994 tea in just the same way as the 2005: gongfu style, with plenty of leaf in the gaiwan, and surprisingly short infusions. As before (and as universally done in Fujian, it seems), she wet the leaf for a brief rinse, which was instantly discarded, but then also discarded the first infusion. The second infusion was poured into a sharing pitcher and then shared round amongst the five of us (Mr Zhou, Nikky, Warren, myself, and Ms Yu).

Talk about a complex flavor experience! This tea was nothing less than extraordinary, and absolutely required the passage of time for the full unfurling of its flavor spectrum. By 'time' I mean several seconds for the first phase of tastes and aftertastes; and perhaps another half-hour for the full 'yun' or echo of the actual tasting process. A remarkable part of the first phase came at about the second or third second after ingestion -- a sensation that I can only describe as a kind of 'flush' up into my sinus cavities, and (or so it seemed) even further into my head. To the extent that I experience cha qi from powerful teas, I tend to experience them in the belly and chest: a Hindu might say, in the third and fourth chakras. But this tea went straight to the fifth, and from there to the sixth. It would be interesting to have a long gongfu session, drinking many infusions of it and concentrating silently on the experience, to see whether one could take it higher -- and what would then ensue ...)

Frankly, I had been prepared to be a bit underwhelmed by this tea, and to have to find a way to be complimentary about it without losing integrity. In the event, I had only to try and describe exactly what was actually happening to me. Ms Yu glowed with pride and appreciation. After several rounds of the tea, I did not wait any longer to ask how much it would cost for these teas. They were considerably better value than what I was offered at the cha fang up in the canyon: as I realized this, I silently thanked Warren for his prophetic warning. Not that I could afford to buy much of either one! But I did not want to leave China without at least a taste of each of these teas. And when I go back to Wu Yi Shan, I will do my level best to get some more.

Ms Yu measured out my required amounts out of the trays she had brought -- right before my eyes; no bait-and-switch shenanigans here -- and had an assistant shrink-wrap the packets immediately. She gave us her contact information (tel 0599.520.2613), then we shook hands all round, and had Mr Zhou drive us back to our hotel for some much-needed rest. One of the fuller days in recent memory.

-- corax

[to be continued]

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