Climbing the Great Wall of China makes you thirsty. So after our arduous early morning trek up one small section of the Wall, where dozens of elderly Chinese women whip past us effortlessly jogging up the steps, we head with our tour guide to a celebrated tea house an hour outside of bustling Beijing.
As we drive past bright colored flowering trees, the busy streets seem drab but are filled with every imaginable type of commerce; from children selling bottled water to tiny mom and pop shops filled from floor to wooden rafters with medicinal potions, snacks, furniture, and clothing. When our car stops in front of the tea shop, anxious female greeters standing in the doorway quickly usher us in with a flurry of smiles and bobbing heads.
Once inside, I am completely blown away by the spacious and polished interior. Red is the dominant color throughout the two stories, as we walk past impeccably organized shelves containing endless rows of products. The teas are cataloged by type in tins and jars, and related tea paraphernalia like teacups and earthenware pots fill another huge area. The selection and price range are like nothing I’ve seen in North America and make Starbucks, David’s Tea, and Teavana look like startup businesses.
The tea ritual begins when we are seated upstairs behind a rich walnut table. During the hourlong learning and sipping experience, our eyes are mesmerized by the constant heating and pouring of water for each taste test. The tea master’s fingers crisscross the containers of tea and stove top in rapid, smooth motions, flowing musically like a great orchestral conductor. We do our part to keep up, pinky finger extended (as directed) as we sip from heavy stone cups filled with each of the seven different categories of tea. As you’ll read in my “All the Tea in China” article, the medicinal properties are promoted as a magic elixir for living a long and happy life.
When the ceremony is complete, those smiling attendants return to the table and the sales pressure begins. Of course, we are language challenged and far too polite, stammering to communicate our spending limit. We give little attention to how much we can actually carry back home until our baskets are full. I gulp learning some of my favorite Pu-erh teas that look like a big wheel of tree bark can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on their rarity and age beyond 10 years. By breaking a small piece of Pu-erh from the wheel, you can enjoy a smoky, flavored tea that lasts for many months or even years.
By the time we finish, I’ve gathered a sampling from each the seven main types of tea and my poor vexed husband can’t wait to leave. If I had the chance to return to the tea shop, I’d change two things: I’d bring a list of what I wanted, and a friend that speaks the language. Happy tea totalling.