Monday, June 25, 2007

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

It is impossible (though this may soon change) to travel directly between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China [PRC]; currently one must use Hong Kong as a gateway. But in order to enter the PRC, Americans must arrange for a visa, regardless of whether they will be arriving directly from the USA or via another location. (This was not necessary for my short visit to Taiwan itself; nor for Hong Kong.) Moreover, the PRC visa -- which is obtained in the USA at the Chinese Consulate -- must be affixed to a passport that is not set to expire within six months of one's arrival in the PRC and 'has blank pages' [sic]. Visa arrangements take time and money. Do not assume that the Consulate will accept a credit card or personal cheque, and -- if you pay cash -- do not assume that they will mail your passport back to you when the visa has been prepared. (I had to make an extra trip to Chicago to retrieve mine.)

Happily, all my papers were in order long before my departure to Taiwan, so when it became possible to visit my tea friend Warren Peltier, who lives and works in Fujian, I jumped at the chance. (You may remember that Warren was cyber-interviewed for this blog last December.) Warren writes online as 'Niisonge', and has long been one of my 'go-to' guys for things tea. If I were assembling a Faculty of Tea, Warren would come in at the rank of tenured professor.

To travel from Taipei to Fuzhou via Hong Kong, I had to arrange a connection between Cathay Pacific and China Eastern Airlines. All of this passed smoothly, and I arrived in the evening in Fuzhou. After a lengthy bus-ride of their own, Warren and his girlfriend Jing-Xia, whose English name is Nikky, met me at the airport. I could not have asked for more solicitous or helpful traveling companions. They anticipated and provided for my every need, both small and great, showered me with tea gifts, and helped me make arrangements for travel and lodging within the PRC that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for me to make.

We went from the airport to our hotel in the center of Fuzhou -- the Jinhui Hotel (address: 492 Hualin Road, Fuzhou, Fujian; telephone: 0591.8759.9999; email; cash or credit cards only). Stopping only to drop off our bags, we hit the ground running: we headed straight for the Fuzhou wholesale tea market. Set up in row upon row of storefronts, in the Wu Li Ting area of town, the market is open until about 9.00 pm. Each store has its own stock (and presumably each wholesaler has developed h/er own relationship with tea farmer[s] -- very possibly relatives of theirs -- who supply them with leaf to sell). Some shops (店 dian) focus principally on the sale of leaf (茶叶 cha ye), while others concentrate on tea-ware (茶具 cha ju). Many have both. Not surprisingly, the cha ye dian of Fuzhou primarily furnish the product of Fujian province -- which is to say, oolongs (south Fujian specializing in Tie Guan Yin [TGY] of various ilk, and north Fujian in 岩茶 yan cha -- 'cliff' or 'rock' tea such as Da Hong Pao [DHP] or Bai Ji Guan [BJG]. The other tea that I saw stocked in considerable quantity in these shops was pu'er. This probably ought not to be surprising, considering the current China-wide craze for this tea (see Lew Perin's recent Yunnan travelogue, which has much to say on the topic). But its essentially foreign provenance was evident when we asked one vendor about her stock. She solemnly informed us that shu pu'er was much more valuable than sheng pu'er. (Her prices were quite high as well.) One would like to chalk all of this up to very youthful inexperience.

We spent the evening poking into a number of shops; relying (as one tends to do) on a combination of sensory input and intuition, we decided to do a little buying in one particular shop: Pin Xian Tea Calling. By the time we arrived, the person minding the store, Ms Cai, was getting ready to close, but she happily stayed open and showed us her fairly extensive stock of tea-ware. Much of it was not from Jing De Zhen, which is probably the town that produces the largest volume of porcelain in the PRC, but from De Hua. Ms Cai proudly advised us that De Hua porcelain is actually better than Jing De porcelain -- 'the best in China' -- and indeed the De Hua pieces she had on offer were visibly finer than the others.

We browsed and selected a few pieces, and then came the inevitable next question: Would you like some tea? We had just sat through some unimpressive rounds at other shops, so we begged off -- or tried to do so. Ms Cai was having none of that. Nor was she proffering any of the TGY that is so common in the commercial storage-freezers of Fuzhou: no, she had some really excellent DHP, from up in Wu Yi, that we really must try.

We did not let on that we were headed precisely to Wu Yi Shan on the morrow: Ms Cai was so proud of her wares that this would have deflated her. And as even lower-grade DHP is something of a prestige tea, to be offered this in a shop is a token of some esteem. (It is also, of course, a sales-gambit -- it means that the vendor infers that you can afford to buy a prestige tea and are likely to do so.) By this point I was already a bit jaded by the constant refrain of 'try this tea!,' and as I was already buying a creamy-white De Hua sharing pitcher, I did not feel undue pressure also to buy tea.

But the tea was good. Better than anything else we had yet sampled that evening. After a bit, Ms Cai stepped aside and let Nikky take over the brewing. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since Nikky had protested several times that she 'doesn't like tea!' (and didn't really want to spend the whole evening just tea-shopping). But Nikky, as I was to discover again and again over the course of the next couple of days, is full of surprises. She asked for fresh hot water, briskly washed the tasting cups, expertly arranged the equipage before her at the wooden serving table, and began brewing. Under Nikky's agile fingers, this Da Hong Pao began to release nuances we had not yet tasted.

Ms Cai's price was unexpectedly low for a tea of such quality. So I bought a small amount (not much, as I was heading to the very source the next day). We parted on very happy terms, and I recommend Ms Cai and her establishment to you, if you should find yourself in Fuzhou (tel 8367.6660). My sense is that Pin Xian Tea is a sizeable company, and Ms Cai's business card includes their web address (, but the shop is a small and modest one, of a piece with her prices.

From the tea market we took a cab to a tea house (茶馆 cha guan) where, as is the fashion in Fujian, you can arrange for a comely young lass in a silk cheongsam to brew you some oolong(s) in a room of your choosing. The settings vary across a spectrum -- some furnished with lacquered (high) table and chairs, others lower to the ground and with a more Japanese feel. This place was fairly bustling, even though it was almost 11.00 pm by this time, so the selection was limited. Warren had brought some tea along with him, and wanted to do the brewing himself. The hostess, who was all set to assign us to one of her girls, balked at this initially, but eventually allowed it. So we settled down for a few rounds of gongfu cha.

It was not long, though, before my eyelids began drooping (never mind the caffeine), so eventually we headed back to the hotel. It would be an early morning, I knew, and a long train-ride to Wu Yi Shan; Warren and Nikky had wisely chosen us a hotel directly across the street from the railway station. After a brief chat about books, I fell (as they say) into the arms of Morpheus.

-- corax

[to be continued]

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