A wedding invitation from an old friend who is a Chinese Australian took me unexpectedly on my first trip to China this year.
My wife Jeanine came along as GP to the group and we brought our eight month old daughter Juliana with us. Separation from her mum was never really an option.
After a nine hour, mercifully uneventful, Qantas flight from Brisbane to Hong Kong, we quickly cleared customs and then boarded a two and a half hour Dragon Air flight to Nanjing.
There was no fuss at the airports – and a lot less in the way of delays than I normally encounter trying to take fly fishing waders into New Zealand. The airport and road signs all had an English translation and the tour guides met us at Nanjing and loaded us and our baggage on board a bus to our hotel.
It turned out that my friend Warwick had so many of his Australian mates who wanted to make their first trip to China for the wedding that he shovelled us all into one of the tours run by his import company the Tea Exchange, a company designed to cater to Australian foodies and tea fanciers.
The foodies on the trip included Lien Yeomans, born in Hanoi, who came to Australia in the sixties on a Colombo plan scholarship in the sixties and went on to establish the Green Papaya Vietnamese restaurant in south Brisbane. When Lien sold the Green Papaya she wrote her famous Vietnamese cultural history and cookbook and catered for the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the Gallery of Modern Art, the American Dance Company and the Paris Opera Ballet Company. Trust me, this lady can cook.
We also had Athol Young, director of the G20 Cultural Festival, where he worked on ways to keep 7,500 of the world’s journalists entertained after they’d been bored silly by politicians.
Athol has worked with food, catering and events management for 40 years and is on his seventh visit to China and his second on the tea and tucker trail otherwise known as the Yangtze Delta Tea and Cuisine Odyssey. His first trip involved five days of mountain hiking in Yunnan on the ancient tea trail.
“We had 12 mules and muleteers and they carried a mobile kitchen with burners and woks, along with beds and tents with them. There were no roads, no cars, no phones … just us, the mules, our guides and our part of a one thousand year old tea trail from Yunnan to Tibet, surrounded by forests of rhododendrons.
“We eventually climbed up to 12,000 feet. At one point we hit one side of a lake, climbed into boats, rowed across and were met with a new team of muleteers on the other side.
“It was too high for rice to grow up there and the meals would comprise up to 50 different types of chilli cooked with broad beans in Yak butter, along with corn picked along the roadside.
“The muleteers knew someone in each village that we’d come to and at night after their meal their relatives would come out of their homes to sing and dance.
“It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever done in my life”. Coming from a bloke who has organised receptions for the Queen, the President of Ireland, Australia Remembers and the 130,000 strong march for reconciliation, that’s quite a statement.
Along with the bankers and business types was Moya Steele, corporate lawyer with MacDonnells Law, a 130 year old Queensland law firm.
Why drink tea? “It takes three to four minutes to brew and this gives me a break from the law books and a chance for some quiet reflection. Then when I do get back to the desk with my little ceramic pot of green tea it helps to keep my concentration at a sustainable higher level for hours. It’s great for ongoing blood sugar management.
“You don’t keep using fresh tea, but just add hot water for up to six infusions, so the caffeine effect tapers off towards the end of the day, while the flavour of the tea improves. I love it. It’s a smart way to work.
“Young lawyers straight out of University tend to drink strong coffee they get a much heavier hit of caffeine and a real surge of energy, but it has a real up and down effect on their work rate and after repeated hits of caffeine, their energy levels peter out towards the second half of the day.
“As the boys are nodding off, I’m just cruising along, nursing my same pot of green tea through its fifth or sixth infusion. This would no doubt explain Moya’s local nickname among legal opponents of “Moya the Destroyer”.
My wife is a suburban GP and has the same views on coffee versus tea. Four days a week Jeanine is chasing three ankle biters around the house and she needs all the energy hit she can get from a strong homemade Merlo private blend cappuccino straight after breakfast.
But for the other three days working at the surgery, she needs a steady hand and a level head and its Yorkshire blend white day for breakfast and the rest of the day.
Despite this distinguished group of old politicians, bankers, restaurateurs and layers, the real star of the touring part was eight month old Juliana MacKenzie Black.
Her blond curly hair, blue eyes and three-toothed smile made her stand out a little from 1.4 billion Chinese with straight black hair, dark brown eyes and a lot more teeth. She was a sensation. If only she could sing.
After a couple of days she apparently had her own Facebook page. I only knew a few phrases of Mandarin, but quickly had to learn how to tell curious passers-by not to touch her as her mum was worried about her baby catching several hundred different strains of cold and flu. By the way, the phrase you use is Bu Yao! It means: Not Wanted or Go Away.
Apart from a dose of croup which Juliana seems to have caught in Australia and incubated on the plane, the little darling had no health problems at all. The only difficulty we had with her came at meal times, as many Chinese restaurants have no high chairs. Fortunately Moya and her mother carried long black belts on their overcoats which doubled as child restraints.
Juliana tucked into most of the same courses we were served, storing left over rice and noodles for later consumption in various nooks and crannies of her bib, her clothing, my front worn baby carrier and the front of every shirt and coat I packed for the trip.
Officially we were there for the wedding, which was a feast for the senses.
Accompanied by deafening explosions from multiple firecrackers the tourparty left our hotel through clouds of black powder smoke, to pick up the bride.
This apparently required eight limousines (eight is a lucky number), with the cameraman occasionally hanging out of a limo window to get the best shots.
At the bride’s home we had more firecrackers and smoke, before the groom began a ritual of some six hours of ritual humiliation, which, as his good Australian friends, we all enjoyed immensely.
It began with the groom and his representative knocking on the door of the bride’s home, only to be told to go away (Bu Yao, remember?) by the bride’s family.
Then the groom’s representative was supposed to insert a red envelope containing a few dollars though the door’s peephole, get told Bu Yao! one more time, insert a second envelope and then enter.
Well, he did, but he can’t have done it very well, as it took our mate Warwick up to 20 small red envelopes and a lot of shouting to get in the door, to the great amusement of his friends, his new in laws and what seemed to be several hundred residents of the apartment block.
His humiliation was however, only beginning. As we sipped tea in the family kitchen Warwick was supposed to enter the bride’s bedroom and escort her out. Unfortunately her cousins had hidden the bride’s shoes and Sophia couldn’t leave without shoes, could she?
About half an hour passed while we enjoyed four infusions of local green tea and savouries in the kitchen. By then Warwick had finally found her second shoe hidden under the bed.
At this stage both Warwick and Sophia were getting pretty keen to move along here, but Sophia wasn’t allowed to leave without wearing socks and for that, the bride’s agents demanded payment in Aussie dollars – of which our long suffering groom had none.
Fortunately for him, my wife had a two dollar coin in her pocket, which did the trick and the bride was piggy backed out through the kitchen, past about a hundred laughing family and friends, wearing wedding dress, the once hidden shoes and the socks purchased for a dollar apiece, throwing red chopsticks over her shoulder and shouting something that could have been Bu Yao! as she was carried out the front door. You had to be there.
Then we had more fireworks, more smoke, a trip back to the hotel and another three hours of this sort of punishment for the long suffering groom, suffered at the hands of a wedding host dressed in a bright silver tuxedo, shouting instructions and exhortations to Warwick in front of 200 guests who were laughing loud enough to put Buddha to shame.
It reminded me of one of Paul Keating’s stronger speeches to the Australian Labor Party Caucus but the Chinese version had fewer obscenities and marginally less humiliation of the target de jour. Suffice it to say, the whole event was a theatrical experience that still lingers in the imagination.
Then began a week of touring from Wuhu to Huangshan, Hangzhou and Shanghai on the official Tea Exchange Yangtze Delta Tea and Cuisine Odyssey. There were 15 of us on a bus driven by the best bus driver I’ve ever seen who squeezed his 30 seater bus through traffic and parking spots where I wouldn’t be game to take my Tarago.
At every step, through museums, restaurants, tea houses, hotels and tourist spots we had a local guide and translator. The locals would speak Mandarin, with a strong local pronunciation influenced by their local dialect.
This included in Nanjing a variety of the Jianghuai Mandarin Dialect, in Wuhu, a variety of the Anhui dialect, in Yellow Mountain area, a variety of the Hui dialect and in Hangzhou and Shanghai a variety of the Wu Dialect.
Of course the Australian educated and Chinese born groom Warwick was there to help with translations and the locals loved listening to him, as they told us on the quiet that he sounded like a posh BBC newsreader, which probably partly explains why they gave him such a hard time at the wedding.
The tour then took us on a meandering seven day trip upstream along the Yangtze, past canal villages, then inland to Yellow Mountain, then back down to West Lake and the Qiantang River at Hangzhou and finally across to Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze.
We took in ancient industrial factories showing how the locals making delicate translucent blue porcelain, iron art and fine rice paper, blue fabric dyes and a fortuitously small man who climbed a 20 metre bendy tall bamboo pole for the bemusement of locals and tourists alike.
We saw unforgettable scenes of great natural beauty at Yellow Mountain along with majestic Buddhist temples along a river walk path lined with recessed Buddha statues more than a thousand years old. There were memorial gates to famous leaders, ancient Confucian temples, slate domed bridges and six hundred year old tea trees.
In between site seeing, the foodies kept ordering banquets of up to 15 courses to ward off hunger pangs and they succeeded admirably.
Here is Lien’s description of a typical light lunch we enjoyed on the trip:
Four appetisers: Bean and red capsicum pickle, potato and chilli pickle, deep fried anchovy, pickled cucumber with sesame oil.
Eight Mains: Scrambled egg with black fungus, chicken stir fried with strips of broccoli stem and red capsicum, snake bean sprouts, stir fried with chilli, dried bamboo shoot with green capsicum stir fried, prawn cake, snake bean stir fry with chilli, glass noodle stir fried with pork pieces, tofu braised with pork belly.
Towards the end of the meal we would be served steamed rice and a soup – in this case small shrimp with pickled vegetables. The local families travelling with would eat the earlier courses sparingly and fill up on the rice and soup towards the end of the meal.
Desert was little local mandarins.
Despite all the this food, no one seemed to gain weight, no one got sick, although we drank only bottled water. The air pollution was noticeable in parts, especially Shanghai, but we were in a city containing roughly the same number of persons as Australia. Much of this modern city has been built up from little more than paddy fields over little more than 20 years and it now features trains travelling at up to 400 kph.
Chinese by and large seem to be smart, work hard and save a lot. They have a wonderfully irreverent and ribald sense of humour with which comes in handy when you’re part of an economic experiment which is shovelling a population the size of the USA from small farms into high rise urban flats. This required a lot of iron ore and coal, for which we should be rather grateful and I was pretty happy to be able to give them back a bit.
The hotels chosen for us all rated about four stars and cost between $60 and $150 each per night. The only uncomfortable thing about the hotels is that the Chinese in winter do not like being cold, so the air conditioning would invariably be turned up to about 24 centigrade. Invariably, it couldn’t be adjusted and windows couldn’t be opened, so we just got on with it.
I had less luck with the tea ceremonies.
After ten days on the Yangtze Delta Tea and Cuisine Odyssey, I thought I was doing pretty well developing my green tea palate, until I found out right at the end that the special tea that I really liked was described (with some pity) by the tea masters as “Chop Chop”.
Then I had to admit that I might be a bit of a wine snob when it comes to taste, but as far as Green tea was concerned, I remained a complete yob.
The remaining two days of tour took in the sights and shopping of Shanghai. For souvenirs, we travelled to Yu Markets where we picked up all manner of shirts, hats, hanging horoscopes, fans, purses, personal stamps and tea sets. Take your guide with you when it comes to bargaining and you will save about 30 percent.
For those after the real deal with any of the internationally famous French, Italian or US brands, there’s a row of them along the main shopping street, with the knock off versions also available nearby.
I was walking around in my own Chinese brand track shoes which cost me about $40 and had carried me and my baby daughter up to eight kms a day for ten days – so I didn’t have any hang ups about shopping for good locally made products – so long as I had my bargainer and interpreter nearby.
To be honest you could spend a week in Shanghai without missing a beat. We wound up the trip at the Jazz Bar in the Fairmont Peace Hotel with the original jazz band, whose average age is 80 years. I loved it and so did my eight month old daughter … Bu Yao! Bu Yao!
For those of you travelling without your doctor missus you can sneak up to the Cin Cin Wine and Cigar lounge and enjoy a decent Havana cigar. Ah memories.
The Chinese tea ceremony – often called Gongfu tea – has historical antecedents dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-906). Today’s Gongfu tea ceremony has also been influenced by Japanese and Taiwanese aesthetics, and finds itself most pronounced as a way of enjoying tea in the south eastern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
The term Gongfu was first applied to the new production methods that emerged in the early 18th century in Fujian and later was applied to the brewing and consumption processes in recognition of the complexity and skills involved.
Gongfu tea is distinguished by its use of small teapots or lidded porcelain vessels and small cups to prepare tea. The Gongfu tea ritual involves the rinsing of the cups before pouring tea into them, and attending to the colour and aroma of both the dried and immersed leaves. The dried leaf is careful placed into the pot or vessel, and hot water to the appropriate temperature is added. The water temperature is between 75-85 degrees, depending on the tea being prepared.
The first infusion is often discarded, as it is to wash the tea only. It also serves to reactivate or open up the dried leaves. The precise duration of each infusion varies from tea to tea, and from infusion to infusion. The art of the Gongfu tea ceremony is to strike the right balance, to bring out the full beauty of the tea.
Tea appreciation draws on many of one’s senses: the visual, the olfactory and the palate. Scholars have often ascribed a highly ritualised state to the Chinese tea ceremony, discerning up to 18 separate steeps in preparing tea for consumption, and another three specifying how tea should be consumed.
Yellow Mountain is a range of granite peaks up to 1800 metres tall, forced upwards from an inland sea 100 million years ago and then pared down by glaciers in the last few million years. It has been a while in the making.
It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site and one of China’s major tourist attractions and it draws about as many tourists every year as Australia has residents. On the down side its granite peaks inspired James Cameron to make the fictional world for his truly dreadful film Avatar.
The region was also on our must see list as it’s one of China’s premir green tea growing mountains producing fur peak tea, a well-known local variety taking its name from the downy tips of the local tea leaves.
You get most of the way towards the top by cable car where we found modern hotels complete with hot springs where tourists stay overnight, specifically to see the sunrise.
Sometimes the lucky tourist can see rainbow like solar “glories” as the sun rises through the peaks and mists part to slowly unveil golden granite spires, dotted by100 year old welcome pines which grow out of the rock. Below you on most days of the year you see seas of clouds. The solar “glories” are locally called Buddha’s Light and all the seas of clouds are given names.
It’s pretty swish really and worth a bit of a walk. This is just as well, because on Yellow Mountain I walked eight kilometres, with an eight month old baby strapped to my chest on a carrier.
For the less energetic, teams of porters will take you up and down the stairs in the traditional Chinese sedan chairs or palanquins – basically a light cane chair strapped between two bamboo poles.
There were over 50 kms of footpaths with some 60,000 stone steps, carved into the mountain from up to 1500 years ago. I can still feel most of them.
With the baby in my front carrier and the never ending steps, I was feeling sorry for myself until I was passed by one of the local porters in his numbered blue uniform, with a bamboo pole slung over one shoulder and a special balancing pole on the other, to steer his load and rest on end of it between climbs.
These blokes do two trips a day and each trip takes between four and five hours up and down the mountain, carrying supplies up to the hotels built at the ends of the cable car runs and then carrying all the garbage and dirty linen back down again.
The porter I saw was carrying a small stove, part of a desk and medium sized oil heater. The total weight I estimated at about 70 kilograms. I soldiered on.
Following the trek up and down Yellow Mountain, our hosts organised a restorative hour long massage and a 15 course feast back near our hotel. We survived the night.
We flew Qantas direct from Brisbane to Hong Kong and then on to Nanjing in the same day and returned on an overnight flight from Shanghai to Sydney lasting 10.5 hours. Economy flights for the three of us cost about $1000 each.
We paid about $100 a night for four star hotels which were suggested by the Tea Exchange and booked directly through Agoda.com. All hotels were international standard.
The Tea Exchange paid for the bus tour and we paid for admission prices to tourist spots. We paid for our own food and meals tended to cost about $25 per head for a share of 15 courses. There was so little fat content in the food that we ate well, but – with copious quantities of green tea, we never felt bloated.
We drank only bottled water which was freely available on the bus. Towards the end of the trip most of us were carrying small plastic jars of green tea. Give up on the idea of getting any decent wine unless you strike it lucky and don’t start on the rice wine. The local beers are great.
Massages are a very good idea at the end of long day’s hiking, and cost about $40. Negotiate the price first.
Toilets by and large were no different to which you’d find anywhere in the world and probably a lot cleaner than those I usually find at the Sydney airport.
We saw five beggars on the whole trip and they were organised into a small huddle outside a Buddhist temple and closely watched by five policemen. We never at any time felt threatened or in any danger from passers-by who were overwhelmingly friendly and curious.
All road signs were in Mandarin and English and the drivers seemed a lot better than you’d find in Italy and probably on a par with the English. If you lived there, you would feel ok driving around.
Apart from my daughter, who brought a cough with her from the germ factories otherwise known as the Australian child care system, no one got sick, but we travelled with a GP equipped with a doctors bag just in case. We had insurance and with serious illness you go straight to hospital and take plenty of credit, as you do in any country in the world.
Save your shopping until you get to Shanghai and take your guide to interpret and bargain. The custom when buying any service such as a meal or massage is to sort out prices first and don’t tip once the cost has been agreed.