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Xiamei – A Beautifully Preserved Old Village in Wuyi Mountains

xiamei old villageAfter hiking the trails in the tea plantations (read part one here), the next day I decided to visit the old village of Xiamei (下梅). Xiamei was an important hub during the Qing Dynasty where tea producers would bring their tea from the mountains to sell to traders from port cities like Fuzhou and Xiamen who would then export it to Europe.

The village is remarkably well preserved, and not only are the old residences still lived in, but the guildhall and temple are still the centes for village life, with ceremonies and gatherings taking place regularly.

 

Upon entering the village you have to buy a ticket, which gets you a free guide. Normally, I have no interest in having a tour guide, but this time I was pleasantly surprised, as she really went into detail about the culture and history of the village. I think this was mostly due to the fact that my wife was Chinese; if it was just me as a foreigner, the guide probably would have just given a really rough overview, assuming foreigners have no clue about Chinese culture.

old village centre

The village is built around a stream, and on either side are many shops, some of them selling tourist junk, but a lot of them selling either tea or traditional handicrafts which you could see being made then and there. These shops were mostly wooden buildings and were fairly worn out looking. Most of the villagers just seemed to sit around playing cards of Mahjang. The residences of the wealthier people were back from the stream, hidden behind large stone walls.

These large residences were impressive buildings of local Fujianese style, and much of the interior was well preserved. Many still had family shrines in the main hall, and intricate woodwork decorating the walls. What I felt incredibly odd, was that the tour guide would just take us straight into somebody’s home, and grandma would be washing clothes or cooking while we just stood there listening to the tour guide. Apparently there was some kind of agreement, so the residents got a portion of the ticket fees. I did feel also that the residents were considerably poorer than whoever would have lived in the houses during the villages heyday. Despite the grandeur of the buildings themselves, there wasn’t much in the way of luxurious furniture; the people mostly had worn out stools, and piles of junk.

Still, I found that this village, possibly due to its distance from any large city, had more of an authenticity to it than the popular ones around Shanghai or Suzhou. People still went about their daily life, and besides us I didn’t see any other tourists.

 

 

 

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Exploring the Tea Plantations of Wuyi Mountains

wuyi mountain tea trails

wuyi mountain tea trailsAs an avid drinker of Wulong tea, Wuyi Mountain is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. A dramatic range of limestone peaks and cliffs nestled in the northwest of Fujian province, straddling the Jiangxi and Zhejiang borders, Wuyi Mountain really is the postcard image of China. The range is known mostly for it’s teas, among the best in China. Black tea was in fact invented here, and it was the teas grown here that were first exported to the west during the days of the British Empire (check out this excellent book to learn about that For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History).

I visited here for three days, and had two goals: visit some sites related to tea, and take in the amazing scenery. Much like with European wines, which have DOC, Wulong tea grown in Wuyi Mountain is divided between the tea which is grown within the national park area, and the tea grown outside. The plantations within the national park area are hundreds of years old, and the tea plants are divided according to their strain, with different teas grown in small terraces tucked between dramatic cliffs which provide varying amounts of sun and shade. This, combined with the different soils, amount of air moisture and even how the wind blows through the mountains all has an affect on the flavour of the tea, and two terraces right next to each other can produce totally different tasting tea.

On my first day I hiked through the tea plantations, a 3km trail which took me many of the original tea wuyi mountain teatrees of several varieties, as well as a 3000 year old archeological site, to finally finish at the Water Curtain Cave. The trail begins with a short shuttle bus from the park entrance to the actual site. As soon as you pass the car park you are straight into the plantations, wedged between two karst peaks are the tea plantations, with stone tablets or wooden posts naming the various tea strains. Some of them I drink regularly, such as Shui Xian and Rou Gui, others, such as Qi Zhong, Rou Jin Gui and Jin Guan Yin I have never heard of before. The majority of the tourists only walk the first 500m to the original Da Hong Pao trees, stop for some photos and then head back. Da Hong Pao, aka Big Red Robe, is the most renowned Wulong tea from Wuyi. The legend goes that an Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was sick, and so some villagers sent him some tea. The tea made him better, and he was so happy he awarded the tea plants with imperial robes. The six tea plants still stand there today, perched on a cliff with big Chinese characters etched into the rock next to them. They used to be picked once a year, and the majority of the tea was kept by government officials or given to foreign dignitaries on state visits. About half a kilo would be let out the to public, and the auction started around 5 million rmb. Since 2005 the tea has not been picked, and the plants are just sitting there having their photos taken by tourists.

Once you continue on the trail from there, the tourists almost disappear, and the scenery gets absolutely spectacular! The trail has a lot of steep ups and downs, and sometimes you are balancing on stepping stones across streams. The water is crystal clear, and has hundreds of tiny fish. I decided to cool my feet off, only to have the fish gather and start to nibble on my toes! Further along the trail, right next to where the orignal Shui Xian tea plants are located, are some caves high up on the cliffside, which are covered in wooden scaffolding. This is the site of an ancient culture of people, who lived in the cave and built a small village there. Not much is known about who they are, its likely they faced persecution, and so chose such an inaccessible location to live for self protection. At least they had stunning scenery to enjoy everyday! (read part 2 here also check out my article on the Origins of Black Tea for China Daily).

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How To Keep Up Training While Traveling

Being both an avid traveler and obsessive martial artist, I often feel I’m living two contradictory lifestyles. Martial arts requires dedication and routine, making sure you train every day no matter what. Travel is unpredictable and exhausting, and the last thing you want to do while exploring a new country is tire your body with an intense martial arts workout. If you are coming to China for the purpose of training while traveling, consider these articles: How is Kung Fu Actually Trained in China?, Train Kung Fu in China: Where to Start? and Meeting a Master for the First Time.

So How Do I Work My Way Around This?

training while traveling in VeniceOver the years I have approached this from many different ways. I’ve tried doing intense workouts in hotel rooms or parks, leaving myself totally drained of energy and unable to sitesee the rest of the day. I’ve taken breaks and just not trained, but then felt guilty about it afterwards. Finally, I took the middle ground and started working on short routines that weren’t tiring but could help me keep up my skill. In this article I will share a few of my “training while traveling” pointers. They are not only for travelers, but suitable for anyone with limited time and space who want to keep their skills sharp.

The Most Important Point for Training While Traveling is Regularity

Doing a really intense workout on one day, and then having to rest for three days is not a good idea while living on the road. We aren’t trying to make great leaps in our training, only maintaining our already attained level. The key here is little but regular. Try to aim for 15-30 minutes either in the morning before you start your day, or in the evening after you have finished. Although, if like me you enjoy a beer on a night, then morning is obviously the better choice.

So What Do I Actually Do For Training While Traveling?

Well, that varies. What you need to also remember is when traveling, chances are you don’t have accesstraining while traveling in Geneva to equipment or a training partner. So basics, sections of forms and body weight exercises are your best bet. I always start with joint rotations: arm circles, turning at the hips, waist rotations etc as a warm up to keep my joints nice and loose. Then I will do some stretching, this is another thing that needs constant maintenance. Next I will do my three main stances: horse, bow and empty (often called cat stance). I don’t hold them for as long as I do in regular training, as I when traveling I’m often walking a lot. I generally do 10-20 seconds for each one. Next I do the plank for a minute, followed by 20 push-ups. Finally I do a few minutes of Ping Qi, a breathing method we use in Mantis. So this is my core routine, and pretty much never changes. It is a condensed version of what I usually do at home as a warm up. After this I take a few combos or sections of form, according to what I was working on before I hit the road, and taking into consideration space in a hotel room (if there’s no quiet parks or open spaces nearby). I will do 10 reps of maybe 5 different combos and then I may finish with some specific Fa Jin excercises or some shadow boxing.

What is most important is to stay active. If you don’t have the time or mood to train your martial arts, you can still keep active while being on the road by taking part in sports or local games wherever you are, swimming, walking, hiking etc. If you don’t mind being stared at, you can bust a few moves while waiting for a train, or do the plank or horse stance if you get a free couple of minutes. On the whole, just keep yourself active and have fun, and remember: martial arts is to make life more enjoyable, not take away your life!

 

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The Mercenary Mandarin – a Book Review

Mercenary Mandarin is the account of an eccentric Victorian adventurer, William Mesny. During his time in China, he worked as a smuggler and gun runner, got imprisoned by the Taiping Rebels, and eventually landed himself a job as a general for the Qing Emperor, charged with overthrowing a Miao Rebellion in the mountains of Southwest China.

This book, written by a friend of mine, David Leffman (who has guestwritten on this site), is an excellent window into China a hundred years ago. If you are interested in China in the pre-modern era, this book is a must read. For other similar books on China, check out my list of must-reads here.

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Buying a Balisong in The Philippines

buying a balisong knife in taal

taal, hometown of the balisong knifeFor my last day in the Philippines, my new friends drove me out to Tagatay, to see the large lake with a volcano in the middle. It was about a two hour drive outside of Manila, most of which was spent just getting through the city traffic! As we got out of the city the air turned clean and fresh, and the temperature dropped slightly. The driving was still crazy though! Tagatay is a small town on the side of the lake, which is essentially a volcano with a lake in the middle, which has another smaller volcano on an island in the middle. We picked a restaurant and had lunch while admiring the view. Our lunch consisted of a local specialty of bone marrow soup and garlic rice, along with fresh coconut juice to drink. After lunch we drove further on, to the town of Taal, where the famous Balisong knives (aka butterfly knives) are made.

Taal is a fairly small town, with a descent amount of old Spanish houses and a very large 500 year old buying a balisong knife in taalchurch. It has a crumbly, run down feel to it, but has a definite charm. The streets were literally lined with shops selling knives and we found a decent looking one to check out. The girl selling the knives told us that usually the knives are homemade in the town, and she showed us a few tricks. After looking at a few blades I settled on a medium sized one which had a nice handle and seemed decent quality. I bargained the price to 450 pesos, so was fairly cheap.

After buying a knife we headed to the old church to take a look around, and also the old houses surrounding it.