Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cupping Puerh teas

I have been back in the US for almost two months and I finally got around to tasting the rest of the puerh teas I purchased. I had already tried the loose puerhs. But it’s really hard for me to break open the cakes. I think in the long run it is a good plan. You want to be able to taste the tea when it’s young and as it is aging.  

I equate this to buying three bottles of the exact same wine. One is for drinking now, one is for its mid-life, and the third is to drink anytime after mid-life depending on how the tasting at mid-life goes!

If you are new to puerh teas, you might just want to give these teas a try. There are so many choices. You can drink a green puerh, a green puerh that has been aged, a fermented puerh, or a fermented puerh that has been aged. Some of these teas can be purchased loose as well. The benefits of puerh tea are somewhat inconclusive, but everything I have read shows that it lowers cholesterol. I don’t think you should drink a tea just for medicinal reasons, but if you like the taste of this tea, come on board. You will like the cholesterol readings moving forward. Another side benefit of puerh is that it helps reduce the effect of a hangover (don’t ask me how I know this).

Puerh teas tend to range from earthy to smoky to sweet to spicy to grassy to medicinal to fruity to smooth. This all depends on the tea, how it was processed, and the age.

The three teas I purchased from the 2010 vintage were all green puerhs. They were from three different regions or famous mountains  – Yiwa, Banzhang, and Nannou (from left to right below). “Shan” means mountain and sometimes you will also see “shan” next to the name of the region. The teas were all in cake form.

As I cupped the teas; somehow, the teas were darkest to lightest. All the teas were made from tea trees that were either uncultivated or wild. You would definitely notice that by looking at the leaves in the cakes. They are very long and the tea separates very easily from the cakes without breaking.

The Yiwa tasted sweet and light to me. The Banzhang was very smoky. The Nannou had a subtle sweetness but was very light. One sidenote is that the Nannou cake was from a tea tree that was 1000 years old. It will be interesting to watch these three teas age over time.  

I tasted the teas three times brewing them for 3 minutes, 4 minutes and 5 minutes. I used a similar water temperature each time (at about 190 degrees). I really liked the Yiwa and Nannou at first. The Banzhang was really too smoky. But by the third steeping the Yiwa was still amazing and almost sugary, sweet. The Nannou had lost some of its luster. But the Banzhang was definitely more subtle. I wonder if I originally tasted this tea in Kunming after several steepings? The first brew was really too smoky for me. 

Again, who knows what will happen over the course of time and how each tea will develop over several years or decades. It will be interesting to see. 

If you are interested in sampling any of these teas, email me or send me a comment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cupping 2nd flush Darjeelings

I finally cupped some Darjeeling teas from India! The best way to do this is if you have a cupping set. Then you can brew the teas at the same time and taste them side by side. I used 3 grams of tea. For the first steeping I used cooler water than boiling for 2 ½ minutes. I found the brews light but I could still get the characteristics of the individual teas. The second steeping was nearly boiling water and I steeped the tea for just over 3 minutes. The teas all showed well. There was also flavor, yet diminishing, in the third steeping. 

The three teas were Pussimbing 2010, Castleton Muscatel 2010, and Thurbo Muscatel 2010. The Pussimbing was the only organic of the three teas. All the teas were 2nd flush from 2010 as the 2011 2nd  flush hadn’t even been plucked when I was there. The dry leaf looked really similar for all the teas. There was a mixture of dark brown and golden leaves with some tips mixed in. The leaves were fairly uniform in size with no broken pieces.  
The brews were such a beautiful orange/copper color and by chance were darkest to lightest from left to right. I was wowed, again by the Pussimbing. The flavor is typical Darjeeling with the muscatel zing, but this tea is overwhelmingly peachy tasting. I remember why I bought it. I had not tried the Castleton while I was in India, but it is typically one of my favorite estates so I bought a little and was not disappointed. The third, was the Thurbo. Had I not tried them side by side, this tea would have been perfect, but it was an also ran after tasting the others. I might try a little more than normal leaf when I brew the Thurbo next time since it was a little lighter than the rest.  

If you are interested in trying the three teas mentioned, either send me a comment or email me directly.  Quantities are limited!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

World Tea Expo in Las Vegas

I went to the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas at the end of June. I was really hoping that I would have been cupping the amazing teas I bought in India and China by now. But I got so many free samples of tea while at the expo, that I have been trying all of them.  

There were many different products available as well. My favorite things to look at are the teapots. There are many new one cup and multi-cup pots. There is no excuse not to drink loose tea with such simple and easy to use pots in such great designs!

I also found a fabulous booth selling American hardwood tea accessories. Typically the tea scoops I have found previously, were bamboo and didn’t really last very long due to cracking. This company was selling mostly tea scoops and tea baskets but each was handcrafted in Pennsylvania with solid wood which had no coatings, glues, plastics, or resins. Here’s the link to their web page which is a landing page only. You’ll still have to email them directly to get more information.

Another item I found is a tea gadget for holding your used tea. This will be perfect for me on long drives. I typically take loose tea with tea filters on road trips. This gadget called “squeezmo”, allows you to squeeze out the moisture (if you so desire). But better than that, it’s a place to store your tea until you drive up to another Starbucks and can get more hot water. They say the items are made of silicone and dishwasher safe. I guess they would also be handy if you happen to use tea bags and re-use them. It seems more efficient than wasting a lot of napkins or paper towels to soak up the moisture from your tea.  

My favorite booth to taste tea is always the ITI booth (International Tea Importers). They have some really good teas to sample. Plus the large draw is that James Norwood Pratt does several tea tastings a day. He’s so interesting and has amazing stories and tales to tell while sampling the teas.  

This year, I found a booth pouring some wonderful Taiwanese oolongs. They were the American Premium Tea Institute. Both days I was there they had Jade Oolong, Oriental Beauty, Bao Zhong, and Amber Oolongs flowing freely all day. If you stopped by for their short seminars, you got to taste some of their other oolong offerings. Plus during the seminars, Thomas (I think he may have been the owner) was really energetic. He would often start singing in the middle of his presentation.  

I think I am done sampling the teas from the expo and hope to cup some of my Indian and Chinese teas soon. It will be interesting to see if I still like them and if I can get them to taste the same as they did in Asia!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Travel Map

I finally got a chance to look at a map of India and China and put all my travel spots on a map. It's the first google map I created so any suggestions would be appreciated!

I was having problems uploading my photos to my computer. I took about 4000 (67 a day) which isn't too bad, but my computer didn't have enough space. I had to get some dvds made. More photos to come!,93.779297&spn=41.400751,79.013672&z=4

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Great Wall & Forbidden City

I thought we were hiring a private mini-van to take us to the Great Wall. But I soon found out we were taking a tour bus with Chinese tourists. We would leave at 8:30 and then hopefully get back at 4:30 or 5 because Sheree, Marcus, and Ilias were going to see a concert at 7:30.

There were two slightly disappointing things about this little excursion. The woman tour guide on the bus talked the entire time in Chinese on a microphone. She didn't let up the entire ride there. I'm sure she must have given a lot of useful information about the history of the wall. But I found it too loud and annoying.

What was even worse than this lady, if you can imagine, was that we would have to spend 90 minutes shopping and eating lunch (at 10:30 mind you). What a waste! I thought we were going to the Great Wall?

This happened the last time I was in China too. Sometimes they try to slip in these extra "bonuses" for the tourists. They are not welcome by all. If we wanted to buy jade we certainly wouldn't do it in this place, in the middle of nowhere. It was specifically set up on the highway as a tourist trap. The food was terrible and who could stomach it at 10:30. Everyone had just eaten breakfast.

Why not give 90 minutes extra at the Great Wall? If you want to eat there you can. There are plenty of restaurants. I can't believe anyone is going to buy the overpriced jade. Ok, enough of my rant!

Next stop was the Great Wall. It was convenient to go on the bus and hang out with my new friends, but unfortunately we would only have two hours at the Great Wall. That was my only regret.

Once we arrived, the quickest way was to take the chairlift up. The first part of the path was really crowded. There are people coming and going in both directions of the 10 foot wide path. The steps are really quite steep. There are also sections that have no steps and are just steep ramps up or down.

Once you get to the first tower the crowds thin out. It really is all uphill until you reach the tower. Then there is more room to spread out and take some photos. It was really a gorgeous setting in the mountains with this windy path wiggling through it. I guess it wasn't obvious to the Chinese back then that if someone really wanted to climb over the wall they could.

We were all wondering how far we
could walk in 2 hours. Ilias and I just took off. We wanted to get as far as we could and see where we would end up. The view just kept getting better. It actually seemed like we were doing a lot of downhill. Umm, this could be a problem on the way back.

There were a lot more of these sections with steep ramps. You literally have to hang on to the railing and pull yourself up with your arms because your feet cannot possibly climb at this angle without sliding. The stones are slippery and you could easily fall.

We passed a few more towers. At 1:30 I told Ilias I think I'm done. I will be slow on the way back as it's mostly uphill. He's like, I think we could go a little further. Ok, I knew I shouldn't have but I continued on with him anyway. This additional section was all downhill and we would be going uphill on the way back.

It was really nice walking around now. The crowds were gone and the wall was getting more interesting. But I guess, the next time I go, I will know that this is something you would want to hire a car for and spend the whole day here. Maybe even bring a picnic. The wall literally follows the topography of the mountains. That is why it is so steep in sections.

Ok, we got to our turn around spot. And yes, it was all uphill to start. Oh, I forgot to mention how hot it was today. I was carrying a fairly heavy bag as usual. I know the bag is my responsibility. Ilias offered to carry it for me. But I wouldn't allow him to. I did have to keep stopping at the real steep spots. It was ridiculously steep. I was so surprised every time I saw someone older than me. They were always the fearless Chinese.

Ilias was waiting for me again. This time he took my bag and he wouldn't accept no for an answer. He said we would have to go faster to make it back in time. He was still a bit ahead of me. Soon he got a pleasant surprise. There was a gentle breeze blowing and a young woman in front of him was on her cell phone. All of a sudden her entire skirt blew up in the air. He later said that she couldn't have been more than 2-3 feet away. I was further behind but I saw it all unfold as well. He said she was a little annoyed but kept talking on the phone to her friend. I guess she had tights on : )

Soon we ran into Michelle and Ariel. They hadn't turned around yet. Or maybe they were waiting for us. We all walked the rest of the way back together. We got in line for the chairlift ride back down at 2:15. The line was really long and didn't seem to be moving. We were supposed to be on the bus at 2:30. There would be no possible way this could happen.

We were finally off the chairlift and down at the parking lot by about 2:45. Now we just had to find our bus. There were only three large parking lots and hundreds of buses. Thank goodness Sheree called us. The bus was waiting for us. When Ilias told her we were really close she didn't believe him. Apparently she said our bus was at the end of the parking lot. But which end? I finally realized the buses closest to the chairlift had no people in them. It must be the other end. So we headed the other way.

By 3:00 we were on the bus again (of course the last to arrive) and we were off. I was glad there were 4 late arrivals-- two Chinese and two westerners.

There was no chitter chatter from the guide on the way home. I think everyone slept a little. They asked me if I wanted to join them at the concert and said there will probably still be tickets available. I said thanks anyway. I think I want to relax someplace with a pot of tea.

Michelle and Ariel were going to meet a college friend. When we got off the bus I thanked everyone for letting me hang out with them. I said I had such a great time and gave them my email to keep in touch.

Awh, it was still a fun day even with the crazy tour. But I had to get something to eat and get some tea. I snacked on the sesame sweet bread again on my way back from the hotel. This is the third day in a row I stopped at the same place and the vendor recognized me now.

Ariel gave me the names of two tea houses she knew of nearby. She said I should be able to just order tea and drink. No one should bother me. I asked at the hostel about these two places. One was closer than the other and the woman at the counter gave me directions to it.

I freshened up. I noticed Shirley had emailed me. She worked at my former company. She had just moved back to China last month after living in the US for 10 years. Her husband William just finished his masters degree. He would be coming back to China to join her in July. He worked at my former company as well.

I called her and told her I was at the Great Wall today. She asked me if I had plans for Tuesday and I said I would be leaving then, but could she meet tomorrow? We agreed to meet at 9 tomorrow and head to the Forbidden City. Oh, I am so glad I could coordinate with her.

I figured I would head over to the tea house. I took the subway. The woman at the front desk said it would be easier. It was literally 15 steps from when you got off the subway. But guess what, this shop only had tea sales and no tea house. Both stores on Ariel's list had multiple locations. I guess I must have picked the wrong one.

I figured out where I was on the map. There was only one thing to do. I headed to the Raffles Hotel. I saw it yesterday and knew it was nearby. They would have fabulous teas and they would let me sit and hang out all night if I wanted to.

What an oasis! This place was magnificent! I found my way over to the cocktail lounge. They had tea or alcohol. I got a pot of lung jing (dragonwell). I felt like it was time to have some green tea in China. I was missing it as I typically start my day with green tea.

The tea arrived with cookies! I just relaxed and hung out. I must have had close to three pots. My waitress kept coming by with more hot water. I decided to go for the decadent while I was here. Instead of ordering dinner I got three kinds of creme brûlée. The first was traditional, the second was chocolate, and the third was a lavender version. They were small tasting plates, but I hadn't had something this rich in two months. My body wasn't sure what to make of it. When the waitress came by with it she said this will make you fat and this will make you thin. It's a good balance. She was pointing to the dessert and the tea. I felt a little lonely. I missed the gang.....

On my way back I walked by Tienanmen Square. I still can't get over the amount of security and cameras. In some ways there is a lot more security in both India and China than in the US. For example to get on the subway you must put your bag through an xray in both countries. In the US we don't have to. I walked the rest of the way back to the hostel and went to bed.

The following morning, I decided to get breakfast at the hostel, I would probably be out for quite a while with Shirley and didn't know when we would have a chance to get a snack. So I got fried rice. I actually didn't mind rice for breakfast. It was way better than eggs for me.

She got there just after 9. She arrived with some tea and also some sticky rice. The rice was wrapped in leaves and there were also dates inside. This is typical fare for the dragonboat festival. I'm going to have to read a little bit more about this.

We tried to get a taxi to the Forbidden City. No luck. They almost laugh at you. I have never seen so many taxi drivers refuse fares as in Beijing. They won't take you if you are not going far enough.

I didn't mind walking. It was about 1/2 hour. Shirley noticed lots of changes just walking around Beijing. She had been gone for 10 years and this was her first time back in the Forbidden City. It must be weird to come back to a place after so long. She said she had been back in 2008 but only for a short time.

Walking in the Forbidden City is again walking with thousands of people. Anyone can get in the first section, but to go further back into the other courtyards, you must start paying. Then each building you want to go in, you have to pay 10 or more yuan.

We went into the Pottery Museum. There were so many amazing treasures. There were bowls, tea things, vases, urns, from way before Christ. We saw all the different styles of the Emperor's dress. We saw some of the most intricate and beautiful jewelry. We also saw the queen's jeweled crown. Then there was an area with large jade carvings. That was very impressive to see such intricate detail. We walked in a couple of the gardens.

I would say we spent at least 3 hours there. It started raining slightly on and off, but it actually felt nice. It was so humid today. Shirley wanted to take me for Peking duck but I had already been the other night. So instead we went for a Chinese hot pot. We took a taxi there. I think she somehow bribed the taxi driver to pay him double to take us to the restaurant. Otherwise we would be doing more walking.

The hot pot place was crowded as it was 1:30. I had no idea how to order but was hungry. I said I would try anything. So we got the hot pot for two people. They bring the pot with hot water and some onions and garlic already cooking. Once it starts boiling you can start feeding it. We had two greens--lettuce and a local Chinese green. Then we had noodles. We also had two kinds of lamb. We had tofu, beef intestine, and a mild white fish that unfortunately had tiny bones, but was really tasty. Then there were scallions and cilantro to season with. You were supposed to dip everything in the peanut sauce they give you.

We had some roasted peanuts, one lamb skewer each, and a sort of cabbage similar to kimchi. These were all foods to eat without the hot pot or sauce. We ordered some lung jing tea and we were off to the races.

You simply put everything in the pot. It was really good. You could keep grazing for hours. We did eat for a while. But at a certain point you can't eat any more. Shirley was able to get all the uncooked food wrapped up for dinner tonight. Then they brought out some sliced watermelon which was refreshing.

We decided to go to the silk market afterwards. It's not just for people in the market to buy silk. Basically you could get anything you wanted. But bargaining is essential. The only thing you had to worry about was that if it said Gucci or any other designer name it was probably a knock-off!

I did want to buy a silk dress. I had actually seen some more modern styles at the stores near my hostel. They were really expensive. I love the traditional Chinese style dresses but I knew I would never wear it. The silk market used to be outside the last time Shirley was there. Now it had moved indoors to more of a mall with 6 or more floors. Each vendor was crammed in to such a small space and the aisles were very narrow. Plus there were all these people calling to you, "lady". Come look at this. I saw a couple dresses I liked. But I didn't really find this shopping experience so fun. If it was earlier in the day, I think I would have had more energy. I told Shirley that maybe we should go. I also said she needed to get home to cook dinner.

Shirley said that once William got here and they selected the right schools for the kids she would focus on getting a job herself. Picking the right schools here is also difficult. She said her oldest was 7 and he excelled in English but was behind in Chinese. I asked her what she wanted to do for work, she said maybe teach English or work in finance which is what her degree was in. She said her job in San Francisco was something she had really enjoyed, so she hoped she could find something she liked here too.

William already had a job set up for when he arrived in China. It was a really great position for him and a nice career move.

I thanked her for a wonderful day and wished them luck. She was so generous with her time and I really enjoyed spending the day with her.

We each took the subway back and I got off first. She continued on the same line the whole way back. I walked by Tienanmen the last time. I got my last sesame bread. I had some tea in my room when I got back. It's just a nice relaxation thing now. I feel I have become more of tea addict then before if that is possible! I had given Shirley some green puerh to try. I hope she likes it.

I didn't have much to do tonight. The main things were to access the money situation. I needed at least 200 yuan to get to the airport by taxi. I could buy some tea at the airport if there was anything left. I also needed to have the hostel write down for me in Chinese that I wanted to go to the international terminal of the airport. I would have to drag my bags to the end of the walking street to get the taxi. They also told me I needed to know which terminal. It depended on the airline. I was at terminal 3 so they wrote that down too. They said it could take up to 90 minutes in the morning. I figured I would leave early and have breakfast at the airport. Then I wouldn't have to rush around.

My friend Ulla remembered that she offered to pick me up in SFO and emailed me to see if any of my plans had changed. I had forgotten about this. It would be nice to see someone I knew when I got back.

Then I just sat down with my sticky rice at the hostel and ordered a beer. Ariel sent me an email that she was worried about me being alone in Beijing. She told me about their 911 service (you dial 110). Funny I felt safer in India and China then I do in San Francisco! She also sent me the job listings at BMW at their new plant. What a sweetie! I would love an international job at this point in my life. Who knows?

So I couldn't believe my journey was coming to an end. Maybe it wasn't long enough? Just before I left I was a little nervous. I wondered if I should take this trip. Could I forget that I didn't have a job when I got back and really enjoy myself?

The countries and places I wanted to visit were not for everyone and I didn't even know if they were for me. It wasn't like going to Europe with the comforts of home and once and a while getting mistaken for a local. But I wasn't roughing it either. I hoped I could be open enough to meet people as I was traveling alone for the most part.

It was humbling to realize how many really generous people there are in this world. Not only with their time but with their knowledge. I still can't believe my day in Nannoushan? Did all of that really happen? Travel for me opens my mind and my soul. I like how I feel now without the day to day rushing around and stress. Hopefully I can carry this feeling with me.

I also learned that traveling and my real life must be so different. How did I meet so many interesting people? I met more people traveling in two months, than I have in the last 5-10 years. I think I am longing for and miss connecting with people at a certain level. Whether it be family or friends. I want more of a community in my life. That will be the hardest thing to achieve being back in the US, as people are many times too busy with their own lives. Either way, I will forever be searching for my own Shangri-la.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Summer Palace

I had asked the man at the front desk of the hostel which bus I should take to the Summer Palace last night. He said, don't take the bus, the subway is much faster. He circled the two places I would have to change lines. It would take about 40 minutes. Ok, it was a fabulous deal, for 2 yuan or $0.31.

I arrived at about 9:15. I knew it should be just a short walk from the subway. I simply followed all the people. It was Saturday, so what should you expect. I was later to find out it was a long weekend in China. Everyone had Monday off too. It was the Dragon Boat Festival. So it would be crowded through Monday everywhere I went.

There were two ticket prices 30 or 60 yuan. I paid the higher price. I figured, since I am here, I may as well see everything. There were so many beautiful temples, courtyards, and gardens. Plus it was on the Kunming Lake so there was water all around the place. The grounds were huge and very pretty. Remember this was just the emperor's "summer" palace!

I happened to be carrying my Lonely Planet guidebook since they don't give you a map with your ticket. I was trying to figure out where I was going and at this point it seemed to be easier to keep the book out to reference the map in it versus going in and out of my bag every 5 minutes.

I walked in a gallery that simply had local artwork. I saw a couple westerner guys with a Chinese woman. The one guy held up his Lonely Planet guide. We all started chatting. The two guys were working for BMW in Shenyang They had met the Chinese woman there shortly after they arrived. She was their built in translator. She worked in fine arts. They were all spending the weekend in Beijing. The guys were from Germany. Ilias was here for a two year assignment and had only arrived a few months ago. He was really into the Chinese culture and was actively trying to learn as much Chinese as was possible in the next two years. BMW had just built a new plant for all the newly rich Chinese who liked to buy their expensive toys. Ilias worked in logistics.

Marcus was here for about 6 weeks and would probably go back to Germany soon. But it sounded like if he wanted to stay here they would be happy to have him. He had some commitments in Germany. It sounded like he was torn between here and there. He told me that China had changed him. It would be hard to just go back to his normal life in Germany after living here for 6 weeks.

As it turned out, they invited me to join them. They were just hanging out at the Summer Palace today just like me. For Ilias, this was his second time to Beijing since he was in China. He showed me pictures of the last time he was in Beijing at the Great Wall. He visited in winter and it wasn't very crowded. He went to the Mutianyu section. You could just walk for as long as you wanted. He and the group he went with rented a minibus. He said it was great. They were going tomorrow to the Badaling section, and if I wanted I could join them. I said I would think about it.

We just all kept walking continuing on to the next section of the palace. Eventually we got to the lake and it was really pretty. Lots of people were on boats. You could either take the tourist boat or rent a paddle boat. Ilias really wanted to take a paddle boat. He said he and Marcus would paddle Sherrie and I around and we could just enjoy the views. We actually waited in line for a short time and once we realized the line wasn't moving very fast, we decided it wasn't worth it. We might have to wait more than an hour to just get a boat.

So the more I talked to Ilias, it turned out he had Greek and Italian parents, but he was born in Germany. So he was European, but didn't fit strongly in either of the three nationalities. He said he was a blend. He went to college in several different countries. He also spoke 4 languages fluently. He worked at Fiat most recently in Italy before accepting the job at BMW.

He was like me in that he really loved to travel and have new cultural experiences. Marcus on the other hand was more of a dreamer or romantic. He was really interesting and I found my conversations with him were at a deeper level. Sherrie was very playful. Obviously she was very smart. She spoke English and Chinese. Her studies were in art history but her favorite period was late 1800's and early 1900's. She really liked Dali a lot. I told her that I visited the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain and went to see his hometown in Port llgat. He was crazy and strange but so interesting.

At one point during the afternoon Sherrie bought bubbles. She was having the best time blowing bubbles, especially when the wind was blowing. We all eventually joined in and either would try to catch her bubbles, or blow them ourselves. It was really fun to watch what happened when other people saw the bubbles. Most times they would try to catch some too.

We worked our way to the end of the Summer Palace. Then Sherrie said we should go to this other park. I sort of was planning to go to the "old summer palace", but a park would be nice too. So we took a taxi there. I said I would still hang out. They were all very nice and very generous to let me tag along.

So it turned out that this park we went to was the old summer palace. Many places had been burned down by the English/French during the opium wars in the early 1900's. It became humorous to me that in every caption where there were ruins, the signs always indicated and blamed the two countries in violently destroying things during the opium wars. Maybe they did, but it just sounded so overly dramatic in the signs.

I found out that Marcus likes to hang out and relax. This totally fits the profile I had of him in my mind. He likes to see new things but when he gets there likes to just sit and enjoy. Not always continuing on to see the next thing but just enjoy the view or the present.

We had some funny conversations of our observances in China. Sometimes a tourist might think the Chinese are rude by going ahead in line for example. He said, they are not rude they are just in survival mode. There are so many people in this country, that the average citizen just acts on their own best interest. They are not maliciously trying to offend anyone. The same holds true for personal space. They get really close to you and just have a different comfort level of space than in western cultures.

At one point, it was really getting hot during the day. Some of the Chinese (men only), were lifting their shirts because they were hot. They were basically exposing their bellies. I think we walked by one man that in western cultures, would never expose his belly because he was fat. But he didn't care because he was hot! We both just giggled.

Same holds true for singing or dancing. The Chinese are not so fearful of what other people may think. If they feel like singing or dancing down the street they just do it. They don't worry that they might not be conforming to societal norms.

Some other random things I noticed are that cowboy hats are a big hit with the Chinese men here. I don't know if it's just a touristy thing and they are selling them at many locations I have been. But it is sometimes surprising and makes me laugh a little when I see them on Chinese. I mean even in the US, if you are going to wear a cowboy hat you better be a real cowboy and back it up with the cows, horses, and a ranch, etc.

We continued walking in the old Summer Palace to the ruins. There were sections that looked like ancient Greek and Roman ruins. These were parts destroyed by the English/French. But this section was not as old as it looked. It was built in the 1700-1800's.

Two of Ilias' colleagues were also in Beijing. This evening, they were all meeting for dinner. They were trying to coordinate. The co-workers were Chinese. Ilias would get the co-workers and then I would meet them nearby. We would all go out for Peking Duck.

This sounded good to me. I didn't have plans and they were all very nice to let me join them. So we took the subway back and agreed to meet at 7:30. Ilias and I exchanged phone numbers in case there was a problem or delay.

So closer to 8:00 everyone finally had arrived. We just had a short walk to the restaurant. When we got there, they said it was a 20-30 minute wait. We were all so hungry. I had eaten breakfast, but they had really only had coffee and some snacks during the day.

Finally our table was ready. It was less then 20 minutes. It was funny, because, there wasn't a bar area to wait for your table. There were chairs lined up in rows almost as if you were at the movie theatre. That's where you were to wait patiently.

So when we got the menus, we couldn't decided whether we should get 1/2 or a full duck. Again, we had Sherrie as our translator. We had to pick a few other dishes too. We were really so hungry. Finally we decided on a full duck. We ordered some tea and veggie, mushroom, and tofu dishes too. Finally our food came. I feel bad because Ariel and Michelle, Ilias' co-workers, must have been shocked by all the food we ate. They were finished eating in 10-15 minutes. The rest of us ate for a good 30-40 minutes straight until all the food was gone. We walked a lot today!

So after we finished we tried to get a taxi for the "bar street". Cabs don't always want to take you certain places as we found out. We waited and tried bargaining. No one wanted to take us there. Ilias and the girls got a taxi first. We said we would follow ASAP. We got one too eventually.

This "bar street" area is so huge. There is a small lake and then
bars for miles. It's unbelievable! We walked off dinner a little trying to find a place to go. I think Sherrie had a place in mind that she wanted to try so we let her lead. There were so many people out drinking and around walking. Lots were westerners but also lots of Chinese tourists and some locals too. Sherrie wanted to be at a place to see and be seen.

Marcus and her went in an Indian shop for about 15-20 minutes. It seemed like the prices were really high compared to what the same things cost in India. While we were waiting we saw some shisha places. Ilias asked the girls if they ever tried that. They said no. I always refer to them as girls because they were 22 or 23. It turns out that Sherrie and Ilias were only a month apart in age and Marcus and I were born in the same year. Yes, our group spanned three decades.

Finally they came out of the store with no purchases. We asked them if they wanted to do some shisha. I guess they had never done it before either. Only Ilias and I were experts. We each had done it twice!

So we continued looking for a place with the coolness factor but also with shisha.

We came to a section of the road that was getting narrower and less people were around. Should we turn around? There was a shisha place that had a large table for us just upstairs. They had comfortable couches too. We ordered apple tobacco and the pipe came with three tubes for smoking. Everyone got their own plastic cover to use to smoke. We also ordered some beers. Sherrie got us a discount. We would get 12 beers for the price of 6. That was still quite a rip off considering the beer was 40 each ($6 for 12 ounces). I had been used to paying 6 yuan ($1 for 16 ounces) in Xishuangbanna.

So for the uninitiated, the apple tobacco goes on top of the pipe and they light it. Then there is water at the bottom. As you smoke, the water bubbles and the smoke comes to your mouth and your lungs, should you choose to inhale. Ilias was a show off with the smoke. The girls couldn't get any smoke in their mouths at first. Marcus was just happy to be relaxing. Everyone liked the apple flavor.

I don't even know what we talked about that evening. I felt so comfortable hanging out with them. Ilias was trying to get the girls to open up a little bit. He wanted them to try new experiences and not be so shy. This evening might do it. He said their office in China is so different than the one he worked at in Italy. It would be nice if they all went out after work from time to time.

So eventually we all turned in. Ilias went with the girls. It took a while to get a taxi for me. Unless the taxi driver knows exactly where the hotel is for a foreigner, they don't even want to be involved. I produced not only the name of the hostel in Chinese but also the map so he could see it was near the main part of town.

Finally he agreed. Marcus and Sherrie took a taxi after I was situated. We all agreed to meet at 7:30 am for the Great Wall.

I didn't get home until about 1 and then by the time I got to bed and got organized for tomorrow, it was 1:30. Yeah, exactly 5 hours to sleep.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

En route to Beijing

My flight to Kunming was delayed by about half and hour to forty-five minutes. When I arrived, I was glad to see a familiar face. Vikki greeted me there. We had last seen each other about three weeks ago. She was my guide in Kunming. I looked at her and she looked different. She got her haircut into bangs. It looked very nice and I told her so. She said she had a large face and forehead so that she needed some bangs to cover that.

She told me I should make sure I ate some food when we arrived at the hotel. She said she thought I had lost some weight in the last month. We talked about pick-up tomorrow. My flight to Beijing was at 8 am but I wanted to be sure I didn't miss it. So she said she would be there at 6:15. Vikki said she would have the hotel pack me a small breakfast. That would be perfect.

I had my customary tea when I arrived in Kunming and finally finished the Makaibari. I can't wait to drink all my new teas when I get back too!

I headed out towards the Green Lake area. I was thinking about eating at the veggie restaurant I tried three weeks ago. But when I walked by, the entire restaurant staff was in a meeting. I kept walking and got a piece of the green onion pancake at a tiny street vendor. That should hold me over until I can get more food.

I walked a different way to Green Lake. It was dark by now. The lake looked pretty with the lights. It had rained a lot during the day, but now it had stopped and the temperatures were cool. It was quite a difference from the weather in Xishuangbanna.

I couldn't decide where to eat as there are so many places around the university area. At first a small cafe looked interesting, then Salvador's, then I past Ganesh's Indian cuisine. That was the spot. They had veggie samosas then I ordered aloo mateer with naan.

I headed to Salvador's for a beer afterwards. There is always an ex-pat crowd there. I sat outside. I just typed away in my journal. I felt socially unsocial if that's possible. I wanted to be out and about but didn't necessarily want to talk to anyone. I just didn't want to be locked up in my room. I hung out there until I finished about 2/3 of the beer then left. It must have been close to 11 when I reached the hotel. I went to bed shortly since I had to get up so early for my flight to Beijing.

Vikki was waiting for me when I got downstairs at just before 6:15 am. She got my breakfast, she got the deposit back, and we were off.

The airport was close by but it was crowded. We got there and waited in line about 15 minutes. Then when I got up to the counter the woman didn't know what to do with the paper ticket. She sent us to another line.

That line was shorter and the man knew exactly what to do. This is a heads up to Travelocity. Why are you issuing paper tickets in 2011? Just because the flight was outside the US? There was an additional cost for you to fedex the tickets to me, plus in both India and China, no one at the airline knows what to do with them anymore. Other tickets I booked for travel within India on the airline website or through my travel coordinator in China were etickets.

So we got to security and then as is customary, I have to fill out the survey for the guide with my hands full of luggage and in front of them. I'm glad I built in extra time today. I really liked Vikki and she wished me well when I returned home.

We were delayed about 30-45 minutes to Beijing. I had a lot of clothes on as has been my regular travel outfit. I have to wear the hiking boots each time I get on a plane or train because there's no room in my luggage for them. Of course, today it was warm in Kunming.

They started boarding and got us all in the bus that takes you to the plane. They packed us in like sardines. Then they didn't have air conditioning, and made us wait about 20 minutes on the bus. The combination of the warm clothes, carrying my heavy bags, and the heat, almost made me faint. I was really close. I was leaning my head in my arms bent over. At one point, I even bent down. I figured if I really did faint, I would be closer to the ground this way. Eventually we started moving and maybe the a/c kicked in. I was ok, temporarily.

As soon as we got to the plane, we would have to wait in line and climb up the stairs and onto the plane. I was on the opposite side of the bus where the plane was. So I would literally be the last one off. I took my time, because there would be less time holding the bags. I knew I could do this.

I was the last off, but people were sort of milling about, taking pictures, etc. I definitely maneuvered towards the front of the line here. I slowly handed my boarding pass to the attendant, then climbed the steps. The plane was cool and my seat was in the front, thank goodness. I threw my bag in the overhead. When I sat down I turned the vent on full blast. I made it! I was lucky. I hadn't memorized the words in Chinese for "Help, I feel sick and may faint!"

The flight was 2 1/2 hours and I was fine. Arriving in Beijing, the driver from 365 hostel was there and dragged my bags for me. The weather was warm here too. The drive was around 45-60 minutes. When we got close to the hostel we passed Tienanmen and the Forbidden City. It was a great location. The driver went as far as he could because the hostel was on a walking street. Then he called the hostel and someone came to help me the rest of the way. It took about 5 minutes.

This was a perfect place for me. Thanks Rob! I checked in and the room was simple and clean. The only problem was there was no a/c. Oh well, you can't have everything. I quickly changed and headed out. A new city excited me and my fainting bout was over. I had some fried rice at the restaurant in the hostel. I wanted some food in my stomach before heading out.

This restaurant/bar is quite the scene. People from this hostel and other travelers (mostly western) somehow find this place. It was rated at #8 best hostel in the world in April 2011! Wow, I felt honored to be a guest here. Had I not booked early, it would have been sold out.

However easy it would have been to just hang out, I had things to do. Tiananmen was on my list today. I only wanted to do four things while here. The others being the Summer Palace, Great Wall, and Forbidden City.

It was about a 1/2 hour walk although I thought Tienanmen Square seemed closer when driving from the airport and looking on the map. They have such long boulevards. Plus when you get to the corner, usually it's faster and safer to just cross underneath the street. But that involved walking down and up stairs. There is so much security here. This includes police, cameras, plain clothes officers, and police patrolling on bikes. Plus you must put your bags through xray to get to the square. Quite different than 1989 around this same time of the year.

From the square as you look at the Forbidden City, a huge portrait of Chairman Mao is on the building. It for me was quite fascinating to really be here. This is a place with such history.

The hostel gives you two great maps. One is the local neighborhood and highlights. The other is the subway map. Using their map I easily found an ATM. I also noticed two tea houses on the map. I went to the famous Laoshe Teahouse.

Wow is this place amazing! They have all sorts of performances here too. The 2nd floor of the building was just tea. There was a place to purchase tea and some amazing private rooms to go drink tea. I went in the tea shop. I hadn't tried any Lung Jing (dragonwell) yet this season. It's proabably the most well known Chinese green tea. I had visited the region where it is grown when I was in China 6 years ago. I asked one of the workers who spoke a tiny bit of English if I could try three teas around the same price. So he told the woman making the tea that is what I wanted to do and showed her the three teas.

The first two were nice. The first smelled really buttery. The second smelled more nutty. I liked the second one better. She didn't really seem to want to make me the third. But she did. It was a little higher quality. I had already explained to the first man that helped me, I only wanted to try the teas. So even though she was trying the hard sell with me, I asked the man to write the names down and I would come back later.

I really wanted to go in that fabulous tea room and have tea. But it was set up for groups. There were pictures of famous dignitaries that had visited China and come here. There were all sort of pictures of former president George Bush there. I didn't know if it was he or Barbara that liked tea, but they also have visited Ten Ren in San Francisco's Chinatown.

I left and went back to the hotel. I had done quite a bit of walking and the weather was hot just like Xishuangbanna. I had to take a nap.

When I woke up I was rejuvenated. It was getting dark but I walked down the main street by my hostel to a large tourist shopping area. There were silk stores, food stores, restaurants, tea shops, etc.

This area opened up to Qianmen Da Jie walking street. I got some bread with black sesame seeds. It was pretty sweet but I wanted a little snack. It was nice to be walking around. These shops were mostly clothing stores and it was a wide boulevard with many people. I walked for a little over an hour.

When I went back to the hostel, I asked if there was a community room where I could hang out. I didn't necessarily want to eat or drink. They said it was no problem to sit at the restaurant. If it got busy, maybe I should buy something but right now it was only half full. It was around 10pm on Friday night.

So I hung out. I chatted with a guy from the US that was working in Abu Dhabi. He said he lived in SF for a while. He went to graduate school at Berkeley. He is an urban planner and is working on the zero emission city. It was very cool to chat with him. He was really smart and we had similar views on politics and the environment. He said he was on a 10 day holiday. He was leaving for North Korea tomorrow for 4 days before heading back.

North Korea? Whoa, did I hear that right? Yes, he said the only way you can go there is if you have an organized tour booked. He said he was ready for all the propaganda. He was sure they would tell him about 5-10% true statements. The rest would be complete fiction.

He also explained that there is a/c in the rooms. He said there were two remotes when you walk in the room. One was for the tv and the other was for the a/c. I thanked him immensely for that tidbit!!!!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Last days in Xishuangbanna

I almost felt like canceling the guide today. I couldn't imagine that it would be more interesting or fun than yesterday. I had previously asked if my guide could take me to Nannoushan instead of the Hani village two days ago. He told me it was impossible. It would cost a lot more money, we were going to have a different driver, etc.

The way I left it was that I would contact my travel coordinator in Shanghai if I wanted to make a change.

Because the stars had been aligned, somehow I was able to do this on my own. So I never contacted Shanghai. Tony asked me how my day was. I said I met a friend and went to the tea trees yesterday in Nannoushan.

He was surprised. He said we could go there today if I wanted. I said I went yesterday? Today we were going to the Hani village and the tea plantation. I said my friend might be joining me, could we please wait 5-10 minutes. Nikita never came, so we left.

He told me that we would go to the Hani village there first. They had a market. Then we would go to the tea plantation. The Hani people had homes similar to the Dai. The downstairs was for the animals and the upstairs was the living quarters. The men and women had two separate fireplaces in their houses too. The men's fireplace was for entertaining his friends and making tea. The woman's was for cooking. In addition the man got to sleep on the bed and the woman had to sleep on the floor.

There are different villages where Hani people live. Tony told me it is based on religion. In this village the people believed in animism. There were other villages where the people were Muslims or Christians.

Then we drove a little further to Menghai and went to the local market. We stopped off for about 45 minutes and then we were heading to the tea plantation.

When we arrived at the tea plantation it was nothing like other tea plantations I had ever seen. It looked like we were at a theme park again. But this time all the people were missing. There was a huge gate and ticket booth. And you could tell there was probably a lot of tea growing on the land. It was very interesting. So Tony went to buy the tickets.

Little did I know that this was a tourist trap and not a Tea Plantation where you could actually see the tea being made. If the tea was being made here it was far from where, me, the only tourist, could see.

If you didn't know anything about tea, the history of the tea horse road, it was all explained in English and Chinese. You could walk along at your own pace and look at the replicas of the Han Chinese houses during that time or Merchants homes. Or you could look at the stones they used to make the puerh cakes.

All of this was a re-creation. They also had a fictious examples of some Tibetan temples and a re-created section of the tea horse road. They did have a lot of cultivated tea bushes all around so if you never saw those before you could see the tea plants. There was also a section where they grew black or red tea. The leaves were different.

We saw a man sorting through and removing the stems from some tea that had been made from tea trees. I asked Tony if we could see those trees. He said no. What was even more ridiculous was the area where you could taste the tea was not even open. I was just sort of laughing to myself. So we left. He asked me if I wanted to a local tea house and taste tea. But I told him that I could do that on my own in Jonghong City. So we went back to the town.

On my itinerary, it says "this client is interested in tea and wants to see real tea plantations". Obviously he was not listening to anything I had to say. He did not understand English very well. But either way, he did not get the message.

To be honest, I didn't really care. I was glad to have the rest of the afternoon free and all day tomorrow free. We organized pick up to the airport for 10 am in two days.

I went to the section of town known affectionately as tea alley. It was where we tasted tea the other night and right behind MeiMei. I didn't know if I wanted to taste tea or what. I walked in a shop that had tea stuff and not just tea. I was looking for a ceramic tea strainer.

They actually had some there. I was looking at one. Then I walked over to the tea table. The woman making tea actually spoke English. I sat down and had some tea. I asked about the sheng cha and if she had any from Yi Wa (my new favorite place). She said she did. She said the Yi Wa this year is expensive. We first tried the 2010. We drank it for a while. She said there was a Russian guy in here (I couldn't figure out if she said yesterday or today). But he showed her the google translate page on her computer. She had a computer right next to the tea table and she checked something on it. Her computer had speakers so it translated and said the English words very loud, but with a Chinese accent. Funny!!!

So I asked if we could drink the 2011 Yi Wa. It was a lot softer and tasted more like green tea than puerh. I wasn't quite interested in buying any of the tea, just the strainer. So I took off.

I went over to Mekong Cafe for dinner afterwards. It was an early dinner. I was hungry and it had just stopped raining. I had a beer and spicy fried eggplant with rice. The beer is 6 yuan (less than $1 for 500 ml). I mean you can't beat the price. Tea is too expensive so it's better to drink it for free at the teahouses or drink it in my hotel room. I went to the hotel and did just that. I wrote and drank tea.

I woke up and I had a free day. I have been enjoying the buffet breakfasts at the hotel. I try to get there before 7:30. Otherwise it's picked over. Today, was the smallest amount of people, but the food was totally picked over. I always get the fried rice. They typically have 4 or so veggie entrees. Then every once in a while the meat dish is good. Today was a dai fish dish. Even having to pick out the bones was worth it. I always get papaya or watermelon. Then there are some sweets but in China they typically are not too sweet. I fill up so much so I don't have to stop for lunch. But this way, it's usually an early dinner.

I wanted to head over to the new bridge over the Mekong River. Supposedly restaurants, cafes, shops, and bars line this side of the river. I walked over there and it didn't take much more than 10-15 minutes. I was surprised.

Down past the new bridge there were mostly bars. Then I headed under the bridge and walked a little towards the old bridge. I saw a small motorized boat cruising along the river towards the Dai village I had seen on the first day. That looked fun. It was so hot out.

I kept walking. It looked like there were more shops and restaurants instead of just bars on this side. I saw a group of three young guys get out of a taxi here. I was wondering what was here for them. Nothing was going on by the river at this time of the day. There was also a young couple walking. They headed down the stairs too. I checked out what they were doing and they were both going on those motorized boats along the river. I went down to check out the price. It's a one hour cruise down the river and then you get a ride back in a car. They give you plastic bags for your stuff that could possibly get wet or damaged. I asked the woman that spoke a little English if I could have her hold some of my things. She said as long as there is no money inside.

So I just did it. That was a spontaneous decision??? I got my ticket and they handed me a life jacket and a couple plastic bags, one for my purse and the other for my shoes. Next I walked down the path to the boat. They were already on it and were waiting for me. There were five on the boat. I squished in between. Then we were off. It more closely resembled tubing. There are two tubes roped together and enclosed in a seaworthy raft with a motor. Each person sat on one of the tubes. There were hand holds and foot holds. The driver sat in the back. We started off slow until we navigated underneath the bridge and then we went pretty fast. It was definitely way cooler than being out in the hot sun walking. I wondered how far we would go. It was a different view of the city and river this way. At about 20 minutes into the trip we went ashore towards the right side. There was a tiny little hut on the beach. We all had to get off the boat and check out the hut. There was a woman there selling some jewelry and other stuff. Then she had mango and some other fruit that we could eat. The three young guys were goofing off in the sand on the beach. The rest of us were biding time until we could get back in the boat. It started sprinkling a little bit. But it felt nice. We got back on the boat and then the ride ended shortly afterwards. We all got out. I was starting to take my life jacket off like everyone else. The driver motioned for me to get back in the boat and to put my life jacket on. I didn't get it. Why was I getting back in the boat and everyone else was getting a shuttle car ride?

The driver was adamant. One of the young guys said to me "Go". So I got back in the boat and put my life jacket back on. I went to sit in my original seat and he had me sit on the other side. Ah, so maybe he needed someone to sit in the boat on the way back so it wouldn't flip. That is the only thing I could think of. It started raining now, and had cooled off some, but it was still sort of fun being in the boat with only the driver. This was certainly a lesson in trust. A larger boat passed us and I braced myself for the large wake. It was very wavy. Then the driver slowed down until the waves stopped. He was definitely going faster than he had with all the people. We were to the dock in no time at all. We probably beat the others as well.

That was a fun little afternoon. It was so random. I was walking back along the river and walked by a tea house. There were about 4 or 5 people drinking tea. They said hello so I walked in. They poured me a cup of tea. I said sheng cha? They smiled and shook their heads, yes.

One of the guys spoke a little English. He was asking the typical questions of where are you from, are you alone, are you married, how long are you here?

I feel like I should have made up cards before I left with a short little bio. It would have been helpful in English, Chinese, Hindi, and Nepali. Then everyone could read your info first. After a while it does sound like a broken record when you are telling your story.

I had to get to the bank this afternoon too. The Bank of China was about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. I had been looking for one on the way back from the river but there weren't any.

I got to walk by a new area of town. I stopped in a lot of tea shops. This time I was looking for gaiwans and clay tea pots. I didn't see anything worth buying. I really wish I could carry one of these tea trays back. They are gorgeous but very heavy.

I went to MeiMei tonight. I got potatoes and carrots in a curry sauce. It was definitely the Thai curry versus the Indian curry. I of course got a beer too.

As I was finishing up my beer I met an American from Boston. She was working at Babson College for 9 years and had an MBA. She decided to take a year off to travel in Asia. She had just arrived in China and would have two months to spend here. She had already been to China to see the large cities several years ago. She was planning to spend time in the smaller towns this time. She had already been traveling for 10 months. I asked her what that was like. She said there are good days and bad days. She said she had some friends meet her at different points along the way. She said every week she took one day off to just hang around, relax, and read.

We exchanged a few stories. I told her I was going to go drink some tea this evening but before that I had to pick up a dress. They didn't accept US credit cards and I finally had cash. I told her she was welcome to join.

I liked one of the Yi Wa teas I tried a few days ago at the teahouse. I wanted the woman to re-pour them so I could buy one. Since the woman didn't speak English, I gave Lynn a quick lesson in tea as we were drinking it. She had not had puerh tea before.

She poured one Yi Wa and this one smelled very floral to me. Then she poured the 5 year old fermented tea from bamboo that had gone bad. This was just for Lynn to compare a good and bad tea, but also a taste a fermented one. She wanted me to sit in the tea making chair and practice making tea (while she played a little marjong in the other room). I practiced for awhile and then she checked back in from time to time.

Then she came back to sit down. She poured the 2011 Yi Wa. That was still loose and not in cake form. It smelled like perfume. It was so floral. I had to buy a little of that.

Then she poured the other Yi Wa from the other night. This one was more spicy versus perfumy. After the first couple of steepings it became more complex. I liked it better than the first one. I bought a cake of this too.

It seemed like she wanted us to try more teas. I told her no, it wasn't possible in my best hand motions. I was tired. Lynn had tea overload. She pulled a liquid out from underneath the counter. She cleaned some new cups for us. She poured a small amount in the cups. It was thick. We smelled it. It smelled like sugary, tea whiskey. Sure enough. But it was so sugary. She motioned we should drink this and then we could have more tea. We drank a little but we didn't want want tea at this point. We communicated that we couldn't drink more tea. Then she poured our left over tea into the thick mixture. That tasted nice. It was now slightly more diluted and warm. She also made me a plastic bottle of the tea I just purchased to take with me. We thanked her and then left.

I wished Lynn a fabulous two months in China and whatever lies ahead for her. She wished me the same.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Quest for the King of Tea Trees

So just a little after 8:30 Nikita and I arrived at the tea shop. We walked over to MeiMei to sit down and set the plan. He told me he got up late this morning. He only had time for either meditation or food. He said he chose meditation. He ordered a hot chocolate.

I showed him on the map where we needed to go. Then I showed him the Chinese and English writing the woman did for me at Mekong last night. We both sort of assumed we would take the bus towards Menghai and get off in Nannuoshan.

I told him there were two bus stations. I thought we would need to go to the short distance bus station. The long distance bus station was just a little bit further if we were at the wrong one. So after he finished his hot chocolate, we started walking. He picked up a few bananas on the way. I told him I had some in my bag.

The walk seemed longer than I thought. We asked a few people and we kept getting sent different directions. So we hopped in a taxi. He showed the driver the place on the map which also had the Chinese and English words. I paid for the taxi.

We were there in no time. He bought the bus tickets and showed the woman at the ticket counter the name of Nannoushan in Chinese. It was 15 yuan each and the bus was leaving in fifteen minutes. The woman at the gate motioned for us to sit in the chair next to her. I ran off to the restroom. When I got back, Nikita said our bus was here and we could board. We sat in the two closest seats to the driver. Once the driver got on, Nikita showed him my paper showing Nannoushan in Chinese. He shook his head, yes. We hoped he would tell us when we were there.

I figured it would be at least a 1/2 hour so I looked at the scenery, but every once in a while closed my eyes. After 1/2 hour, I paid close attention. I could tell this was now tea grown in the hills and no longer rubber. We were climbing higher as well. At around 45 minutes, the driver announced Nannoushan. We were the only two that got out. It was 10:30.

So even though it was unspoken, Nikita would be the communicator for the most part. I was the picture taker, communicator helper, one to notice when communications were going wrong, and logistics???

Nikita had a Russian/Chinese phrasebook so he would do better with communications anyway. I only had my three Chinese words where I wanted to go, but they were key.

There were several small vendors selling things at the side of the road. So Nikita showed an older Chinese woman the word Banpolaozhai in Chinese. I can't remember if I asked him to find out the distance. But the question was asked. It sounded like it would be 6 kilometers. She pointed to the road just behind where she was standing. It looked like it went over the highway and then who knows where. We took it.

It had rained in Jinghong City the previous night. Here in Nannoushan, it was higher up in the mountains but was still very misty. The sun was definitely not out and we were glad. It would have really been hot. The road we were on was concrete but was going uphill. Every once in a while someone would go by on motorcycle or less frequently in a car. They just sort of stared at us.

The first sign of tea bushes was exciting even if they were the cultivated variety. We went to examine them. We were in a sub-tropical forest. There were so many plants around. We saw banana trees, flowers, bamboo trees, other kinds of fruit trees, etc.

All of it was covered in this deep mist. We could hear cars and motorcycles coming up or down the road, way before we could see them. We kept climbing. We got to a group of workers on the road. They were putting cement on a different section of the road that was dirt. Nikita asked what looked like the foreman, if we were still on the right path. He pointed up the hill. He did add one direction. When we come to an intersection, we should bear to the left. This was all done through sign language, body language, and his hands. We kept climbing.

We came to our first crossroads, a small village, and stayed to the left. Shortly afterward, we passed by a house where construction work was going on. Just after that, Nikita spied another house that actually looked like it had a tea shop attached. We peeked in. There was a room for tea tasting with a small amount of puerh cakes lining the walls. In the room next door, were huge bags of tea ready to be sold or made into tea cakes. We didn't know. There was also some tea drying outside.

We went in the room set up for tea tasting. The owner appeared and sat down. He made us some tea. It was nice to sit for a while. We had already walked 1 1/2 hours and probably needed a break.

We tried sheng cha, which is the green puerh. It is not fermented so the liquor is light colored. The owner's friend came to sit down and drink tea. The owner could tell we knew a little something about tea. We told him we were going to see the old tea trees. And of course we knew the difference between sheng cha and shou cha. Between the four of us there was some Russian, English, and Chinese spoken. But it felt like we were communicating in the same language. Since Nikita had a phrasebook, he was able to tell them our nationalities.

He also tried his plastic card with them to see if they would taste any difference. The two guys seemed to think it was some sort of voodoo magic and they weren't buying it. They didn't think there was any difference with and without the plastic card.

I always feel guilty in these situations wondering if we should pay for tea or buy something. I told Nikita this. He said not to worry. He asked me if I had ever given people tea for free. I said, of course, all the time. Then he just shrugged his shoulders. He said, they don't expect anything.

So after a little more than half hour, we were off again. The tea shop owner pointed that we should still continue on the same road, uphill of course. We thanked him and said goodbye. We happened upon a tiny little store and I bought Nikita and I some water. I wish we would have bought some snacks, but there was nothing besides packaged foods and we had no clue what would be inside.

We kept climbing. Shortly afterward we came to another village and a crossroad. We kept climbing on the main road and it was still upwards. All along, we were looking for tea trees versus the cultivated bushes. We were definitely starting to see some wild tea. We just had no idea how old the trees were. It was still thrilling. Here we were in China, the original place tea was discovered, and we were so close to the hundred year old trees.

Tea was discovered accidentally. Shen Nung was in the forest naming and eating various plants around 4000 years ago. Sometimes the plants or roots he ate made him sick. One day a tea leaf fell in his pot. He felt energized. He found that when he ate something bad for him, this tea plant would make him feel better.

Nikita and I talked about picking some tea on way back down and just brewing it unprocessed to see what it tasted like. We both thought it would be a good experiment. I noticed that there was no one out in the forest picking tea. I could see lots of plants that were awaiting picking, now that I was an expert plucker : )

We came to another house. A young guy was on the roof sorting tea or removing stems or both. We asked about the tea trees again. He pointed down the road. He had a bench outside his house. We sat on it. I had two bananas in my bag that had gotten squishy. I asked Nikita if he wanted one. We both ate one. The young guy came off the roof and motioned for us to come in his home. He had the tea table and chairs just inside. We sat down. We had been walking for three hours now. It was still all uphill.

He had two kinds of tea in bags on his table. We smelled both of them. He made the first one which was a sheng cha. It was very light colored green tea. To be honest, I liked the other guys tea that we tried about an hour ago better.

His mother or mother in law was in the room doing embroidery. His wife was in and out. So was his son who was about 1-2 years at the most.

We drank this tea for a little while. Nikita was really interested in the other tea he smelled. It didn't smell like puerh and he was trying to see what it was. It turned out that it was black tea or red tea as they call it in China. It was good and we both liked it better than the first tea. It seemed to both of us that it was rare to find this kind of tea in these parts. Nikita said he had some friends in Russia that would like the tea and he thought he would buy some. He also tried the little plastic trick with this farmer and he wasn't buying it either. The puerh tea had already gotten watery/soupy tasting to me. Soon the red tea would go too.

Nikita told the farmer that he wanted to buy some. I think the farmer was honored that we liked it that much to buy it. He shook his head saying he couldn't buy any. There was absolutely no way he would accept money but he gave us both two baggies full of tea. He wrote the tea name and his phone number on a piece of paper. He inserted one in each bag. His son had been so shy at first. Now he was playing with his fathers hat and being sort of a ham for us.

So we were thinking of maybe going a little further on the road to see which way it ended up. We were almost to the very top of these hills and it seemed like this road was starting to go downhill.

We were getting ready to go and the farmer was heading out with us. I had put my hat on a long time ago as well as bug repellent. Now I was putting on suntan lotion.

The three of us started walking. We weren't really sure if he was taking us back to Nannoushan or pointing us in the right direction of the tea trees. Or maybe there was some short cut we would have missed. We were already off the concrete path and on a dirt road.

We walked by a lot of wild tea trees. At one point he was pointing that all these were wild. I wrote on my paper 100, 300, 500? I was just trying to get an idea so we would know how to identify the age.

I think he said they were like 30 year old trees. Ok, well at least that was a starting point. I didn't care really how old the trees were. I had walked all day in the forest with tea trees and drank teas that farmers made by hand in these forests. It was a pretty good day!

Well, soon enough we were off the dirt road and on to a path in the forest. We kept walking. We would go up and then we would go down. This was either a crazy short cut to Nannoushan or it was possibly to show us some older trees he knew about in the forest.

Eventually he pointed to a tree and Nikita said he thought he heard him say it was 300 years old. Amazing!!!! We kept walking and there was a blue sign on the next tree he pointed to. Our farmer told us it was 800 years old. Wow! We stopped to look at it. I touched the tree and the leaves and took some pictures.

So everyone who lives in this area must know where this tree is. How naive we were thinking that we would ever find this tree on our own. We kept walking in the forest. It was sprinkling a little bit and I had put on my rain jacket. We walked a little more maybe 10-15 minutes and then came to a little hut. Just beyond the hut was the 1000 year old tea tree. It was fenced off and had a few pieces of bamboo propping it up in spots. There was also a blue sign in Chinese. I was so excited and thrilled. When we got to the tree a woman appeared and she invited us to her hut for some tea. Her tea was made from this 1000 year old tree.

She also brought us some snacks as Nikita was starving. We had walked just over 4 hours now. First she found some cookies and brought some cold rice and bread. Then later she cooked up some greens for us. We ate the greens and then drank some of the water from the greens as soup.

She kept pouring us tea. It smelled and tasted a little different for both of us. We asked how much it was and we both bought some. I mean how could we not? Our friend that brought us here was probably just as excited for us that we were here as we were excited about being here. Everyone was smiling and happy and drinking good tea and some how communicating with our facial expressions even without saying a word. All four of us loved tea and we were all drinking together.

So eventually we knew we would have to leave. Plus it was past 3:30 and we still had to figure out how to get down the mountain. It had started raining pretty heavily now. The path would be slippery and wet. At first I just put my rain jacket on and gave my umbrella to Nikita and our friend. Then the trail got too narrow. Our friend broke two huge banana leaves off the plant. It was probably 8 inches wide and over a foot long. There was a bend in the plant that made it have a tent shape. They gave me the umbrella back and each used the plant leaf as an umbrella. We walked up and down. Then mostly down. I sort of wondered where we would end up.

Eventually after about an hour, we got to a crossroads. The cement path was going in two directions. We had just crossed a gate with a wooden sculpture of a woman. It was the sign for one of the villages we passed earlier. I took a picture of the sign on the way up.

From here to the bottom took us about 1 1/2 to 2 hours on the way up the hill. It would take us less than that on the way down. Nikita again tried to give our friend some money. He would not accept it. We thanked him again for a day Nikita and I knew we would remember the rest of our lives.

The farmer walked up the hill and we walked down the hill. It had stopped raining by now. As soon as he left all I could say to Nikita is that I feel like I should kiss you or something. What just happened? Was that a dream?

We would have been happy just walking on this road several hours earlier. Just walking amongst what we knew were a mixture of old and young tea trees. The two tea tastings we had along the way, sure added to the pleasure, but both Nikita and I knew there was no way we would find these trees on our own.

The day just kept getting better. I don't think there was anything we could have done. We were somehow both supposed to see the old trees today. The entire circumstances that we came together and even met were weird. I told Nikita that if I was by myself I don't know if I would have had the same results. I said maybe he would have found his way to the tea trees on his own, but I don't know if I would have.

On the way down, we saw a lot of the same people we saw on the way up and asked for directions. Did the smiles on our faces indicate what we saw today? Maybe. They recognized us and we said thank you in Chinese and tried to express our humblest gratitude.

We kept walking down. Eventually we made it to the bottom. Even the little vendors and food stalls were still there. We saw the first woman we had asked for directions and she pointed us to the bus stop on the other side of the road.

We had walked at least 6 hours today. I checked the time and it was 6:04. We would still have plenty of time to get back to town even if the bus came by in an hour. Nikita asked if I minded if he tried to hitchhike. I said no. He had success in China before. He said sometimes you have to pay a little money. I said no problem.

Within 7 minutes a guy driving a minivan stopped. Nikita didn't remember where we were going. I said Jinghong city. That's the direction the driver was going too. We hopped in. The drive was much quicker than in the morning when we had to make some stops on the bus. When we came to the toll booth, I tried to give the driver some money. He wouldn't take it. As we got closer to the city, I started recognizing things. He must have known where all the foreigners hang out in town. He dropped us at MeiMei's Cafe--the same spot we started this morning. We just sat down at a table there. We were both hungry and tired.

I told Nikita it was going to take a while for me to process what just happened today. It was one of the most perfect days. It was a gift. Our lives would be intertwined from here on out. Every time I told the story to my friends, I told Nikita I would remember him. He said likewise.

He doesn't drink, but I got a beer and some veggy dish with rice. He ordered veggie pizza and then got another dish because he was still hungry. A couple from Holland that he had met before came by. They sat at the table next to us. We were all chatting. Nikita said he was going to run down the street to get some cakes and he would be back. I was still drinking my beer with the other couple. They said when they were here 14 years ago, this place was very different. All the hotels still had squat toilets. They noticed so many changes in this town since then.

Nikita came back with his sweets and said goodbye. He said he was exhausted and needed to rest. I told him he was welcome to join me tomorrow. I was supposed to go to the Hani village and a tea plantation. I told him I would email him the directions to my hotel. We were leaving at 8:30.

I was exhausted and needed a shower, so I left shortly afterwards. I was tired but still very content and more than anything, touched.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Young Ten was at the guest house just after 7:30. He went across the street and got me the potato curry and naan for my breakfast. We left for the Shangri-la airport just after 8. It was about 15 minutes away. I had a connecting flight in Kunming, but Young Ten was able to check my bag all the way to Xishuangbanna. However my two bags now weighed too much to check both of them on a domestic flight. I had to carry one. The flight was less than an hour. I only had a short wait in Kunming.

Flying into Xishuangbanna was gorgeous. There are rows and rows of manicured rubber trees along the lush green hills. I found out later that these all used to be old growth forests and during the cultural revolution, the workers from the city (the ones needing re-education) had to clear the forests and plant the rubber trees. Now rubber is big business here. Tea and rice are secondary.

Xishuangbanna has a long history as the tea plant was discovered there sometime around 2700 BC. Originally tea was used for medicinal purposes, but Lu Yu (sometimes called the father of tea) popularized tea. He wrote about tea cultivation, the best ways to make and drink it, which utensils to use, and the best water sources for tea. Slowly by 1000 AD, tea had evolved from a medicinal beverage to more of a social custom and tradition for China's elite.

Tea used to grow on trees in old growth forests. In this part of China, there are still wild tea trees. Some being trees from cultivated plants that were let to grow wild due to lack of care. But there are other trees that grow wild in the forest. Many tea trees in this area are hundreds of years old.

I knew the weather would be hot and tropical. But when I left Shangri-la in the morning, it was still cool. I was
definitely overdressed for Xishuangbanna. My guide Tony was there waiting for me. He was half Dai and half Han Chinese. At first I thought he was going to be a great guide. But found out later his understanding of English was not as good as I originally thought. I asked if he wanted to see my itinerary to be sure it was the same as his. He said no, it was fine. Instead he was trying to sell me tickets for some musical performance this evening at like 400 yuan ($60). I said that I was not interested. The guides are not supposed to do this and they know it. I was dropped off at the hotel and they would pick me up tomorrow at 8:30.

I wanted to make sure I had a good hotel here. Xishuangbanna is near the Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand borders. It's an earthquake prone zone. There were two relatively large quakes in the last six months so I had to have a sturdy building. I've heard some horrible stories about sub-par buildings in China. For Chinese standards my hotel was listed as 4 star, but for my own personal standards it was somewhere around 3. It was clean but well worn.

Anyway it had air conditioning. I needed to cool down and take a shower after all my traveling and climate changes. I showered and set out to explore Xishuangbanna or more properly the city of Jinghong.

So starting this morning my day changed from the beginning of spring at 3600 meters to a lush tropical rainforest with summer heat and humidity and at 600 meters. This was a weird and strange feeling all in one day. But I embraced where I was now. In the part of San Francisco where I live, it is rare to be outside in the afternoon and especially the evening this time of the year without a jacket (and sometimes even hat, scarf, and gloves).

So as it turned out, this was a very centrally located hotel to the restaurants and cafes. All I had to do was turn right and walk less than a quarter mile and all the western travelers and ex-pats were here, mixed in with some Chinese tourists and locals. I went to the first place that had wifi and an English and Chinese menu. I thought about tea for a second. Then ordered a beer. It was so hot just walking down the street such a short distance. I couldn't imagine drinking something warm.

I hadn't really eaten since my great breakfast, so I was hungry and ordered Yangshou fried rice. It went perfectly with the beer. When I finished eating and was still sipping the beer, Nicole sat down at a table near mine.

We started chatting immediately. She was from Australia (originally Cannes). She had just finished taking the test to teach English in China. She would hear the results in 14 days. I think she said she wanted to teach in Guilin or Yangshou? I can't seem to remember now. She had been traveling in Laos most recently and had only been here a day or two before I arrived. She ordered a beer too and then we continued to hang out and split another beer. I didn't want to drink all day since I just arrived and wanted to explore. And because of the hot weather it would have been easy. We exchanged email and hoped to meet up later or for dinner, etc.

I had purchased a map at the hotel. As soon as I went to use it, I realized it was mainly in Chinese. However, I got an idea of the city lay out, parks, etc.

I couldn't get over the people here. Looking at them, I really felt like I wasn't in China. The Dai people are the largest ethnic minority in this region. Many of the signs would give the Chinese, English, and this third language. I thought it might be Thai. Later I found out it was the Dai language. It is a cross between Thai and Laos. Although, speaking the language, Dai, Thai, and Laos are very similar.

I headed towards a mainly local neighborhood. There was a mini market on the streets and I saw all types of fruits and veggies as usual. This time, I saw some eel too. The temples here were different. We were back to more of the Indian influenced Buddhism versus Tibetan. Many women were dressed in what looked to me more like a traditional Thai dress or some sort of cross between Indian and Thai. Again really beautiful colors and patterns, but not as ornate as the saris.

Lots of buildings had elephants on them and there were many sculptures of elephants around too. I turned around and walked the other direction. Then I tried to find some places that were listed in the guidebook. There weren't very many recommendations in this city, so I figured I would check them all out.

The Wangtianshu Deli actually had a lot of western products, homemade breads, but the homemade sweet section had already been picked over. If I wanted to find something here, it would have to be early morning. I book marked it on my map just in case.

I was also keeping a watch for tea houses and some nice teaware. There were several tea shops but none that looked so inspiring.

I kept walking. It was still light out, but the night market was setting up. There was some interesting stuff. I'll probably walk by it again soon as it is close to the hotel. By now it was 8 or 9 and I was hungry again. I went to MeiMei Cafe. I could get local Dai noodles and a pot of puerh. There is seating indoors, outdoors, and a patio in the back. I hung out for a while and people watched as I drank my tea. I headed back to the hotel by 11.

The following day, I met my guide and we were heading to the elephant sanctuary and the Dai village. Just as we started driving he told me today we would be going to the Botanical Gardens first then the elephant sanctuary. I said there is a mistake. Can we please stop the car and straighten this out. I knew I should have discussed this with him yesterday. So he reviewed my itinerary, made some phone calls, and then we headed to the Dai village. I also made him read the rest of my itinerary too to make sure there were no more surprises.

We went to the village first and then the local market. There was a buddhist temple. Again, this was rebuilt after it had been destroyed during the cultural revolution. We walked by the local homes. Typically the homes are on two floors and built on stilts. The downstairs is where the animals live and is used for food storage. Then the bedrooms are on the second floor. Each family had such beautiful gardens. Tony knows a lot about the local plants. He showed me papayas, mangoes, plum trees, peach trees, black pepper plants, lemon grass, jack fruit, teak wood trees, and probably a few more. I was impressed. The Dai people mainly are farmers.

We got back in the car and drove a little way to see the local market. I walked for around 45 minutes. This market was huge. It was inside a large covered area. You could get any type of spice, fruit, noodles (either for take away or to cook at your home later) vegetables, chicken (dead or alive), meat, snakes, toys, fabrics, etc. The market is there and is this size every single day.

The drive there and back was along the Mekong River. There were hills rising up on both sides and the predominant thing growing was rubber trees.

This road was really bumpy. Apparently it was being re-surfaced. I noticed a chairlift going over the river and asked what it was. Right now it was closed down due to the road construction, but it goes to a monkey sanctuary.

So we were now on the way to the elephant sanctuary. In my mind, I had such a different thought of what this would be like. Instead of really being a sanctuary, it was more of a theme park. There were so many buses filled with tourists.

I specifically had written in my itinerary--no elephant show. Tony asked me if I wanted to watch the elephant show??? Then he said we should eat as it was noon. I told him I wasn't hungry. We both had eaten a huge buffet breakfast at my hotel at 8. I said maybe we should eat later. Everyone was watching the elephant show right now so it would be pretty quiet at the park. He said he wanted to eat. I asked him if this place right here was the only place in the entire park you could get something to eat. I asked him twice. He said yes. So he went to eat while I walked around.

I saw several other places to eat besides, where he went. I went to look at some of the snake and outdoor exhibits. I couldn't tell if Tony and I were having communication problems due to cultural differences or if he didn't really understand English that well.

We met a little later and went to see the butterfly area. This section was completely enclosed in a large dome shape. There were lots of plants inside that attracted butterflies.

Then we walked to get in line for the chairlift. The bird show just letting out and everyone was also running to get in line for the chairlift.

The line ended up taking about 20 minutes. The chairlift ride itself took about 30 minutes. It was beautiful. The lush tropical forests were below. There were mountains in the distance. Several times a car passed by in the opposite direction and someone was playing the wooden flute. We went uphill on the lift for a while then we would go back down and then back up again.

Finally we got off with everyone else. I waited a while to let the groups go through. I figured there would be absolutely no chance to see an elephant while hanging out with 50 people and a loudspeaker. I walked slowly and took a lot of pictures. Finally the big group got ahead of us. There was a walkway which was mostly elevated. There were also a lot of Eco-huts sprinkled around the beginning of the park. These were now closed. Apparently you used to be able to spend the night here. I don't know why they closed them. The accommodations were pretty basic, but it would have been cool to see the elephants beneath you.

I also found out that the park adds salt to the lake below to attract the elephants to the tourist path. We could see footprints here and there but I knew there would be no chance to see elephants. Tony told me that early in the morning and then after 4 in the afternoon are the best times to see the elephants. After walking about the first 10 minutes, I finally began to enjoy the park for what it was--just being out in nature. The cicadas were making such loud noises. We actually saw some on the tree branches. Apparently if locals find them, soon they will cooked up in hot oil and eaten.

From time to time, Tony would point out new and different plant species that we hadn't seen before. The total walk was about 40 minutes. I also asked him when was the last time he actually saw an elephant at this park. I was really skeptical that it ever happened. But he said it was less than a month ago. I was really surprised.

So when we got back to the car, I was trying to tell Tony that I really wanted to see the big tea trees. I asked him if it was possible when we met again in two days, if we could skip the Hani village and go to see the big tea trees. He said it would cost a lot of money. I said how could that be? I showed him where it was on the map and it was just before we would reach the tea plantation.

I told him that maybe I will take a bus on my own then. I asked him to write down for me the directions to get there or the names of the towns nearby in Chinese and he wouldn't.

I was very frustrated. I then asked him what the best hotel in the entire city was. I said if the president of China came here, where would he stay? He pointed to a place on the map, that was very close to my hotel. The reason I asked him this is that I wanted to try to find an English speaker to help me get to the big tea trees. Worst case scenario, they would have good teas in the hotel so I could drink tea.

I told him I will contact my travel coordinator in Shanghai. Maybe something could be done to change my schedule. We agreed to meet at 8:30 in two days.

I was hungry when we got back so I went out to eat. It was getting close to dinner time. I still didn't know what to do about the tea trees. I wanted to do that more than anything and had a free day tomorrow and again two days later.

I went to the Mekong Cafe. The menu was outside the cafe and the owner quickly came by to explain it to me. He was originally from France but married a local woman and has a 4 year old child.

Just as I was sitting down I saw Nicole. She asked me to join her. She was talking to a couple. He was from Melbourne. She was from China originally, but they met in Melbourne five years ago where she was studying English.

It sounded like he has several businesses in Australia, but he also opened up a guesthouse 5 kilometers from Lijiang. He said it's peaceful and quiet and there are great views. It sounded more like it was his holiday home and whenever was convenient for him, he would allow guests. At some point he would have a restaurant too. As he continued to talk, it sounded more like she was going to get stuck running it while he hung out and drank beers with his friends. He said there is a tight group of expats in Lijiang. There are about 40 of them running various businesses.

Nicole and I caught up briefly about what we had been up to and what we were doing later today. Also the owner dropped by and gave us each a good map in English! I told Nicole about my desire to see the big tea trees and that I didn't know how I was going to get there. She said that maybe I should ask the Chinese woman to translate a couple a words and then I would at least have a starting point tomorrow. She said I should hurry though because they are leaving soon, and then they are going back to Lijiang.

I went up to the woman and showed her in the lonely planet guide where it was marked "king of tea trees" on the map. She said she had never heard of it before. I said I thought there were some very old tea trees there. 300-500 years for sure but possibly older.

She looked at the book and the two maps I gave her. She wrote the English and Chinese words for me for king of tea trees, Nannoushan, and then ask how to get to Banpolaozhai.

Wow, this was at least a start. I didn't know if I would go tomorrow or wait and see if I can get the guide to take me.

I ordered food and Nicole was just finishing up. Then we split another beer. She was trying to get to the rice terraces in the east. She had heard that the bus left at 6:30 in the morning and there is only one bus per day. This bus wouldn't even get her all the way. She would have to stay overnight and transfer to another bus. Her second problem was that she had to get to a bank and convert her Thai money to Chinese before she could go. She didn't think she was going to get there tomorrow. Then she said maybe she would end up going to Kunming instead. She didn't want to miss the rice terraces, but couldn't afford to waste another day when her time was limited.

I told her I was going to head out and walk to this hotel my guide told me about. It was supposedly really nice. They would probably have good tea and maybe an English speaker.

So she said she wanted to come. I was glad to have someone with me. But I was so used to walking around by myself even at night. We both said that we felt very safe here.

We walked by the night market. They were just setting up. She showed me the teapot she had been eyeing. A Chinese man came up to us and started speaking English. She asked the merchant how much. After she said the price, the man told her the price she could really get it for if she was a good bargainer.

He had told us he just got done working on a co-sponsored project with the Chinese and Germans. It was a three year project on climate change. He said he had learned quite a bit himself just being a translator. He was a nice man and we chatted a little more with him. Then we headed for the hotel or tea or whatever. It looked like this hotel was in a park.

When we got there it looked large and beautiful from the outside. From the inside there was a huge lobby but not one person hanging out. We went to the front desk to see if the woman could be any help. She didn't speak English and there was no tea house. So we used the restrooms. There was no way this hotel was the best hotel in the city.

We turned around. We had passed a few tea houses on the way. Maybe we should go for tea anyway. There was one on my google map. We tried asking some people if they knew where it was. Nicole spoke a little Chinese.

We kept being sent to different places with no luck. Then we walked to the opposite side of the street where the park was. We found a family exiting a restaurant and they were helpful. What we think they said was turn left and when you come to an intersection turn left again and you will find a tea house. Nicole was a good sport. She hadn't been to any tea houses in China yet so she wanted to keep up the search. We finally found it. It was quite large and there were three older woman there drinking tea.

She tried asking in Chinese if we could taste tea. They didn't understand her so I just said "puerh cha". Then they motioned for us to sit down with them. They were drinking a shou cha which is a dark and fermented tea. I had no idea about how old it was. We couldn't tell. It was nice. I was trying to explain a few things to Nicole about tea. Every once in a while the woman would say something in English. Between the two of us, we would say a few Chinese words too.

The woman pouring the tea called her friend who spoke English. She handed the phone to me. We didn't know anything about her but on the phone she said she was having dinner right now. Maybe we could meet her in about 1/2 hour she would take us to a tea shop. She said we should meet her at MeiMei Cafe. She said the tea shop is very close by.

So Nicole was still with me. She enjoyed the chase. We thanked the women for the tea and said goodbye. We walked back. The night market was hopping now. She looked at the teapots again but couldn't get to the price she wanted. She saw some dolls in all sorts of Chinese ethnic minority costumes. She had two nieces in Australia to buy for. She found two she liked and got a great price. Then we walked the rest of the way to MeiMei Cafe.

The woman who spoke to me on the phone was there. She was originally from Hong Kong. She was living in Jinghong for 7 years now. We walked through the back door. She told us all these shops back here were tea shops. It's called tea alley. We walked a little way and into a tea shop. There was a young Russian guy in there drinking tea. We sat down. The woman poured us the two teas that he was already drinking. One was a shou cha--5 years old. It sounded like the leaves were from this county but we didn't get a specific region or mountain. The other was a 1 year old sheng cha (green tea that was unfermented) from Yi Wa. I enjoyed both.

Nicole was mesmerized by the whole process. Watching the woman wash the cups and the tea. Pouring the tea. Straining it into a glass pot. Using the tea utensils. She really enjoyed the shou cha.

It turned out the Russian guy, Nikita, spoke English well. He was most recently in Laos and Puerh City and just arrived today. In Moscow, he had a partner that was in the tea business. He said he helped him and was traveling around trying teas. And if he found a good connection, he would try to get samples for his partner or maybe buy teas.

He was very interesting. He had his own ceramic cup for drinking tea. And he had this plastic business sized card. He always placed his tea cup on it. He said his partner created the card. He said it changes the composition of the water in some way to make the tea taste better. He had no idea what compound or component made it work, but he said it made a difference in the way the tea tasted for him, so he used it all the time.

The next tea we tried was a 5 year old fermented tea stored in bamboo. I wasn't particularly interested in trying this one. But she was interested in telling us about it. She was actually a math teacher and this was her son's business. She enjoyed teaching people. She brewed the tea and made everyone try it. She wanted everyone's opinion. I didn't really get much flavor at all until the end. It was ok, but nothing special for me. But, I didn't want to offend her, so I just said I could only taste the flavor at the end.

Nikita said he liked it. After everyone tried it, she told us the tea was bad. She said see how your mouth feels. Maybe it's a little numb. This is not a good tea. She was exactly right. I did get that numbing sensation in my mouth and on my lips. I stopped drinking that tea.

She poured one more tea for us and it was another sheng cha from Yi Wa. I liked this one better. It was also from last year. We drank that for a while. In conversation it came up that maybe Nikita would be hiring the Hong Kong woman and her partner to go visit tea plantations. I told Nikita about the old tea trees. He was very interested. We said that maybe we could coordinate a trip together and use them as guides.

We kept drinking the tea. Nikita had the woman pouring tea for us try drinking two separate cups. One cup would have the plastic business card underneath and one without. She laughed and said she didn't notice any difference. She also let Nikita make tea for us and then gave him a few pointers. He was pouring the tea from too great a distance into the cup and also, he moved the lid of the gaiwan too often. She said the tea would be too harsh that way.

He said he was experimenting making it a few ways. He says he had a different set up at home and was getting used to hers. She also said he was too serious and he should loosen up. He said he felt very self conscious and wanted to make some good tea for everyone. Of course he was being serious!

Nicole was having a great time. I told her to just be careful drinking tea. It is possible to drink too much if you are not used to it.

Nicole kept lamenting that it didn't look like she was getting to the rice terraces this trip. The woman from Hong Kong asked her why. She said that the bus tomorrow was so early, plus she still needed to change money.

The woman from Hong Kong got on the phone and called someone. It turned out that there was a direct bus to the town. This bus would leave at 9:30 instead of 6:30. Nicole was thrilled she would possibly be able to make that one.

Then the Hong Kong woman and her partner started talking to Nikita and I about a trip tomorrow. She quoted him a price for one person with a driver, guide, and lunch for 650. For the two of us it would be 450 each. I thought that was a little rich. None of them had heard about the old tea trees until I mentioned it. So I wasn't even sure they would know how to find the place or identify the trees.

Then Nikita asked about the price for a half day trip for one person. They said 550. They said there were still some fixed costs so that was the lowest she would go.

Nikita and I briefly concurred that it was too much money. But we decided that we should meet tomorrow and try to go there on our own. I told him I had the Chinese and English names written down of how to get there. It would be a lot cheaper and it sounded like we could take a bus to Nannoushan and then ask for directions once we got there. We agreed to meet here at 8:30 and plan our course. He was staying across the street from the tea house so Nicole and I said goodbye to him. We walked towards her guest house. Mine was just a little bit further down the road.

What an interesting evening that turned out to be! I felt bad for the Hong Kong woman and her partner. They got nothing out of the evening but did a lot of translating. Their prices were simply too high and they didn't even want to bargain. Everyone else got information or connections we were looking for.