After traveling and drinking tea in Asia for the better part of a year, New York City proved to be a disappointment. Continue reading “Tea in New York City”
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
I stayed five days in Malaysia’s Cameron highlands, originally a hill station in colonial times. Having visited the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok several months ago, I was intrigued to explore the place where the “Thai Silk King” disappeared around 48 years ago, apparently without a trace. Continue reading “Cameron Highlands, Malaysia”
From Lijiang I decided to venture to the southern reaches of Yunnan near the Burmese border. I was interested in seeing an area of southern Yunnan called Xishuangbanna, the center of tea production in Yunnan and the origin of the unusual Puerh tea. Also, according to historians, Xishuangbanna is probably the place where tea was first cultivated thousands of years ago.
To get to Xishuangbanna, I had to suffer though two miserably long bus rides, broken by an overnight stop in Kunming. About four days ago I finally arrived in Jinghong, the major city in Xishuangbanna.
After a bit of investigation I connected with Sara, owner of the Forest Cafe trekking outfit in Jinghong. I told Sara I had heard about some ancient tea trees in Xishuangbanna and that I wanted to see some of these trees. She arranged a two-day trek in which we walked through some ancient tea forests, stopped at a tea processing plant, and passed through some of the local villages.
Yesterday we set out in the morning and were joined by a Swedish woman, Lena, who was taking a break from her studies in Kunming. The mountain weather was very pleasant and as we walked along Sara made sure to point out some of the interesting flora and fauna in this area of tremendous biodiversity.
Yunnan also has an amazing amount of cultural diversity and is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Xishuangbanna in particular has populations of Dai, Hani (and the subgroup Aini), Lisu, Yao, Jinuo, Bulang, Lahu and Wa, among others. We stayed the night in a Bulang village, in the home of a local family. This morning we resumed our trek through fields and forests, and walked for about five hours prior to returning to Jinghong in the evening.
Further north of Shaxi, higher in altitude and closer to Tibet, the old town of Lijiang was the next stop on the Yunnan tourist trail. In ancient times Lijiang also happened to be the next stop on the historic Tea Horse Road.
Like Dali, regrettably, Lijiang had also undergone a certain Disneyfication and was full of the same types of restaurants, street food stalls and souvenir shops. As I walked around the “old” town I passed by open air nightclubs with young women in pseudo-traditional dress performing to a sort of generic “traditional” music that blended a Chinese style with African drums. Watching for a few minutes from the sidelines, I found the shows were reminiscent of the same laissez-faire creative license as in a Bollywood production, and clearly had no authenticity in representing any of the minority ethnic groups present in Yunnan.
For me the only redeeming factors that Lijiang could boast over Dali were its location on a hillside that lent itself to more interesting photo opportunities; and its larger size which made it easier to get away from the hordes of Chinese holiday makers. In fact, one Chinese native told me Lijiang was so popular as a Chinese tourist destination that the city kept expanding and adding on new, but old-looking, sections of the “old” town, conjured right out of the thin mountain air.
After spending a few days exploring and taking photos, I confirmed my initial reaction to Lijiang, which was: get me outta here ASAP!
The Tea Horse Road
Many centuries ago, the Chinese wanted horses, which the Tibetans had; and the Tibetans wanted tea, which was grown in China; so over time a trade route was developed to rival the more northern route now referred to as the Silk Road.
Shaxi (沙溪) is a tiny hamlet that was once a caravan stop on what some historians call the Tea-Horse trading route leading from China through Tibet and on into Burma and India. It began as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries). Today it is a historic market town that still has a vibrant Friday market and is considered to be the most intact of the old caravan towns.
Shaxi was a breath of fresh air after Dali! Not only was it much smaller but also it was without the throngs of tourists found in Dali. In fact, it had a sleepy, anachronistic feel, with few motor vehicles, several tea shops, and even a number of horses.
My hostel, Horsepen 46, was indeed a converted horse stable! I enjoyed its peaceful courtyard and the nightly communal dinners for 20 元 – the young chef even cooked up some vegetarian fare for me.
Tea Culture in Bangkok
After several weeks back in the USA, I arrived again in Thailand early yesterday morning. My plan was to spend a few days in Bangkok getting over the jet lag, then travel through the northeastern part of Thailand to get to Laos.
Yesterday I stopped by the Bangkok Art and Culture Center to look at an exhibit entitled Japanese Tea. Some of the artwork was clearly tea-related but as I looked at some other work I couldn’t see a direct relationship between the piece and Japanese tea.
My hotel was located in an area that I did not find very esthetically pleasing, as it was surrounded by shopping malls (I chose the hotel because it was in a safe area and very convenient to transportation). But I decided to make the best of it and see if I could find something of interest nearby.
In keeping with the tea theme from yesterday, this afternoon I found a small tea shop in one of the fancy malls a few blocks from my hotel. The shop sold single origin loose tea leaves from various parts of China. The shop attendant also brewed and served tea to customers on the premises. I chose an oolong from Fujian province.
Oolong is a type of tea that has been partially oxidized (more oxidized than green tea but not as much as black tea). I had read that oolong tea leaves could be re-steeped several times and that instead of resulting in a weaker brew, each re-steeping would bring out different flavors of the tea. The attendant at the shop re-steeped my tea at least five times, and each time the tea tasted great. I was amazed!