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Sea of Bamboo

Friday September 15, 2006

From Hangzhou, our next destination is Yixing. From a tip on another website, however, we decide to stop in the city of Anji, which lies in between Hangzhou and Yixing.

Anji is not in the guidebooks—not ours anyway. It should be, for just outside of Anji is the largest bamboo forest in China, known as Da Zhu Hai. It has reached notoriety in recent years with film buffs as the location where the epic martial arts battle in the bamboo treetops takes place in the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Anji is also home to a tea with it’s own namesake: Anji White Tea. Even though it’s called a white tea, it is actually a green tea due to it’s pan-fired processing. White is used to refer to the light color of the tea, which is due to low chlorophyl and polyphenol content. The tea is also extremely high in theanine—or, amino acid—up to four times that of other green teas.

A one and a half hour bus ride fro Hangzhou drops us in the city of Anji. Another thirty minutes on a local bus brings us outside the city and to the entrance of the park. An old man who gets off the bus with us signals for us to follow him. We’re always a bit apprehensive of such an offer, as usually a request for money comes shortly after. With no idea of where we’re going to stay that night, and no buildings in obvious site, we consent. Fortunately, the man is genuine, and he leads us up a paved road that juts to the side of the park which, after a short incline, ends in a small cluster of building. He takes us into one of them, which has a small restaurant on the ground floor and some rooms for rent upstairs. The establishment turns our to be run by his daughter (or daughter-in-law, we never got it right). The rooms they show us are clean, the beds look comfortable, and have a nice price tag of only ¥65 for a double room with en-suite bathroom. With no one else staying at the guesthouse we also have our pick of the rooms and select one on the upper floor with a wide-open view of the bamboo fields out the window.

We get settled in our room and head down to the restaurant for some lunch. After the usual pantomiming, we are served a delicious meal of sauteed bamboo shoots with pork and steamed white rice. After serving us lunch, the woman returns to a table she was seated at before we entered and resumes playing mahjong with a young man and woman. She seems to be pretty good for, by the time our lunch is finished, her stack of money is by far the tallest.

We notice that there are some canisters of tea for sale, which, we learn, are filled with Anji White Tea. It smells fresh, the leaves taste good and have a nice green color. After sampling some, we purchase a small canister for the road, wishing we could purchase more, but green tea depends on freshness and shipping some home to sit and wait our return doesn’t make sense.

After lunch we enquire as to the best place to walk through the bamboo forest. Our guesthouse matron calls over a boy from next door who volunteers to act as our guide. He’s twenty year’s old—a university student home for the weekend—and wants to practice his english. He leads us back down the road we walked up from the bus station, taking us to the park entrance. As we walk, he tells us each family here owns a plot in the forest. We ask him where his family’s plot is, and he points up into the hills behind us. He points out bamboo trees on the side of the road, indicating their age simply by looking at them, and tells us they generally only cut tree that are at least three years old.

The park isn’t so much a park as an entrance to the bamboo forest. Just inside the entrance, is a large rock with blue painted Chinese characters on it. Our guide tells us the rock commemorates the filming of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and indicates to a building just to the left of it. The martial arts scene was filmed just behind the building, which they constructed to facilitate the work. We make our way up a small, paved road that ahead soon peters out into several small trails jutting up into the bamboo-covered hillsides. As we walk, we pass a man leading an ox-drawn carriage with two Chinese tourists seated comfortably in it. Further up, we pass a group of men lazing in the shade. Beside them are those things you see emperors and empresses being carried in by hulking men in your classic Chinese period flick. Apparently, for a price, you can be carried up the hill instead of walking.

Happy Ox Man

The road we follow finally ends and turns into a smallish footpath winding up and into the bamboo. The bamboo is beautiful, and makes a whistling sounds as wind blows through it when you stop and listen. The type of bamboo here is Giant Bamboo, and it truly is giant arching high into the air with stalks I can’t even begin to get my hands around. I’m amazed to learn from Julie that all bamboo is just a type of grass.

Looking up at the bamboo from inside the forest.

Our guide continues leading us up the path. Coming down, we cross paths with more Chinese men, these one’s actually carrying a Chinese tourist down the trail in one of those lazy-tourist-carrying-contraptions. The trail is relatively steep—though short—and our guide seems to be more winded than we are as we near the top. He says he almost never comes to the park—he prefers basketball. At the top of the hill lies a wooden outlook tower. We climb the tower, which provides for a spectacular view of the bamboo. It’s an overcast day—though still hot—and the bamboo disappears into the gray horizon in every direction we look. Perched in the tower, watching the wind-blown treetops, you understand why the locals refer to it as a sea of bamboo. Looking down the valley, we can see our guesthouse.

Looking back towards the valley. Our guesthouse is in the small cluster of buildings on the right.

Sea of Bamboo.

Later that afternoon, awakening from a short nap, I realize Julie is nowhere to be found. I walk outside of the guesthouse and look around but still don’t see her. Walking around for a minutes, still not finding her, I head back down the hill towards the park, thinking maybe she’s headed in that direction. As I walk, a man riding up the hill on a motorcycle—one I had seen earlier at our guesthouse—slows to a stop and indicates for me to get on. He’s smiling knowingly, which I take to be a sign that he knows where Julie is (we are, after all, the only white people to be seen). It’s only after I’ve gotten on the motorcycle and we’ve started heading back up the hill that I remember this is the same man I saw riding down the hill earlier in the day at about a hundred miles an hour with no helmet. Too late.

I’ve spent my fare share of time on the back of motorcycles—dirtbikes to be specific. Before I left for this trip, one of my responsibilities at the design firm I helped found was that of photographer. Most of our clients being in the outdoor sports industry, I photographed a healthy amount of professional athletes—dirtbike riders in particular. I spent many days on the back of a dirtbike, holding several thousands dollars worth of unprotected camera equipment in one hand while holding on for dear life in the other. Then, I took solace in the fact that they were professional athletes. This man, I tried to push out of my mind, most certainly was not.

The man steers the motorcycle up the hill and well past our guesthouse. A smaller, unpaved road nears us on the right, climbing sharply up a hill. I pray it’s not our destination but, of course, it is. The going is smooth at first, but soon the road gets fairly muddy and rocky. More than once the man stalls the motorcycle slowing for a particuarly nasty rut or large collection of loose rocks. As the road really begins to get steep—just about the time I’m deliberating whether or not to jump off—I see Julie walking down the hill. She’s smiling in that way only she can, and is accompanied by an older woman and another girl far younger. I’m relieved to see her, though more for my sake than hers.

Turns out that, while I was napping, Julie met the young girl in the restaurant of our hotel. The girl, who is sixteen, is the daughter of the woman who runs the guesthouse and, by extension, the grandaughter of the man who led us from the bus station earlier in the day. Julie told the young girl that she wanted to go for a walk. The young girl speaks just enough english to understand, and she lead Julie up a small trail from the guesthouse. Shortly up the trail they came to the girl’s grandparents house, where they picked up her grandma.

By the looks of it, Grandma is a pretty cool lady. She’s a sturdy and strong woman, armed with a monstrous flashlight in one hand, and a bamboo stick in the other, which I later learn she uses to dispel any misfortunate rock or plant that stands in her path. She’s also wearing a woven bamboo hat that has a lit mosquito coil sticking out from the top of it. Julie informs me that she has given the lady the nickname of Grandma Billygoat, and that she is seventy years old.

Grandma and granddaughter.

I ask them what’s further up the hill, but Julie won’t tell me, and only indicates it’s worth checking out. Together, the four of us begin climbing the remainder of hill. Julie tells me this is the third time today Grandma Billygoat has done so.

At the top of the hill I discover why Grandma Billygoat carries a flashlight: there is an old cave. Standing before it, the cavern is dark, and cold air emanates out of it and reaches us where we stand. I ask if we’re going to enter, which is kind of silly as Grandma Billygoat is already leading the way. We slowly enter the cave—unsure of our footing—and soon are deep enough so that, looking back, we can no longer see the entrance. Grandma Billygoat shines the flashlight on the walls, and I realize it’s an old coal mine.

We spend a few minutes checking out the mine before returning outside. The day is getting late, and the mosquitos particularly nasty, so we decide to head back down the hill.

They lead Julie and I back to the grandparents house, which lies off a small footpath deeper in the bamboo forest. From the outside, the house is old and decrepit. From the design, it seems like the house has been built over many years, as if additions have been made to the original foundation due to need and without a lot of rhyme or reason. Inside the house is dark and all light comes from the open doors and windows. Grandma Billygoat leads us through the house and into the backyard, where there is a small, natural spring fed via a bamboo pipe into a wooden bucket on one level and a ceramic pot below it. It’s a simple but perfectly functional—and sanitary—design. The ceramic pot, which is higher than the wooden bucket, is used to store drinking water from the spring. The water that overflows from the ceramic pot falls into the wooden bucket below, which is used for cleaning. Grandma Billygoat hands us each a clean towel and indicated for us clean and refresh ourselves. The water is fresh and cooling. I’m tempted to try the spring water—one of the first time’s I’ve had the desire to try un-bottled or un-boiled water in six months of traveling—but decide otherwise.

Back inside the home, my eyes have adjusted and begun picking out all the details: A beautiful, old armoire made of bamboo lies against one wall; hand made bamboo baskets filled with gourds we saw growing in the garden outside off in a corner; piles of corn drying in a small, storage room adjacent to the main room in which we are standing. To our left is an open kitchen with a large wok—perhaps a half meter in diameter—with a huge, wood-burning fire beneath it. The kitchen is attached to an open sitting room with a doorway that leads out into the garden. Near a doorway, are two hand-crafted chairs made from a wood we don’t recognize. They are curiously small, and Grandma Billygoat motions for use to sit in them and serves us a bamboo basket filled with tiny, bite-size apples.

It’s a beautiful scene. There’s a feeling to the air that reminds of the time we spent back in Borneo staying with a family in the highlands. The scene could easily be a movie set—only, it’s real—and I long for an SLR camera and full-size tripod. The late afternoon sun casts beautiful light and shadows throughout the house. I do my best with the Canon G6 camera and REI Ultra-Pod II tripod I am carrying, and manage to capture a few still-life.

Little Chairs in the Doorway.

Grandma Billygoat’s Mosquito Coil Hat.

As evening falls the family begins preparing dinner. Julie and I take our cue to say goodnight, grateful for such a wonderful and intimate experience. When traveling, it’s the small moments that stick with you the longest—passing gestures from strangers you meet along the way. Rarely do the postcard destinations and guidebook locales lead to your best memories. Anji is not, and likely never will be, a top-destination. China has the Great Wall and Terra-cotta Warriors for that. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful spot, and one we are thankful to have visited. We head back to our hotel, have some dinner of our own, and return to our room in preparation for the next day’s bus ride to Yixing.

→ More photos for this post can be found on our Flickr account:

View the Photos


Jay and Grace
Sep 15, 04:16 PM

It is the quiet elegance of the story telling that makes this blog so much fun to read. You’re not trying to convince us that what you are seeing and doing is cool, you’re telling us what you are seeing and doing and we appreciate it for what it is – that is an awesome skill…

Thank you for sharing – its as close to being there as I can imagine.

Many (if not all) the people who read this blog know Julie – She’s smiling in that way only she can – I’ve seen that smile (probably not the same way Kai does) – what a great simple way to express such a depth of feeling.

You guys are great!

Sep 16, 10:58 PM

Many (if not all) the people who read this blog know Julie…

Have you been reading our site stats again, Jay?

But seriously, thanks for the kinds words. It’s comments like this that encourage us to keep this blog going…

Sep 19, 12:56 AM

Hi Julie & Kai,

I periodically check in to the website to see how your journey is going for both of you.

The photos are amazing along with the stories makes it all the more astonishing.

Take care,

Jenny P
Sep 19, 07:33 AM

The babmbo in my yard is not nearly as impressive as that…close, but not quite.
And where are the Pandas? Do they live there?

richard and nicole from bingin
Sep 19, 07:22 PM

hi julie and kai

this site is really impressive
my daughter celebrating her 21st birthday and i met you breifly at lynee’s place at bingin . i’m embarrassed to say (after i’ve read you profiles)i used your camera and took some photos before you went to the ulu festival
your trip looks fantastic
at bingin you said you may be heading to australia
if you get to the east coast make sure you drop in
i was wondering if you knew if lynee has a e-mail address yet
i’m heading back there next year and i would like to contact her
keep the dream alive

Sep 25, 09:24 PM

Dear Jukikens and Kai,

My message was erased before I could send it off. I am using a Hewlett Packard computer in the lobby of my hotel in Stockholm. Found your web site but not my E-mail. I am much relieved to know that you are still on the road in China and enjoying everything so much. I’ll be flying home in a couple of days, and will read your most recent entries then. Photos are lovely.
Much love, Patricia

Leon Derczynski
Dec 4, 11:56 PM

We visited the Sea of Bamboo recently, and it was a really clear and sunny day – fantastic for taking pictures. I’ve posted some, as well as covered the Mirror Lake at the foot of the area.