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Published: September 29th 2011
Chongqing tea market. After the vows are exchanged, toasts made and the lives of Jacob and Lynn joined until 'death do they part', we will be heading out to explore the sacred tea mountains, the birthplace and only home to Pu'er tea, and the beginning of the ancient tea horse road to Tibet.
There can be no better place to start our journey than the tea markets of Chongqing. We begin here to explore the pleasures of Pu'er tea and the rituals sorrounding it. Jacob and Lynn take us to the area of the city devoted to tea. We pass shop after shop dedicated to tea and the implements used to prepare and serve it. We are looking for a shop that specializes in Pu'er; a unique fermented tea grown only in Yunnan along the Burmese Laotian borders with China.
Jacob and Lynn lead us to a store with a pathway from the entrance made of tile. On the tile, inscribed in classical Chinese are the words 'Ancient Tea Horse Road'. We know we have come to the right place. The ancient tea horse road consists of a net work of pathways all leading from Yunnan to Tibet. For
a thousand years the Chinese loaded horses and men with cakes of tea wrapped in bamboo and made the trek - which took as long as two years - over treacherous mountain passes to Tibet. During the journey the tea underwent a natural fermentation process giving it a unique character not possessed by any other tea. Upon arrival in Tibet they exchanged the tea for prized Tibetan war horses. The tea was used by the Tibetans to create a vital staple of their diet: butter tea made with yak butter.
The tea with a history of a thousand years is still made today and, when made traditionally and well-aged like a fine wine, is a culinary treasure. A prized batch in the shop we were in today sells for $12,000 a pound!
Upon our arrival we are welcomed by the shop owner who knows Jacob and Lynn. We are invited to sample some of their Pu'er tea.
Forget any image you have about drinking a cup of tea. This is China and this is Pu'er. There is no country that knows as much about tea as China and there is no other tea like Pu'er. The preparations for
the tea are set up on a beautiful wooden table expressly made for preparing tea. It has a drain to collect the spilled tea and water that is poured over the cups and the pot to warm them in advance. The cups are tiny, holding no more than two tablespoons. We will drink to to 20 cups prepared from a single handful of Pu'er leaves. The leaves are placed in a tiny tea pot holding no more than a cup. Boiling water is poured into the pot. The leaves expand and the tea is decanted into a separate glass pitcher. The first pour is discarded directly onto the table and down it goes to the drain which may be made of brass and carved with a symbol for tea.
The second steeping of the same leaves is 10 seconds long. The tea is quickly decanted into the glass pitcher and then poured into our tiny cups. By the time we have reached the seventh or eighth pour the time for steeping has increased to a minute. We are served tiny tea candies - a sort of nut brittle made of peanuts and tea which is chewer than our peanut brittle and compliments the tea perfectly.
If you are very very good and first in line you may be able to have a piece when we come home. However, it is probably wise not to count on it. We have 75 more hours of train rides ahead of us and these candies are very, very good.
I should also warn you that Jacob is bringing his backpack-sized ceremonial tea set on the train with a supply of Pu'er so it remains to be seen how many candies survive our travels.
After more cups of tea than we can count our tea party is finished. We find an exquisite tea table for the KitKats to bring home and head down the street to a dumpling shop that Lynn and Jacob recommend. We shovel down piles of yummy dumplings with peanut sauce and wontons. ( I should confess that I am using a little literary license when I claim to be able to 'shovel' anything with chopsticks!)
Tonight we are honored with an invitation for dinner at the home of Lynn's parents. We have our train tickets to Kunming and when we go to bed tonight instead of sugar plums we will have visions of Chinese wedding dresses and tea trees dancing in our heads. How blessed we are.
P.S. The reply travel blog sent by Shannon form San Juan Island reminds us that, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson - ''the world is so full of a number of things, I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.'
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