Category Archives: Travel

Gao Shan Lao Cong Shui Xian

This article was originally written for Cha Xi Collective. Just keeping a copy here.
Oolong Tea found at Si Hai Cha Zhuang in Ningbo

Roasted and crispy, as expected from a Wuyi Shui Xian. A woody aroma and a golden orange color. The first few infusions have very little real flavors on my tongue – more of a sense or feeling of charcoal. I then tried very hot water with a much longer infusion time (about 2 minutes) and was rewarded a very distinct aroma of steamed milk and a somewhat tannic coriander taste on the sides of the tongue.

I don’t have much experience with or knowledge of Gao Shan Lao Cong tea, but I can taste the signs of the title.

Gao Shan oolongs are usually highly praised for their well-defined aromas; this tea has more aroma than taste, although it is not flowery at all. They also tend towards a lighter body which this tea, despite its roast, does as well.

Lao (old) trees tend to be used for producing tea that packs a punch. This tea has just that effect; you can’t miss the charcoal dryness when it hits your tongue.

Not my favorite Wuyi oolong, but an interesting comparison to other Shui Xians I’ve had in the past.

We purchased this tea from tea friends we had met in Ningbo (宁波) at their shop. After discovering the amazing tearoom at the Tea Museum, we got to know a very kind gentleman there named Shihongwei. At first, this young tea master began brewing us a delicious pot of Da Hong Pao with what is likely the attitude of most tea experts in China toward foreigners, but when we told him we were employees of a teahouse in America, he was very impressed and became much more animated. It’s funny how the world of tea is so small.

Shihongwei asked us if we had been to the tea expo or if we were planning to attend. A tea expo? We didn’t even know that there was a tea house in Ningbo, let alone a whole exposition dedicated to this plant. It turned out that the expo was nearly at an end and that the next day was its close. We told our new friend that we would love to go but could he tell us how to get there? His excited response was to arrive at the teahouse the next morning at 10am and he would bring us there himself.

The expo was a wonderful experience. It was actually a little overwhelming and I could easily have spent a whole day there just wandering around, tasting tea, and examining teaware. Perhaps unfortunately, as we were guests of our friend, we felt obligated to stay with him and see what he thought most interesting. While there, we met Tang (汤) and Wang Jing (王璟 – we called her “hat girl”), young friends of Shihongwei, who invited us to the tea shop where they worked as soon as we were leaving.

Tang and Wang Jing worked at a small shop on the east side of the city and seemed to specialize in roasted oolongs. We thought this quite fortunate since our trip plans did not include Fujian or Guandong province where these fine teas are usually produced.

We drank many cups of tea with these folks as the afternoon wore on and learned about each others’ cultures. These conversations (aided heavily by various translation software) are probably my favorite part of these trips. Sharing life tales and cultural tidbits over cups of tea is an amazing experience. It’s also a hungry experience and we were doubly-fortunate to be treated to lunch by our hosts as well.

They had a room upstairs with the most polished and glowing carved wooden table I’ve ever seen. It was massive, and soon covered with takeout boxes full of rice and vegetables along with a few cans of Coca-cola. It felt like eating Chinese take-out with friends in high school on someone’s parent’s expensive dining-room table. You’re always a little worried about spilling something.

Needless to say we wanted to take home some tea from this shop, so we picked out one of the boxes of Wuyi oolongs from their shelves and divided it among ourselves. At the time I thought we were buying Da Hong Pao, but upon closer inspection of the packages, the tea turned out to be Lao Cong Shui Xian. I was pretty content with this mistake since this is a style of tea I have never tried.

If ever I am in Ningbo again I will definitely seek out Wang Jing and Tang and Shihongwei and hopefully give them a gift worthy of all the kindness they showed to me.

2005 Chang Chang Hao Nan Nuo Shan Shou Bing by Shan Ye Cha Zhuang

This post appeared originally at Cha Xi Collective. This is just an archived copy.

Ah, the taste. Another wonderful bing I brought back from Yunnan. Sweet and a little tart with the definite flavor of blackberries. I liked the smooth earthy aroma and I may have sensed black cherries in there as well. Rewardingly mellow lingering taste that fades into a lightness. In fact, there’s potential to be too light with this tea.

The first few infusions I tried at 15 seconds or so, and they were good, but fairly light and generic shou puer. Afterward I gave it a good soak and found the richness I remember from tasting this tea in the shop in Lijiang. Some nice big leaves in there too.

By the time we arrived in Lijiang Old Town (not to be confused with the massive modern city that is Lijiang proper), I had been forewarned by our friends that the experience would be one big tourist trap; they were not wrong. Lijiang’s streets are teeming with knick-knack shops, snack vendors, hawkers of every craft that someone on vacation might be interested in. Dumplings, fried dough, and delicious crystalized ginger were available on every corner, and there are a lot of corners as Lijiang is built like a maze. And yet it is a beautiful maze. The buildings are exclusively old architecture, or more likely new architecture made to look old. It’s like walking though some old european town in Disneyworld, except instead of a Dutch village you walk through Song dynasty China (the Internet tells me that the architecture might actually be based on old Naxi style which is a blend of Tibetan and Han Chinese).

With no lack of snacks to fill us, we walked along the stone paths between close-set two-story buildings looking for tea. The gentle sound of water followed us since many of the streets are divided by gutters large enough to be small rivers. You can stop on any stone bridge over these streams to eat your rice dumpling and watch the myriad tourists walk about. Most of the tourists are Chinese, of course, but there are a number of Westerners in any given view. Most of those not from China were French or German, which seemed to be the rule throughout Yunnan. No matter which western country, however, they all spoke some English. This was not the case for the Chinese, which was a little surprising for such a tourist-centric place. Still, we managed with our rudimentary Mandarin.

As for tea, we found a bit here and there, but many of the shops selling tea also sold jade bracelets, tobacco, or some other item. These are not the places to visit. Even among tea-only vendors, the tea we tried (mostly puer) was nothing amazing and certainly not worth the prices. I had mostly given up hope when we came across a puer shop which wasn’t ostentatious about its wares, nor was the proprietor – a middle-aged woman – calling out to us to buy her tea. She didn’t even get up when we walked in. Believe it or not, we took this as a good sign. When we asked (in our basic Chinese) if we could taste some of her puer, she gave us a skeptical look and said, “are you going to buy something?”. That was when I knew we had hit upon a real tea shop. She wasn’t interested in wasting her good tea on some American tourists. We explained our intentions and we were invited to sit and drink something, I think a 2007 Shou.

Since the woman had no English and our Chinese was quite limited, she called over a young girl who worked at a shop across the street to be our translator. The girl knew very little about tea, but was more than happy to be part of our interaction and her English was great. With her help, we made it clear that we actually knew something about tea and the woman began allowing us to taste some of her more expensive items. We tried out several fantastic bings and learned along the way that most of the tea in the woman’s shop was made by her own family. Finally I decided on this 2005 shou as acceptably delicious and within my price range. Although it was probably the most money I paid for any tea on the journey, it was for a 400g bing, so it was worth it. Plus, the woman was wonderful to interact with and kindness makes a difference in my bargaining. We also bought a hefty shou zhuan cha, but that’s a different story.

2005 Six Famous Tea Mountain Shou Puer

This is an archived copy of a post that originally appeared on Cha Xi Collective.

Ruby red infusion. A salty, sweet taste almost like strawberries. I was getting worried because when I unwrapped the cake the edges were beginning to fall apart.

I thought at first perhaps it was a poor cake that I had gotten (although I had tasted it in Kunming). The edges of the Bing pulled apart easily at my touch, not needing a pick of any kind, but the appearance of the leaves, inside and out, was beautiful and without any obvious discoloration. The aroma was what I’d expect from a well-aged Shou puer.

The flavor is excellent. Mellow and soft compared to younger or lower-quality cakes, with a developing richness that I can’t wait to try as it continues to mature.

I bought a good deal of 2005 shou puer in Yunnan, which was mostly coincidence, but I guess it was a good year (for my taste, anyway). This bing I found in one of the massive tea markets in Kunming: great sprawling outdoor three-storied shopping centers. They were generally pretty overwhelming, especially in view of my very limited Chinese. Basically I would look for a proprietor who looked friendly and then go in for some tasting.

This Six Famous Mountains shop was being run by an older woman and her daughter. They didn’t speak any English, so we muddled through a conversation in bits of Chinese. Luckily tea is a language in which we are well versed. After sampling a few bings, sheng and shou, I decided on this one for its uniquely rich character while my friends both bought some similarly aged shengs. I think it may even be better now after riding around in my bag for a month.

For this Cha Xi, I infused the puer in a Jian Shui pot that I purchased during the first week of my travels in Kunming. A very kind friend of one of our tea suppliers in the area brought us to the unveiling of a tea and teaware expo that was about to open on the other side of the city. It wasn’t easy to get in, as most of the vendors hadn’t set up yet and the (somewhat bored-looking) security guards at the entrance were very strict about who was allowed through.

Fortunately for us, our connection paid off and we were rewarded with a tour through the half-finished stalls of the expo. We were mainly there for pottery, and we saw some great examples of celedon and yixing ware, but our main interest was this type of clay we had only heard about before, the local alternative to yixing: Jianshui.

The pots on display were beautiful and most of them were very functional as well (as with any good teaware shop, we were given a bucket of water to test the pour of any pot we chose). Jianshui (建水) behaves much like Yixing to my amateur eye. It is a bit heavier and darker, but absorbs water with the best of them. The clay is often polished with a hand file to an intense glossy shine that make the pots look like marble, although that style is not the rule. The pot I purchased was black matte with little swirls of grey running through it that give it the appearance of clouds on a dark sky.

As it is a Yunnan pot, I decided (after some testing, of course) to make this my shou puer pot; a role for which I think it is quite well suited.