Oolonging

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Teahouse dragon

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.

For a tea addict, watching the preparation ceremony was like discovering a new religion. The tiny delicate cups were laid out, everybody accounted for. The kettle was set at the correct temperature for green tea, our first libation of the morning. First of all, everything was washed… hot water was sloshed into each vessel and then poured out again just as quick. It wasn’t done very delicately – that wasn’t the purpose. Getting them washed was more important than the manner in which it was done. The tea also had to be washed. The first water poured on the leaves was not given to anybody; it was sent straight after the rinse water. Only then was the tea brewed.

The brewing didn’t take long at all. The Irish pot of tea, left on the hot plate to turn to tar, would cause nightmares here where no sooner than the water was poured into the teapot than the brew was poured out. The little pot and lid act like a pressure cooker and speed up the whole process. Leaving the water on the leaves too long would only destroy the taste. However, the tea is not poured directly into the cups. It first goes into a jug with a strainer, so no leaves sneak through into any of the cups. But even this requires skill. The lid of the teapot has to be held in a way to leave a gap for the tea to come out, but not so much that it all flows out in a gush. If the tea leaves block this gap, the tea-maker gets burnt fingers, and maybe even drops the pot – very embarrassing… Only once the tea has been strained into this jug can it be poured into the cups. Each cup also has to get an equal amount… more pressure on the tea-maker.

The green tea was fine. It tasted pretty much like any other green tea I’d had previously brewed from a teabag. The tea-maker was disappointed. He said he’d used water that was too hot and had burnt the leaves, which gave it that bitter aftertaste.

But then we changed to the Oolong tea. I can’t say I was expecting too much after the ordinariness of the (burnt) green tea. I was glad of having something to quench my thirst, but in the cup, the golden liquid just looked like the green tea that had been there a few minutes previously. Only when I lifted the cup closer to my face did I realize that this was something special indeed.

Its incredible scent hit me straight away. It dragged me back through the vaults of my memories to childhood summers, those long days of freedom from school. My mind was flooded with pictures of good harvests, when everyone was happy because the weather had stayed dry long enough to save the crops. I smelt freshly mowed hay, saw giant daisies in the ditches, felt corn running through my fingers in a stiflingly hot barn, the kernels still warm from the sunshine and with ladybirds scrambling across them. It hauled me back to those carefree days, when I still had love for my mother, my home wasn’t a battlefield, before I took the weight of the world on my easily chipped brittle shoulders.

Those days didn’t last much longer. Soon, drab uniforms, social conventions, the suffocating net of other people’s insecurities began to dig foundations for self-doubt that quickly cemented into hatred and squeezed the gold out of life. Lifting a cup of oolong tea to my nose had reawakened genuine memories of happiness, a happiness left unspoilt by others, something I had wracked my brain for years for in vain. It took one whiff of freshly brewed oolong tea in a tucked away Chinese teahouse during a meditation session to bring it all whooshing back. I’m glad I went.

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