I notice that the imitation Gucci purse-toting crowd of Qingdao has dissipated and now the bus is filled with mostly older women with big bags of vegetables, or 2 gallon jars of peanut oil. Some older men sit in the back with their grandchildren bundled up in little lion or panda jackets. The suburbs of Qingdao are receding as we climb in elevation towards the mountain range of Laoshan. Now the bus stops are not marked by big LCD screen maps and crowds of vendors. Instead, the bus stops by a certain large walnut tree, by a rock shaped like an old man, or for anyone who sticks out their arm. There is a group of tanned construction workers on their way back from a job in a nearby city. They are gossiping about how crazy it was to take a train for the first time, and about what gifts and candies they had brought back for their sons and daughters.The trip to Laoshan village begins in the prosperous Sunnyworld Shopping Center Plaza of Qingdao, a coastal city known best for the Tsingtao beer that bears its namesake. Vendors crowd the bus stop, pushing their hand-made tarp bags full of Hello Kitty cell phone skins at passersby. “Just 5 Yuan!” I pass on Hello Kitty for the day. The number 17 bus comes to a stop about 50 yards away from the signpost, and apparently, everyone else seemed to know that would happen. The bus has filled up completely before I get on, and I find myself standing. The number 17 bus winds across Qingdao from the commercial center out through the new suburbs. We pass some great architecture. Giant sphere-shaped stadiums and pyramid imitations of the famous San Francisco skyscraper. It is Polar Ocean Adventure World where half the bus gets off and I find a seat.
My friend from Qingdao University, Weiwei, was taking me to Laoshan to visit her aunt. Laoshan is a holy mountain for Taoism. My colleague at the University told me that the mountain is surrounded by legends. Once a Taoist magician and trickster told the emperor that he would work on a potion for immortality if the emperor took him in. Over time he began to abuse the generosity of the emperor, demanding more and more. Eventually the emperor gave him an ultimatum. “Immortality or your head.” The magician fled that night for Laoshan, knowing that the devout monks would take him in and shelter him from the emperor’s wrath. How could he know that the emperor would send an entire garrison to kill him and anybody aiding him? The Taoist monks of Laoshan urged him to do the honorable thing, committing his life to the fates. At daybreak he leapt from the rock cliffs of Laoshan to the sea, freeing the monks from the dilemma of sheltering such a fugitive. Legends have it that those of steadfast will who leap from a mountain as holy as Laoshan are not killed, but taken up by the wind to another land.
Weiwei told me that I just had to see Laoshan for myself. She was helping me at the university with a translation of Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea. I had come to China to study tea and classical Chinese culture. Qingdao seemed an unlikely place to study, nestled over a thousand miles away from the nearest hub of tea culture. On weekends I would travel to Hangzhou or Kunming to do interviews with experts, tour the museums and practice gongfu tea ceremony with the masters. I ended up in Qingdao because of a mutual connection that got me a residency there. I had been studying for over a month in the shadow of the imposing coastal mountain range of Laoshan, and had not learned their secret until Weiwei put two and two together.
Laoshan was actually an isolated tea growing region- the furthest North in China. Those same Taoist monks that harbored the rogue alchemist had planted tea shrubs to cultivate in their monastery. Tea has been used for hundreds of years as a meditation aid for monks trying to stay awake for those multi-day mental exercises. The shrubs never matured into the great tea trees that grow in Yunnan, for winter comes harsh and cold in December. The monks would pick tea leaves fresh from the shrubs and boil them in water to make their medicine. This went on until a troop of soldiers bearing the standard of Mao’s revolution came to the mountain to redistribute the land and spread the word of communism to the Taoist monks. Many of the young soldiers had come from Sichuan, where the famous Emei Shan green tea grows. They recognized the tea plants that seemed to thrive in such a cold land. The communist government began to experiment with commercial tea cultivation on a smaller mountain near Qingdao, founding the Shandong Tea Research Institute, which can still be seen today in a remote corner of the city’s central park. Now it is overgrown with vines and tea plants too happy for their own good.
Seedlings from Zhejiang were brought in to play with until something was found that could withstand the cold while still tasting good. The research institute is still looking for their elusive cultivar even today. I once had a chance to try a sample of the first picking from the Institute’s latest crop packaged in a gold-gilded box and touted as the standard by which all Laoshan tea should be measured. I can say that the researchers will probably still have their jobs for a few decades as their tea is still flat and bland. How then, can I say that Laoshan is a hidden jewel of a tea growing region?
Like most tea stories, it comes around to the farmers. Many hard working farmers made the coastal village of Laoshan a clean and prosperous farming community through a devotion to the old technique of farming before the days of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Perhaps guided by the holiness of the mountain on which they dwell, or perhaps by the fact that the village drew livelihood from pilgrims who sought to climb the mountain and take with them a rock for good luck, the village has stuck by what we now call “organic” farming. Before tea, most farmers grew corn and soybeans on the mountain slopes.
When farmers heard about the monastery tea and the new tea research institute, many wanted to try their luck at cultivation. Nobody knows whether the monks gave them seedlings, or whether they perhaps got them from workers at the Institute, but overnight, tea gardens were popping up between rows of vegetables. After a few years, the tea was able to establish itself, and yield drinkable crops. Things seemed to take off from there. I was curious about why the tea was said to be so much better than the experimental crops that the government planted.
The bus finally comes to a stop with only a few other people aboard. This final stop is marked by an enormous oak tree. Weiwei explains that this tree marked the center of the village, and that it had been around longer than anyone remembered. From there, we walked. A bicycle taxi approaches, assuming that we must be tourists looking for the temple that had missed out stop, and offers us a ride. I tell Weiwei that I prefer to walk to her aunt’s house. Weiwei’s aunt, Qingqing, is a tea farmer. I am not sure what to expect of all this, having never tried the tea growing in Qingdao’s back yard. Once we clear the village square, I see the terraced rows of tea plants, bright green against the grey ocean mist that floats in from the beach. They look different than tea leaves in Dragonwell Village. They seem heartier, more determined. Perhaps I am just projecting on the tea, but it seems that the cold weather, rocky soil and ocean mist give the tea a challenge to rise to. The leaves are smaller, greener, and stretching upwards more vigorously than in the tropical forests of southern China.
We walk for about an hour, past all the wide tea gardens that form a crescent moon against the bay, and up into the foothills of the mountain Laoshan itself. The tea gardens here are fewer and smaller, but Weiwei explains that tea grown up here is much better and sells for much more because it is sheltered from salt air, and the mist that is caught against the mountain keeps the tea cooler. Cooler tea grows more slowly, spending less sugars so that when it is picked and eventually brewed up, those extra sugars make for a sweeter and smoother cup.
We finally reach the tea farm itself. I expected to see small cinder block homes with tin roofs, but instead I see a two-story impeccably stuccoed and brightly painted home with an inner coutyard. Weiwei’s aunt gives her a big auntie hug, and smiles at me gesturing at me to come in. “Tell him to feel at home. We are so happy to have guests from so far away.”
“Auntie, he speaks Chinese, you tell him.” She is a little flustered for a moment, but seems relieved that communication will be easier.
“I am sorry. We are not educated. I cannot even say hello in English. Come in.” Too many times I hear that apology.
“Please, I am a guest in your country. It isn’t your responsibility to learn my language. Your house is beautiful.” Qingqing is delighted.
“The house is nothing. It is old and too small. Please excuse us. You come from so far and we cannot offer you better.” This is the typical and expected conversation that begins any visit to a tea farm. In China, it is very hard for somebody to accept a compliment without criticizing. It is considered more polite that way.
“I am grateful for your time. Please do not criticize your beautiful farm. I come from a family of farmers in America, and our farms are not nearly as nice.”
“Well, you probably like it for the Feng Shui. This spot has some of the best Feng Shui in Laoshan.” Qingqing must be warming up to show a little pride.
“Is it Feng Shui that makes your tea so good?”
“You know our Laoshan tea?”
“I have not tried much, but I hear that it is excellent. I want to learn more to share with my friends in America.” It is the idea that I am going to share the knowledge I receive that excites most tea people. Tea people in China are almost invariable kind and welcoming. They are even kinder when they understand that you love tea. It is when you say that you are researching tea to share the culture with America that you can see a little twinkle in the eyes of the farmer, potter, shop owner, etc. Tea is a realm where honor is still of great importance. The idea of honoring their tea by spreading the culture beyond China is exciting. I have been to gardens surrounded in mystery where many tea companies claim that the farmers are guarding secrets, and don’t allow foreigners. I am usually welcomed with open arms. Tea is a paradox like that. Those who approach high quality tea from a business perspective first will forever have doors closed to them. Those whose relationships are based on an equal cultural exchange are welcomed.
Qingqing welcomes us into her home and shows us a couch adorned with every kind of doily imaginable. We sit and she brings out big glass tumblers for us. Behind her chair is a big pile of woven cloth sacks, all full of tea. There is also a refrigerator with smaller foil bags of tea. She begins by grabbing a hand full of tea leaves from a cloth sack and puts a decent amount of tea in each cup. The tea is dark green and curled into little spirals. She pours hot water in each cup and tells us to drink the tea when most of the leaves have sunk to the bottom of the cup. The aroma is incredibly rich, like grass mown for the first time in early spring while still wet with dew. I feel like I am already drinking the tea just smelling it, and almost forget to sip on my cup when the leaves sink to the bottom. The first sip is a big suprise. I expect to taste a standard grassy green tea, and hoped that it would be good enough to be sweet and not bitter. Instead of the standard experience, I immediately taste sugar snap peas, rich and hearty. The tea is filling, like an entire meal. Sitting there with the windows opening onto the tea fields and the rocky slopes of Laoshan’s peak, I think I had just sipped the best green tea in the world, and make sure to tell Qingqing.
“If you are happy, then I am happy.” She of course cannot accept the compliment.
“Why is your tea so good? I have never tasted sugar snap pea or bean flavor in a tea before.
“What green teas have you tried?”
“I have sipped tea with villagers in Dragonwell, sampled Huangshan Maofeng, Yunnan sun-dried green, Pilochun, gunpowder, but your tea tastes more rich and full than any of them.” Qingqing was happy to hear that her tea compared well to the southern China standards. People in northern China have a certain pride and sensitivity regarding their standing compared to the wealthier southern Chinese.
“Well, you cannot expect good tea to come from Dragonwell anymore. You can see the pollution in the air. The farms keep growing nothing but tea, and don’t let the land rest.” Many of my friends in Dragonwell would take offense, but in northern China, you are in a different world.
“So you must have a way to grow tea that is more respectful to the land? The mountains here are so beautiful, I can tell that the air and water are clean.” Qingqing is glad that I agree.
“Yes, of course. My great grandparents used to grow just soybeans here, back before tea came to our mountain. When we started growing tea, we planted it scattered around our soybeans. That year, the insects were bad, but they only ate the soybeans, and left the tea untouched. Since the soy crop was ruined, we cut it down and used it to fertilize the tea. This returns nutrients to the soil. When we tried our crop, we were surprised at how much of the bean-like aroma the leaves had absorbed. It was excellent. We told all of our neighbors, and we all agreed to grow soybeans to distract the insects and then use it as fertilizer. We don’t need chemicals, and our soil remains rich.”
“So, could other tea farms in the south do the same thing?”
“I suppose that they could, but there is so much demand for their tea. There is too much pressure for the farmers there. They need to produce enough for all of China. I only need to produce enough tea for people in the village and those in Qingdao who have tried Laoshan green. Besides, our water is better.” Qingqing is referring to the famous Laoshan spring water (more famous than the tea). Rain water that falls on Laoshan runs across a fortuitous combination of rocks that acts similarly to a charcoal filter, but leaves in the right minerals for a very sweet and rich water. Imagine watering your plants with Evian. That is about what the farmers of Laoshan get with the natural water source.
Now I was beginning to understand why Laoshan tea tasted so good, even though the big research institute was still working on the most scientifically perfect cultivar.
“Here, if you think that cup was good, try this.” Qingqing pulled out a small foil bag from the refrigerator and cut the vacuum seal. I could smell the tea across the room. It went well beyond the grassy and beany profiles. It is perfectly creamy and almost nutty. “This is an early spring picking. You just had the late spring picking. Taste the difference.” The tea tastes like sugar snap peas again, but the texture is all cream or velvet. The aftertaste lingered for hours.
I think to myself how America has been living deprived without Laoshan teas. I flag us a taxi for the hour and a half ride back to Qingdao University. Weiwei reprimands me, saying how expensive it will be. I just want to sit undisturbed with that aftertaste. It is money well spent not be jostled around in a bus after such a refined and enlightening afternoon.
Years later, I am back in touch with my good friends in Laoshan. I went back to visit them every weekend for the rest of that summer. Now, I call them up and explain how well-received their teas are when I do tastings or lecture on tea culture. I tell them that it is only a logical step to start importing small quantities of their tea to make it available to a larger audience. I am a bit nervous about whether they would part with any of their precious crop from the little 15 acre farm that they call home. Qingqing is delighted however. She says that none of the people who drink her tea in China seem to get it. She tells me that if I can get more Americans to respect tea in the way that she does, that she would much rather have her crop coming to me. Indeed, many Americans have tried and loved Qingqing’s master work. I am able to pay her several dozen times more than the commodity traders who buy up lots to sell in the city of Qingdao. On the phone, she tells me that she is able to send her daughter to Qingdao University now. I am so touched that I can play a small part in closing this circle, coming to the farm years ago as the student, and now helping my friend and teacher afford her daughter an education that she dreams of. Qingqing’s daughter is studying English and tourism management. Her dream is to bring more visitors to Laoshan and create more cultural exchange. Her work will enrich the entire village, hopefully bringing the name of Laoshan tea the respect it deserves in the world.