I had only the roughest of plans coming to China-- hang out in Shanghai, make it to Hua Shan, and drink some good tea. With a couple weeks of Shanghai loafing and a trip to Hua Shan under my belt, only tea was left on my checklist.
China has very high quality famous teas in several categories, many of which were invented here, but the two that I like the most are Puerh and Oolong. I was originally thinking that I'd head down to Yunnan province, where the best Puerh in the world is made, but with my days in China running short, a forty-one hour train trip seemed like a bit of a waste. The Wuyi mountains, on the other hand, are a convenient nine hour overnight train ride from Shanghai. Carl and I decided to head to the Wuyi mountains for a single 18 hour day, with no plan other than to drink Da Hong Pao, Big Red Robe, one of the most prized Oolong teas in the world.
With one overnight train in and out of the Wuyishan station per day, our itinerary was decided for us. We'd arrive a little before six in the morning and leave at ten at night. That may seem like a short trip, but all we really cared about was finding and drinking the Da Hong Pao, and we figured it would be enough. After reserving our two hard-bed tickets, we check the weather. Rainy the day before we get there, storms the day after, but sun on our day there. Perfect.
The next day we arrive at Shanghai Railway twenty minutes before our train is scheduled to leave. We show our tickets, go through security, and stare up at the giant LED display announcing the departure gates. It scans through the options once and I don't see our train. Odd, but my Chinese reading is even worse than my speaking, so I figure I must have missed it. Another cycle of all departing trains scrolls through, and again I don't see it. I look again at my ticket-- we were supposed to be leaving from Shanghai South. Oops.
Five minutes later we've sprinted across the plaza in front of the station and are in a speeding taxi, heading for the South Station. Is going to be close-- the train leaves in fifteen minutes and we're just over fifteen minutes away. The taxi stops, we hand over our cash, and run into the station. We rush through security and start jogging through the departure lounge, looking for a sign that our train is still there. It's not on any of the signs. We see a bunch of passengers going through a gate with no sign.
"That must be it! Run!"
We make it to the gate before they close it and show our tickets.
"Sorry, that train already left."
We've missed our train. For a minute I consider the idea that I may not actually have the chance to get great tea while I'm in China. The only other day that Carl can go is the following day, which means we'd be there during the storms. Oh well, I think-- better to go in the rain than not at all. We head back to the ticket counter and are shocked to get full refunds not only on our now-impossible return ticket, but also the ticket for the train that we just missed. We book the exact same ticket pair, pushed forward a day.
The next day we show up early and get on our train without problems. Sleep comes easily enough, and before I know it, it's five in the morning an the train attendant is pounding on the railing of my bed to try to wake me up to check my ticket. I'm sleeping with a sleep mask and ear plugs, so I guess it's the only way she can get my attention. We pull into Wuyishan station at five forty five or so.
It's still dark, and it's raining. Not heavily, just a light drizzle. With no idea of where we're supposed to go, we just start wandering through the tiny sleeping city. There are huge rows of tents that appear to be restaurants at some point, but are all closed. Near the end of them, in a cloud of steam, are a handful of food carts. One lady is cooking up something that looks like a relatively healthy omelet, but my eyes have deceived me in the low light. I pay for it and bite into some bizarre rolled up food item that has only one egg in common with an omelet. I can't even tell what the main ingredient is.
We keep walking until we get to the end of the stores. The sun is rising, so it's getting lighter as we walk. We get to a main road and a taxi driver stops for us. We hop in and tell him we want to go to Wuyi mountain. I'm relieved to hear that it's twenty minutes away-- it seemed close when I looked it up online but I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that it was two hours away. I wasn't even one hundred percent sure that Wuyi Mountain was near Wuyishan (which means Wuyi Mountain in Chinese). Although these sorts of places are big tourist destinations, it's all domestic tourism. There's almost no information on the internet, and we don't see any other foreigners all day.
Wuyi Mountain is more built up than expected, and more expensive. We pay around thirty dollars for an entrance ticket and go to the bust stop. There are a few internal bus routes to go to the various highlights of the Wuyi Mountain area. We immediately get on the bus for Da Hong Pao, figuring that we should make sure we actually complete our mission of drinking tea before we do anything else.
As it turns out, we're on the very first bust of the day. Everyone else on the bus is part of a big tour and is double our age, so we easily get ahead of them on the trail and start walking while they congregate and plan and listen to their guide. As we walk, we have the entire place to ourselves. And it's a magical place-- we're walking through a valley full of terraced tea plants, set against a backdrop of tall grey mountains. It's misty and dewy and quiet, the only sounds being us joking around and the birds chirping in the background.
Da Hong Pao, as I mentioned, means Big Red Robe. It's called this, because in a particular part of this valley the conditions are exactly right for making Oolong tea. The rain runoff from the mineral-rich cliffs funnels into a small area, giving the soil unique properties, which creates a unique flavor in the tea. On a small ledge in this valley are a handful of these tea plants-- the best of them-- that were so precious that the Emperor sent red robes to the area to protect them. Those tea bushes are now around a thousand years old.
We come up on a clearing and I ask a groundskeeper which direction Da Hong Pao is. He smiles and points up at a cliff, towards three tea bushes. Da Hong Pao. Despite being some of the best and most famous tea plants in the world, they're not much to look at. Just some scraggly shrubs up on a protrusion from a cliff.
Across from the Da Hong Pao plants is a teahouse with a couple workers but no customers. I ask if they're open, and they nod. The menu is five different grades of Da Hong Pao. The cheapest is around forty dollars a pot, and the most expensive is one hundred twenty. We choose the second to the highest, mainly because I can read the characters in the name of it and it means finest quality, and I can't read what the first one is. We later find out that our tea is from the bushes right below the famous ones.
It's not a just a pot of tea, as I expect, though. An attendant brings all of the tea gear to our table, which faces the famous tea bushes. She uses a gaiwan to expertly prepare the tea, rinsing the bowls first, throwing away the first steeping, etc.
The second steeping, which is the first we drink, is very good, but not the best I've ever tasted. It's a really unique Oolong flavor, but more astringent than I'd expect. The third steeping is better, as is the fourth, and by the fifth, it's pure tea heaven. An incredible Oolong that doesn't taste like other Oolong's I've had.
The tea is special, but it's the experience that I'll remember forever. We're setting in a tea house in one of the best tea producing regions in the world, drinking some of the best Oolong in the world, looking out at a gorgeous misty valley, of which some historically significant tea plants are the centerpiece. Best of all no one else is there. It's me, Carl, and our friendly tea attendant who's brewing and serving each pot perfectly, and trying to explain things to me in Chinese. Maybe the perfect tea experience.
Half an hour later, as the tea weakens, the throngs of tour groups have caught up. Someone starts smoking next to us. Pictures are snapped and the sound of voices erases the tranquility of the setting. I feel even more lucky for having had such an incredible experience. Both Carl and I buy some Da Hong Pao to bring back to our friends.
The tourists have congregated in front of the Da Hong Pao plants, so we push forward on the trail. There's a sign that says where we're going, but the only character I recognize is the one for water, so we don't really know where we're off to. Mostly we're happy to regain the solitude of the tea farms, away from the other tourists. The trail continues to wind through terraced tea fields, some blossoming with an incredible fresh smell, and others neatly trimmed. Soon the trail follows a creek with incredible clear water. The girl at the tea house told me that they use that water to make the tea, so I scoop some up. Water is just as important as the tea leaves.
We walk and walk, and eventually come across a strange stone plaque that says "Dahongpao Asexual District". Winding into the woods above it is a shallow stone staircase and a thin overgrown trail. With more than a dozen hours left to kill, we head up. Before I know it, I'm having flashbacks of Hua Shan, as we push ourselves up higher into the mountain. We walk through forest as well as tea farms planted on deep red soil. Across the valley we can see a grey mountain that looks like a whale, and further, more tea fields crammed into terraces on the mountain. Eventually the trail peters out at yet another tea farm, and our attempts to go through the woods without a trail are cut short by cliffs and spiky evergreen trees. We head back down.
Further down the road we reach the attraction with the water character in its name. Its a huge concave cliff with a waterfall that falls through an indentation at the top down into a pond. Behind the waterfall is a small shrine with three figurines. Each one has a strangely large amount of money piled into its hands. But better than the waterfall is the pigeon lady who intercepts you before you get there. For a dollar total, she gives us each two handfuls of corn, instructs us to stick out our hands, ad blows a whistle. Before we know it, pigeons are all over our arms, eating out of our hands.
The next couple hours are spent trying to figure out how to take a raft down a river. It's a popular tourist destination, but we just can't seem to make it happen. Everyone says that you have to start at a different point on the river. Eventually we find the boats, but they tell us we can't buy tickets. It's two in the afternoon, but they say it's too early. Or maybe not early enough. My Chinese isn't always good enough to tell the difference.
After a couple misguided bus rides, we give up on the boat thing and take a public bus back to Wuyishan, the city. We still have something like six or seven hours to go, so we hope to find something to do there. By the tme we get to the city, the rain has picked up. We wander the streets looking for food, at first for something healthy, then just something not offensively unhealthy, and finally we agree to just go to the first restaurant that has a front door. Sounds strange, but they're all open on the front, even though it's freezing and raining out. We fail to find a restaurant with closed doors, and compromise on one with open front doors. I eat some fairly gross noodles and Carl eats some white rice. Everyone in the restaurant blatantly watches us as we eat and play cards. I guess they don't get a lot of foreigners. Making eye contact does nothing-- they don't smile or look away. Just keep on staring.
Next to the restaurant is a sign that says spa and points towards adhesive footprints walking through a weird strip mall. Freezing cold, soaking wet, and rich with time to kill, we follow the footsteps and go up into the spa. We're hoping for a sauna or hot tub or something, but it's not that kind of spa. We're shown an unintelligible brochure with some pictures of a woman with cups on her back. This seems to be the ony choice have, so we agree. I can't stress enough how nice and warm the spa is compared to the outside. They could have charged me to sit on their couch and I would have paid.
We're led into a room with two massage tables and told to strip down. They come back in, and direct us to look face down through the hole in the table. From this point on I see nothing, so I can only really guess what happens from what I hear.
The first thing I hear is fire. The unmistakable sound of flames waving around in the air. Then I hear a "smock smock" suction sound. They've already started on Carl, presumably with the cups. Mine starts shortly after. They're using a torch to heat up the inside of the cup, then pressing it on my back. As the air inside cools inside the cup, it sucks my skin into it. At a certain point, she pulls the cup off, making a loud "smock' noise. It's sort of relaxing, sort of weird, but most importantly, not outside in the cold rain.
There are different phases to the treatment. First there's the smocking on and off of the cups. Then there's a tickling and painful sequence where they oil me up, get the cup suction going, and the drag it around my back. It's like getting massaged by a robot octopus from the future.
No English is spoken. They ask us questions constantly, I take a stab at what I think they mean, and offer some answer in return. Sometimes it's an easy question and I'm right, and other times I suspect my answers have pretty much nothing to do what they're asking. Usually I just try to be agreeable because they seem to be making sure that I'm comfortable or something.
At one point they stop the cupping because they absolutely need my answer to a question. I think I know what they're asking, but it seems sort of strange, so I assume I must be wrong. They call someone on a cell phone, but he can't translate. They use a translator and write it on paper, which they hold under the table so that I can read it. It says, "Can you take a shower for six hours?" They're actually asking if I can not take a shower for six hours. That's what I thought they were asking, so I say no problem.
What follows is probably the most bizarre thing that's ever been done to my body. They cover my entire back with these suction cups and leave them there, producing a dozen giant back hickeys that are still there today. It's a little bit painful but mostly just bizarre. It pulls so much of my skin up that it's hard to breathe out fully. I gather that they've covered the tops of all of the cups with alcohol and ignited it, because the cups keep getting warmer, and little bits of flaming alcohol splash down on my back and sting. The flames are put out and the cups are covered with a towel. They push around on the towel to move all the cups in unison, which also feels strange.
The cup are pulled off, the towel is put on my bare back, and another torch is lit. For the next fifteen minutes they lightly flog my back with the alcohol soaked torch, occasionally letting the towel catch on fire as well. Strange, but it feels nicer than it sounds.
That's the final stage. They roll us over onto our backs, tell us to rest, and leave. We catch glimpses of each other's backs, which have huge round welts on them from the cups. We have no idea if we're supposed to be resting for a long time because of our backs, or if they're just waiting for us to change. Happy to be in a warm dry place, we lie there for an hour and chat. No one comes in to get us. Finally we get dressed and leave.
They arrange a taxi for us, which is their friend on a motorcycle. Instead of a windshield, he has an umbrella with a hole cut out of it for the headlight. In a shot but harrowing ride through the insanity that is Chinese traffic, we make it back to the station. We do a few laps around the plaza looking for healthy food, again end up at a doorless eatery, and sit and play gin rummy while we wait for it to be time to leave. Only an eighteen hour trip, but a pretty good mix of luxury and discomfort, adventure and relaxation.
I have the feeling there are a bunch of typos in this post, but I'm exhausted from two nights of train sleeping and don't have the energy to proof it now. Hopefully it's a fun read anyway.
It's my last night in China. Tomorrow I'll have some lunch, get tea with friends, and then take the Mag Lev to to the airport and had back to SF. I'm there for a day, and then off to Vegas again.