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4-6 June 2018
Legend has it that a few thousand years ago, somewhere in China, a cocoon fell from a tree into a hot cup of tea. Legend has it that the person holding the cup of tea was an empress, and that she had an interest in weaving. She noticed that the hot liquid melted the hard outer covering of the cocoon revealing a filament. Filaments are something that could possibly be woven into cloth, and it turned out that this was the case. Thus silk, that most glorious of fabrics, was both discovered and invented.

Legend has it that in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. The resulting brew had a pleasant scent so he tried a little of it. And then a little more. As it filled him with warmth he felt as if the liquid was examining every part of his body. He named the brew ch’a, the Chinese word meaning to scrutinize or investigate.

Whether or not either of these legends are true we have a lot to thank the Chinese for. A few thousand years ago tea, like silk, was both discovered and invented in China. It seems that whenever something there falls from a tree into hot liquid a world-changing discovery follows. For centuries China was the only exporter of tea to the world, and to this day it is still the biggest producer of tea.

We are kitted out with a coolie hat and a basket and shown the way to the undulating rows of tea plants. There we are instructed in the fine art of tea picking; pick only the tiniest new leaves. It’s painstaking work. I can’t imagine the time it would take to fill one of the small plastic baskets we’re given, let alone one of the larger baskets normally used.

Tim and Belinda are the most successful.

There are a couple of women working in the fields,

and a couple of other tourists, but it’s mostly just us in this glorious setting a few kilometres outside of Yangshuo Town.

For about 4000 years all tea was green tea. In the mid 17th century black tea was invented using a special fermentation process to help preserve the leaves for foreign trade. Black tea keeps its flavour and aroma longer than the more subtle green teas and so was better suited for the long voyages to other parts of the world.

All true teas come from the same plant: the young leaves and leaf buds of the camellia sinensis bush. Black tea leaves are fermented for two or three days, oolong leaves for a few hours, green tea not at all. White tea is harvested when the flower buds are still covered by thin white hairs. Like green tea it is not fermented.

After a while we take our haul into the tasting room and sample a few different brews

while a young man spends a long time sifting and rolling the tealeaves by hand.

It’s one of the processes in the production of tea. They are rolled until they begin to darken and turn red, though of course in the factories it is not done by hand, then they are spread out to ferment.

Being an Aussie of British heritage I was raised in the British tradition of making tea. Heat the pot. Drain the hot water out of the pot and put in a teaspoon of black tea for each cup, and one more for the pot. Pour on boiling water and allow it to steep for a few minutes. Always pour the milk into the cup first, and then add the tea and some sweetener if desired.

It took the Brits, and those of us of British heritage, years to accept teabags, and I still can’t stand tea that’s made with water that is less than boiling. Hot water won’t do; it has to be boiling. To this day I’m appalled by cafes that serve you a tea bag sitting on the saucer next to a cup of hot water.

I’m convinced the British Empire would never have existed without tea. It’s still considered the remedy for all that ails you. Everything can be fixed with a good hot cup of tea.

Except perhaps Brexit . . . . .

The tea plantation is a few kilometres outside of Yangshuo Town. Since the 1980’s the town has been a tourist mecca because of it’s location in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and for outdoor activities such as cycling, rock climbing, and hiking, but the town itself is worth a mention.

Of course there is backpacker central, the infamous West Street where east meets west

and where there are restaurants, internet cafes, hostels, bars, shops, tour operators, and a McDonalds. Incongruously there is also a wax museum featuring at the entrance such enticing characters as Mr Bean, a sleeping attendant, and two exquisitely beautiful western-looking women in long red cheongsams who take turns gracefully bowing. I stare for a long while trying to determine if they are real or not. Still, it’s not enough to entice me in.

Even in West Street you can’t escape the remarkable setting.

The town is surrounded by karst mountains, and bordered by the Li River, and the rural setting helps it retain a small-town feel. It feels a bit like a holiday town, and to people like me that’s exactly what it is. However some of the old ways still exist. They are seen occasionally on the main road,

and on the tourist streets juxtaposed against the relentless influence of the western world,

and leading off from West Street I find this: HOtel a street of Local Style Dwelliny Houses in the West Street. Trying to make some money by enticing visitors to a more authentic experience perhaps.

In the side streets and alleyways there is a town where ordinary people living ordinary lives go about their business.

Yangshuo is not like other Chinese cities. The quite big ex-pat community and the large influx of western visitors wanting to explore the extraordinary countryside brings a cultural richness and certain amount of wealth to the area, but as I explore deeper into the town I discover it has not lost its sense of self.

People still set up shop at the side of the road,

or find a quiet corner to have their fortune told (at least I think that’s what it is).

On the other hand, on West Street, I come across a photo shoot. There is prosperity in China these days, and a huge middle class, and like the rest of us they are being sold a bill of goods. You too can have a rich glamorous lifestyle if you buy this beverage.

I find my way to the Peoples’ Park, always one of the best places to intermingle with local life in China. Every town and city I went to had a vibrant and busy Peoples’ Park and in Yangshuo it’s no different. There are of course several groups of card players

but it’s the music I’m pulled by. There’s a drummer, and three erhu players.

The drum kit is a priceless contraption of home-made ingenuity with a wooden stand, a mechanism operated by foot pedals to play a pair of cymbals and a big copper disk, and a couple of round skin-covered drums on top.

Their enthusiasm is contagious and there’s a large crowd gathered around them. But what really attracts the crowd along with the musicians is the women singing. And singing well! Mostly it’s this woman

and she’s having a blast! From time to time a couple of other women join her in turn and they sing a duet, but it’s mostly the lady in red floral and white lace with her little hand-held microphone that has the crowd captured. This is so typical of the parks in China – people get out and have fun doing what they love to do. It’s spontaneous and impromptu and there for all to enjoy.

It’s about a forty-minute climb from the park to the top of Antenna Hill for the best view of the town. What a place to live!

There are so many great places to eat in Yangshuo, with cuisine from all over the world, but two nights in a row I’m so exhausted I get take-out noodles here,

a little pop-up restaurant on the sidewalk at the end of the street where our hotel is located.

Eight kilometres from Yangshuo town, surrounded on three sides by mountains, and on the fourth by the Li River, is the ancient village of Fu Li.

It has existed for over 800 years with the river as its front door and main highway. Most of the ancient houses were constructed during the Qing Dynasty dating as far back as the mid 1600’s and on into the early 1900’s, and with its cobble stone streets and narrow alleys the whole town exudes a kind of shabby grounded timeless charm. People keep to the old ways; they live in stone or brick houses, they leave their bright red new year portal decorations up year round, they fish in the river, and make their own rice wine. Well, and have electricity and cell phones and motorcycles too.

We catch glimpses of interiors showing simple lived-in homes. The people of Fu Li live in close-knit community leaving their doors wide open.

Fu Li is also known as Chinese Painted Fan Town, and is equally well known for scroll paintings. It’s here that there are several workshops where traditional painted fans are created by hand from local tissue paper and the bamboo that grows by the river. We stop for a demonstration,

which I find fascinating but couldn’t even begin to describe how they do it. The fans come in many sizes, the bigger ones being used as wall decorations. They are hand-painted with images of the local landscape and calligraphy. Most of the people of Fu Li are involved in this ancient craft and the fans are shipped all over China.

There’s a treed open space where people gather, little hole-in-the-wall shops selling clothing, or pottery,

several shops selling exquisite hand-painted traditional Chinese scroll paintings,

and alleys leading to mysterious places that my ever curious self would like to explore.

A new town has developed naturally along the main road that now connects Fu Li with the rest of China, but it is the old town that has all the charm, and a chance to catch a glimpse of a more traditional way of life.

Fu Li’s Daguang Pavilion on the bank of the Li River.

In Yangshuo we experienced so much – stunning scenery, cycling through the rice fields, a boat trip down the river, climbing hills for the spectacular views, exploring the town, and visiting the tea plantation and Fu Li village. It will always be one of the highlights of this trip for me. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in China!

Next post: Impressions Sanjie Liu: a performance ON the river, a cast of hundreds in the traditional clothing of all the ethnic minorities of the area, huge glowing moons coming down from the sky, people walking on water, hundreds of choreographed bamboo rafts, and much more. When the Chinese put on a show they really put on a show!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.