- Posted August 7, 2013 by
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Life in China
- sarahbrowngb, CNN iReport producer
After more than a year of traveling throughout the country, I begin to realize to what extent did tea influence my decision to leave everything behind. Or was it simply good-enough reason to finally abandon office life, slowly but consistently entangling me in the net of to-do stereotypes, leaving no time to think? In any case, now at last I have the time to give it enough thought and contemplate what on earth took me so long to make up my mind and venture forth.
My first tea experience in Asia was in Cameron Highlands. Traveling-wise, what a treat! Being probably the only place in Malaysia with bearable climate and picturesque scenery of tea plantations scattered around, there was no better place to cool down my Europe-accustomed heat sensors after a few weeks of scorching and humid weather of the lowlands. However, with its teabag drinking style and crowded shops selling more cookies and sweets than tea, I did not find the Highlands cool enough to quench my thirst for the true, spiritual tea-session experience. Was not supposed to anyway.
It took a couple of months traveling through SE Asia to finally cross Chinese borders and begin filling up my teacup with new knowledge and sensations. Well, a bit longer that as right after entering China my expectations and excitement were crushed by tsunami wave of Chinese characters I found myself entangled in, not understanding a word, a single noticeboard, having troubles finding a hotel, ordering food, even ATM took hours to locate.
Using good old gesture language and being uncomfortably persistent when asking for assistance, I finally got to Yunnan, the Southwestern province well-known for tea cultivation and production, specifically that of Pu`er – post fermented tea usually pressed into cakes of 357 grams, advertised in the West for its body fat reducing abilities – with its broad pallet of full flavors changing with each infusion, an unfortunately shallow and one-sided reputation.
It did not take long to stumble upon a teashop in Xishuangbanna, being the center point of all Pu`er tea in China. Thousands of tea stores waiting for a customer to get in and savor the aromas and flavors of ancient tea mountains surrounding the place – finally! My first days there were filled with hours of discussions over a cup of old-tree Pu`er, contemplating how the differences in climate, location, age of the tree and processing influence the quality, just like that of wine. I rediscovered the importance of good company to enjoy a cup in, indulge in a silent appreciation of the tea-plant sucking in environmental elements over ages of time in creation of a single leaf to provide a complete sensual experience.
Reluctant was my leaving of Yunnan, different flavors of China were awaiting, though. It took about three thousand kilometers and a week of train travel (what a piece of land China is!) to arrive to Wuyishan, the place to go when in search of strong, smoky and fruity flavors of high-mountain oolong tea. Watching the landscape pass by, changing from picturesque mountains dotted by ancient villages to concrete towers and highway snakes of modern era, I realized the one thing that probably did not alter since the old days. It is not only about the taste and aroma, but also, maybe even more importantly, about the company. Tea brings people together and provides them peace of mind, so much-needed attribute in today’s society, one I failed to fully grasp before. It made me think of the times at work, taking a short break to prepare my tea set and dreaming of my traveling to distant lands, forgetting about the hassle around the office. I took tea to be more of a one-self activity. Well, I probably still do.
After a long journey, nothing compares to a half-day worth of sampling 6-years ripened Dahongpao, one of the most famous Wuyi rock teas of China. Drinking the half-oxidized piece of art, created by years of practice in rolling and pressing the leaves just enough to bring out the variety of flavors, makes me think of the perfect blend in the nature’s creation and final touch of human mastery. Combined with the landscape of a Wuyi Mountain protected area, it was unforgettable tea-session experience.
Trying to recognize the broad spectrum of subtle flavors while watching leaves slowly unrolling, I barely noticed the 8-hour journey to Hangzhou, the next item on my list of tea-places to visit. What will I do back home, where traveling from one end of the country to the other does not even take half the time!
Aside of being one of the most green and relaxed metropolises I have visited in China, it is said to be the place where Longjing tea was accredited Imperial status by Chinese emperor Kangxi. I spent days just walking around West Lake, breathing in the misty air of numerous tea gardens around it, tasting the tea while trying to transfer my mind back into the 17th century and imagine how different the taste could be. Longjing bought, Dreaming of the Tiger Spring seen, mission accomplished! Sadly, time to go further.
Further I went, up north ticking off the must-see places, turning west towards Sichuan province to sample some of my favorite green tea, until the point of my half-year stay in the country was almost over while the search for tea only in its diapers. I keep thinking of the genuine surprise on the face of Chinese ambassador when he saw my request for 3-months double-entry visa. “What will he be doing there that long?” he asked his assistant. With an ill-disguised amusement I answered: “China is huge!”
Now I know I had no idea how vast the distances could get, and how long will my passion for tea keep me on route. Just like the flavors of Pu`er tea – bitter-hot at the beginning, slowly adding up subtle layers of fruity and flowery palates over the course of more infusions to finally leave a long-lasting aftertaste of the sensual experiences – my life has turned upside-down. It’s been over 18 months since I left home and, after a few detours via India and Nepal, I found myself back in Yunnan, contemplating my past and future over a cup the good old Pu`er.