China is so vast and its landscape so diverse that it hosts the highest peak in the world (Mount Everest) on the China-Nepal border and the third lowest point on earth (Ayding Lake) located in the northwest part of China. The country is also home to deserts, river deltas, great mountains and large plains.
Like most people I am intrigued by China. I marvel at the progress the country has made in the last few decades. I read articles on China showering praises on the country.
The country is a super power becoming number two in the world in GDP behind the U.S. According to some reports, the country is set to overhaul the U.S. in GDP in a decade or two. So I decided to make one tea tour in order to see how much truth or hype there is about China.
Tea Tour to China
I checked various tour options to visit the country. I decided on a customized tour package to China after a lot of deliberations. The tour appeared to be tailor made for me as a lover of the outdoors enjoying nature at its best. Being addicted to coffee I was apprehensive about tea tourism in China. But the buildup given to the tour was impressive and I made the final decision to make the tour.
Lush Greenery of Tea Plantations
I love the hilly areas for their natural topography and lush vegetation. The vast slopes offer tremendous views when viewed from the base of the hills. I love the views from the top of the hills. I saw the slopes merge into the valley below. Sometimes, I saw rivers flowing below.
When I first set eyes on tea gardens in China I fell in love with the greenery all around. I could see plantation workers in their colorful attire and even more colorful large hats picking tea leaves. The manicured tea plantations gave a sense of order on the slopes. The atmosphere surrounding the tea plantations made me feel at peace with myself. I began to wonder if I could stay here forever, though I know I could not do that.
While everything looked nice and beautiful from a distance as I was traveling on the world-class roads in China I was looking forward to the firsthand experience of witnessing the business of tea and tea plantations. I was not disappointed.
The place I chose to stay for the tea tour was Longjing village, 10 Km southwest of Hangzhou. Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province. The province is the largest producer of tea in China. It produces more than 75 percent of China’s production.
The whole province is one giant tea plantation. The climate and soil are perfect for growing tea. The province produces green tea throughout the year. It also grows the well-known Dragon Well green tea. Besides, the village produces green tea in its lush surroundings.
The village is an out-of-the-world experience as nothing of the hustle and bustle of a city shows. The houses located here are rural traditional and conventional houses. The entire village and its people consider growing tea as their sacred duty. They put their heart and soul into the activity. Thus, they are able to produce the best green tea including the Dragon Well tea.
The village is picture postcard perfect. The two hilly sides of the vast tea plantations look gorgeous. I spend quality time amidst these lush surroundings at the bungalow belonging to a plantation owner. I cherished the hospitality shown by the owner. I interact with the plantation workers. They taught me how to pluck tea leaves. Afterwards, I partook in the owner’s lunch and consume tea brewed there.
China National Museum
Zhejiang Province is the repository of all things associated with tea. The China National Museum is a veritable treasure hove of information on tea. The museum is like no other museum because it does not have walls but only vegetation and water as boundaries. The museum borders the enchanting West Lake lending a distinct charm to the museum. The museum traces the history of tea.
I visited the museum and discovered that it holds six halls. These six halls display all aspects of tea from plantation to processing and distribution. The museum showcases more than 300 varieties of tea produced in the country. The museum serves as a research station as well.
I enjoyed myself in this great place. I was able to taste many kinds of teas while witnessing a tea art performance.
If I ask anyone to name the largest consumed drink in the world I would get water as the answer. Yet, if I ask the next largest consumed drink, I may get different answers. Tea is the second largest consumed drink in the world. No one should feel surprised if I tell you that China and India are the two largest tea producing countries in the world, together accounting for more than 60 percent of world’s total production.
The reasons for the predominance of tea in China and India are straightforward. China and India have civilizations dating far back into history. Sichuan and Yunnan area in southwest China introduced tea to the world about 5,000 years ago. China uses herbs grown in hilly areas as curative substances. Tea is also considered as a healthy drink because it is also grown on the slopes of hills thus acquiring curative properties. In fact, for a long period tea was a health drink before it became a successful beverage.
Tea is grown in the hilly areas of China in the south and east as well as some parts of the west taking advantage of the humid and tropical to subtropical climate prevailing in the region.
I learn that there are many tea varieties. Tea gets classified in many ways including the place of origin and processing methods used.
Tea gets classified by the area in which it is grown and 20 areas produce tea with unique qualities. Most prominent provinces where tea is grown include Anhui, Henan, Hunan, Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang.
Varieties of Teas
Raw tea undergoes different types of processes based on which tea gets classified into green tea, black tea, oolong tea, compressed tea and scented tea.
Green tea, produced from non-fermented tea, involves picking tea leaves, drying them and packaging them ready for sale.
Full fermentation of green teas produces black tea. Sometimes black tea is also called as red tea.
Partial fermentation of green teas produces oolong tea.
Fermented tea compressed and stored in climate controlled cellars for different periods of time before sales provide unique flavors. Compressed tea is also known as brick tea or puerh tea. Production of compressed tea reminds me of wine.
Mixing flowers and plants during process of tea making produces scented teas. Popular flowers and plants used include magnolia, jasmine, rose, mint and citrus peel.
I also got the chance to taste different teas after witnessing tea processing firsthand. At first, I thought all teas were the same but after the tea lesson and help from the professionals I begin to distinguish different tastes. Experiencing tea tasting session in China I begin to respect my tongue more. In fact, I did not know that my tongue could do so much.
But, I marvel at the competence of the tea tasters and their professionalism. I now begin to discern the fresh grassy and nutty taste of green tea. When one of the tea tasters asked me to feel the smoothness of white tea I took four to five sips of tea to appreciate the taste. Being a lover of fruits and flowers I was able to identify the scented teas.
My exposure to the tea tasting master class in China has helped me to not only enjoy my new-found liking for tea but also appreciate my coffee better and my wine even better.
Most teas produced belong to two varieties of evergreen plants with botanical names’ camellia sinensis var. sinensis and camellia sinensis var. assamica. The camellia sinensis var. sinensis variety grows in China and the camellia sinensis var. assamica grows in India.
Tea bought by us undergoes a variety of processes before it comes into the market. It begins with the tea plantations where tea is grown. Tea plants begin to yield tea leaves 3 years after planting. Tea plants provide tea leaves for up to 50 years.
Plantations in China use techniques to extend the life of plants up to 100 years. They cut off the trunk allowing growth of new stems. Chinese planters employ innovative strategies and processes such as using soybean cake fertilizers instead of chemical ones to obtain higher yield. They also desist from using pesticides. Instead, they remove the pest infected plants preventing pest attacks on good plants.
During the harvest season when tea leaves are ready for harvesting workers pluck them. Tea plantations come alive during the harvest season. The well-manicured tea plants look gorgeous and green. Plantation workers dress for the occasion with full sleeved dresses to ward off the sun’s rays. Most of them also wear comfortable and functional large hats. Workers pluck leaves from the same plant several times during the harvest season as the leaves get ready for plucking at different times. Workers use small tools such as cutters attached to the finger to help pluck. Workers become skilled in plucking with experience. A seasoned picker plucks one to two pounds of tea leaves in a day.
Processing of tea starts soon after pluck. It involves drying in tea cauldrons. For some kinds of higher quality tea experienced workers hand process tea leaves using hand stirring methods in large frying pans known as woks. I admire the skills of the manual workers both men and women who dry the tea leaves in a rhythmic and well rehearsed manner. Workers keep stirring the tea leaves by hand till the process is complete.
The entire tea growing and processing follows a manual process with only a few of the steps mechanized. Mechanized drying helps dry leaves faster.
Though I didn’t capture all the nuances of tea processing I saw for myself that it is a laborious process and involves dedication from every worker starting from the owner down to the last worker. The hard work put in by all the workers pay rich dividends as people all over the world regard Chinese tea as among the best in the world.
Benefits of Tea
Tea has substances such as vitamin C, amino acids, and high concentration of catechins (antioxidants) that work for us every time we drink a cup of black tea or green tea to keep us healthy and fit. Tea improves the functions of the lungs and heart. It keeps bacterial diseases at bay. It keeps our skin glowing and stimulates our brain. A cup of tea is invigorating by itself and lifts our spirits.
Chinese Tea Culture
Chinese tea has captured the imagination of people all over the world. But, its culture associated with tea is amazing. You can experience Chinese tea culture only in China. China is an elaborate and involved ritual. China is both an art and science. China is a social and business custom. It defines Chinese hospitality in homes. It serves as a concluding custom for striking a business deal. It serves as a place for settling social and business disagreements.
Tea Houses Reflect Chinese Tea Culture
Chinese tea culture manifests in homes with individualized customs. But in public, Chinese Tea Houses display a particular charm. Tea houses flourished under all dynasties starting from ancient times. Today, more than 25,000 tea houses populate the streets in China.
Tea houses perfect their own way of depicting tea culture. Their culture is unique in respect of the processs including brewing. They prepare special brews to suit different times during the day. They have their own way of poring tea into the cup. They use tea pots with proprietary designs. They design special tea pots and cups. More often, they expect their teas to be drunk in a particular fashion.
Tea houses remind me so much of the coffee shops that I frequent wherever I travel in the world.
Tea houses offer tea based on seasons. In winter season they offer tea laced with substances to keep the body warm. In summer, they entice you with teas made to drive away the heat.
My visit to a prominent tea house was exhilarating. The tea house design appeared to be right from an ancient dynasty year book. I am greeted with a sunshine smile by the tea house staff. They wear a traditional dress representing an ancient dynasty. I noted the staff holding teapots and cups in their hands ready to serve me.
Once I sat down, I experienced the waiter’s expertise in tea serving. The waiter placed the cups, saucers and covers in front of me in a ritualistic move. He then poured water from the pot onto the cup placed before me from the top of the right side behind me. Once the water was full in my cup he withdrew the pot in a smooth and quick action without spilling a drop on me or the table.
Chinese Tea Culture and Behavior
Chinese tea culture signifies many important behavior patterns. Serving tea by younger people to elders is a sign of respect. During wedding ceremonies wedded couples serve tea to their elders as a mark of respect. Family members visit tea houses to catch up on news and bond with each other. People take their guests to a tea house to show their hospitality. Children serve tea to their parents as a mark of repentance for any misdemeanors.
Chinese tea culture involves certain mannerisms to convey thanks for serving tea. On serving tea by the waiter, tapping the table with bent fingers or nodding the head represents a “thank you.”
Tea culture pervades all sections of society in China. Even the poorest of the poor owns tea brewing equipment to serve tea. Tea serving signifies welcome to a house guest. Tea culture applies to the guest as well. Standing and consuming tea is a sign of disrespect. Consuming tea while seated is the proper custom. Folding napkin during tea drinking is a superstition that keeps bad energy out. In fact, for the Chinese, tea ranks as one of the seven daily necessities.
Customs and Rituals in Provinces
In the Beijing area tea houses revel in storytelling. Decoration of tea houses here assists tea drinkers to listen to stories with great attention. Tea houses also provide pergolas outside to let customers enjoy tea drinking. Further, these tea houses encourage chess playing.
Tea houses in Hangzhou care about management and international practices. The province hosts the National Tea Expo Fair and The West Lake International Tea Party.
Tea houses in Tianjin province provide an atmosphere which is unique to the province. Tea drinkers frequent to tea houses here take part in “cross talk” listening. In “cross talk” tea drinkers listen in the open to other people talk while drinking tea without being self-conscious.
Tea houses in Guangdong province sport ostentatious facades. Families go to stand-alone tea houses for family reunions. Reputed hotels also provide separate tea houses within their hotel premises.
Tea houses in Chengdu Province host artistic talent. Tea houses sport artworks involving flowers, painting and calligraphy.
China – Land of History, Nature, Culture, Customs, Modernity
China does everything on a grand scale. The country has a deep sense of history that is over 5,000 years old. China maintains its traditions even today. Tourists from all over the world flock to China to witness firsthand the progress made by the country. China ranks as the country with the third largest influx of international visitors. According to World Tourism Organization (WTO) more than 56 million foreigners visited China in 2015. WTO estimates that by 2020 China would welcome 135 million visitors. This would place China as the country with the largest influx of foreign visitors.
Great Wall of China
China’s deep sense of history and presence of many places of interest attract foreign visitors. The Great Wall of China presents a marvel of engineering for the times. The wall represents China’s prowess in construction and foresight to protect its borders from enemy attack. The wall runs for 8850 Km from east to west. The wall made its first appearance 2000 years ago. During the Ming Dynasty about 700 years ago, the present wall got a makeover. The Great Wall presents an incredible sight for the visitor.
Culture, History and Nature
Besides the Great Wall, China offers cultural, historical and natural sites as places of interest.
Among the cultural and historic sites China offers grottoes representing art along the ancient Silk Road. Art comprises stupendous sculptures and murals. The Mogao Caves depict Chinese oriental art at its best in 492 caves.
The huge number of statues and murals on the faces of cliffs display grandeur and artistry. China’s southern region showcases the stone sitting Buddha, 28×71 meters in size. I wonder how the craftsmen sculpted the statue.
Henan in Central China represents the recorded birth of Chinese civilization about 3000 years ago. The area plays host to Shang Dynasty ruins and the Shaolin Temple. Among the eight capitals of ancient China, Henan accounts for four of them – Luoyang, Anyang, Kaifeng, and Zhengzhou.
China hosts many unique customs. The Buddhist Goddess of Mercy gets remembered every year through March Street celebrated in Dali, Yunnan. Yunnan also celebrates the Water-Sprinkling Festival in spring. Besides pouring water over people to bring luck, the people celebrate by holding peacock dance and dragon boat races. Lugu Lake, the area between Yunnan and Sichuan, hosts the Mosuo people who represent the women’s kingdom where the tradition of marriage does not exist.
Lijiang in Yunnan represents many cultures such as Bai, Tibetan, Han, Nakhi and Dongba. The city came up during the Song Dynasty. The city presents a kaleidoscope of dwelling houses, stone memorial arches and stone bridges that speak of the advancement made at the time.
China offers some incredible natural surroundings. The Yangtze River and the area south of the river present fabulous sights of natural beauty. The region goes by the sobriquet ‘paradise on earth.’ The area abounds in picturesque villages, lush green fields, quaint old bridges, streams, brooks, rivers and lakes.
China’s natural beauty encompasses grand mountains, lovely lakes, large cave systems, eye-catching valleys and shimmering waterfalls. The most popular mountains in Central China comprise the Five Sacred Mountains which have a history as old as time. Among the waterfalls Huangguoshu Waterfalls in southwest China takes one’s breath away because of their 18 falls above the ground and 4 below the ground. The crystal clear waters of Tianchi Lake shimmer in the Tianshan Mountains 2000 meters above sea level.
The Yangtze River provides some beautiful sites. The area also hosts several deep gorges with rolling water and reefs. On a clear day the gorges’ bottoms show up through the clear water. This area provides hydro-power through the Three Gorges Dam.
China matches up to any of the European countries or Japan or the U.S. in modern systems. Most airports present a picture of functionality and efficiency. Road systems embrace modern technology. Rail systems score better than other comparable systems anywhere in the world. I took a bullet train from the Shanghai airport to the city covering a distance of 32 Km in 8 minutes. China’s tourism industry caters to all kinds of tourists from the poor to the ultra rich. China’s domestic tourism outstrips international tourism.
All in all, China stands up to its image of doing things on a large scale.
At the end of the tour I felt satisfied with the knowledge and experience I gained. I never did imagine that tea drinking involved so many processes starting from plantations to plucking to processing. The tea tasting sessions became the high point of my stay as I began to appreciate tea in all its glory. I marveled at the dedication shown by workers across the industry be it the plantation workers, the tea tasters, the manual workers handling manual processing, packers and sellers.
I always felt that there was nothing to coffee (the drink I am used to). But after witnessing the tea industry in China I begin to love my coffee ever more. I may yet start drinking tea at least once a day. Knowing that the people behind my tea depend on me for their livelihood I may enjoy my tea drinking much more.
China is a wonderful country, huge by any standards. I am amazed at the size of all its activities. I sometimes feel that it is a much more progressive country than many other countries of the world. The sights in China, the customs, the cultures, the natural landscapes, the historical places and the modern transportation systems take my breath away and I gasp for more.
China should form a definite part of the itinerary when one plans a vacation the next time around. Consider a tea tour to China. Tea tourism in China has stupendous attractions.