Driving in China: Making the Trip to the Tea Fields

“When overseas you learn more about your own country, than you do the place you’re visiting.” – Clint Borgen

Moped covered in Styrofoam boxes.

Wild and crazy methods for transporting goods in China.

Driving in China is much harder than driving here. We complain a lot about traffic here in Northern Virginia, but we have very few traffic problems in comparison to China. Our recent trip through Fujian and Guangdong, made the morning commute on Route 7 look like a leisurely stroll through a park. Here are some of our observations about traffic in China and few pointers if you ever feel like venturing through this country.

  • Defensive driving is the standard in China. Outside the largest of cities, roads are shared with bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians, and animals. This wide range of travelers and speeds create a chaotic group of stop and go traffic at a volume that far exceeds any metropolitan area in the US. The large cities have banned bicycles, animals and mopeds. While this improves the flow of traffic, the shear volume of cars, buses and trucks on the roads create almost constant traffic jams. In areas with high pedestrian traffic, it is common to see roadways congested with people because the sidewalks are full. The drivers slowly inch along behind the walkers acknowledging they are far out numbered.
  • For all the appearance of chaos, there were few visible accidents. Everyone and everything travels with a trust that their fellow travelers will do them no harm. Merges occur in a fashion that we would consider rude and dangerous in America. Cars cut each other off and pass in a fashion that would elicit a long blaring of the horn in the US. Yet our drivers and the other drivers acted as if nothing wrong had occurred. There were no horns, cussing or anger. It may help that most of the speed limits are low in comparison to the United States. However, you sense there is a deeper philosophy shared by the Chinese concerning behavior in crowds.
  • Double solid yellow stripes are optional. Rarely do you appreciate the American attitude that you cannot trust other people while driving, than on your way up the mountain side as your driver, along with several others, cross a double yellow line on a blind curve to pass a tour bus. There were no shoulders, extra lanes or curbs, just a straight drop down. Yet, what we saw was that the oncoming traffic slowed and/or stopped to allow this type of passing to occur. This behavior was witnessed over and over headed to various tea fields. Lets just say tea never tasted so good at the end of a trip.
Moped with husband, wife, and child.

An all too common sight of the family commuter vehicle in China.

To put it bluntly, do not drive in China if you are American. Their mass transit is wonderful and easy to navigate, even if you do not speak Chinese. There are plenty of affordable driving services that can get you around cities. From private drivers that often speak English, to taxis and the Chinese version of Uber, Didi. Just always travel with the addresses you need to go to in Chinese, including the hotel you are staying at.

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Tea Drunk and Recurring Beliefs about Tea from China

Tea Cupping

It’s hard not to get tea drunk when exploring tea in China.

Traveling throughout tea country in China presents not only the opportunity to see the tea and how it is made up close, but to sample it over hours of conversation with growers and producers. Those conversations leave you with a different perspective not only about the tea itself, but proper consumption practices through the eyes of its makers. As you talk with different growers and producers in different regions you start to find common themes from all of them. Below are just 3 of themes that just keep recurring:

  • You can get “tea drunk”. Yes, you read that right, tea drunk. So the symptoms of being tea drunk include foggy thinking, nervousness and a stomach ache. Usually this is prevented by making sure one has eaten before drinking tea or by limiting the consumption of tea. Now a tea maker is going to have a tough time limiting tea consumption, especially during a harvest period, so timing breaks during the day with no tea consumption is critical. Also, some of the makers talked about the best time to taste tea being in the afternoon after lunch, when supposedly your taste buds and brain are functioning at their best.
  • Novice tea drinkers should be served weaker tea. Knowing whether or not your guest is a routine tea drinker and their favorite types of teas influences how much tea you put in the pot. This was totally eye opening the first time we heard it. Indeed, in China it is very important to not overwhelm a guest with a flavor profile they might not understand or appreciate. The tea can be cut by as much as half or just by a third for the first serving to watch the response of the guest and then increased to full intensity in subsequent servings.
  • Tea is medicine. Tea, having been consumed for centuries in this country, is talked about as a cure for digestive issues, blood thinner and cholesterol remover, preventer of cold and flu, and general cure-all. Medical studies in both the East and West are slowly catching up with the cultural beliefs and beginning to prove or disprove many of them. However, this view of tea as medicine is reflective of the overall cultural belief that what you put in the body daily is critical to health.

The big take away, not surprisingly, is that there is still much we can all learn and explore when it comes to tea.

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3 Teas to Pair with Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Pie is Great with Tea!

Tea makes an easy and wonderful accompaniment to your pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. It will help you digest everything you ate for the day and compliment one of the best courses. Below we highlight 3 teas to pair with pumpkin pie and even suggest a few for apple or cherry pie. Don’t worry, we have even put in a caffeine free option.

  • Jasmine green tea is a unique and amazing pairing with pumpkin pie. The floral notes of the tea blend with the sweetness and spicing of pumpkin pie. They compliment each other nicely. Cherry and Apple pie also go nicely with this tea.
  • Lapsang Souchong is another unique tea that pairs well with pumpkin pie. The smokiness of the tea tones down the sweetness of the pie while not overpowering the spiciness. The bold flavors and mouth feel of Pumpkin pie is what makes this a nice pairing. Other fruit pies maybe overpowered by this tea.
  • If you are not feeling adventurous, Nilgiri tea makes a perfect companion since it is both floral yet strong enough to hold its flavor with pumpkin pie. This beautiful black tea from southern India allows you to serve something unique without straying too far out of guests comfort zones.
  • Ginger Honeybush when drunk with Pumpkin pie creates a lemon citrus flavor when combined in your mouth that is also smooth. This surprising combination adds an unexpected twist to the Pumpkin pie that is refreshing. If this is too adventurous, Rooibos is just fine.

Don’t forget you can pair tea with other courses on your Thanksgiving menu. The idea is that the tea and food item compliment each other without having one flavor over power the other. You can find some ideas in our post on 3 unusual tea and food pairings.

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Masters of Puerh: the Dai People of Yunnan

Tea processing by the Dai of Yunnan China

Processing of Tea Leaves in Preparation of Raw Tea

Tea is not just a beverage, but a piece of history and a reflection of its maker. The Dai people are the makers of Puerh. This ethnic minority has lived in the southwest region of the Yunnan province since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.). They migrated even further south into Laos and Thailand during the wars of the Song Dynasty (960C.E.-1279C.E.)

Dai Culture

The term Dai is used by the Chinese government to group in several minorities that have similar religious beliefs and dialects. There are seven documented different dialects for the Dai, based around where they lived. The rugged terrain of Yunnan made it hard, even now, to connect the various villages in the province so different dialects and beliefs developed based around whether you lived in the valley near the river or in the mountains. What stays similar throughout the region was their belief in Buddism, which is reflected in the vast number of temples through out Yunnan and the celebrated holidays. The Dai dress colorfully, mirroring the colors in the temples. They also have unique poetry, song and dance that is sometimes on display for the local tourists.

Dai Food and Drink

Their cuisine cares a wide variety of flavors, most notably spicy and bitter. Bamboo shoots are routinely included with meals, as well as pickled vegetables along with rice and meat. Many westerners would consider the cuisine to be simple, but its key is freshness. You can generally identify everything on the plate. Even the fish out the river are always served whole and where most likely caught that morning. Yunnan is home to wide variety of insects that are actually eaten as a local delicacy. You can find fried and spiced wasp larva, grasshoppers, cicadas, and chestnut bugs at the local restaurants and dinner tables.

Cloud and mist shrouded tea trees of Yunnan Province

Home of the Dai people of Yunnan, China with ancient tea trees for which small batch puerh is produced.

The tea is not scented in this region, it is valued for its size and vegetal flavor. The larger the leaf, the better in the eyes of the Dai. The tea plants are grown both trimmed and untrimmed. A tea plant over 100 years old is allowed to grow wild, and is plucked using a ladder. These ancient trees are treated with the utmost care, with many of them being well over 300 years old. Fertilizer comes from the local cows and chickens. Pesticides are not used because those insects in the tea plants may well become a side dish at dinner.

These ancient tea trees are a piece of history that the Dai consider as a gift given to them to share with others. So the next time you enjoy a cup of Puerh or Yunnan Sunrise, think of the Dai and the care they put into these trees and your favorite cup of tea.

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History of Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

Two mooncakes

Mid-Autumn Festival Moon Cakes

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most popular holidays in China. Much like America’s Thanksgiving, it is a holiday that is celebrated by the entire country where everyone travels to see family. However, moving nearly 700 million people in a condensed period of time is a huge undertaking. To help you put this in perspective, AAA estimated 49 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving in 2016. 17 times more people travel in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival than in the United States for Thanksgiving. China’s mass transit systems are put to the ultimate test moving this many people round trip over the span of 10 days.

Mid-Autumn Festival History

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival has been celebrated since the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 BCE). It started as a celebration of the moon. The Emperor’s believed that by giving gifts to the moon after the fall harvest would help guarantee a good harvest the following year. These offering where usually placed on an alter outside for the Moon to see and consisted of various foods and drinks, like tea. The practice of celebrating the moon spread from just the Emperor through the upper class and into the masses during the Tong Dynasty (618-907 CE). It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) that a formal festival was established and celebrated by the entire country. It is to occur on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar Calendar corresponding with a full moon, which means it can occur anywhere between mid-August till early October.

Culinary Traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The big food item during the Mid-Autumn Festival is the moon cake. This tradition began during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) as these dense cakes served as a means of transmitting messages concerning the rebellion against the Mongolian Emperors. The moon cake is generally a round pastry with a thin crisp skin that is filled with sweet lotus seed and duck yolk paste. The sweet filling now comes in many flavors, including Green Tea or Matcha paste filling. There are also now savory moon cakes filled with various meats and nuts.

Moon Cake with Filling

Moon cakes feature a variety of fillings including green tea or matcha paste filling.

So what do you drink with your moon cake? Tea of course. Puerh is resounding favorite as the moon cakes are often eaten in the evening after the family celebrations. However, the timing works with the flavors as the earthiness of the Puerh counters the sweetnees of the moon cakes. As with all things tea, this is personal preference and can vary by family. Oolongs like Ti Kuan Yin are another popular choice to pair with this treat.

Moon cakes can be found in Asian markets here in the US. So if you are curious, go find some and enjoy them with your favorite Puerh or Oolong.

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