Recommended drinking for this post: a cup of cooked pu’erh in an unglazed gaiwan from Xishuangbanna. Recommended listening: Sensation of China – 100 classics of Chinese traditional music.
A Polish Swede, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…
Now, this could be the start of a geeky joke. It can also be the beginning of a fantastical adventure, where a trio of unwitting adventurers is thrown together by fate, in a weird land full of strange customs. As they step across the threshold of a tea shop they are hurtled into another dimension, an ever-expanding universe of history, tastes and smells and exquisite highs, a veritable Narnia of tea. Together they navigate this magical world and learn many things. It is, like so many fantasy adventures, also a tale of friendship.
Let’s start at the beginning. A while ago I gave a lecture about bike travel at Nordica gallery. Afterwards, I have a couple of drinks with Kaj and Sean. Me and Sean stick with beer, but Kaj drinks tea and is really quite particular about the tea he orders. It transpires that he knows quite a lot about tea, Sean and me are curious to learn more, and thus our tea exploration club is born. A bit more about Kaj: his full name is Kajetan Mazurkiewicz. He is Polish but grew up in Sweden and speaks a beautiful British English. Apart from knowledgeable about tea he is also the inventor of a whole new language for his LARPing world. He also introduces Sean and me to his tailor, who ends up being quite busy with making lots of classical Chinese and LARPing outfits for Kaj, and one or two for me and Sean.
Now, no history of Yunnan could be told without talking about tea, since tea production was likely invented here, some 100 years BCE. So this is not just about tea; it is also about China, and especially about Yunnan. Part of what is called the southern silk road runs through Yunnan. It is also called the tea horse road, as horses transported tea from China to Tibet. The southermost stop on this route is Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, an ancient Dai kingdom which even today feels more like Thailand than China. This area is also home of the unique pu’erh teas.
The tea horse road is also part of the future of China, as the legacy of the old trade route is used to promote a new railway line between Chengdu and Lhasa.
Over the next few months, Sean and I follow our tea guru Kaj to tea markets around town. We spend a few leisurely afternoons wandering around different tea districts, peering into tea shops, poking at pottery and of course drinking lots and lots of tea while listening to Kaj explain the myriad aspects of tea culture. We try to speak Chinese with friendly tea shop owners, we spend insane amounts of money on tiny little teapots and associated accessories and yes, we get high on tea. Or rather, we get drunk: ‘tea drunk’ (cha zui, 茶醉) is the Chinese expression for feeling a bit wired but also very content and happy after slurping endless tiny cups of tea. It is much better than being high on coffee caffeine although it can keep you awake at night as well.
Drinking tea in Chinese tea shops is something that I would recommend to all travellers to China, as a great way to experience Chinese friendliness and some quintessential aspects of Chinese history and culture. There are many different kinds of tea shops, and if you don’t speak the language it can be somewhat intimidating to step inside and sit down for a tasting. Some are very sleek, others are charmingly messy and full of knick-knacks. It is however always perfectly acceptable to walk in, to sit down at the huge wooden tea table that is at the centre of the shop and to start tasting. There is no obligation to buy anything, although I have bought tea in almost every shop where I sat down to taste. A lot of tea shops are part of a family business so it can feel like sitting down with a family: kids are doing homework nearby, grandma is starting to cook dinner outside, mum and dad are running the business and pouring tea for the three laowai that have rocked up to their shop. The true family businesses sometimes own tea plantations further south in Yunnan and they are most happy and proud to explain about their special tea varieties.
I could try and explain about these varieties but of course Kaj, the master of our tea trio, has done this much better than I ever could. As part of a year-long cultural exchange project between Scandinavia and China, organized by Nordica gallery, he has written a small compendium of tea: here is his Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea. He presented this last week at the gallery, to wrap up his year in China. This, sadly, also means that we have to say goodbye to our tea master, who was not just a teacher but also became a friend. Luckily these fantasy stories usually have sequels, so I can see us meeting again at some time in the future, getting pleasantly drunk on an exquisite pu’erh.
Thank you Kaj, for teaching us so much about China, and for the lovely moments spent enjoying tea.