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Visiting the Longjing Village to Try Authentic Green Tea

Longjing is without a doubt China’s best known green tea and it is grown by the side of the West Lake in Hangzhou, just a few minutes drive from General Yue Fei’s tomb that I wrote about in my last post. I decided to visit the Longjing village to try the tea at its source, as well as to hopefully visit some plantations.

longjing villageI arrived at the Weng Family Village, one of fours villages in the Longjing village area which produces the authentic tea. Walking through the village its immediately apparent the wealth here; for a Chinese village the houses are built incredibly well, and there were expensive cars parked outside every one. Towards the top of the village is a well, the sign explained that it was the original Dragon Well, from which Longjing takes its name (longjing means dragon well in Chinese). Several old women sat on a bench next to the well, and as soon as I approached they got out their buckets, asking me if I wanted to wash my hands and face with the water. Nothing comes free in this world, and it seemed odd how pushy they were offering these buckets “for free”, so I politely refused them. They then started pestering me to go and buy tea at one of their shops. I left, and continued to stroll, hoping to find a decent shop where I could try the local tea without being pestered.

I was in luck, I chose one quiet looking shop at random, and this old lady was sitting inside with a sweet smile. She invited me to try some tea, and I could immediately tell she was different. It turned out that she was a member of the Weng family, and had been growing tea for generations. Her husband was the tea master, and she was in charge of running the shop. She also told me I was smart for not touching the well, as althought it was the real Dragon Well, the water inside was currently polluted as so many people had moved into the village and built substandard bathrooms that essentially pumped sewage straight into it! These were the same people pestering visitors at the well in question!

I tried her green tea, as well as a Longjing black tea…. something I never even knew existed! It was really good though; a light and fresh black tea, very different to your normal Chinese blacks. Anyway, I will leave it there, and let you enjoy the video of my trip there.

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The Tomb of General Yue Fei – Hangzhou

Yue Fei

Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, is only a 90 minute journey by high-speed train from Shanghai, and the city centre doesn’t feel a whole lot different. What is different, however, is the amount of culture and history surrounding the West Lake. Of particular interest to martial artists, as well as patriotic Chinese, is the tomb of General Yue Fei.

Yue Fei was a general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1179). The Song Dynasty was a period of strong cultural developments but very weak military. The emperors were focused mostly on pursuing art and poetry, and neglected the defense of their borders. As a result, they were constantly plagued by raids from nomadic horseback peoples from the north. One such group, the Jurchen, grew to great strength and eventually sacked the capital of Kaifeng (in today’s Henan province), claiming it as their own and setting up the Jin Dynasty. The Song court fled south, and set up their new capital in Hangzhou. In fact, the Jurchen are the very same people who founded China’s last Dynasty, the Qing, after renaming themselves the Manchu hundreds of years later.

Yue FeiYue Fei was a native of Henan province, and made it his lifelong ambition to retake his homeland from the northern Barbarians. At a young age he began his martial arts training by learning archery and the 18 weapons from legendary figure Zhou Tong. He later learnt and mastered the spear, which became his speciality from Cheng Guang. It was this spear technique that, according to legend, influenced him to create an empty hand fighting style, known as Xinyi-Liuhe Quan. This style was based on Liuhe (six harmonies), which in essence meant the body moving in unity, much as you would move wielding a spear. How much of this is fact, and how much is pure myth is pretty much impossible to ascertain. But what we can take from this, is that as many modern martial arts styles claim descendancy from his original technique, he was a figure worthy of martial artists admiration. I put this down to his efforts to fight the Jurchen, a notion which many creators of contemporary martial arts could empathise with, growing up under the Manchu rule where Han were considered second class citizens.

Yue Fei was eventually betrayed by a group of people, led by Qin Hui, and wrongly sentenced to death. In front of his grave you can see several bronze statues of these traitors, forever cursed to kneel in front in a gesture of begging forgiveness. It’s normal for Chinese visitors to the tomb to spit on the statues or wave their hands and curse them. Something which there are now signs up asking tourists not to engage in.

Yue Fei was post-humously pardoned, and this large temple and tomb was set up for him by a later emperor. Since that time, its been customary for both martial artists and patriotic Chinese to come to Hangzhou to pay their respects to the general, as did I on my recent trip to Hangzhou.

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Heroes of Martial Arts Qi Jiguang, Yu Dayou & Taizhou Great Wall

qi jiguangGood News! I’m starting a new project called The Real Heroes of Martial Arts, which will be on my Youtube channel (follow the link to subscribe). For the first episode, I went to Taizhou in Zhejiang province to look at the generals Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou and discuss their relevance to martial arts. We all know of the Great Wall, its one of the most visited places in China, but Taizhou has its own mini Great Wall built by Qi Jiguang himself in the Ming Dynasty to defend the area from Wokou, or Japanese pirates.

 

 

 

 

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A Perfect Day in Angkor Wat

Today’s guest post is by Sara, who runs the blog The Bag Under the Bed.

Among all Asian countries I have visited, Cambodia is one of my favorites.

It’s true, it’s not as popular as Thailand, or posh as Japan but this country holds a special place in my heart.

In October 2015, I flew there for a short time before heading to Vietnam.

Even if my husband and I didn’t have much time to spend in Cambodia, we knew, for sure, that we couldn’t miss a stop at the famous Angkor Wat complex.

According to the Unesco website “Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple that with its countless sculptural decorations, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of the giant stone faces. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.”

angkor wat

Really impressive, isn’t?

Angkor Wat is more or less 330 km (205 miles) far from the capital city, Phnom Penh.

To cover this distance was the main problem to solve since we were traveling on a tight schedule.

By doing some online search, I found out that there are several domestic flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the closest city to the temple area.

The problem was that, even if the flight was only 50 minutes, we were worried about the time we had to spend at the airport. We calculated that we were going to waste, at least, half a day for a very short flight. As if this was not enough, the cost was around 200$ return per person.

We felt discouraged since we had no clue about how to make it to Angkor Wat but we didn’t want to give up on our goal! I don’t know how much time I had spent on the Internet before I stumbled upon the Giant Ibis website. This Asian bus company connects Phnom Pehn and Angkor Wat, daily.

But…surprise, surprise, they also have night buses (departure times 10.30 pm – 11.00 pm – 11.30 pm) This turned out to be the perfect solution for us.

The night buses are modified vehicles (they feature single sleepers with their own recharge stations). A blanket and bottle of water are included in the price ticket. On the bus, there is also a toilet.

All of this for 15$ (plus 1$ for the credit card processing fee).

We spent in total 32$ return for a 6 hours ride. The bust departed from the Central Market in Phnom Penh (immediately outside the Giant Ibis office).

We slept comfortably during the entire ride.

Very early in the morning, we were in Siem Reap.

We had made prior agreements with our tuk-tuk driver to come and pick us up at the bus terminal.

angkor wat passHis name was Mr. Phally.

We had found his website on the Internet and decided to contact him while organizing our excursion to Angkor Wat. The several positive reviews about his services convinced us to hire him.

He offered to take us around the archeological site with his tuk-tuk and to provide also an English guide, for more or less 50$

After the meeting, we arrived at the Angkor Wat Ticket Center (it opens at 5.00 am and closes at 5.30 pm)

We paid the ticket to get a one day pass.

On the pass there was our picture too, that was taken directly at the counter. This because the passes are strictly personals.

Back then the ticket was 20$ per person (quite expensive if you consider that the monthly average salary in Cambodia is 80-100$).

UPDATE: The price has almost doubled, from February 2017.

The one day pass costs now 37$ (a quite substantial increase, I would say).

Passes are available for 1, 3, 7 days and both cash and credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, UnionPay, JCB, Discover and Diners Club) are accepted.

We knew very well that we were going to enter a religious place so we made sure to have our shoulders and knees covered.

Since when traveling, we feel like guests in a foreign country, we try our best in being respectful of the local religion, custom, and culture.

Our first stop was Angkor Thom, the grandest iconic temple, and then we continued to Bayon, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of its giant stone smiling faces. During the rest of the day we had the chance to visit the Victory Gate, Thommanon, Chau say Thevoda, Ta Keo temples, and the Elephant Terrace. Our English speaking guide was always with us, providing explanations about the architecture and the history of the Khmer Empire. After each stop, we were offered fresh water and towels from Mr. Phally that, in the meantime, was also guarding our backpacks.  We had lunch in a local restaurant inside the complex and we could rest and relax for a while. Our visit continued to Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple), Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang temples.

It was incredible to see how the vegetation and the majestic trees had been able to become part of the architecture style in itself. We couldn’t help but sit down on a rocky bench, admiring in awe, the fairy scenario in front of us.

We appreciated very much not only the visit but also the time spent with our guide. He allowed us to ask several questions about life in Cambodia, about the challenges of living in a developing country and what do locals think of the hordes of tourists invading the Siem Reap area.

It was a truly enlighting excursion, very spiritual and carefree.

Yes, mere words can’t express how it feels to visit Angkor Wat.

We also met some of the “Angkor Wat children”. Every day, the kids living in the area, enter the complex and try to sell postcards or pens to tourists.

They are friendly, maybe a little bit pushy, but really sweet. You can’t help but be moved to compassion toward them. A little girl stopped us; she wanted to sell us something. We didn’t buy anything, instead, we gave her some small money and we asked her for a picture. Maybe, not everybody would agree with doing this but we felt that, at the end of the day, that money could just give a help to a struggling family.

Our day just flew away.

We left the complex after having enjoyed a magical sunset.

We spent the rest of the evening exploring Siem Reap and its vast local market. There were also stalls selling typical food: snakes, cockroaches, scorpions, and other various insects. They were all boiled or fried, ready to be eaten. Sorry to say but we couldn’t make it, we ended up having a burger at the Hard Rock Café.

At around 11.00 pm we took our night bus to come back to Phnom Penh.

We still cherish wonderful memories of this experience and we highly recommend it to everyone.

Just in case, if this post has made you want to visit Angkor Wat, here you find some practical tips:

-Plan your visit well in advance, according to the weather conditions (the wet season is from May to October).

-Rely on a local guide/driver to bring you around the complex: it is massively huge. It’s easy to get lost.

-Wear comfortable shoes. If you plan to visit during the dry season, especially, remember to have some water along with a hat and sunglasses.

-Check on the Tourism Cambodia website for updates about entrance fees, opening hours and other information.

-Even if at the Sales Ticket Counter they will take a picture of you, bring a couple of passport photos. (You never know)

-Unless you want to spend 7 days inside Angkor Wat, make some research to find out which are the places or temples you don’t want to miss.

-Don’t forget your camera.

Finally: relax and enjoy your unforgettable experience.

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The Misty Mountains of Jirisan, South Korea

wild tea of jirisan
wild tea of jirisanJirisan is a mountain range in the far south of South Korea. The surrounding county, Hadong, is home to Korea’s “wild tea”, which has been cultivated here for over 1000 years.
I arrived late in the afternoon with my wife and we took a bus through beautiful scenery following the river to the village of Agyang. We got off the bus and walked up the hill to a quiet and quaint little village of traditional Hanok houses. There were a lot of shops selling pottery and tourist souvenirs but they were all closed, it seemed as if we had the village almost to ourselves!
After a dinner of local noodles we found a small shop selling the local tea and had our first try. It was the first pick of the year, before the rain season. The green tea was smooth and had a note of toasty rice to it with a fresh finish. We drank about three pots and then headed to bed.

Ssangyesa Temple: the Most Important Site in Jirisan

We got up early and took a 30 minute bus ride to Ssanggyesa, passing many tea plantations on the way. When we arrived the first thing we did was go to see the original tea plantation which was started by Dae-Ryeom, who was sent to China as an envoy in AD828. Since then, the field has been preserved and the current tea trees are unkempt, left to grow naturally, and so it is called “wild tea”. I picked a few buds off a bush to take back and brew later.
After that we headed up to the temple, which is the first Korean one I have been to. A major difference from Chinese temples I noticed is that it is an active place of worship ad cultivation, rather than a tourist site. As you enter the temple signs appear in multiple languages asking for silence. There were several natural wells you could drink mountain water from, which I collected to brew my tea leaves I picked with.
The temple is also famous as being the place where abbot Jingam created Korean Buddhist music after studying in Tang Dynasty China.
Hiking up the beautiful trail behind the temple the only people we saw were monks on their way to a meditation retreat in a bamboo grove. There were truly wild tea trees growing on the side of the path, which looked as if they had been heavily picked, I’m guessing by the monks who do produce their own tea.
Later, we headed back to the village for lunch, which was a vegetarian meal consisting of lots of small dishes, one of which was tea leaves pickled in vinegar (unfortunately, I can’t say I was a huge fan of it).
In the afternoon we first visited a small shop and sat with some local monks drinking a black tea. The Hadong black tea was fairly light, quite similar to Tanyang Gongfu, a Chinese variety from Fujian. I personally think it would have been better had it been brewed with more leaves. After we left the shop we saw a very old woman by the roadside selling herbs picked from the mountains. She had some rough tea leaves in a bag for a very cheap price, which we decided to buy. As you would expect from rough leaves the flavour was fairly course and bitter, actually it reminded me of cheap green teabags you would buy in the UK supermarkets.

The Tea Museum

Just below that original tea plantation I mentioned was the Tea Culture Museum. The museum exhibition itself is really of little interest, with some inaccurate information on the history and classification of tea, and some pieces of ancient teaware, but one part that did interest was offering hands on lessons on making green tea as well as performing tea ceremony. Unfortunately the making tea lesson was only available to groups of people who prebooked, but we did get to try our hand at Korean tea ceremony.
I will talk about the ceremony later, first I want to mention the teas we tried and bought in the museum shop. The green tea was excellent. We tried a “pre-rain” first flush, the cream of the crop so to speak. It’s flavour was bold and powerful, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately this tea was way out of my price range, so I went for a third flush, which still didnt come cheap. We also tried a Wulong, which to me tasted very similar to a light black tea, different to Chinese or Taiwanese wulongs.
On the whole, the Hadong wild teas are very good, especially the greens. They are expensive which I think is due to several factors; the small amount grown, the organic and fully handmade processing and for Koreans it is a national pride. I have often found, like in Britain, the Koreans will pay much more for locally made produce than for imports, while China is exaclty the opposite.
In the tea cultural centre they were offering free classes on tea ceremony. The lady who taught us was very cultured and polite. The first thing we learnt was how to properly sit, and how to handle the tools. Sitting should be kneeling, but you must not step your feet on the cushion as you kneel down. When you handle something you should use your right hand, palm up, and the left hand also palm up pointing at your right elbow.
To start the ceremony you bow and say to the guest “차 한잔 드십시오” (tsa hanzan te sip siyo), which means “please enjoy a cup of tea”. The tea ceremony is more ritualised than a Chinese ceremony, but simpler than the Japanese one. The ceremony is full of Confucian etiquette, with a definite hierarchy of who is given tea first and who drinks first. It generally starts from the oldest male present.
The room was layout was very beautiful, all wooden with tea sets layed out on the floor and a risen platform at the front where the teacher would give lessons to larger groups. It gave me the feeling of an ancient Chinese Confucian academy. I think Korea does a very good job of protecting and preserving the traditional culture, but they don’t always give due credit to their Chinese influences. I wish in the future I can see China work harder to promote these kind of activities as they have so much to offer.