It was my first visit to a Chinese tea-house. The rumours of scams that left foreigners with a massive bill at the end of their experience had kept me out of chaguan till now, despite my deep curiosity about the places.
But then a chance to join a meditation group that met in a proper teahouse came up, so I thought it might help me get into one of the buildings without being fleeced. This teahouse was away from the central areas, the tourist hotspots. It was in a secluded courtyard off one of Beijing’s main traffic arteries to the north of the city. The stares at the laowai had an extra tinge of surprise up here. I almost didn’t see the teahouse in the courtyard, its front façade was so narrow. It was unobtrusive, not showy at all, but the simplicity of the façade gave it an elegance that still made it stand out from its more unrefined neighbours.
Because of this narrow front, I had expected a small compact space inside. But a wide staircase inside the door led to an upper floor, which opened up back into a cavernous space, with private compartments to the sides, an arched bridge over a trickling ‘stream’, and a labyrinth network of passages. There were glass display stands with various types of tea, sets of teacups, and many types of kettles and instruments for making tea. The walls were covered in a burgundy-coloured wallpaper, lightened by gold leaf Oriental designs. The furniture was heavy wood, providing generous seating and sturdy as the tree it came from. The floor was tiled in stone, with beautiful mosaics in ceramic and sections with broken crockery set beneath glass plates so clear your heart skipped a beat when you stood on them. There was classical Chinese music playing gently in the background: you only noticed it when there was no conversation.