all the tea in china
It's certainly no secret that tea is an important part of many Asian cultures. While traveling in Beijing we had the opportunity to explore several tea shops, attend a tea ceremony and enjoy many cups of tea. Being major tea fans, we felt this cultural experience was certainly one of the highlights during our time in China.
Our first encounter with Chinese tea was during our guided tour to the Great Wall. One of the many stops along the way included a stop at Doctor Tea. Admittedly, we were tired after a full day of sightseeing, but we had to laugh when our tour guide said we were going to stop for a Chinese tea ceremony. Since this wasn't mentioned when we signed up for the tour we were understandably curious. As we turned into the bus-filled parking lot we realized that this was yet another "sales" stop to try and sell us something, part and parcel with many guided explorations. We believed, wrongly, that in hiring a personal tour guide to take us through some of Beijing's highlights, we would avoid such hawking. Be aware that, generally speaking, unless you pay a significant amount beyond what you see as "market rate" for these personally guided tours or deal only with a specific individual who is not part of a company, the price you pay is being subsidized by various tourist stops such as jade and cloisonne factories and tea shops.
Being wary Americans we rolled our eyes when our guide told us we "had to stop" and went in. We were pleasantly surprised when we were led from the large entry into a smaller room with a couple from New Zealand on their honeymoon and told to relax. Our tea mistress prepared our small tea cups and began to tell us about the tea we were about to taste. The whole set up reminded us of a wine tasting. We tasted jasmine tea, green tea, pu'erh tea and lychee tea. She did an excellent presentation of the teas providing a background and the medicinal effects of each.
The most intriguing was the pu'erh tea, which is rich and earthy tasting. It is fermented, either naturally (green pu'erh or manually (black pu'erh). Like wine, its taste is affected by the duration and conditions of its storage. Like yogurt, it has microbes during its manufacturing process and is believed to provide a variety of health and medicinal benefits. It can come loose leaf but is often compressed in to interesting shapes, from small disks or balls to large disks the size of a dinner plate. Pu'erh tea has a long history dating back to at least the Eastern Han Dynasty, which was from 25-220AD Pu'erh was once used as a form of currency. Like fine wine, it can improve with age and some of the very best pu'erh teas are more than a quarter century old and sell for over $1,000 per pound. Some people collect it like valuable pieces of art. Others treat it like an investment or include it as part of a bridal dowry.
We learned a lot in this interesting discussion. The teas were lovely and we were told that Dr. Tea provided those of the very best quality. Of course, they did. We were then led to the retail store (surprise, surprise) where we could purchase the teas we tasted and many other tea accessories. The teas were very expensive, as were most of the "shops" we stopped at that day (remember the jade and cloisonne factories we mentioned as part of the subsidized guided tour?) so we chose not to purchase anything. We still had several days in Beijing and were confident we could find quality teas for much lower prices in the shopping districts.
It's interesting to note that while Japan and China have similar respect, tradition and ceremony associated with tea, their approaches are quite different. Generally, the Japanese tea ceremony is quiet and reflective. The preparation is done by a host/ess in silence for the guests. By contrast, the Chinese tea ceremony is done to celebrate a wedding, and the newlyweds prepare the tea while a host/ess amuses the guests. The Japanese ceremony is a social event that takes place in an atmosphere of harmony, respect and purity while the Chinese ceremony introduces the newlyweds to their new families and serves as a sign of respect to the parents. The preparation and presentation of tea has an important place in each culture, even if the expression of its significance is different.
Here's a quick sample of our Chinese tea tasting.
In Beijing, we had the opportunity to visit many "hutongs," narrow alleyways formed by rows of houses or residential dwellings. This is were the majority of Beijing residents live. We had the opportunity to spend a day shopping in the NLGX or Nanluaguxiang, which means South Gong Lane. This area is almost 800 years old. NLGX is currently the trendy-cool-hip place to go in Beijing. This 800-meter alley is filled with cute cafes, quaint bars, and a myriad of shops and restaurants. We were especially tickled by Bar Uno Hot Dog. The vendor yelled out as we went by, "Chicago style dogs!" Being from Chicago, that call quickly turned our heads.
The most fun shop award goes to the French Toast and Volcano Drinks vendor. The French Toast was literally thick toast with all kinds of gooey confections and toppings and the Volcano Drinks were colorful drinks with a little dry ice floating in them that made smoke literally come through a hole in the top of the lid. Another favorite Chinese snack is tiny apples covered in candy, sold on skewers that can be nibbled while walking.
There were several tea shops in the district and we diligently checked out every one. We tasted several teas at Jia Xiang Tea Shop, found some excellent lychee tea and bought a bag of loose tea, which they pressed sealed for us right there. They also had a nice selection of teapots and tea sets for sale, but were a little pricey.
By far our favorite tea experience was at Famous Tea of China right off NLGX. The proprietor spoke no English so finding the tea we wanted and negotiating was fun. But the woman was super nice and friendly and we ended up coming back here again because they had the best prices and always threw something else in the order to thank us. It was a sheer pleasure dealing with them. We left with full bags of tea treasures, including blooming tea balls, pu'erh tea cakes, green tea, tea strainers and holders, and some tea cups (more like self-straining mugs in beautiful designs). The proprietor always carefully packed the tea in lovely containers, perfect for gift-giving. Though we have to admit, more than a little of the tea was coming home just for us!
We stopped by several other tea shops in various neighborhoods and hutongs, and we're sure that there are many, many more. If you find yourself in China and you're looking for tea you definitely won't be disappointed. You've heard the expression "all the tea in China." Rest assured there's plenty to taste and enjoy, but it's unlikey you'll get it all in one trip - ensuring you visit different parts of China and enjoy the many cultural delights this Asian powerhouse has to offer.