They were kung fu drinking

A week ago I returned to Kunming after two months of cycling and catching up with friends and family in Europe. I cycle back into town from the airport, exhilarated by the jetlag, the rainy season mud, the noise, the big city skyscraper vistas and the people.

I dive right back in. I make an appointment for a new series of Chinese classes with my teacher, I slurp noodles and have my usual Chinese conversation in a mi xian place around the corner from my brand new job (Where are you from? Do you like spice food? You can eat very well with chop sticks). I am in desperate need of a mindful exercise routine to clear my busy head after absorbing tons of new information at work, so I make an appointment with a renowned kung fu teacher who has been recommended to me by a Dutch friend. I need some Zen after all the initial excitement.

Searching for zen

The teacher exchanges a few messages with me on wechat before we meet. His wechat photo says he is a young Leonardo DiCaprio, and his name is something that I can not yet read and with a bear emoji in the middle. I explain to him that I have years of experience with yoga, I know a little bit about balance and about breathing, and that I am very keen to learn about Chinese culture.

I am excited to learn more about the different forms and philosophies of wushu, after my brief forays into tai chi and qing chi chuan last year. We will meet up tonight, so when I come home from work I change into loose fitting trousers and a t-shirt and tie my hair back into a pony tail, ready to go kung fu fighting and hoping to roll into bed with a sore body and an empty head.

Outdoor kung fu
Outdoor kung fu

Meeting the master

Fifteen minutes before the appointed time he starts sending me messages. Are you here yet? Where are you? I reply that I am going to be there at the appointed time, and leisurely walk the 3km from my house to his kung fu studio. First through my new neighbourhood, then along a busy four lane road lined by trees, and finally finding my way through the alleys of an older neighbourhood full of little shops and food stalls.

At the appointed time I am outside his studio. He sends me a message: wait, I am eating! No problem. It is a warm and muggy evening and I am happy to have a moment to myself to unwind from the first few hectic days in my new job.

Suddenly I get lightly punched in the shoulder. It is my teacher, who turns out to be indeed the Chinese version of a young and handsome Leo DiCaprio, and with him is a somewhat bug-eyed girl. Both are wearing sweat pants and white tank tops. Her eyes are huge dark pools and she is swaying a little bit. As she broadly smiles at me I can smell a whiff of beer coming my way. She speaks some English, my kung fu teacher doesn’t.

Together we go into the studio, where we sit down in a deep and comfortable leather and wood settee, surrounded by boxes of kung fu clothes. In front of me is the dojo, with a huge mirrored wall at the end. Beers appear on the table, and cigarettes are being handed around.

Kung fu drinking

Cheers! How do you say cheers in Dutch? What kind of kung fu do you want to learn? I had a baby 14 days ago. When can you come here? Can you come 5 days a week? Are you working? That’s too bad. What days can you come here? Your friend Bart didn’t speak Chinese when he started training here, but now he is very good. Just a little bit more beer, don’t worry. By bicycle? You are my hero! More beer, come on, we have to celebrate you came to China. You are our new friend. Proost, is that how you say it? Let’s call Bart! Bart, your Dutch friend is here! Proost! More beer, come on, it’s only a little bit. A cigarette. Why do you not smoke? Not even when you drink? Have more beer! Look, this is the video from when I was in the kung fu championships. You must come with me to my hometown and eat the food there with me. Next week I go, come with me. What do you mean you want to sleep? Have more beer. When you toast you have to hold your cup lower than the teacher. See, you are learning about Chinese culture already. Maybe you should learn boxing first. Kung fu is very difficult.

A Pole, a Brit and a Dutchie enter a Chinese tea shop…

Recommended tea 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. 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 envelops them, 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.

Nordica friends

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. we notice he 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. 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. She ends up being quite busy with making lots of classical Chinese and LARPing outfits for Kaj, and one or two for me and Sean.

The tea horse road

Now, no history of Yunnan can 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. Another name for this route is the tea horse road, as horses transported tea from China to Tibet. The southernmost stop on this route is Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. The name Xishuangbanna refers to an ancient Dai kingdom which even today feels more like Thailand than China. This area is also home of the unique pu’erh teas.

Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)
Tea porters in Sichuan (Ernest H. Wilson, 1908)

The tea horse road is also part of the future of China. The government uses the legacy of the old trade route to promote a new railway line between Chengdu and Lhasa.

The tea markets of Kunming

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.

Perfection
Perfection

It’s a family affair

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.

Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner
Kaj with a lovely Chinese tea shop owner

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Tea

I could try and explain about these varieties but of course Kaj, the master of our tea trio, does 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 compiled 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.

Of architecture, roses and thorns

Two more weeks, and then my year in what I call The Chinese Truman Show will be up. As I am preparing to leave my first home in Kunming I walk through my neighbourhood with slightly different eyes. One eye is sentimental, the other one has a sceptically raised eyebrow, and watches the surroundings as a critical architectural historian. This gated community architecture is interesting and very telling about life in China.

Sweet sentiments

When I arrived here for the first time it was early December, after months of pretty hardcore bicycle travel. I was more physically and mentally exhausted than I probably realized at the time, having been very sick and very cold and on the road for about nine months.

Arriving here and staying with a lovely host for a couple of days was a welcome reprieve. I loved how sunny and warm it was even in December, how lush and green and well maintained the community. The beautiful location of the house, right on the edge of Dianchi Lake. How luxurious this apartment is, with its lion-clawed bathtub, it’s German washing machine, it’s floor to ceiling windows looking out at palm trees and other kinds of lush tropical green.

sweetness and light
sweetness and light

How vast and cool its tiled space. Decorated with butterflies and roses, a baroque settee big enough for two sleeping cyclists, elaborate curtains and drapery above the windows, and as a piece-de-resistance a gigantic bejewelled bed with a rococo headboard that I have christened the rhinestone cowboy.

the rhinestone cowboy
the rhinestone cowboy

A palace for a princess, and as a dirty bike traveler I felt too shy to ask if I could have a bath, even though there was nothing in the world I wanted more when I first saw it. Half a year after this first stay I find myself back in Kunming, and I end up renting the house from my princess friend who leaves to travel the world, as serendipity will have it.

living large
living large

Home away from home

For one year I have called this house my home. It is half an hours walk from my work, and once the neighbourhood was used to my white face I no longer felt like a laowai.

The mi xian noodle ladies know exactly how I eat my breakfast noodles (with fresh tofu, a handful of fresh mint and coriander and a generous spoonful of chili). I could leave the key at my neighbourhood supermarket for guests if they arrived while I was working. Neighbours have even brought tired and somewhat lost looking cyclists straight to my front door.

In the garden three floors below my apartment is a talking beo, and the whole day through I hear my neighbours saying ni hao to him. Beo apparently likes to eat mango, because that is what he is shouting most of the day: ni hao! man guo! People in my community greet me, no one stares or takes pictures of me, and one lady tried to set me up with her son. She now calls me 荷兰 (he lan) every time she sees me: Hey you, Holland!

And now for the critical note

My neighbourhood is a cluster of gated communities grouped around a golf course. It has only been here for about ten years. Before there was some very polluting industry dumping wastewater directly into the lake. Dianchi is still very polluted and I never eat fish anymore, for fear it might have been caught from the lake. Now it is an extremely posh neighbourhood. The lake side has been beautified with a park, an amusement park and a sports complex.

The communities surrounding the golf course are built in a faux-Italian style, and the ochre and terracotta colours glow lovely in the late afternoon sun. If you look closely however Escher’s etches might spring to mind rather than Sienna.

eschers architecture
eschers architecture

I am reminded of the Mediaeval artist who drew an elephant while never actually having seen one in real life and only knew what it was supposed to look like by hearing it described by travellers.

Hearsay elephant from the Rochester Bestiary (1225)
Hearsay elephant from the Rochester Bestiary (1225)

Pilasters apropos of nothing, columns not supporting anything.  Walls à la rustica, but the natural stone is only used as a facade and not structurally. The houses are all made of concrete. The real à la rustica houses are one generation away, in the countryside. There mud brick and stone farmsteads are still standing.

Italia in China
Italia in China

There are Maserati and Porsche cars parked everywhere, on show as status symbols of the booming middle class. A small army of gardeners is continuously grooming the park-like surroundings and forever cleaning up the dog poo behind the ridiculously dressed mini-dogs and their owners. It is paradise. Friendly, green, new, well-maintained, full of nice people and great little restaurants. I love the flowers everywhere. Bougainvillea cascades onto the pavement, a jasmine tree outside my window smells deliriously good, roses and honeysuckle. The winters are short, most trees stay green throughout and there is always something in bloom.

Moving out of my community

Today I am not a tired and dirty bicycle traveller and I see things a little bit clearer. Now the house and the neighbourhood are no longer a rose-tinted mirage but my everyday surroundings. Honeysuckle cascading over the gated community fences, the barbed wire beneath the roses, video cameras hidden amongst the bougainvillaea, the friendly security guards at the entrance gates. Today I realized how fitting a metaphor the barbed wire and the roses are for all of China. Going in and out of my community as well as the country is hard and my movements are monitored. Yet life here is so pleasant you can almost forget the level of control that is exerted. That is, if you are one of China’s 1%, which we as well-paid foreigners definitely are. It is indeed life in The Truman Show. Isn’t it telling though, that most rich Chinese people will do anything in their means to get their children and their money out of the country? The kids will study in America or Europe, money is being used to buy property or enterprises abroad. Truman also wanted to escape his perfect show in the end. To be free.