I had forgotten the elaborate extent of the Chinese hotel breakfast. We woke up very early and stumbled down to the lobby expecting a good old “continental” breakfast of dry pastry and cereal in those little boxes that can hold milk and double as bowls. We were of course very surprised to be beckoned into a huge circular chamber with elaborately carved antique wooden tables, art everywhere, and a labyrinth of buffet options. There were two chefs frying up made-to-order Chinese street food wraps, six different kinds of congee, and every other imaginable dish. I went for an old favorite- fried dough sticks with a bowl of fresh warm soymilk for dipping. I couldn’t resist grabbing a few scallion pancakes too.
We were going to need a big breakfast for the fun that came next. We ended up finishing breakfast at about 8AM, getting our internet to work so that we could actually send updates to everyone, and then figuring out how to use Skype to call Weiwei and tell her that we were ready to go. Back to the tea market! Today we got the chance to see Wang Shilin again. Wang Shilin is an avid teapot collector and Xingyang Workshop’s only representative in Shandong. His shop is a wallet-destroying conflagration of the most beautiful teapots in the world, and favorites such as the Xingyang Golden Leaf shu pu’er.
If you have seen any pictures of teapots on the Verdant Tea website- they are from Wang Shilin. Because of Wang Shilin’s extensive knowledge of clay, his respect for craftsmanship, and his charisma, he convinced master yixing artist Zhang Quanlin to sell much of his work through (Wang Shilin’s) shop. The first year we visited, Zhang Quanlin was still younger and his teapots sold for a respectable $200-$800. We bought a good eight of them. Basically a teapot represented our month’s salary as professors at Qingdao University. Every year the prices have gone up. I bought what may be our last Zhang Quanlin piece recently at a severe discount. This year, our yixing hero won national master status and has been recognized by the Chinese government as supreme (as has the master who carves calligraphy on the pots). This means that the teapots now start at $2000 and go up to $15000. In another 20 years, we may have our retirement fund in those eight teapots.
In any case, Wang Shilin was delighted to see us. The first thing he did was chide me for not speaking more Chinese while I was away. “Du Xuan, you speak Chinese so much more slowly now, why weren’t you practicing?” Thanks Wang Shilin. I explained that 50+ hours of travel and a year and a half without the opportunity to speak will make you a bit less perfect for a day or two. We immediately dove into trying all the latest from Xingyang Workshop. I had forgotten how proud Wang Shilin was of his beloved Xingyang. Every steeping, he would hold the glass pitcher up to the light and show off that perfectly translucent color of the tea.
After three shu pu’ers from Xingyang, we tried three sheng pu’ers. The first was very young and slightly drying. Wang Shilin was very upfront about his dislike for that particular tea. “I keep it around for education. When I brew it up, people get a reminder of what most sheng pu’er tastes like. Then I can move on to my favorites.” We talked about that drying sensation that lower quality teas all share. Mediocre Tieguanyin, green tea, pu’er, or black tea will all dry out the back of your throat just a little bit. The don’t have a smoothness to their texture, but seem to “stick” a little bit. I lamented the fact that when I came back to America, I couldn’t drink any tieguanyin available domestically. Not one. After drinking with my old mentor Wang Huimin for so long I had become spoiled. I could taste the cotton-swab dryness in just about everything. That is one of the main reasons I was convinced to start importing the teas I loved.
Next we brewed up the finer shengs from Xingyang workshop, both of which were perfectly sweet, bright, and mouth-watering. At that point, Weiwei, Lily and I were going to get some lunch, but we all got side-tracked talking about Laoshan Black. Wang Shilin personally is still wary of the stuff. “Maybe I am just an old man, but I don’t want to set aside my black teas with a history for something so new.” I politely disagreed, but Wang Shilin likes to make his opinions known. He pulled out a Jin Jun Mei, which tasted like fresh-roasted sweet potato, and then topped it off with a delicately smoked Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong. Usually these Lapsang Souchong style teas really turn me off. They tend to just taste like beef jerky. This one was like being in the middle of a forest, and catching a wafting thread of sandalwood incense smoke, and following it to a temple shrine. The smoke was delicate, and very much faithful to the original wood burned to make the tea. It was the most perfectly balanced and evocative Lapsang I had ever tried. Of course, the price was in the range of Golden Fleece level teas, but I might end up offering just a little bit for people interested in sharing the experience.
We ended up drinking tea until the mid-afternoon before getting out for our lunch-dinner. Weiwei took us to an incredible restaurant down a back alley where you sit down and explain your general likes and dislikes to the chef, and they go back into the kitchen and bring you out a six course meal. No menus allowed. While not every dish was a huge hit, there were a few that top the best foods I have eaten. Particularly, a plate of dry-sauteed disc-sliced green beans with big chunks of ginger and garlic, carrots, hot peppers, and the perfect seasoning. Cost of a six course meal for three? Less than the price of a Subway value meal.
After our lunch-dinner, we made a valiant attempt at some clothes shopping but abandoned ship when all we found were bass-pumping purveyors of khaki pants cut for inches above the waist sold under the lights of a disco ball. No thank you.
Very fun day. Reconnecting with Wang Shilin was great, because he has such strong opinions and absolute judgements, but still maintains a wonderful optimism. He thinks that given the chance to try fine teas, people will not only recognize the tea’s beauty, but be permanently changed for the better because of it. This is the tea culture I have been missing. I am excited to plot day three, as it falls on Lily and my anniversary. I know that buying a commemorative cake of sheng pu’er is going to happen. Other than that, we shall see…