What do you do with the brick of tea?

You know what I am talking about! – That brick or disc of tea in the velvet box! What do you do with it?

A few years ago, we were living in LA. My dear father came from Yunnan to stay with us in America for the first time. He brought a few bricks of Yunnan Pu’er tea (普洱沱茶) as gifts for people. Literally, they look like a solid disc or brick that if you get wacked on the head, you’d bleed.

I held him back, telling him that Laowai (Chinese endearment for “foreigners”) really didn’t know how to appreciate tea, and they wouldn’t know what to do with the brick.  Finally, we were going to dinner at this famous screen playwright’s house for dinner, my dad insisted in bringing one brick and presented it to the writer. The writer was very polite and thanked my father. I never went back to ask what he did with it.

Let’s face it, the brick of tea is packed so dense, that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s too big to boil as one serving of tea; it’s so hard that you need a hammer to break it; it makes a huge mess if you do that! So, all the bricks I have collected still mostly sit on my bookshelf, until yesterday.

A big background on Pu’er tea, this is one type of tea that Yunnan Province in Southwest China is known for. They brew into a strong dark brown colored tea. But, historically, this tea was always packed on horse backs and carried by caravan trademen over dare-devil terrain onto the Tibetan Plateau. There, they transfer into the famed Tibetan Yak Butter Tea.  Honestly, I prefer drinking Pu’er tea by itself without the yak butter part.  Nevermind my personal taste, Yak butter tea is an essential form of calorie for Tibetans. The transportation route became known as the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road. National Geographic magazine ran a beautiful article on this road, but I was hugely offended by the article left out Yunnan.

People from Yunnan still prefer to store tea in the same condensed brick form. In fact, it is said that the older the tea, the more valuable it is. So, many collectors are in search for decade old tea. There are tea connoisseurs in China, as there are wine connoisseurs in the west.

Back in May, I walked into a tiny tea store in Heshun Old town in Tengchong, Yunnan. A young tea salesman told me that I needed a 解茶针,(needle for separating the tea). I had no idea that special equipment was available to do this job. He also explained that the tea brick was pressed together one layer at a time. So, adjust natural tendency to break off a chunk, one should carefully peel layers of tea horizontally.

I took the needle as a treasure and tucked into my purse. Hello?? How stupid is that!! I was caught at the airport security in Tengchong. To my amazement, the airport staff saw it on the imaging screen, and said, “Take the TEA NEEDLE out! It has to go in checked luggage. “Oh, no!” I groaned, knowing very well that I’d loose the needle, as no one had ever bothered to retrieve my check luggage for something like this.

Well, I was in for a surprise. People there knew that I couldn’t do anything with the tea if I didn’t have the proper instrument. So, they found my luggage, and now I have the tea needle in DC!

With tool in hand, I gave it a try yesterday, and was delighted with the result- now in a glass jar for future use. My son was busy playing with my iphone next to me. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, telling him about tea from mom’s hometown.  He simply ignored me. Never mind.

If anyone’s listening, WildChina’s tea journey with Jeff Fuchs is worth the experience.

World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, China

I’ve long wanted to visit the World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, Yunnan, as I’ve heard so much about how bloody the battles were, and how the American Flying Tigers came to our assistance at moments of needs. We even created a trip that goes there.  I went there with much respect, and left with the same respect for lives lost, but also sorrow for how differently deaths are treated.

First I had a little difficulty finding it. I asked the taxi driver to take me to 二战烈士陵园 (World War II Martyr Cemetery), as “Martyr” is usually the word I knew how we called those who died in wars. The taxi driver asked me if I wanted to see the Martyr Memorial or 国殇墓园 (badly translated by me as National Tragedy Cemetery). What’s the difference I wondered? “Those who died in WWII were Chiang Kai Shek’s solders, they are not in the Martyr Cementery.” He said. Ah, now I get it, the word Martyr I grew up knowing was only referring to communist soldiers not the ones who died fighting for Chiang Kai Sheck, even thought they were also fighting against Japanese.

As I found out later, those two cemeteries are located next to each other, separated by a wall. I wonder if the ghosts mingle at night.

A very brief background. Yunnan Province in Southwest China only became the frontline when the Japanese decided to change their tactics and started their attacks from Burma into mainland China. The bloodiest battle took place in May 1944, as Chinese army mounted a bloody siege to win back the ancient trading town of Tengchong. More than 9000 Chinese soldiers and 6000 Japanese died in the battle.  There are 3346 dead honored in the Cemetery.

Since I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in DC, I’ve always wanted to see how the names are arranged at any cemetery. Take a wild guess? Are they ranked in alphabetical order of their names? Or by the date of their death? Or by the unit they belonged to?

In Tengchong, they are arranged according to their military ranks. The lowest ranking soldiers at the bottom of the hill, and the highest ranking at the top; while generals are entombed separately.  There is also a separate area honoring the 19 young American soldiers who died in the War.  I was glad to see the American soldiers honored as well, but the ranking of the other names bothered me quite a bit. To me, those who died in a war are equal regardless of their ranks, as they all equally gave what’s most precious to them – their lives.

At Viet Nam Memorial in DC, the architect Maya Lin decided to do it differently. She organized the names by the date they died, and for those who died together, she intentionally kept their names together. I was told, each Viet Nam Vet volunteer always stands in front of a certain plaque, as if he was guarding the names of those who served in the war together with him. I find the message powerful and moving.

This little blog is my way of commemorating those who sacrificed for what we have today.  Thank you!

Interview with Yunnan Girl

I just did an interview by email with Chris Horton. His questions brought back so much nice memories of Yunnan. Thought I’d share them here. Chris just published it on gokunming.com. A nicely edited version here: http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1573/interview_mei_zhang.

1. Where in Dali did you grow up? What are some of your strongest memories of that time of your life?

I grew up in Dali until I was 9. That’s when my family moved to Kunming. My memories of that time that keep coming back are many. We used to go to a hot spring for baths near Xiaguan. There are always camellia blooming, and we’d climb the mountain behind the hot spring to pick big white flowers (Rhododendrons as I learned later). There were so many of those white flowers that we’d cook them for dinner!  I remember people in Dali loved flowers, there are wild jasmines and other fragrant flowers for sale in the market all the time. Talking about market, that’s my favorite. Many different ethnic people would also come to the market, the Yis or Bais, wearing beautiful clothes, selling fresh vegetables and eggs.  I still come back to Yunnan to search for those moments. (By the way, thank you for asking this question, it brought back so much nice memory)


2. What was the chain of events that led you from Dali to Harvard?

If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t have believed events like this would ever happen. So my Dad, who was a worker building the hydropower station in Xiaguan, decided that the best thing he could do for me and my brothers was to give us the best education possible. He moved us to Kunming for better education. When I was testing for high school, he made me apply to the Foreign Languages school affiliated to Yunnan University, hoping that if I couldn’t get into college, at least I’d have some English to be a secretary.  I got it, but I cried and cried, believing that he robbed me of the opportunity to become Madam. Currie of China. After that, I got into Yunnan University, studying English and Law. I started taking part time jobs as an interpreter since college to pay for school. Then one day, at an usual official banquet hosted by Yunnan Government for Krung Thai Bank from Thailand, my life changed. The president of the bank decided to give a spontaneous speech. None of the government interpreters were willing to go up to the stage with him, as there was no preparation, no script.  They all recommend that I go up onto the stage, as I was the youngest interpreter with nothing to lose. So, I did. After that, the officials from the Bank invited me to sit at their table, and offered me a scholarship I couldn’t resist.  The rest is history.

3. What was the inspiration behind founding Wild China in 2000?
See here: http://www.wildchina.com/application/assets/img/press/pdfs/World-of-Chinese—See-a-Different-China.pdf

4. What are the most surprising or amazing places you’ve discovered in China since then?

There are many, so I’ll just pick a few from memory. I remember seeing the villages near the Yellow Mountains for the first time. I was struck by how beautiful the traditional architecture was, and how much history the places endured, and how sad the current state was – all adults gone to work in the city as migrant workers, with only grandparents and kids left in the village.  Guizhou Province also struck me an unbelievable place. It’s also in the Southwest of China, but incredibly poor and lack of development.  In a way, it reminds me of the Yunnan I grew up with. Rice terraced fields with ethnic hamlets scattered here and there. Traditional lifestyle that’s so beautiful and the hardship so challenging. That’s the China I knew and loved.


5. What notable changes have you seen in China’s travel industry since 2000?

The extraordinary growth of domestic travelers spurred incredible growth in the travel industry. There have been some great advances, for example, I just visited Heshun village near Tengchong in Yunnan. I have to give the development company a lot of credit and respect. I think they did an amazing job keeping the beauty of the place while making it accessible to the general public. The landscaping is beautiful and tastefully done, and the written materials are interesting and well done. There are more and more lodges and hotels that are also tastefully done around the country. These are all great. But, I feel sorry for sites and places that are too quickly run over by tourist crowds. Lijiang old town is a prime example.


6. How often does Yunnan figure into your clients’ travel plans? What are the most popular destinations?

Very often. It’s one of our top destinations. Before I traveled the world, I thought I was just biased because I was from Yunnan. Now that I have been to Mt. Everest, South Africa, Italy, Peru, you name it, I know Yunnan IS one of the most extraordinary destinations in the world!

7. What are your favorite places in Yunnan?
My favorites are: Cizhong in Diqing, I find the catholic Tibetan cultures fascinating; Shaxi Jianchuan Grottoes, I loved the long history behind the whole Tea and Horse caravan road; Tengchong and Gaoligong Mountain, I love the incredible bio diversity there and the WWII history. I just hiked across Gaoligong from Baoshan to Tengchong last week, and thought it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever had. After the hike, I called Gaoligong Nature Reserve, and told them that I’d sponsor them in publishing a birding book! Look for it, it’s coming out next year.

8. Wild China has carved out a niche for itself as a provider of sustainable and socially responsible tourism in China for foreigners, do you see these concepts ever becoming important to the domestic tourism market?
Absolutely, we want to get involved in the domestic tourism market as well, but we have a wait a little bit for the demand to build up more. In the meantime, we are speaking at different forums etc to influence Chinese travelers.

9. Spending much of your time between Beijing and the US, you’re usually far away from Yunnan… what Yunnan dishes do you miss the most?

actually make it to Yunnan a lot! At least twice a year, and spending some solid time in the mountains.  Yunnan Rice Noodles (mixian) is probably the one dish I miss most. I am a good cook, so can fabricate most items including suancai (pickled greens) myself, but the noodle is beyond me.