Monday, June 25, 2007

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

What is so rare as a day in June? Well, for me, a day in June in Wu Yi Shan. We grouped for breakfast in the hotel (the only guests in that cavernous dining room) and then met Mr Zhou at his cab outside. Our first stop of the day was at a bookshop -- 文友書店 Wen You Shu Dian, the 'Literary Friends Book Shop' (tel 0599.525.2002) to look at books and magazines especially devoted to tea (one of my greatest temptations to buy was faced in this shop, actually). Following Steven Owyoung's prudent advice, I did purchase a nice hardbound copy of Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng). It was surprisingly compact in one beautiful volume, in contrast with the Penguin translation, which fills five fat paperbacks. Warren found a whole run of a for-the-trade magazine on tea, called -- believe it -- Cha Dao. (Nikky, as Head of Domestic Space Management, was vehemently opposed to his buying any of them, but as I recall, she did not entirely prevail in this instance.) The store was well-stocked with copies of different issues of Pu-erh Teapot Magazine -- the glossy Chinese-language tea magazine -- but (not surprisingly) none of The Art of Tea, its English-language counterpart. We thumbed through the various periodicals, and scanned the shelves for other treasures, but the day lay open before us, so we soon moved on.

Our next big project was to wend our way down the legendary Nine Bends River by boat (technically these craft were, I guess, rafts, made as they were from flat bundles of massive lengths of bamboo -- though curved at the prow). The jolly boatmen, duly admonished in advance by Nikky to be sure and tell us all about what we were seeing, pointed out this or that landmark (and each of the nine eponymous bends) as they punted us down the river. This is a site that has been showcased, I have no doubt, in many a feature film. Not to show it off would be a terrible waste, as there can be few spots on earth of more staggering beauty or dramatic natural effect. I could describe it all in great detail, but there would be little to tell that is directly germane to the subject of tea, apart from finding a few spots that would make spectacular locations for a gongfu session. I will however single out for mention the caves that were used (beginning in the Shang and Zhou periods -- i.e. perhaps as early as 2000 BCE) as burial spots for their dead. The method used was to place the body in these caves in hanging coffins of wood. Floating past these caves, so far below them in their absolutely vertical cliff-faces, one marvels at their apparent inaccessibility.

After our rafting expedition, we ventured into the web of parks that laces this part of Wu Yi Shan. We wanted to wander their winding paths, but above all to search for the famous 茶洞 Cha Dong (literally 'Tea Hole'), another major landmark of Wu Yi Shan. Like the spot where we saw the 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao, the Cha Dong is also a deep canyon where yan cha is grown. This walk was perhaps longer than the one to the Da Hong Pao 'mother bushes,' and also uphill, though (it seems to me in memory) not as steeply so. There were certainly sedan-chairs for hire here as well. What was different about this path was that so much of it wound around the very outside of the mountain, affording some truly gorgeous views, some of them to a great distance. At times we found ourselves looking down at spots along the river where we had just rafted; at others, looking inward toward the bowels of the mountain, we poked into dim caves. Some of these were huge, housing a cool mist that blessed the skin after the relentless heat of the open midday air. At one point we found ourselves below the 'Eagle's Beak,' one of many fancifully-named rock formations in Wu Yi Shan. From the raft we had already seen Three Sisters, Frog Rock, Hamburger Rock (!), Two Breasts, and others. To make the best sense of Eagle's Beak, one must turn one's back on the sheer precipice on which one stands, and bend one's head over backwards in order to look up and view the overhang. For those so afflicted by vertigo that they might never be able to experience this, I have courageously taken a photograph of same.

The stifling heat, and the seemingly endless upward trail, like the setting for an episode out of the Silmarillion, made me want several times to turn back; but I had not come halfway round the world for such faintness of heart. Bolstered by the pluck and perseverance of my fellow-hikers, I gathered the strength to keep going (and to stay ahead of a herd of raucous school-children that we could hear, like a band of tiny orcs, advancing not far behind us).

VINCIT QVI PATITVR: Who perseveres, prevails. Eventually we came to a venerable stone arch, and an engraved sign announcing that we were about to enter the Cha Dong itself. If anything, this canyon is more dramatic than the one the shelters the original Da Hong Pao bushes. It is certainly bigger, deeper, and of more complicated shape, comprised as it is of an outer and an inner portion.

The inner Cha Dong is worth viewing at all costs. Moreover, it must be seen with one's own eyes. No photography could possibly do it justice. I will say that its bowl-like shape -- like a deep crater with virtually vertical walls -- houses a field of yan cha that must be highly prized. There is a high waterfall, of the type I associate with Kauai, tumbling into a pool; the legend is that this was once the bathing-place of a goddess. And clinging to one promontory -- this is the only image of the inner Cha Dong that I can bring myself to show you -- is an old-fashioned pavilion that would be just perfect for an afternoon of gongfu cha.

If only we had had the time (and tea) to do so. Maybe someday (in March, or October, please). For now, it was time to hike back down to the river level, where Mr Zhou was waiting for us with the car.

Reunited with him, we went for a brief walk through the park museum, and then peeked briefly into the Wu Yi Palace, a site originally constructed in the Tang and Song dynasties. It was clear that one could explore this region indefinitely, without exhausting its riches; but I had a very special project at this point: to try and find a jade chop that I could use as a seal. This must perforce take us out of the parks.

The indefatigable Mr Zhou knew of a shop that specialized in such jades (tel 0599.525.2542). Moreover, its proprietor, Mr Yang Bao-Ju, is a stone-carver of such renown that clients come not only from all over China, but also from Japan, to have him engrave their chops for them. By my great good fortune, he had just returned from a journey of his own; otherwise I would have found no one in this small town to engrave a seal for me.

The first step was to select the jade chop. Mr Yang's wife gestured welcomingly to me to look over the stones. These lined the shelves by the dozen, and ranged in size and shape from tiny -- and very simple -- to large two-fisted chops of obviously ceremonial valence. I took my time as I scanned the shelves; this was not the time to rush. Eventually I chose one: substantial but not garishly large, of beautiful nephrite jade, with a square footprint, and carved at the top with a pixiu -- the slinky beast of Chinese legend that I share as a favorite with a good friend who has taught me much about Chinese culture. The stone became an object of desire for me as I looked at it; but my heart sank when I heard the cost quoted. I estimated that it was about twice as expensive as it ought to be. Just then, like a guardian angel, Nikky started asking some questions -- not in Putonghua but in one of the Min dialects which, by chance, she shares with Mr Yang and his wife. They were utterly charmed. Suddenly the price dropped -- by 50%! This would even include the engraving -- only, they emphasized to me, because Nikky was speaking Min hua with them, and was practically family.

I had already decided on the imprint that I wanted the stamp to make: four hanzi, done in a script that dates back to the Qin Dynasty. And of course they had to be carved in reverse, so that when the imprint is stamped, the characters will read properly. When I showed my request to Mr Yang, he chuckled a bit at it (it includes a translation of 'corax,' itself an ancient Greek noun), scribbled the hanzi on a sheet of paper on his desk, and got right to work.

At this point, his wife smoothly led us to a large wooden tea-table. Wouldn't we like to have some tea while we waited for him to carve the chop? Well, of course. But I could easily see where this was leading, so I commented pointedly how delicious her Da Hong Pao was, and (thus) what a shame it was that only the night before, I had bought all the Da Hong Pao one could possibly tote back to America. She graciously took the hint, and brought us upstairs to look at some of their more expensive jades -- carvings of museum quality, some of them quite enormous, and worth tens of thousands of US dollars each.

Soon Mr Yang was finished with the chop. He made an imprint of the carving, and I was quite pleased with it, so with many handshakes and nods and thanks all round, we made our way out the door. It was not quite time for dinner, so I suggested: how about some tea? I got no objections from our small band. Anywhere around here that we can get some tea, Mr Zhou? In short order, he took us to 大茶壶山庄 (Da Cha Hu Shan Zhuang, the 'Big Tea Pot Inn'), probably the best-known tea house in town. This was no accident; Mr Liu Feng, the proprietor (who was away on business when we were there) is one of the three or four most highly-respected tea producers in Wu Yi Shan -- indeed, when in 2008 those 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao are finally plucked again, he will be one of those who does the honors. This we learned from his proud wife, Zheng Xue-Jiao, who was presiding over the tea house that afternoon.

Once again we were installed at an elaborately-carved wooden tea table with a young woman who would do the gongfu brewing for us. The first tea brought out to us was a 2007 Da Hong Pao -- quite delicious, even to our jaded palates. Then Ms Zheng suggested that we try their seventeen-year-old Da Hong Pao. We could hardly say no to this, on principle, having just drunk some thirteen-year-old stuff the night before. This tea was venerable -- and powerful. There was a certain something that Ms Yu's tea had that this did not -- an extra nuance or layer of flavor, perhaps a spiciness -- but this 1990-harvest tea was a classic. Moreover, it performed like a champion: we were still drinking it, with pleasure, after the fortieth (40th) infusion. I do not recall ever having put any tea through such difficult paces.

By this time, Ms Zheng was sitting comfortably with us and chatting about tea. As many tea vendors do, she had an album of photographs documenting the family business; there were pictures of Mr Liu tending the original Da Hong Pao bushes, or being decorated with a medal by the Chinese government for the quality of his tea. We saw photographs of their tea bushes growing; here was a stand of Bai Ji Guan bushes -- a most rare tea, of which (we were told) there is produced a total of perhaps only 40 or 50 pounds in a year, so little that there is never any left over to age. What a pity, Ms Zheng said, that we had not come sooner; her 2007 harvest of Bai Ji Guan, which was excellent, had already completely sold out.

Once again, at the most impossible juncture, Nikky worked her magic. I am not sure at exactly which point she switched into Min hua, but it was not long before Ms Zheng -- another speaker of Nikky's particular dialect -- fell under her spell too. Well! Look at this! We just happen to have a few grams of Bai Ji Guan left, right here, isn't that amazing? And I really want you to try this tea. See the distinctive color of these leaves?

We relaxed in our chairs. The secret doors had opened for us once again, and the sipping was good. The leaves of the Bai Ji Guan indeed became yellower and yellower as they were repeatedly infused. It is a noble tea, by all accounts, and a great rarity. Our tea-sampling over the past two days was the equivalent of winning several lotteries.

By now it was getting to be time for supper, so we bade Ms Zheng farewell, and left the Da Cha Hu. We had reservations on a plane back to Fuzhou, but not till late that night, so we went foraging for food, which we found in a tiny restaurant staffed by remarkably cheerful young folk. Singing as they worked, they spread us a bounteous table, practically for free, and we took our time dining. The tea was, once again, very weak and watery, but at least this potful was recognizable as some sort of oolong. It was certainly the weakest aspect of the meal; the soup and the other dishes were quite good.

After dinner was done, we still had a good bit of time before the plane, so we poked around a bit in a shop -- I bought a pu'er knife -- and then Nikky suggested that we go for foot massages. We trooped upstairs at a parlor near the Da Cha Hu and were promptly seated in a room with three masseuses, who went to work in triplicate. The whole notion of a foot massage seems impossibly decadent to a westerner, but it is a habit that one can get used to very quickly.

While I was still in a post-massage stupor, Nikky paid the bill -- for all of us -- and then it was time to head to the airport and fly back to Fuzhou. I hardly noticed that the plane was over an hour late for take-off, so many memories from the past few days had I to juggle.

It was extremely late when we reached the Fuzhou airport; we took a quick bus to the sumptuous Apollo Hotel (address: 132 Wuyi Middle Road, Fuzhou; tel 86.591.8305.5555). This was close to the railway station, but also convenient to the airport, from which I had to depart the next day. Here we said our goodbyes, as Warren and Nikky had to catch a very early train. We had shared so much intense tea experience, in so little time, that parting was indeed sweet sorrow. To try and stave that off, we had already made plans for our next visit. I can hardly wait.

-- corax

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