Travels on the China tea trail
China is an education. Will the world's most populous country become for the next generation what the world's richest country has been for ours? The growing likelihood lends that education an urgency. Learning China is almost as difficult as learning Chinese, though. The business community is swiftly engulfed in the soupy embrace of China's cities, with their mushrooming tower blocks, television-illuminated meals in private restaurant rooms and visits to karaoke bars (known in China as KTV, for those who wish to avoid them). Those who classify themselves as tourists rather than travellers, meanwhile, will walk a famous wall and meet an army of model warriors, cruise a large river, eat some mystifying meals, go shopping and go home. Either way, the new, open China can sometimes seem as elusive as the old, forbidden one.
Unlocking its intricacies requires either the courage to sally out in the teeth of incomprehension (tough but rewarding: problem-solving, good humour and honesty are far more common, in China, than their opposites), or it requires a special interest - in birds, gardens, railway trains, art - which will lead you to stranger, more educative places than nightclubs and cruiseboats. Tea can do this, too. Grown throughout southern China and loved nationwide, it will not only draw you towards some of the country's most remarkable landscapes, but it also provides a glimpse, in the drinking, of a China far sweeter and more gracious than the nation's brash public image.
My own Chinese education was defective in that I had assumed that the vast, sparely rugged landscapes of classical Chinese painting were more spiritual lesson than a faithful rendering of place. Those tiny figures moving, insect-like, between indolent river and abrupt peak were there to teach modesty, instil calm and underline impermanence, surely, rather than reflect reality. No landscape could open like that, could it? It could and it does. Travel in China's tea country, and those same scenes will unfold before you, their pines seemingly placed at the summit of crags by some great artificer and their quiet valleys broken only by the soft race of falling water. Even the lenses of mist, mobile and intermittent, are accurate. Tea bushes thirst for more than twice London's annual rainfall, and cloud cover combined with high humidity is perfect for keeping their vivid green leaves pliant.
Around one-third of China is mountain. Lowland areas are commandeered for the productive agriculture required to feed 1,322 million people (and feed them rather well), so that any crop which can migrate upwards will do so. Tea is ideal for this task; indeed you can create a small tea garden in many areas by doing no more than clearing the scrub to leave the wild, native bushes to enjoy the light and warmth on their own. 'Garden' is exact: the small, shaped bushes grafted onto stone terraces and rock ledges look, at first sight, like effusions of the privet so cherished in suburban horticulture, or like some vegetable sculptor's audacious installation. In the Da Hong Pao (Great Red Cloak) valley of Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province, this is an installation dating back to Tang times. At the same moment as the first Viking raiders were descending on Lindisfarne, in other words, the bamboos were being parted to make way for Camellia sinensis in this almost secret valley where water cuts its way through soaring planes of sandstone and conglomerate as sheerly as gin through ice.
In addition to Great Red Cloak, an oolong which is said to taste both of rocks and of sweet apples, Wuyi is also home to the greatest of all Lapsang Souchongs (or Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, as it is known locally): that of Bohea Farm. This farm, where great smoked tea from wild bushes has been produced continuously since the fifteenth century, is sited at the village of Tongmu within the Long Chuan (Floating Dragon) gorge, in a protected zone of such environmental value that public access is restricted to the lower parts of the valley. In springtime, smoke from logs of Taiwan red pine seeps from the wooden kiln roofs like the steam rising from a horse's back after a canter in the rain; under the eaves, the rolled and withered leaves rest on giant bamboo trays while the fragrant, almost peat-like fumes riffle through them. The subtlety of Bohea Lapsang makes cheaper versions taste like burnt toast.
Within China, Bohea is considered the origin of black tea; the fact that it was the source of the first tea imported to Britain meant that the name became, in the seventeenth century, a metonym for tea itself (the two words rhyme), and is thus used by Pope (in The Rape of the Lock) and Byron (in Don Juan). The great Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune, who ended China's tea monopoly by planting Darjeeling on behalf of the British East India Company, visited Bohea during a three-year voyage in the mid-nineteenth century. "Never in my life," he wrote later, "have I seen a view such as this, so grand, so sublime. High ranges of mountains were towering on my right and on my left, while before me as far as the eye could reach the whole country seemed broken up into mountains and hills of all heights, with peaks of every form."
Great Red Cloak valley and the Floating Dragon gorge are just two of the scenic attractions of Wuyi Mountain, but there are a dozen more in the 1000-square kilometre World Heritage site (China's largest), many of them best seen from a seat on one of the languid raft trips that the Chinese describe in English, winningly, as 'drifting'. Connoisseurs of geology may enjoy contrasting its red-rock danxia landforms with the better-known limestone karst outcrops of Guilin in Guangxi Province, home of the fishermen who prefer cormorants to rods or nets. Either landscape, though, will confirm the scroll painters' accuracy.
Perhaps the easiest of all tea locations to visit is the city of Hangzhou in China's largest tea-producing province, Zhejiang. This is the source of the irresistible Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea, the best of which smells and tastes like an essence of chlorophyll and creamed hazelnuts. Hangzhou is within easy reach of Shanghai; indeed in many ways it would make a more attractive base for a Chinese initiation than Shanghai, thanks to its long history (it is one of China's seven ancient capitals) and its watery attractions. China's Grand Canal flows through Hangzhou, snaking north all the way to Beijing, and two hours down the largely empty Hang-Quian Expressway is the 580-sq-km Quindao (Thousand Island) Lake, surely the world's prettiest reservoir and a Chinese eco-tourist centre. Above all, though, it is Hangzhou's own six-sq-km West Lake which lures visitors with its pavilions, temples, bamboo forest paths, tea plantations and ten signposted 'scenes', such as Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge, Orioles Singing In The Willows or Evening Bell Ringing at Nanpinghill.
The quality of the tea served at the Dragon Well itself (called 'Tea Enquiry at Dragon Well' on tourist maps) is outstanding, and local tea mania is such that even the water used to make it is prized, fetched from a source two miles away called 'To Dream of the Tiger-Pawing Spring'. Tea, as you see, draws out the poetry in the pragmatic Chinese. An evening in a Hangzhou tea house such as Charenchun or one of the three He Cha Guan ('Peace Houses') proves, to any European who had previously considered moderate alcohol intake essential to a good night out, not merely educative but positively enlightening.
The kettle stands nearby, bubbling gently; the glasses are constantly refilled; the table is kept supplied with watermelon and lychees, with pumpkin seeds, with dried fish strips, with lotus-paste cake, with sesame wafers. Sipping great green tea is like sipping springtime itself; it brings an entirely sober elation, and the sense of cultured elegance is heightened further by the traditional furniture, decorations and costumes of those serving and (if you're lucky) by the music, too. If you're not and it's gone schmaltzy, return to the Lake, where traditional musicians play together on the warm evenings, for nothing but the fun of it, as the moon rises.
Local tea travel for western tourists can be organised in Wuyi by Wuyi Mountain International Travel Agency, 3rd Floor, China Travel Building, Sangu Street, Wuyi, Fujian (0086 599 5134 666); and in Hangzhou by Hangzhou Pacific Travel Company, Suite 705, Chengxin Building, 236 Jianguo North Road, Hangzhou (0086 571 8729 6971) or Hangzhou Lai Lai Vacation Travel Agency, 86 Qingyin St, Hangzhou (0086 571 8782 8533).
To taste the China teas mentioned in this article contact Jing Tea. See their website for further information:
Off-Piste in the Middle Kingdom
The greatest wall of China hides inside the human mouth: nothing is more insurmountable to travellers and residents alike than the hurdles of two vastly dissimilar languages. Dozens will call a cheery 'Hallo' to you as you walk past, but any attempt at conversation in English swiftly dissolves into laughing incomprehension, and even those who might be expected to have some English (like hotel desk staff) are often still monoglot. Guide books in English are rare, and the heroic calamities of Chinglish will amuse even where they fail to inform. (Among my treasures is the airline towelette called 'Hygiene Wet Turban Needless Wash'.)
Those Chinese who do have some English often find comprehension easier if words are written out carefully and sentences repeated slowly; phrase books are very helpful on the same basis, in that the relevant Chinese characters can be shown. Not everything is difficult, though: dual language road signs are ubiquitous and China's airports and internal flight network is hugely impressive, as are its free-flowing toll roads. City travel is easiest via China's cheap taxis (whose drivers happily do not require tipping), though driving styles are cavalier.
Eating out in restaurants is low stress, too, since many of the largest work on the principle of a vast bank of fish tanks full of live fish and shellfish (as well as sea snakes), glass boxes full of doom-laden chickens and cages of miserable, jaw-clamped alligators, as well as simpler dishes whose raw ingredients are already assembled and then cling-filmed or cold dim sum piled high ready for steaming. Menus are entirely unnecessary. You point; they kill; you eat.