Wednesday, October 24, 2007

food on our trip...

Louise wrote up her take on food during the trip over here. I'll probably post some of the pics I haven't already posted later, but I thought it was a nice summary.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tuesday, Oct 16 - Still in Fujian; more tea drinking

Today was another tea-heavy day. If there's any city that could make me get sick of tea, it's Wuyishan - in the little village area, every store is a tea store, and basically every convenience store or anything else at all has cans of tea and a brewing station. Every park has a tea station or two, a lot of the scenic areas have little pavillions with rock tables / chairs that would be perfect for an impromptu tea session (well if you happened to have a portable kettle and tea set, anyway). And in and around the mountains.... well there are tea bushes all over the place.

It's also weird to be somewhere so incredibly touristy with not a white person in sight. Seriously - I don't think I saw any non-asians at all the whole time we were in Fujian. As far as I know, no major insults hurled in my direction, though we definitely heard people talk about the 'waiguoren' (i.e., me) a lot.

After some sweet soy milk and buns for breakfast, and then a second breakfast at a little shop by the hotel, we headed over to the Big Teapot Inn (or something like that), also mentioned on Cha Dao, and also run by a relative of Mr. Zhou. We tried a few teas there:
  • high grade Dà Hóng Páo (Big Red Robe - 大红袍)
  • 17 year aged DHP
  • Jīn Fó (Golden Buddha - 金佛) - their specialty, which only they carry
  • Heavier roasting Jīn Fó
I thought that their aged Dà Hóng Páo was much better than the 14 year old one at the other place. The flavors were well balanced, and though it was strong flavored, there wasn't much sourness or an excessively roasted taste. The price was actually pretty reasonable, especially after a little bargaining (I'm actually kind of regretting not buying more - maybe I'll mail order some more if I like it). I also bought some of their specialty tea, even though it was a little pricey.

This is one of the classier establishments in the touristy parts of town; there's a downstairs storefront (which is pretty normal for the area) and then a spacious upstairs tasting room. The woman here was very chatty, and maybe a little patronizing. Thanks to not speaking Chinese, I've been spared a lot of lectures about oolong tea and yán chá in the past 2 days. Of course, I can generally tell more or less what's going on, but Louise kindly didn't burden me with the full translation. The owner's wife came over when we started bargaining on price, and was very warm and friendly. She showed us pictures of their harvest, tea processing, and a couple of token foreign friends, one of whom runs a tea shop somewhere and is a big customer.

We then headed out to do some more hiking, but it turned out I left my ticket at the hotel, so we went to lunch instead (same place as the day before). Once again, the food was excellent; this time, I tried chow mein with their hand-shaved noodles
and we also got a couple of vegetable dishes - long beans and hollow heart greens.

Then we went back to the hiking spot, and checked out some really amazing caves. The last cave was a climb through this narrow gap (supposedly caused by an earthquake), through which you could see the sky. It got so narrow at points, that someone with a few too many pounds probably would have had a hard time making it through. The steps were fairly uneven, and you had to pay if you wanted to rent a flashlight. You'd definitely have to sign all sorts of waivers to go in caves like this in the US. Here's a picture of us coming out:

By then, it was almost time for the afternoon run of the boats that run along the 9 bend river. Thankfully, we didn't get a play by play description of each rock along the route, and the ride along the river was enjoyable. Louise and I took off our shoes to enjoy the water that came through the bottom of the raft, but one of the pilots of the boat warned us that some of the people in the boats ahead of us were from Hong Kong and probably had some sort of deadly foot disease. I'm not sure if that was a credible threat, but just in case, we put our shoes back on. Rafting down the river, while a touristy thing to do, is a great way to see the beautiful cliffs of Wu Yi.

The rear boat pole-pushing-person (not the guy pictured above) cursed like a sailor, and was telling Louise that she should move to China and find a Nice Chinese Boy. He also said that people don't rely on their strength anymore, and they're lucky, because otherwise, skinny guys like me would never get a girl like her. He also said I was unworthy because I can't swim - god knows what he would have said if he found out I didn't eat meat.

After this, we headed back to Mr. Zhou's uncle's place for round two. This time, we were taken upstairs instead of in the tasting room down in the factory - I guess this is where the high rollers get to go? Anyway, the same woman (I never got her name) brewed up some more teas for us. We wanted to try the Bái Jī Guān we never got to try the day before, and then we moved into some slightly more rare and obscure Yán Cha (Bái Jī Guān and Bǎi Suì Xiāng are the only ones I have heard of or tried before).
  • Bái Jī Guān (White Cockscomb - 白鸡冠)
  • Bǎi Suì Xiāng (100 Years Fragrant - 百岁香)
  • Yán Zhōng Lán (literal - Cliff Middle Orchid? - 岩中兰)
  • high grade Cháng Qīng Téng - (Oldest? green? vine - 長青藤)
(I have characters and pinyin for most of these, so pretty sure I have the right characters and words, but correct me if I'm wrong, and help me fill in the missing characters if you know 'em or have a good guess).

The leaves of the last were huge! Here's a closeup of the leaves from that tea and the Bái Jī Guān together:

We got some dinner, and headed to the train station for our late (overnight) train ride back to Shanghai. Unfortunately, you can't buy tickets for other stations, so we weren't able to buy our tickets that much in advance, which meant no hard sleeper for us on the way back - we ended up having to ride in regular seats. This was really crappy, especially since it was a 12 hour, overnight, train ride. Vendors seemed to target the "cheap seats" more too - when we had stops at each station, vendors would yell REALLY loud promoting their products... for 15 or 20 minutes.

At one stop, Louise finally got out and yelled at the vendor from the door of the train, and finally went over and screamed in his ear. Later, a vendor at another stop was yelling while Louise was asleep; I don't speak much Chinese, but I decided to go out there and stare him down. I had a bottle of water in my hand, and (tired and frustrated from lack of sleep) flung some of the water directly at him, then stomped back to my seat. At this point, I was a little afraid that I'd get kicked off the train, and possibly arrested by the Chinese government, but I only got a dirty look from the vendor through the window of the train car.

back.... and some general thoughts

Hey folks... I'm back home, but still not done documenting my trip. I'm a little behind, so bear with me - I'll try to get a couple more posts up today.

Some general thoughts....

Shanghai is a crazy city. The air is horrible (and this is coming from someone who lives in the city with the second-worst air in the whole US). Smoking is still very popular (and Chinese cigarettes are pretty strong), and you can smoke basically anywhere. The whole time we were there, we were coughing all the time.

The traffic is insane (and this is coming from someone who lives in LA). Bikes, pedestrians, motorcycles, motorized bikes, and cars drive around with blatant disregard for things like "lanes", "stop lights", "ambulance sirens", etc.

The food everywhere is fantastic (and cheap), and the produce was generally of very high quality. Restaurants don't seem as "clean" (i.e., there isn't such an obsession with cleanliness or compliance with the (non-existant) health codes as there is here), and even the nicer places are generally not "nice" by Western standards. The hole in the wall places are a lot more hole in the wall than the holiest in the wall places in the US. A lot of places specialize in one or two things, and they do those things very well. The breakfast place we went to almost every morning in Shanghai turns into a noodle place in the afternoon. Total cost for two bowls of dofu hua or do jiang, along with a creuller (you tiao) and maybe a fried rice block: about 5 RMB, less than 1 USD. MSG doesn't have the same stigma it does here, and is ubiquitous (perhaps part of the reason the food is so tasty) - even at home, people cook with MSG a lot, often chicken flavored MSG.

People, especially Louise's family, were incredibly hospitable during the whole trip. Shanghai is reputed to be the most friendly / inviting city to foreigners, and without having much basis for comparison, I don't find that hard to believe.

People are very loud here.

Anyway, I don't point these things out as negatives -- I'm just trying to describe the experience. Shanghai is a crazy city in much the same way New York is. Despite some of the "negatives", I think it's a fantastic city, and could imagine myself living there someday.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Monday, Oct 15, I n which we see some very famous bushes

Today was our first day in Wuyishan.

In the morning, we got some pumpkin porridge, you tiao, and some little green onion cakes. We met up with our driver, Mr. Zhou, and headed out to the main hiking / sightseeing area. This was beautiful, but full of tour groups. We skipped the really long hikes, because Louise's knees were bothering her, but did get to see a lot of rocks. Chinese people really like to look at rocks, say what they resemble, and tell stories about them. It's kind of weird. The area is incredibly beautiful, but in a very understated way.

We were really lucky to have had some of our legwork done for us by Corax and Niisonge - Corax's posts (such as the ones here and here) on Cha Dao made me think that Wuyi would be a good place to visit, mostly because there's a more central focal point than most other tea producing areas, and I like the tea produced there. I used the same cab driver they used (Mr. Zhou), and Warren (Niisonge) was very helpful in answering my questions about Fujian and about getting vegetarian food here (he is vegetarian as well).

Anyway, after this, we decided to have some tea at the Wuyi Star factory store, which is at the base of the main hiking area. The woman who brewed our tea was talkative and nice, but kept blatantly lying about what number infusion we were on, and changing the subject when Louise brought it up. The tea was decent, but nothing mindblowing. The prices weren't as crazy as people say they are "up the mountain" (at least by US standards), but then again, it's all relative to the quality of the tea. We tried a Bái Jī Guān (白鸡冠) and a Dà Hóng Páo (大红袍).

I've watched 3 different sales people brew yán chá (rock tea / cliff tea, named for the rocky cliffs of Wuyi Mountain) in the last week (1 in Shanghai, 2 here in Wuyishan)...
  1. All used 100 C (or very close to it) water, bringing the water back to a boil before almost every infusion. When we asked, the woman at this place said she did this all the time, not just to show off the tea under higher temperature conditions.
  2. I'd read that 2 rinses was standard in this area, but these people did 1 in most cases.
  3. Leaves were usually > 3/4 of the brewing vessel - almost to the top of the gaiwan (or completely to the top), with an almost instant pour. This is how I brew yán chá too, but the people who sit around and brew it all day are much faster on the draw - they have this cool move where they just kind of drop the lid on the gaiwan, and it floats into place. Then they tip the gaiwan over enough to get the extra water off the top.
  4. Sometimes, the brewer seemed to leave a little tea in the bottom of the chá hǎi between infusions. I've heard of people doing something similar (but with the brewing vessel) for green tea, but not sure if this is a trick to make it seem like the tea lasts longer than it does, or just a slightly different brewing technique.
After that, we decided to get some lunch. So far, getting vegetarian food in Fujian has been surprisngly easy - easier than many people said it would be. The produce is really fresh, and most people cook simple food anyway. Of course it's possible that people are lying about there not being meat broth in the dishes, but so far, my stomach hasn't complained. We had noodle soup (Louise's was spicy with beef on top; mine was a little milder, with some green vegetables). The noodles looked hand shaved, and tasted great; they could have been a tiny bit more al dente, but I liked them. The eggplant dish was fantastic; the spicy green peppers that seem to be popular here have a nice smokey flavor - kind of like a mix between a mild chile, a jalapeno, and a habenero. The eggplant was tender and thin-skinned.

Then it was off to see the Dà Hóng Páo bushes themselves. Of course, as expected, the bushes themselves are not super exciting, but it was really fun to see all the other tea plants all over the place. It was not as far a walk as I imagined, and you're at least sort of close to the bushes.
DHP bushes
Everyone says not to buy tea up the mountain, but we didn't even bother tasting the tea there right by the bushes.

There are tea plants all over the place... here are some ròu guì plants:

We stopped by a nearby temple that's off the same road. Even the temple in Wuyi sells tea (However, I'm pretty sure the monks don't actually make the tea).

Then it was off to get our train tickets back, and to head over to Mr. Zhou's family's tea operation. This was another area where having some of the legwork done for us was very handy - the main area has so many touristy tea shops (literally almost every shop in the tourist "downtown" area), and I imagine it's hard to get good tea for a good price over there, though maybe we'll check a couple out tomorrow. We checked out their tea processing equipment briefly - dryers (electric), roaster (wood charcoal), bruising apparatus, drying area, etc. There was warm tea sitting in some baskets that was incredibly fragrant and sweet.

We spent a good 3 or so hours there, trying brew after brew of various yán chá - in order:
  • Shuǐ Xiān (Water Sprite - 水仙)
  • Dà Hóng Páo (Big Red Robe - 大红袍)
  • Award Winning DHP (higher grade)
  • 1993 DHP
  • Gǔ Shù Chá (Ancient Tree Tea - 古树茶) (an old bush variety of theirs)
  • Qiān Lǐ Xiāng (Thousand Miles Fragrant - 千里香) (I love BTH's, and wanted to try one that was for sure actually from Wuyishan)

We were too tea-drunk and palate fatigued to try the Bái Jī Guān - maybe tomorrow. Overall, the lower grade DHP was the best tasting, though the higher grade teas had a much better aftertaste. For the price, though, the DHP was great, so I picked up 2 jin, as well as some of the Qiān Lǐ Xiāng. Perhaps I will get some more tea from there tomorrow. The other teas were good - nothing that really blew my mind, but all excellent. The aged DHP was a little more sour and less sweet than some of the aged teas I like.

For dinner, we went to one of those places that has all the ingredients sitting out front, and you tell them what you want them to cook. We decided to try a few types of local mushrooms (the area is famous for its mushrooms), and Louise also got a scrambled egg / omelette type thing with some sort of flower cooked inside, and some little fish (which were battered, seasoned, and fried). Once again, the food was fresh, flavorful, and delicious. Friends and family will be interested to know that I broke my diet just a little - I had my first (intentional) taste of egg in about 15 years - I had a few bites of Louise's eggs. There are chickens all over the place here, and while a lot of them may end up on the dinner table, it's a far cry from the way chickens are raised in the US, so I said what the hell.

I had been warned that people in Fujian eat a lot of wild stuff, and one or two of the restaurants we went to (the sort where all the ingredients are out front and you tell them which ones you want them to cook for you) had an actual small bear WITH fur still attached in the display case. Sorry folks - didn't get a picture of that. There were a fair amount of smallish mutt type dogs running around as well, and according to Mr. Zhou, some of the locals do catch these and eat them, though we didn't see them offered at any restaurants.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sunday, Oct 14, in which we travel to Fujian

For breakfast, we got some dofu hua that I liked more than the one we had the other day, these weird little fried sticky rice things that are kind of like a hash brown patty, and also this pastry with sesame seeds on top and sugar inside. Then we checked out of the hotel, and headed to the train station for our trip to Wuyishan.

We got to the train station ahead of schedule. The Shanghai south train station is absolutely huge. The train ride is about 11 hours (12:45 PM to about 11:30 PM). We rode hard sleeper.
lying down in hard sleeper

I didn't get a ton of pictures, but did get to check out the Chinese countryside, which was very interesting. Such a crazy mix of industrial and rural - large housing complexes and buildings rising up out of rural villages in some places; in other areas, everything still felt pretty rural, with older, usually somewhat run down buildings scattered among small farm plots.
View from the Train
I saw some stuff I didn't think still happened - a guy carrying a huge sack of something on his back, a woman carrying buckets of water or something, people wearing wide brimmed hats and working on their farm plots.

The train ride itself was a really interesting experience. Very loude lots of yelling, eating and drinking. People were pretty friendly, and we got offered some interesting snacks (small, sweet sun dried tomatoes, some sort of local orange / tangerine type fruit with green skin). No one really engaged us in conversation, though I did hear some people talking about the "foreigner" in Chinese.

Got into Wuyishan on time, and found our cab driver easily. I can already feel how touristy the city is, but I'm excited for tomorrow.

Saturday, Oct 13, In which we drink tea, eat some more, dance outside, and then eat some more

In the afternoon, we met up with the infamous Action Jackson, and went to Tianshan tea mall. There was some confusion about going here at first, because Louise's cousin thought I was pointing at a different address, and said the tea mall I wanted to go to (Tianshan) was too far out, and suggested an alternative. As it turned out, that's where he wanted to go anyway.Tianshan is definitely head and shoulders above the more touristy tea shops scattered around the city, and I didn't have too many people yelling "allo" at me at every turn. Maybe it helps that Action Jackson has been seen there before, and the shopkeepers know she speaks Chinese. Anyway, we went to a couple pu'erh shops - tried a 2007 "6 Famous Mountain" cake which was ok - very fragrant - and then a 2002 cake and a 2007 cake (supposedly by the shopkeeper) at this other shop, which has some nice stuff, but has "storage issues" - what this means is that the shopkeeper smokes in the shop all day, so the wrappers are turning yellow earlier than you'd think they would, and the tea may have a slight off taste.We then went to a shop which had some Anxi rolled oolongs; the tea wasn't really to my taste at all - even their most roasted tea was still kind of vegetal for me, and the leaf quality was just so-so, but the price was pretty cheap, so Action Jackson and I split a jin (500g) between us. In retrospect, maybe I should have skipped this one. We then went upstairs and checked out some teaware, and then Action Jackson had to leave, but not before dropping us off at a vendor who specializes in Wu Yi teas. He was very nice, if a tiny bit condescending, and brewed us two Rou Guis - a fairly cheap one, and a somewhat more expensive (but still quite reasonable) one. I was going to get some even though it seemed a little silly to get Yan Cha before venturing to LA, but we got a call saying that the whole family was waiting for us at dinner (a good half hour before we were supposed to be there), and had to abruptly leave without buying anything from the poor guy. I think I'll get some stuff from him when I go back to Tianshan, though.

Louise's aunt took the whole extended family on her father's side for dinner, and she was the guest of honor. We ended up getting there kind of late, due to rush hour traffic and staying so long at the tea mall. The restaurant is another famous one, in the same touristy area that the XLB place is in. It's main claim to fame seems to be that President Clinton ate there. The food was excellent. Vegetarian standouts were a simple soybean / preserved vegetable dish, bai tsai with straw mushrooms, a kau fu dish that Shanghai is famous for. The meat dishes included a tender goose with a sticky rice stuffing, some little crab pastries, and a fish of some sort. As usual, the dinner and drinking went on, and on, and on.

Afterwards, we went to this park where a ton of people hang out and dance every weekend. Dancing in public seems to be really popular here. It was super fun. Louise's youngest uncle turned out to be a fantastic dancer (I guess he used to teach dance). At some point, a woman grabbed me and tried to teach me the dance they were doing at the time... she got pretty frustrated with me, though she patiently kept trying to teach me until I at least sort of got the hang of it. She told Louise that I had "two feet" (the Chinese equivalent of saying "two left feet").
Late night dancing outside - Shanghai

Then, the little uncle took us out to a late night dim sum type of place, just in case anyone was still hungry. I had more tea, which (after all the tea drinking in the afternoon) meant that I didn't get a whole lot of sleep.

Friday, Oct 12 - in which we eat and are bathed

Today, we went and visited Louise's grandparents' grave (along with her uncle and aunt). It's out in the boonies, pretty far from the main city. We had a long and bumpy bus ride out there, with a lot of honking. The cemetary itself was really nice; pretty quiet and peaceful. We swept the grave, put some flowers out (after tearing them up and placing them around the grave so that the flower merchants couldn't resell them). For some reason, even though I never knew Louise's grandmother, it was an emotional experience for me to visit the grave.

We then went back to this uncle and aunt's house to have lunch. First, we visited the market, and they let Louise and me pick out some fresh vegetables for lunch, as well as some rice ovals (nien gao). This market was very clean and modern for a Chinese market, and the vegetables looked really fresh.
At the market

They apologized in advance because the lunch wouldn't be as fancy as the dinner we had at her other uncle's house; of course they needn't have apologized - the food was fantastic. Tsao nien gao is one of my favorite Shanghaiese dishes, and this one was very tasty, because of the fresh vegetables and fresh (not rehydrated) rice cakes. They also made some snow pea type things, which were crisp and flavorful - nothing resembling the ones we have in the states. Some pea greens and fresh soybeans were also excellent. There was a dish of very small, fresh eel, cooked with some greens, which I almost considered breaking my diet to try some of.

Afterwards, her cousin took us to the bootleg market. This was a unique experience; definitely more fun than I thought it would be, though I didn't actually buy anything. A lot of this stuff is probably made by the same factories that make the actual products. The fake Converse Chuck Taylors were the most convincing.

After this, Louise's cousin had promised to take us to a bathhouse, since we had been asking about good bathhouses (that weren't the sort your mom warned you about). This was truly a new and unique experience for me. After splitting up, we met one of Louise's cousin's friends in the men's side of the bathhouse. I went in a shallow hot bath with jets, then headed into the sweat lodge for as long as I could handle. This was more or less like a normal sauna, but with hot coals and a lot of steam. I stayed in for about as long as I could stand, and then we headed over to get scrubbed with rough mitts and massaged.

After this, we went to a beautiful outdoor warm bath; half of the roof was exposed so that we could see the sky above. Then we showered off, put on disposable underwear and pajamas, and headed upstairs to meet the girls. It turns out that a lot of the wedding party met up with us there, and we ate a full dinner at the in-house restaurant. Pajamas are a big equalizer - a lot of people like doing business in this place, because it's harder to lie if you're naked (or wearing ridiculous striped PJs). There was something incredibly fun about being in a giant fun-house for adults, wearing silly pajamas.The bathhouse also has massage rooms, several lounges (smoking and non-smoking, with TVs playing), a tea lounge, a live performance space, private sleeping rooms, etc. A lot of business people actually use these places as hotels, because it's the same price or cheaper than a hotel, and you get more out of it. We're definitely hoping to make it back to this place again.