All photos courtesy of Michael Bush

All The Tea in China

| February 18, 2016 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review contributor

When people hear the name Chengdu, they either say, “What is that?” or “They got pandas there, you know!” And while it’s true that Chengdu in the Sichuan Province does have pandas, they also have many other marvelous things to see.

Yes, the Sichuan Province in Western China is also famous for spicy food—the málà (麻辣) sauce that both burns and numbs at the same time is prevalent in the region, as it is believed that spicy food will cool you off when it’s hot outside. So the spicier the better, right? But this area is full of non-spicy food as well, and it is equally delicious. Not only is the food fantastic, but the preservation of history out this way is a good deal better than in Eastern China. High in the mountains, you can find villages that seem untouched by time, even though you know in your heart that they have absolutely been touched by such horrible times as the Cultural Revolution. The look and feel is more authentically China, I guess you could say. It is what you expect as a foreigner visiting the Middle Kingdom.
On our visit to the Sichuan Province, we did all of the typical tourist stuff—see and hold the pandas, eat hotpot, watch the Chinese Opera and the Bian Lian mask changing dance. But we also wanted to get out of the city and see some of the countryside. Wandering off the beaten track is something we always try to do when visiting new places because some of the most unusual experiences can be had when you’re not surrounded by legions of camera-toting tourists (like ourselves). And so it was that we found ourselves in the tiny village of Pínglè (平乐) in the foothills of the Qionglai Mountains.

This little village was cute as a button and was lined with interesting shops selling some truly outrageous items. There were stalls presenting their own homemade spicy pickles and sauces offered free samples. And there were little shops selling TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), which included some snake wine for vitality. If you think the Scorpion Liquor Club is hardcore, you don’t want to meet the Snake Wine Gang! The funny thing is that “wine” sort of means “moonshine” in China. This wine, known as báijiǔ (白酒) is nothing but clear hooch that has an alcohol percentage of 52%. It is indeed lethal. And I found the biggest jug of it in this village that I have ever seen!

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine
Author Michael Bush

Thomas Hamburger

Of course, you can’t wander the rough streets of Pínglè (pronounced Ping-luh) without a hamburger named Thomas. Wait, what? Yes, that’s right—they have a shop called Thomas Hamburger. Unfortunately, they only sell ice cream.

But amongst all of the shops selling knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, we came upon a sign of what was to come. A young man sat outside of a tea shop, swirling some green stuff in an electric pan. I asked what he was doing, and he told me that he was roasting the tea. In front of him was a tray of freshly picked leaves, and in the pan were some dried leaves that he was heating up to further wilt them and bring out more flavor. Roasting tea leaves

“Where did you pick the leaves?” I asked him.

“Qionglai Mountain, not very far,” he replied.

And so, we soon found ourselves riding in a crappy van on the winding roads leading us to a tea plantation on the mountain. Somehow, we became lost a couple of times, even though it seemed there was only one road. Eventually, however, we arrived at what I thought was the top of the mountain. The family homestead where they raised chickens and grew tea plants was layered on the hillside in levels connected by treacherous steps. I say "treacherous" because the entire structure was made of stone, and due to the incredibly hot and humid stickiness of the air up there, almost every inch of said stone was covered in slippery, slimy, green moss. I cannot count the number of times I almost slipped and fell. I can count the number of times I actually did fall, and that would be two.


Now, as this was a home for the family, they had living quarters where we weren’t supposed to go. I found this out as I wandered around snapping pictures and was sternly told off for doing so. We were to stick to the main courtyard, where they would feed us a home-cooked meal. This main courtyard was the most slippery and dangerous part of the whole trip, which was an excellent place for the three children we had in tow to try and play. Head wounds seemed highly likely as they ran and slipped and fell. Somehow, though, we avoided blood, disfigurement, or concussions. A little store run by the family sold old cans of soda, cigarettes, and some funky snacks. A group of men sat not far away from us, playing mahjong on a really cool automatic tile shuffling table. When the round was over, they could push a button, and the table would open up, take the tiles in, shuffle them, and then give everyone the correct and equal number of tiles back. It was the first time I saw one of them, but not the last, as I once found myself and my punk rock band playing in an illegal mahjong gambling hall…but that’s a story for another day.

men playing Mahjong
Living quarters

Across from where we sat in this courtyard, we saw corn hanging to dry. It was a reminder of where we were and what these people's lives were like. They didn’t have many of the modern conveniences we take for granted. There was no grocery store down the road. They grew food, they foraged for food, they prepared their own food, and when needed they ordered-in some supplies, or went to town once in a while to gather them. It was humbling to watch how happy they were without all of the crap we fill our modern lives with. From behind the hanging corn, a small and wrinkled old woman emerged and told us our lunch was ready. They then brought out some dishes that turned the kids off immediately, as well as a couple of the adults. I, as you may know, love to eat. And so, was excited to see these locally grown and homemade specialties offered to us. They were amazing.

Corn drying
Homemade specialty dinner

Homemade specialty dinner
Homemade specialty dinner

After lunch, an older man with black teeth beckoned us to follow him. He handed out small baskets with a string attached and showed us how to wear them. These would be the receptacle for the tea we were about to pick. Yes, we were going to go and pick tea leaves from right from the plants…in China…on a mountain…at a tea plantation…How cool is that?

We strapped on the baskets and strode out of the slimy green moss to find our tea leaves. My son strapped on his Iron Man mask we had bought at a small shop in Pínglè. Earlier, I mentioned that I assumed we were at the top of the mountain. I was soon proven wrong. This seemingly ancient Chinese man lithely danced up the 2 million stairs that led up and up and up and up to the top of their tea fields. Meanwhile, we passed hundreds of perfectly good rows of tea plants…tea plants we could have stopped and picked. But, no. This sadistic old black-toothed pirate forced my out of shape behind all the way up.

Chinese man picking tea

Pathway to tea fields
On the way to pick tea

Once we reached a place he felt was far enough, and once he stopped laughing at my labored breathing, and once I repressed the urge to throw him from atop the mountain, we picked tea! Such a simple thing to be excited about, but it was really an enjoyable experience. The toothless wonder showed us which leaves we should choose, and which ones we shouldn’t. We smelled the leaves, we picked the leaves, we walked the rows of plants. It’s something that will stick with me forever. Not just the fact that I almost died in the humid soupy air as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other in an attempt to reach the summit of the plantation. But also because this old man had lived in that place his whole life, and had in fact never even left the area. He had no idea what social media was. He didn’t care about which famous movie stars were dating each other. He didn’t worry about what other people thought. Each day Blacktooth woke up, worked, played mahjong and drank, loved his family, went to sleep. Rinse, repeat. I got to experience just a tiny snapshot of what his life was like and I can honestly say that I respect the hell out of him, despite being snarky in this article and calling him Blacktooth. He did try to kill me, after all. So cut me some slack.

Before we left, I looked back down the long steps and took in the view that this old timer saw every single day. I inhaled the fresh mountain air deeply. Then I put on my son’s Iron Man mask and attempted to fly back down to the van since there was no way my jelly legs could walk back on those torturous and slippery green stone steps. Unfortunately, the power of flight continued to elude me. And so, I found myself cautiously walking out of the tea plantation with a basket full of tea, a belly full of good food, and a heart full of happiness at experiencing another truly beautiful adventure in China.

harvesting tea

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Joys of Orange Chicken; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; January 24, 2016.

Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; November 21, 2015.