Centuries ago, weary tea and horse traders travelling along the Ancient Tea-Horse Road 茶马古道 passed through Lijiang en-route to or from Shangri-la. Bricks of pu-erh tea 普洱茶 were bartered for Tibetan horses amongst the merchants.
It was in Lijiang, which is in China’s Yunnan province, where my budding love affair with Chinese tea started. The year was 2008 and you can read more about this trip here.
In Shuhe village, the modest Ancient Tea-Horse Road Museum 茶马古道博物馆 provides some information about this historical route. The former residence of a scholar, the museum was constructed in the style of the traditional Lijiang house with curved grey-tile roofs and single-storey buildings around a tranquil courtyard.
When I entered the museum, I was a complete tea novice. I had no idea what to expect. After all, my experience with the beverage was limited to cheap bitter Chinese tea served at wedding dinners, chrysanthemum ‘tea’ and teh tarik (‘pulled’ milk tea).
Imagine sitting around a low table for over an hour in a dim room cloaked in an earthy scent that is reminiscent of damp soil. Every few minutes, freshly steeped pu-erh is poured into a tiny cup for you to taste, smell and see how the tea has evolved. Conversations and smiles are exchanged amongst a small group of strangers, bounded by their curiosity and/or passion for tea. Every now and then, a sigh of contentment fills the room.
I left the museum thoroughly impressed.
When I was in Hangzhou, China with my family in 2010, we visited a Longjing tea 龙井茶 plantation. It was scenic and the tea, fragrant, but it didn’t leave as much of an impression as the enormous Presidential Villa that we stayed in at Banyan Tree Hangzhou.
Even then, the sprawling 400 square metres of luxury including the private jacuzzi could not compare with the experience of cruising through the Xixi National Wetland Park 西溪国家湿地公园 (within which the hotel is located).
After boarding the boat, longjing tea was offered in paper cups together with a thermos of hot water. Was the tea particularly special? Not really.
However, cruising past the mangroves, chatting with my family and the boatman, and sipping the tea amid the peaceful surrounds made for a sublime experience. One that makes me smile every time I browse through the photographs taken on that balmy afternoon.
The photographs at Xixi Wetland Park were taken with a Lomo LC-A and Fuji Sensia 200 film.