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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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Some Top Books About China

After the positive feedback I received from my list of top books on Martial Arts, I thought I’d also do a list of some my favourite reads about China; books which have a focus on either travel in the China, or life through the eyes of a foreigner who lived here… some in modern day, and some in old China.

Behind the Wall

I read this book back in 2007, as I was on my first trip in China. Behind the Wall is one mans travels through China in the early 1990s, and his encounters with various people along the way. Written while the Cultural Revolution was still a recent memory for people, a strong theme throughout the book is his talks with everyday Chinese people about their experiences and feelings of the Cultural Revolution, and how China is recovering. He was met with constant curiosity, as this was a time when foreigners had only just been allowed into China, and people had all kinds of strange ideas. The one that really stood out for me was one man believing white people were tall and strong, due to the fact they only ate honey and drank milk!

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

One of the most well known books about life in China, River Town is set in a similar time period to Behind the Wall. This is the story of two young guys who came to a small town in Sichuan province to teach English, and their attempts as crossing the cultural barriers faced in every aspect of life. Highly recommended for people wanting to come here to teach, particularly smaller cities.

 

 

Forgotten Kingdom

Going back a bit now, this book is set in pre-communist China, and is the account of Peter Goullart, who lived in the city of Lijiang, Yunnan province, right on the borders of Tibet. Lijiang is the centre of the Naxi people, a unique ethnic minority in China with a fascinating culture unlike any other. Nowadays, the city is a popular tourist spot, for its ancient architecture and its stunning mountain scenery. If you are visiting Yunnan province, this book is an absolute must to get an understanding of its history.

 

My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu’s Travel Diary

Jon Blofield is one of the most highly regarded translators of Chinese Buddhist texts. He lived in China around a similar time to the above book, and had some fascinating adventures visiting remote temples deep in the mountains and drinking with poets and scholars in old Beijing. I particularly enjoyed this book, because it painted a picture of the China I wish I could have experienced.

 

American Shaolin

A must read for anyone coming over to China to train Kung Fu! While things have changed in China over the last twenty years, this book will really get you prepared for the craziness that is China! And its not even only for martial artists; I feel like this book should be on any China enthusiasts list. The writer was one of the first foreigners to train at Shaolin Temple in the early nineties, and his accounts of rural China at that time are both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

Bill Porter is the foremost Buddhist scholar and translator of poetry and Buddhist scriptures. This book is an absolute classic,which recalls his experiences visiting and living with Buddhist and Taoist hermits in the remote mountains of Zhong Nan Shan. The Chinese version of this book inspired an entire generation in China, and helped revive the hermit movement in contemporary China.

The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British adventurer became a general in Qing-dynasty China

The Mercenary Mandarin is a well researched and entertaining book which tells the story of William Mesny, a real life Indiana Jones who set off to Shanghai at the age of 18, became a weapons smuggler, and had all kinds of adventures before landing himself a position as a general in the Imperial Army and quelling a Miao uprising in southern China. A truly fascinating read for a look at China during the days of the British Empire.

 

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The Tibetan Nomads and Monasteries of Gansu & Sichuan Province

tibetan nomadsYou don’t actually have to go to Tibet to experience Tibetan nomads and their culture. In fact areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are ethnically and culturally Tibetan. The Tibetan grasslands of Gansu are traditionally known as Amdo by the Tibetan people, and was traditionally the eastern most province of Tibet. Due to the ever-changing and overly-complicated travel restrictions in Tibet, visiting this area is a viable alternative, and in some ways a more authentic experience. If you are visiting this area, I really recommend reading A Stranger in Tibet: The Adventures of a Wandering Zen Monk. This book describes many of the places I visited, but in the 1920s, at a time when almost no foreigners could enter Tibet.

 

Labrang Monastery

When you first arrive in Xiahe, its like you have just arrived in another world. The small town is home to Labrang Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and an important centre of learning of the Yellow Hat sect. Dodging potholes as you walk down the dilapidated road of the main street, you are greeted by rugged nomad men with weattibetan nomadshered faces leading horses along, braided-haired women and smiling monks in crimson robes. The air has a familiar smokey smell, which reminds me of the fire places in old English homes. The muddy puddles on both sides of the road only add to my feeling of being back in England, however, the huge monastery ahead, surrounded by hundreds of prayer wheels being spun by some of the most colourful looking people you could imagine, brought me back to the realisation that I was about as far away from home as I could get.

Inside the monastery you immediately feel the spiritual atmosphere of the place. The dim light is tibetan nomadsprovided by the flickering flames of hundreds of yak butter candles, which also give the place an odd, rancid kind of smell. The walls are covered in paintings of Buddhist mythology; magical gods and demons, and tales from the Buddha’s life. I tried to talk to some monks, unfortunately, not only did they not speak Chinese, but I later learnt that in this area, the dialect of Tibetan is totally unintelligable from the Tibetan spoken inside Tibet itself!

 

Living with Tibetan Nomads in the Grasslands

Leaving Gansu I spent hours upon hours driving through absolutely nothing. When people say “the middle of nowhere”, now I can proudly tell them I’ve actually been thetibetan nomadsre! The journey to Sichuan takes you through grasslands, where besides grass, the only thing you see is the occasional yak eating the grass, or drunk nomad asleep in the grass! I finally arrived at my destination, an ugly and bare concrete lodge, which was the winter home of a nomadic family who reared yaks out here. The family of Tibetan nomads consisted of two people: an old grandmother and a 16 year old girl. I guess the men were out working. Our translator and guide didn’t say. Dinner consisted of some Naan bread, which the grandmother kindly took a handful of butter and, using her blackened fingers, smothered it all over the Naan for me while smiling and gesturing to eat. Well, I couldn’t refuse this “hospitality” could I? The home-churned yak butter was pretty delicious though, it was very salty and slightly sour tasting. Next came yak yogurt. This was quite possibly the best tasting yogurt I’ve ever had in my life. It was thick and lumpy, and had a strong flavour. Beat any Tesco’s Finest Greek Yogurt anyday! Finally was a kind of stew, bits of yak meat, mostly bones and gristle, nothing to write home about. As we sat around the fire, the young girl started to sing some Tibetan folk songs. Her voice was powerful and made the hairs on your neck stand up. As you listened, you could just imagine the vastness of the grasslands and the purity of the people who lived here.

This was a very special experience, and gave me an insight into a much simpler way of life. The Tibetan nomads are totally cut off from modern society, and really live off the land. But I can’t help wondering for how much longer their way of life can prevail.

 

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Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Huang Shan aka Yellow Mountain

The China of your imagination; ancient villages of whitewashed walls and ornate carved-wooden doors, pine covered mountains that come straight out of a painting, and deep green bamboo forests, welcome to Huang Shan aka Yellow Mountain in central Anhui province. I visited in winter, when it was particularly scenic, and there were few tourists.

The bamboo forests which surround the lower parts of Huang Shan were featured in the scenes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

A couple of hours away from Huang Shan are the nearby towns of Hongcun and Xidi, where rich merchants lived during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, were also used in the film, and wondering around the small streets, you can’t help feeling you have stepped back in time.