The morning I left home, it was snowing and around zero degrees Celsius. Just eleven hours later, I found myself on the other side of the world in the busy city of Shanghai, home to twenty-three million people, in pouring rain, the temperature twenty-five degrees higher, with humidity through the roof. Early on, this felt like an adventure to come.
The next day, trekking on the steep steps of Huangshan, cloud-hidden, it is difficult to encapsulate in words what the senses are perceiving. It truly feels like a scene out of a fantastic dream or at least a Lord of The Rings movie (I imagine Huangshan is the place where dwarves live). This is the place where a soul goes to rest, and it is no wonder this location is the source of inspiration for countless works of art.
A few wandering days later, our journey brought us to Qimen where we got to participate in the picking and processing of tea, experiencing firsthand how difficult a labor it is, making us have second thoughts from now on every time we throw away tea leaves that would yield a couple more steepings! Standing amidst vibrant seed-propagated tea bushes in a valley by a small rural village of around three hundred inhabitants was amazing. If one were to bring one's face down to ground level, one would witness a fascinating private world revolving around the thick roots of the trees: all kinds of lovely critters, bugs and insects mingling and minding their own business, being protected by the leaves from the burning sun.
In Huangshan, shortly after harvesting the leaves, we brought them back to the processing room where we all got to try our hand at patiently shaking the leaves on a bamboo tray over hot charcoal to dry them. Besides managing to spill the better half of the leaves, some even burned themselves. We were quite the sensation, bringing together a notable amount of friendly locals! Time seemed to follow its own slow and relaxed pace.
The day was already drawing to a close, and after spending quite a few hours on the bus, we were finally approaching Yixing, as indicated by the number of cars being interchanged with worn-down trucks carrying goods of all kinds on the highway. As in most cities in China, we were greeted with flashing neon lights, colors of the whole spectrum, decorating the vast buildings on our way downtown. I'd heard people's travel stories of arriving in Yixing and being surprised to discover a city with a somewhat industrial feel. Being a Western tea lover fond of Yixing teaware, one can easily develop an over-romantic picture of the home of the teapot.
After a good night's sleep, we went to see the old Qianshu Dragon Kiln. What was once on the outskirts of the town is now in the back alley of an anonymous small street with just a few signs along the way to point out the direction. Later on, we got off the bus near a nondescript multi-laned street, adjoined by a great wooden gate and a white wall. Behind these barriers lay the original closed mines of Yixing. We could just get a glimpse of what is behind the walls, glimpsing the top part of the hills. We walked a bit further down the street and Master Zhou, who was our generous guide, climbed up a hillside, grabbed a chunk of rocky soil and showed it to us exclaiming: "This is it! This is Yixing ore!" The particular chunk was obviously not high-grade ore (more suitable for making a flower vase than a decent teapot), but nevertheless, it was utterly fascinating to see how what we perceive to be a simple piece of rock has the potential to be the teapot we so adore.
Master Zhou then took us to a hall where we were officially welcomed to Yixing in the warmest of manners, with generous gifts and several signs erected to honor us. After our formal tea gathering (drinking, amongst other teas, some amazing vintage Liu Bao that Henry brought to us from Malaysia), we were spellbound for the next two hours as we closely watched, barely blinking, a true master at work. Master Zhou usually makes two to five teapots a month, spending several days on some of the processing steps he rushed through this time for the sake of demonstration. With his work, details make the difference.
Thinking back on the days of the trip, I'm reminded of a scene in the movie The Cave of the Yellow Dog by a Mongolian filmmaker, Byambasuren Davaa. The story revolves around a nomad family and their young daughter. The girl gets lost in the fields, and as the night falls, she finds shelter at the house of an old woman.
The old woman dries her clothes, feeds her and gives her a teaching: The grandma picks up a large needle and holds it over a saucepan, pouring grains of rice from her palm onto the needle. She asks the girl to try to balance a single grain of rice on top of the needle head. After some trying the girl concludes that it simply cannot be done, and the woman continues explaining that the probability of balancing a single grain of rice on top of the needle head is the same as being born as a human being in this world.
Somehow, I was reminded of this sentiment rephrased as “the needle in a haystack” when thinking about our trip: the places we visited, people we met and how several of our discussions revolved around the traditional knowledge, skill and wisdom that has been lost in the modern era. It is easy to think that the world is constantly evolving. We are coming up with new technologies, obtaining more knowledge, etc. However, it is not often that we think about the similar amount that is also lost, forgotten in the folds of time. I feel extremely blessed to have come in contact with a living tradition. Considering the thousands of master potters out there whose pots are pleasing to the eye but not functional in terms of tea preparation, tea farms that produce simply mediocre tea, brewing techniques that produce a fragrant cup of tea at most, I feel very grateful. As Wu De has so poignantly put it, he spent many years scouring the Earth for the best brewing techniques so that we would not have to do so ourselves. Of course, I’m not implying that one should take their status for granted, without testing, comparing, experimenting and challenging whether these techniques are true for you. And when you experience it as such, the things that are true will stand the test of time. (In fact, our tradition encourages such experimentation.) However, not to follow a laid path in front of one is simply a waste of time compared to the lengths one could possibly go if one is to follow the dewy path presented, developing and renewing the tradition naturally in the process.
I cherish the days spent with the Global Tea Hut community in China: the kilometers we walked and many more we drove by bus, the spontaneous gas station dance parties, the amazing veggie food we shared, all the heartfelt conversations and endless laughter, and, of course, all the cups of beautiful, transforming tea. I hope you all can join a trip in the coming years!