China is next on our itinerary. China. The word alone carries a weight that belies it’s short five letters. Previously we mentioned that China was at the heart of our decision to come to Asia. Here we’d like to explain why.
When planning our trip, Julie and I both struggled over whether we should travel through Central and South America or Asia. Julie has studied a great deal about Latin American art and has a genuine interest and knowledge that would have made a trip there rewarding. It also wouldn’t have hurt that I speak a fair amount of Spanish. As is obvious, however, we came to Asia instead.
Asia appealed to us for two reasons. First, it was (and still is) completely foreign to us. Julie and I both have traveled through various parts of Latin America, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Baja. While we certainly aren’t experts, we somewhat knew what we could expect. Asia, in contrast, was completely unknown to us. We would be strangers in a strange land. The second reason is, quite simply, tea.
A Short and Highly Subjective Overview of Tea
Many people would laugh at the idea of traveling to the opposite end of the earth out of a curiosity in tea. At a certain level, I would agree. But then, wine tours in many parts of the world are a major tourist draw, so why should tea be different?
For reasons that could fill a book, most people in America prefer coffee to tea. The Boston Tea Party certainly contributed to the demise of tea in America, though it also made it so that tea, to this day, cannot be taxed. Regardless of the reasons, it’s suffice to say that tea, for most Americans, means Lipton, Snapple, or, at the boutique end, Republic of Tea. While there is nothing wrong with these, this spectrum of tea, with no disrespect intended, is equivalent to wine in a box. There is a plethora of tea out there: green tea that was once only picked by virgins wearing white gloves; oolong tea that comes from plants that grow on steep cliffs, making the picking difficult, so the farmers would teach monkeys to do it for them; aged Pu-er tea that has been placed in large bamboo canisters and stored for years in deep in dark, damp caves in order to fully bring out the flavor.
Tea, second, to water, is the oldest beverage on the planet—far older than wine. Wars have been fought over tea; some of the most beautiful poetry ever written inspired by it; thousands of pages have been dedicated to the proper brewing of it; tea has been used as currency, and even today is being bought and stored in tea banks, as owner’s wait for their investments to mature. And if you think tea is cheap, note that 500 grams of high-quality Wu Li Qing green tea was recently won at at an auction for $17,000. These anecdotes only scratch the surface.
The beauty of tea lies in it’s simplicity and the mindfulness it brings when properly enjoyed. And yet, for all its simplicity, there is a culture and history that is complex and fascinating. It is this that brings us to the birthplace of tea: China. That’s right, we go to China in search of tea.
Some 5,000 years ago, a Chinese emperor named Shen Nung stopped for a rest while on a walk through the countryside. Tired, he had his servant boil some water to drink (Shen Nung was, among other things, a scientist, and believed water should be boiled for hygienic reasons). While the water was boiling, leaves from a plant fell into the pot. The water turned brown, infused from the leaves. Now most people at this time would have discarded the water, but Shen Nung was a curious emperor. He was deeply interested in agriculture, indeed, his very name means the Divine Farmer. He is credited with having discovered hundreds of herbs for medicinal use, most of which he tried himself. And so, on this day, as chance would have it, a few little leaves landed in his boiling pot of water as he rested from a long walk, and rather than discard the water, he tried it. He found the taste pleasing, and from this humble beginning it is said, tea was born.
For all it’s history, tea is shrouded in much mystery. Farming and processing techniques are closely guarded family secrets, passed down from generations long past. Questions will usually get you nowhere. Tea secrets are held close, for fear they will be stolen, and questions are usually answered with myths and analogies that have about as much fact in them as Winnie the Pooh. What information is available in books is almost always written in Mandarin, making it completely inaccessible to most Westerners. And so, we have decided to go to the source, and find out about tea first hand.
The problem is, of course, that China is no longer a country whereby people spend their day picking tea leaves, practicing calligraphy, and meditating upon the profundity of a rock. It is a waking giant, huge in scale and determined to grab a stronghold in the modern world. Development is occurring at a rate that is unfathomable, spurred on in no small part by the forthcoming 2008 Olympics, to be held in Beijing. And development will occur at all costs: millions of citizens have been uprooted and moved into Chicago-size cities to make way for roads, dams, and other infrastructure. Cities are popping up so quickly that maps just a few years old fail to mark a city with over a million residents. Yes, the reality is that present-day China is a big, smelly, polluted, overpopulated place. And yet, despite all this, pockets of the old China still exist. Just the other day the New York Times published a wonderful interactive piece on an old tea house in Hangzhou (you really should check it out). It is these pockets for which we will search.
In case you haven’t got it by now, China is huge. Really. It’s big. As such, we will have to focus on specific parts of China with certain tea history rather than embark on an all-encompassing tour of China that would take, well, a lifetime. It is believed that tea harvesting originated in southern China, namely in the provences of Yunnan and Sichuan. As such, most of our time in China will be spent there. We have spent many hours pouring over tea books, websites, and anything else we could find with information regarding tea. From this information we have created a sort of hit list of places we’d like to visit, and our itinerary will largely be based on connecting the dots between locations (if you can call connecting the dots 40 hour train rides). Some of these locations include:
- The Six Tea Mountains
- Located in far, southern Yunnan, it is believed that tea harvesting originally began here.
- A town with long tea-trading roots. It is outside of Kunming that our favorite tea, Pu-er, was born.
- Famous for it’s Longjing, or Dragon Well tea, this is one of the most accessible tea-specific areas in China, complete with a tea festival in spring.
- The town where the famous Yixing clay is from, which traditional Gung-fu teapots are made from.
There will, of course, be many other locations. These are just starting points for our trip. We are also considering a trip on the recently finished China-Tibet train, which first started running on July 1, 2006, making Tibet more accessible than ever. It’s a three day train ride that leads over 16,000 foot mountains, high enough that the rooms are equipped with oxygen masks should you begin to feel sick from the altitude.
Will our tea journey be successful? Or will modern day China show us what it’s really made of and send us scrambling back to somewhere easy, like say, Thailand? Whether we are successful or not, tea permeates through the very backbone of Chinese culture, and indeed should prove a fascinating compass in exploring the country.