It's funny how some adventures begin... particularly in tea... this trip that I embarked on, to Guizhou, China, began at a family gathering I was at, over Christmas holidays in the countryside of England. I was speaking with my brother-in-law(?) - unsure that's the correct definition - as he's the husband to the sister of the husband of my sister in law... but any case, Neil and I were talking about life, plants, his passion for health drinks, my passion for tea, and me having become certified as a tea sommelier, in pursuit of what was to be my lifelong tea studies. "You should speak with my friend, Rui," he said - "yea... she's got some really good teas... she's a very interesting woman, a London-based tea sommelier, originally from China. I think you two would get on well..."
Emails, Skype chats, and WeChats were exchanged, and thank you, Neil, we got on very well indeed! I told Rui that I wanted to visit her when she was back in her hometown of Guizhou over spring time... Rui would be there with her Tea Master for harvest, and for her gorgeous tea company Grass People Tree... and to get married(!)... and I already had plans to explore China at that time, as I wanted to see Fujian and Hangzhou, too.
A month later, I was in Austin, TX for SXSW, and I stopped by for tea at my friend SoHan's place, the Guan Yin teahouse. A local puerh tea collector, David Ramos, who I had met via Instagram, no less, had introduced me to SoHan Fan months ago. I had been back and forth to Austin a few times, collaborating with my friend Krystle and Rob's company, Preacher, on a special project.
"SoHan, why don't you come to China with me in a few weeks!" I believe this Instagram photo documented that tea drunk moment of "Heck, yes!", rather nicely.
I told SoHan about Rui, and Rui about SoHan, and we all got stoked about exploring Guizhou terroir and tea, together, 'tea nerd' style - several group text chats later, and it was on. SoHan also found two other tea enthusiasts, Jess and Nat, to join in the fun last-minute, and so we had a little tea caravan ready to rock. One small thing... I was the only one whose Mandarin didn't extend much past "Nǐ hǎo. Wǒ kěyǐ hē chá ma?" ... or... "shui?" (Hello. May I have some tea?" ... or... "water?") But I didn't care. I got my ten year China visa, and was ready for some tai cha (a special cultivar tea, from Guizhou).
Below is a little travel diary...
April 18, 2018
The overnight flight itself was crowded, from Los Angeles to Beijing... but I had a window seat, and two neck pillows (this is what I call my "double decker" red eye style... and if you really want a how-to selfie, go check out my Taiwan 'TOST' tea adventure post)... I also had an extraordinarily strong desire for sleep that only a toddler mom and entrepreneur (#momboss!) can truly understand. So, I actually found the 2am redeye to China to be a decent get-onto-the-new-time-zone vessle. I was oddly refreshed, cross the pond upon arrival...
Through customs and pat-downs by 6:30am, I made my way towards the next gate, where I settled into a coffee bar... there, I was given a cute teddy bear table ticket, which reminded me of something I had as a kid. Made me smile - it's the little things.
My flight to Guiyang was delayed, but Rui and her friend Ray, who I was to be meeting there, let me know that delays are no surprise in China! Right on! I am feeling so fortunate that Rui came into my life. She is a breath of fresh air and inspiration, offering so much insight into the tea community of China overall, and as a local who grew up in Guizhou, she's a Godsend! Guizhou is a less explored and harder to access region, but super clean, fertile, and home to many indigenous tribes... where they are producing some beautiful tea...
At my gate, a man is practicing Qigong, and soon I am off for flight number two, to Guiyang. On that flight, I figured I should flex my scant beginners Mandarin, and I ask for shui, water. I am handed orange juice, and I accept it politely. Oh, boy...
I arrive, feeling so fortunate to be able to take this touristy trip with tea geek friends and experience first hand the sights, smells, taste, people, and energy of this special spot, Guizhou. Much to learn...
Rui's friend, Ray, picked me up at Guiyang, and immediately made me feel welcome. He gave me the lay of the land and explained quite a few facets of Chinese culture that I wasn't totally aware of, nor accustomed to just yet. For example, Ray commented... "In the US, it's quite easy for you to move around to different cities, right? Like there are no laws or rules about it...?" Of course it was, I said - it was very simple, actually! Though he explained the rules in China were changing a bit, there was something called the Hukou system, which added a layer to making a move... So many things to get up to speed on... But I digress... We dropped my things off at a cute boutique hotel on the river, which Rui had recommended, and after every page of my passport was photocopied as due diligence, I then went straight to Tea Master's house in Guiyang, where Rui and I sat for tea! This woman was an angel! We had much in common, and a really nice flow. She immediately shared with me several teas that were unique to Guiyang, which her Tea Master had produced. We had a lovely 'fermented green', which tasted much like the Bao Zhong I had in Taiwan, except it was grassier and of a more mellow quality. Because of the climate there, she said they'd set the leaves out in baskets to whither for twenty to forty days... they'd ferment and oxidize. Because they left so much of the leaf stem on the pluck which contained moisture, and because of the extended time out for withering, they explained it really was fermenting, too. The cultivar they use is called "Bird King". I wound up purchasing a bit, to share... We also had a beautiful osthmanthus red tea, which was created with the osthmanthus flowers of a beautiful old tree right outside of the room where we sat.
After tea, Rui took me to one of her favorite spots in Guiyang, a little hidden restaurant up on the second floor of an unmarked building. And, oh my goodness, it was one of the most favorite meals of my life! And all for $6. It was almost all vegan except for some pork cracklings. Afterwards, we went to a local spa for massages, chrysanthemum tea, hot spicy noodles (a Guiyang specialty), we got glass cupping on our feet (never had it done there!), and foot baths with special herbal dressings. The moral of this story is that I need to find a way to shower Rui back with love as soon as possible. This was all happening, of course, while Rui was in the midst of her wedding planning (she was only a week away!), and other major life happenings. Such gratitude for this amazing woman... "Our meeting is Yuánfen," Rui explained to me. What beautiful meaning, that this Yuánfèn encompasses.
April 19, 2018
After a night by the river, and morning tea at my hotel, the rest of our crew, SoHan, Jess, and Nat, joined up together. We all had our first group sit at Tea Masters house, and then a lunch of fish sour soup, which was delicious. However, one of our waiters looked like he was seven years old, but had a lot of white hair, which I was told due to malnutrition and stress... I immediately felt the pang to begin some sort of foster process... This desire often kicks in when I meet kids anywhere, who are in need. (Someday, I will.) We then hopped into our car to get out to the hot springs, which was close to where Rui's tea farmer friend had his organic garden and manufacture property situated.
There is a funny thing that happens in China, however... speaking of longer moments of time in smaller, intimate spaces... where people watch video on their iPhones, without plugging into a headset. Wowza. It's this cultural thing that I am told is just super normal, and so on our drive out to the hot springs, our drivers girlfriend, who came along last-minute - did just that. Now, I didn't understand 95% of what was being said in her Chinese soap opera, nor could I see it on her screen, however Jess, who spoke Mandarin, asked her to please use a headset, for Nat's sake, who was sharing the front seat - and, that's another story. Any case, it was interesting to observe the culturally accepted noise differential there. And this wasn't to be the last time! We had a train ride in a couple days, etc...
When we arrived at the hot springs town, we had dinner with the most kind-hearted Tea Master farmer, Rao Deng Xiang, and his wonderful colleague, at a local restaurant. There, we had amazingly fresh organic vegetable based soup. All of the produce was local - it was some of the best veg I've tasted - delicious! Next of course, was more tea... and then I had a long-ass bath, and slept deeply.
April 20, 2018
In the mountains above the hot springs, our local Tea Master friends took us to an area where there were wild ancient tai cha... purple tea!... on the way, we had guan guan cha, which was tai cha boiled in clay vessels over charcoal. It was done that way for centuries, and heart warming, to see it first hand 'in the wild'. We went up the mountain to a remote village, picking wild cherries to snack on along the way, at Rao's suggestion... he is a man who surely embodies 'joie de vivre' qualities. At the top there was a village, with two bamboo baskets full of wild purple tea, which the locals had set out. We couldn't resist getting up close and personal, for the delicious aroma... Bonus: In this village, we also met some very sweet pigs, on our way to the toilets. Jess captured them perfectly, here. Just look at those sweet faces! Oink!
Further up the road, we hiked for a bit and met the wild tea trees, growing beautifully as they do, with epic views of the countryside. (Here is a video I took, along our walk.) We found a baby snake, and nibbled on some of the fresh clean tea leaves. We even got to see a few of the tai cha leaves that had begun to turn purple, which were almost ready for plucking. At that point, however, I began to have an escalating health issue, which actually had started when I first landed... and was in a bit of pain. Maybe it was the stress I felt in leaving my son behind? Unsure... but... for it, I hoped that maybe tea seed oil would help, and so our Guizhou friends set out to bring fresh bottles of it. We had lunch, back in town. Running water taps were more scarce at this part, and so we washed our hands in the buckets full of clean soapy water on the street. After our tasty lunch, which was made by warm, kind-hearted people, we went over to Rao's farm. It was the only organic certified tea farm in all of Guizhou (of which we were told there are roughly seventy organic certified in China!) The tea garden was a vast bliss to breathe and take in... Some happy cows were munching on the outskirts of the garden - who could blame them? (I video'd them, here.) And we snapped some epic photos from the pavilion, in the middle of Rao's property, at magic hour.
Rao took us over to his tasting room, and shared five different tai cha teas. They were super fresh and amazing - all of them so unique, and what wonderful Qi! I bought several packs to take home and share with friends... and I would surely be in touch about purchasing more teas from him, in the future! The love that went into his work, his passion, was quite evident. We finished up with a delicious homemade dinner by his crew, and then drove through the night to our next destination, Duyan... at 3am we arrived, and we all crashed pretty hard!
April 21, 2018
Waking up at the hotel in Duyan, with an absolutely agreed-upon belated start after our 3am arrival... we set out for lunch, to meet Rui's dear friend Chloe, who was going to be showing us around... After a full lunch, where I couldn't get enough of some sweet corn and pineapple pastry things (one more basket, xiè-xiè?!)... we went up the mountains, where the countryside was so clean and clear and lovely... Shhh!!! SoHan and I thought - let's let Duyan be our little secret! We didn't want to share this beauty with anyone else! (Amended note, from May, a few weeks later - CNN did a nice piece on Guizhou here, and mentions Duyan.)
We pulled off of the roadside for a moment, to take in this beauty, which a photo certainly doesn't do justice... (I took some video, too, here.)
And then, we went to see Chloe's family garden near the waterfront... there, at the water there was a sign posted to say that it was so clean, you could drink it! We ventured over to the town nearby afterwards, where a woman demonstrated chaq'ing (pan-firing) tea leaves. Goodness, her hands would tell a thousand stories, fully calloused and blistered from the hot work at hand... In gratitude to all of the makers... and also wishing there was another way... SoHan took a portrait of her hands here, and shared some further insight as well.
Soon, we were off to Chloe's tea room, where she served us reverently and with such grace... Chloe spoke of the many energetic ways that she personally learned to pour... underlining how important it was to always begin serving by pouring towards the left, which meant welcoming. Towards the right, was reserved for the completion, to send away... Chloe had studied in one of the most prestigious programs, in Hangzhou - it was an honor to sit with her. I immediately fell in love with a tea she served towards the middle of our sit... it was a white tea, aged three years after having been fermented in a special cave for two days. It had a gorgeous champagne, earthy, and sweet quality to it. I brought a bunch back, as gifts for family and friends. However, you might be able to purchase some from SoHan at Guan Yin tea house in Austin, TX... if you're interested...
Afterwards, we went for dinner, where there was a special wine tradition by the locals... they came to the table playing music, wearing ornate costumes, and poured the wine from the bottles into everyones mouths. It was quite entertaining! I skipped my turn, as my health issue was increasingly painful, and I felt wine wouldn't do the nuance of it any favors. (Though I could have been wrong there, in retrospect!) Shui all the way! We grabbed a train back to Guiyang and then went back to the hotels by the river for the night...
April 22, 2018
It was a bittersweet morning in Guizhou, as we were departing in the afternoon... I had my morning meditation (I practice Transcendental Meditation), and tea, and then a solo breakfast of rice porridge, oranges, and cantaloupe, some egg and pastry... I sat in silence, observing the riverside, the people passing by, the serene feelings...
We went for our final tea with Rui, at Master's house in Guiyang... And then one more meal at the magical hidden restaurant on the second floor - "all the good ones are hidden here!" Rui explained to our group. Everyone understood why, once the food was served... our group fell silent upon enjoying the deliciousness that we savored! It was like tapas on pancakes, someone remarked!
After putting in our tea orders - I got a batch of 'Bird King' to share back home ... the osthmanthus red, I was going to drink, solo... ;) We were off to the airport, with slightly teary-eyed goodbyes... of course these feelings were accompanied by see-you-agains, no doubt! Guizhou, and our guides there, were magic. It would be impossible not to return...
And off to Fujian we went... (stay tuned for a separate entry, for that region!)