Where does tea come from? As far as I know, it comes from little bags in little red and yellow boxes marked “Lipton.” Or perhaps in silver tea balls that we the hippie tribes used to float in white dormatory cups, leaving them in a little bit longer in order to impress our friends with just how really strong we like it. What did the little heart appearing in the tea dregs in the bottom really foretell?
We all know it really comes from British plantation owners who look and sound like a young Alec Guiness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, striding out between the rows of bushes, British army shorts and knee socks paired with a officers hat rakishly aslant a sweary brow. Oh yeah, riding crop shoved under left arm.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen – the soul of tea.
In reality, it comes from little tea villages up in the hills above Hangzhou. Well, at least that’s where the best green tea in the world comes from. In other words, our next stop.
It appeared that we were now in Switzerland. Green hillsides dotted with little Chinese chalets. Coulda been Uri for all I knew and I was ready to be transported there. We climbed and climbed into the clouds, terraced tea fields on both sides of the road. Unlike the rest of China, this place was pin neat. Ordered and clean, back and forth in a little bit of dimensional transcendence, to Switzerland, to China, to Burma. The place was really, really green. And very beautiful.
The tea villages are interesting little biomes. Families have lived there intact for 100s of generations, and most of the people in the different sections of the valley all retain the same surname. Being a tea villager is a source of pride, and a source of income since they park themselves in quaint little compounds and wait for the money to arrive in the form of an endless stream of tourist buses. Sort of a pay-as-you-go living museum provided in such a guileless manner that it makes you feel really cynical for even suggesting that all they want is your money.
We pulled into a lot and de-vanned. Lili led us up some stairs and onto a platform and gave us the story of the area. Each level of the valley offers a different brand of tea. Each of brand of tea offer multiple different levels of quality. The best is picked in the very early spring and consists of only the tiniest top leaves. This tea, the Emperor Tea is never exported in bulk. It’s reserved for party officials, local consumption and Americans with wads of RMB. The subsequent harvests are divided into various grades. The higher grades are consumed in the east. America gets grade 15, the British – grade 17, the lowest. No small irony there, eh?
We all circled around a man with a couple of large woks who was cooking the tea. Not cooking it in the sense of preparing it to be drunk, but drying it in preparation for cooking it to be drunk. He swirled it around and around in the wok with his right hand, and the tale goes that these men are known as “iron hands” because they essentially bake themselves to mummification while preparing the tea. It was quite fascinating. (Later, I wandered outside and found Iron Man wearing an Oakland Raiders cap, leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette.)
We were given badges to wear (assuming I guess that we would get lost) and shuffled off to a tea viewing room, a veritable Den of Iniqui-Tea. The grounds and buildings on the way were quite attractive, the rain giving it a bit of mystique and allure. Very peaceful and a nice place to wander around.
The tea room was comprised of a large rectangular table with chairs around the outside. In a sunken well in the center, a dozen or so empty tea cansisters stood shoulder to shoulder. I could smell a hard sell coming……
The tea hostess came in and told us the story of the tea plantation and her family and the general spiel of tea. She gave each of us a small juice glass with some tea leaves in the bottom and sent her minion around to fill it with hot water. Her instructions were to hold the tea glass with both hands placing your thumbs on the rim and your next two fingers on the bottom. Clearly, this is a position born out of necessity because the tea glass was hot enough to melt the flesh off your hands. I discovered this when like a feeble dolt I picked the glass up the way it was intended to be picked up. She further explained that they don’t call it “drinking tea”, they call it “eating tea” to allow one to daintily crew the stewed green vegetal matter than now clogged the spaces between your front teeth.
After tasting the tea, she had us place the glass on the table in front of us and then lower our faces down to allow the tea fumes to cleanse our eyeballs. First the right, then the left. Repeat as necessary. She explained that this was the path to good occular health. We assumed that she was just trying to see if we were dumb enough to do it. Which of course we were.
She passed around several reed plates containing dried leaves of the teas picked at various times of the year. There was a distinctive difference between the early stuff and the late stuff. The former bearing the dainty aroma of perfumed nights on Huxi, the latter smelling a lot like grass hay from the Village Mercantile. And then she offered to sell us some, hand packed. Watching her do that was a marvel – she was blindingly fast. Of course some of us bought in, the retail atmosphere being so thick that you could cut it with Iron Man’s adamantine right hand. Okay, so we were separated from some dollars, but think about how excited everyone will be when we arrive at Christmas with a tin from Cost Plus loaded with Dragon Well Emperor class green tea from the hills above Hangzhou.
We wandered about for a bit and then were led to the gift shop. As if the tea hold-up wasn’t enough, we were forced to run a gauntlet of clay pots, silk ties, kewpie dolls, tea candy, tea fudge, tea divinity and tea jewellry. Anything you could do with tea or silk was available to accompany your newly acquired tea collection back to the bus. Made it out of that maze with my paltry money stash intact.
The day was winding down and we headed for the bus. Three hours in the car were ahead of us and we were pretty worn out.
The ride back was memorable if only for the silliness that comes with a car load of middle-aged techno-tourists, minimal language skills, oddball senses of humor and too much time on our hands.
We passed the time working on compound words using “tea” like “quali-tea” and “uncertain-tea” and God knows how many more. Bored with that, we moved on to singing “Yi ge laohu” to the tune of Freres Jacques. I couldn’t remember the last verse, but Lili knew it. Who could ask for a better guide? Those of us lucky enough to be sitting in the middle rows had a great time making fun of those jammed into the last row. The funniest bit of the day came with of our crew asking Lili to explain why she was calling him “Big Ham.” He’d heard her say it to the Tea Lady earlier in the day and was wondering. Lili replied “Big Ham, you know, the English football player.” We all about died when it clicked – Beckham. She was refering to his blond spiky hair. He may as well change his business cards, because that nom de guerre is never going away.
Made it back to Shanghai about dinner time, Lili dozing off for the last hour or so, thoroughly played out by this nutcase crowd. Best tour group she ever had, or at least that’s what she said.
Time to close shop for the night although sleep I think will elude me for a bit. It’s Octoberfest time here at the Renaissance – the front lot converted into a mini-Bremen with white tents, liederhosed imported lanky Germans, Chinese dragon dancers, polka bands and supermodels shilling Buick convertables. We’ve developed a phrase here of late – Bizarro World. It’s the culimination of 10 days of seeing that which cannot be believed. Of sitting in the Chelsea Pub at the Sheraton eating a “focasia sandwich” consisting of prosciutto and flavorless mozarella, listening to Joao Gilberto and watching the Paris-Dakar rally on the TV. It’s Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson singing at Pizza Hut and a pink pet store crowned with a giant bone for a sign while displaying a pair of frisky poodles in the front window. Or maybe it was the furry pink handbag I saw in a window in Xintiandi last night. Whatever it is, it’s beyond explanation. Which is fine with me.