We are Anna Rice and Alex Hayton and for the next year we will be embracing slow travel by trying to journey around the world without getting on a plane. Armed with a well-thumbed copy of the Ethical Travel Guide and a small Eee PC, we will be aiming to eat local, sleep local and travel with as small a carbon footprint as possible. This is the story of our journey so far…
It was a relief to finally get off the train at its final stop in Moscow – nearly four days in a train cabin had made us appreciate the outside world again, even if it was below freezing. We only had three days here before heading into St Petersburg so it was a good thing that the train journey had given us plenty of time to read up on what we wanted to explore.
Here are some pictures from our time in Russia’s capital…
Ornate decorations in the Moscow subways. The Moscow metro, also dubbed the ‘People’s Palaces’, are really rather incredible with each station offering a different experience. They were apparently designed to ‘raise the confidence and prestige of the working classes’ and are adorned with items and decorations originally taken from churches and Tsarist palaces. Others meanwhile contain more ‘modern’ socialist murals, drawing on the Art Deco. An interesting fact: it is said that under Moscow there are more than twice as many secret tunnels than those that are on the map…
A great big ceiling mural celebrating the launch of the Mir space station. The photo really doesn’t do justice to the scale of this thing, which you can see coming towards you from the bottom of the very long escalator leading out…
We braved the outside for a tour of the city with a guide we hired called Lena. She took us to a nunnery founded by one of Queen Victoria’s daughters who was arrested and starved to death in prison after her husband was assassinated. There is a statue to her outside the nunnery where people lay flowers.
As we walked on through the streets of Moscow, towards Gorky Park, Lena told us that buildings used to be painted in pastel or ‘summer’ shades to subdue people – narrow streets were painted in lighter shades to make them feel more open whereas larger streets were painted in darker shades.
On request Lena took us to Maxim Gorky’s house or ‘gilded cage’. The house is elaborately adorned with art nouveau style stained glass and wooden floors but it is also rumored that the entire place to bugged by the government who were listening to his every conversation (more sinister rumours concern poisoned wall paper). Trapped in an ornate jail, it was no wonder that Gorky suffered and it was rather poignant when Lena pointed to a painting of a fragile, dying girl prominently displayed on the wall and said it was his favourite.
The weather was still bitter with snow underfoot. Lena told us that in Moscow the saying goes – 5 months of Winter, 7 months of waiting for Winter or to put it another way – 9 months of anticipation, 3 months of disappointment. She led us on through the sleet to the eerie sculpture park full of old socialist statues near the river embankment. There are some Stalin-era statues here which have been clearly defaced. In the background looms a huge statue of Peter the Great, atop the mast of a ship, floating on the icy Moskva river behind.
These icons above the gates of St. Nicholas in Red Square were hidden in the plasterwork of the towers by whoever had been ordered to destroy them, left safely hidden behind a plaster covered metal grating for the whole of the Communist era. They were only discovered in 2010 because a man who had originally helped paint them and knew of their hidden whereabouts let his grandson know.
To warm up we headed to the nearby shopping centre where the cafe no. 57 on the top floor does reasonably priced, good cafe food with a vintage theme. The shops are well worth an explore too for some interesting socialist memorabilia.
Ulanbaaatar -> Ulan Uday -> Irkutsk -> Lake Baikal -> Novosibirsk -> Ekaterinberg -> Perm -> Moscow
Upon boarding the train we were shown to our cabin which we were to share with two Mongolian guys, who had each brought a number of boxes and suitcases. It wasn’t long before we realised that this would be no ordinary train journey but what we came to term the ‘Great Train Bazaar’ from Mongolia to Moscow…
Winter was only just receding so we were the only ‘tourists’ in our train compartment. By nightfall of the first evening, as we were approaching the Russian border check point, the two young Mongolians we were sharing our carriage with suddenly jumped into action (having slept all day) unpacking their rather large boxes and suitcases. Our compartment was soon full of leather jackets, piles of jeans, sparkly tops, blankets and shower curtains(!). We stepped into the corridor to give them some room and were greeted by the sound of rustling cellophane which was being hastily torn off bundles of clothes left, right and centre before being thrown onto the floor of the corridor to create a sea of plastic. Various items then began to be distributed by a Mongolian of wrestler build throughout the cabins. to look like personal goods, so when we eventually returned to our bunk we had acquired a new wardrobe of clothes hanging on our coat hooks as well as two rather fetching leopard print blankets! The Mongolians in our carriage just grinned and as we would all be on the same train for the next five days, we thought it best to go along with whatever scheme was being hatched.
By the time we reached the check point with Siberia, all was still and there wasn’t a plastic wrapper in sight. The Russian border police were obviously suspicious but were also fairly pleasant to us and soon passed on to the next cabin to interrogate its occupants. There was a blizzard outside (a fitting Russian greeting, we thought) and we were bemused to see several men carrying half naked, snow covered mannequins onto the train and dumping them in the corridor – they looked somewhat gruesome and a little bit freaky, forming slushy melted ice puddles on the floor.
The next morning we awoke to find an apologetic Mongolian stripping the leopard print blanket covers from our beds and pointing manically outside (not what you want when you’re waking up in Siberia in mid-winter). We pulled on a few layers and looked out to see a large crowd of Russian women and men gathered on the train platform. A rather large man then swung past our cabin carrying the clutch of mannequin legs now bedecked in Levi jeans, followed by an equally large woman holding their torso counterparts, which she had dressed in some sparkly clubbing gear – a little cold for Siberia we thought, but perhaps we’re just soft. This marked the official start of what we came to term the Great Train Bazaar – the frenzied buying and selling of goods which happens all along the train line until Novosibirsk (the largest city in Siberia, where the authorities started to crack down on the activity). Not so here as everyone from grandmothers to train staff and police officers were joining the fray to barter for handbags, purses, fleecy covers, spandex outfits and leather jackets.
With entertainment such as this, the five days soon whizzed past and we even made some Mongolian friends by trading an M & S manicure kit for a fleecy blanket – one of the best bargains of our travels we thought!
The journey itself through the snowy Siberian landscape, the immense ice-covered Lake Baikal (where we sampled our second Omul – a distant relative of the Salmon, caught from icy holes in the lake and smoked), the Ural Mountains and onwards through the cities of the Golden Ring surrounding Western Russia was captivating and we never tired of waking up to forests of snow clad fir trees.
We reached Ulaanbaatar at sunset, spending one night in a city hotel to shower and pick up provisions before travelling onwards into the desert the next day. The decor in the hotel made feel us like we had stepped back into the 1950′s, with a faded American-style bar in its basement, completely at odds with its desert surroundings. The city was dusty and more built-up than we were expecting, so it was a relief that we had arranged for a local guide, named Odtka, to take us out to the desert the following day.
She picked us up in a Land Rover and told us not to get used to the ‘road’. We were only on it for about 45 minutes before it ran out and we were driving over the rough terrain of the thawing desert. Passing over the last ice-covered streams, we disturbed a pair of Bar-Headed Geese along the way. In the distance we could make out the occasional Ger, surrounded by mountains, scrubland and packs of wild horses.Another hour passed before our guide pointed out a solitary settlement of a couple of Gers and a stable – she explained that we would have lunch here. A small family welcomed us inside a large Ger to a brightly painted room filled with suitcases, three beds and a fire. The fire is the central point of every Ger as it provides essential heat and acts as a stove (in these conditions and in this nomadic lifestyle the fire is sacred). The father of the household was resting on his bed, watching Mongolian game shows on a small black-and-white television powered by a car battery. His wife was tending to the food: bubbling on the hearth was a stew and next to the a table with a plate of home-made biscuits served with blueberry jam. We were invited to join them for lunch and we ate mutton stew and noodles washed down with glasses of salty mare’s milk.
Next to the house was a small wooden stable which sheltered goats, and was protecting the first spring kids and their mothers from the cold desert winds. The father of the family came out and showed us a pair of brown goat twins who had been born a week ago which he promptly thrust into our arms. The family also had three dogs, three horses and a cat whose newly-born kitten was taking a nap in a child’s toy castle. Spring was in the air and with it came an air of celebration and a focus towards renewal and rebirth.
After lunch, we said goodbye to the family and were taken to the museum of Mongolian history which is housed within a giant, hollow statue of Chinggis Khan (the common Western transliteration ‘Genghis’ isn’t quite right, we found out). The founder’s original vision for this desert folly was to create a hub for Mongolian tourism with a tourist Ger village surrounding its base. Sadly, before even the statue could be completed, he was killed in a car accident. Others are continuing his work, however (although the Ger village is thankfully on hold), and the collection of artefacts from the era of Chinggis’ rule were on the whole fascinating – (I say on the whole because of the giant Mongolian boot).
Just before sunset, we were driven to our home for the next two nights – a settlement of ten Gers in a desert valley. The pipes hadn’t yet thawed enough for the shower and toilets to work so washing was from a bucket of water, and the toilet was an Eco style sawdust arrangement a couple of minutes walk from the camp. As we settled into our tent (which was beautifully painted) and wonderfully warm thanks to the fire, we stared to smell tempting aromas coming from the ‘kitchen’ tent a couple of rows down. A gong soon sounded to announce dinner and we sat down along with seven other guests (4 Irish and 3 Australian) to a simple but hearty dinner of pasta and mutton with blueberry juice (with or without Chinggis vodka). We also managed to try some booz’i, the spiritual precursor to dumplings such as Dim Sum and ravioli, which were brought to Peking (then known as Karakorum) by the Mongolian army and, suitably dried, allowed them to travel huge distances across the desert.
By evening the temperature had dipped to – 10 so it was important to keep the fire in the Ger going all night. We were told that someone would come in and light the fire every couple of hours so not to worry if we heard the door open. The next morning we awoke in our toasty Ger to a beautiful sunrise. After a breakfast of blueberry jam and biscuits, we we went for a morning walk across the desert, aiming to climb a hilly peak in the distance. We navigated our way through thawing streams and herds of horses which had recently been let out to pasture now the worst of the winter was over. From the peak of the hill we could see them in their winter coats, clearly enjoying their freedom – bucking and playing – which was in stark contrast to the few horse skulls on the hillside left behind by those who had been more unlucky.
When we got back to camp we were asked if we’d like to see a little more of the desert on a horseback with Batsuk Ala, the local horseman. I hadn’t ridden for a few years but we thought it would be a good way to explore. The horses were frisky and clearly weren’t enjoying having their saddles back on after six months of freedom. As we rode out we passed a grazing herd of horses which which began to Whinnie causing my horse to strain and veer off in their direction. The horseman told me to say chu firmly which seemed to work. There was something rather magical about riding over the desert terrain with no sign of settlement or other humans around. The horses obviously knew their way home and I barely had to touch the reigns on the return which was a bit of a relief.
Two days didn’t feel long enough as we prepared to return to Ulanbaatar the next morning to reconnect with the Trans-Mongolian train which would take us on the five-day journey to Moscow. On the journey back, Odtka told us about the significance of the Mongolian flags which we passed along the roadside. These are part of a worship ceremony and each colour held different significance – red = fire; white = compassion; yellow = sun; blue = sky; green = earth and black = burial. In Mongolia (Buddhist style) sky burials are common wherein a corpse is left without protection in a specific place (such as a mountain top) for the elements to take it – it is essentially given back to nature. Odtka also showed us how our names would be written in Mongolian (where letters are written vertically rather than horizontally).
Before reaching the station, we had just enough time to stop at an old Buddhist temple and have a look around. Giant prayer wheels and an ancient wooden temple-front had been beautifully preserved, and despite the best efforts of the Soviet-era government, who destroyed many of the temples, a large number of Mongolians practice Buddhism today.
By the time we reached Ulaanbaatar station, the train was already there and people were busy loading big packages on board. We said goodbye to Odtka and went in search of the cabin we would call home for the next five days…
And so began our journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar…
We boarded the train early, on a cold April morning in Beijing. The train wasn’t heated except for a small corner where a samovar (or hot water tank) was slowly bubbling away. The hot water tea bottle we had picked up in Hangzhou suddenly sprang to mind and we filled it with ‘first flush’ Dragon Well/lóngjǐng tea to celebrate our last day in China.
Pulling out of Beijing’s Central Station marked the beginning of our 6000 kilometer journey to Moscow, though we were due to disembark for a brief stay in Mongolia.
In the last two weeks, we went from the tropical temperatures of Hong Kong to desert frosts of -20°C! Hence the scarves and hot drinks which doubled up as hand warmers.
Before long we were travelling through mountains and past lakes bringing back distant memories of our train journey through the Rockies months earlier.
This is the samovar which is a central part to life on the Trans-Siberian route – not only in terms of its being a meeting spot but also as a vital source of heat and drinkable water. Notice the train conductor’s gloves and buns keeping warm against the hot water tank!
Later that day we passed through more Chinese country side, notably skirting more remains of the Great Wall. Unlike at Mutianyu this is the ancient wall itself, and its mark across the landscape is unmistakeably striking. Seeing yet more miles of the Wall gave us new appreciation of its sheer scale.
As the train journeyed north, through the less populated plains of northern China we encountered mud villages and solitary stone burial sites. The cold wind sent whirls of dust frenzinging across the land, creating an inhospitable, unruly feel to the terrain (it is claimed that unless something is done the advancing desert will one day swallow up Beijing – something we could believe from watching the endless stretches of beige outside).
Sunset soon approached and it seemed somehow fitting that our last glimpse of China was of a desert wind farm set, hinting at its bright and greener future.
The last station stop in China is at Erlian where the entire train is brought inside a depot and is lifted carriage by carriage off its bogeys (wheels) in order to have new ones put on. The track is a different width in China compared to the rest of the old Soviet rail network. After the wheel change and a brief passport check, we were able to get some sleep – though needed three or four blankets given the freezing temperatures inside the train.
The next morning we opened the curtains to the beautiful landscape of the Gobi desert, still tinged by small snow patches and a distant band of wild horses.
We got dressed and put on our shoes (it is frowned upon to walk shoeless in the outer corridors) and managed to use the tiny bathroom at the end of our corridor.
The train’s schedule, all relative to Beijing time. Note the six hour stop at one in the morning as we crossed the border earlier!
Conscious of the fact we would later be journeying to a camp outside of Ulan Baator, we decided to splash out on breakfast in the beautifully ornate Mongolian dining car. Easily the nicest one we encountered on our entire journey.
As we travelled further through the desert terrain, we passed various ger camps. There is a power line that follows the train tracks so this ends up being a focal point for various communities scattered along the route, even if they are miles from the nearest station.
Another small community of nomads… and not another soul for miles around.
As the train took a wide bend, we could see its front for the first time.
Our first glimpse of snow up close… During the day the outside temperature was close to freezing so we were preparing ourselves for a night in the desert.
As the number of Ger camps along the track increased, we soon realised these were part of the suburbs of Ulan Batar. It wasn’t long before we saw buildings on the horizon as we pulled into the central station. We had arrived in the capital of Mongolia, the city in the desert.
Although we’d already taken the high-speed train for a brief stop-over from Shanghai to Hangzhou, our journey to Beijing would be our first long distance travel on China’s fast expanding high-speed rail network (reported to be the smoothest and fastest train ride in the world). Back in 1990 this same journey would have taken 20 hours or so, but nowadays the high-speed train covers the distance in only 6 while proudly announcing its current speed with a huge red sign below each CTV-emitting television set.
Everything about the train oozed that 90′s vision of space-age chrome and glass, made even more 90′s in essence by Jackie Chan punctuating the news broadcasts flashing up on the carriage’s TV screens to announce his latest tiger-saving project with some Kung-fu moves. The first few hours were relatively relaxed with passengers reading newspapers, working on laptops or watching other screens but it wasn’t long before the smells from the dining car wafted their way through to our carriage causing a mass exodus to the heart of the train where a rapid-fire service of microwaved rice, meat and sauce was taking place (don’t try and ask for the vegetarian option unless you are the type who enjoys sowing chaos and confusion). The food was unexceptional but tasty and more importantly, given our general state of health at this point, packed full of microwaved oils and vitamins.
Our train from Shanghai arrived at Beijing in the late afternoon where we managed to find a cab to drive us to the happily-named Sunrise hostel, a short walk from the Forbidden city. As we drove away from the station, the sun began to sink, setting the murky haze of the city’s main arteries alight with the fire of a million headlights. The honking cars, bicycles, carts and masses of people pouring out of office buildings made a stark contrast to the clinical and calm surrounds that we’d just spent the last 6 hours in.
The following morning, we had an early start as we had decided to join a group from the hostel who had hired a mini-bus to Mutianyu, a popular segment of the Great Wall that has been restored and geared up to tourists. The two hour journey there was uneventful but one of the team from the hostel animatedly warned us not to lose heart over the Disneyland-esque entrance to the wall as once we were up there, we didn’t have to ‘stick with the crowds’. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant – we were greeted by crowded tourist market selling over-priced tourist gifts and refreshments (and various photographic opportunites – most oddly perhaps, involved posing with a camel). This soon gave way to a brightly coloured cable car which lifted the tourists who didn’t fancy the climbing the stairs up to the top. The cars passed over a giant toboggan slide which allows visitors to whizz back down from the wall the fast way when they’ve finished. We could now see why the word ‘theme park’ had been used so many times in connection to the wall.
What isn’t made explicit in any of the ‘info guides’ is that most of this stretch of the wall has been entirely reconstructed – in that it has been completely re-built with new stone over the original (a common theme in China, as it turned out). One of the guys from our hostel reminded us of what our guide had said on the way here and suggested we walked along the wall to point 1 where the new construction ended and we could see paths of trees and overgrown shrubbery stretching beyond. After a long climb up some very steep steps, we came to see what he meant – through a window of the last watch-tower was sign labelled ‘Dangerous, Do Not Enter!’, which he beckoned us towards… “This”, he said proudly, “is the old ‘disrepaired’ wall and is still an unofficial walking route for the adventurous. Just follow the scrubland and you’ll soon be among the eagles”. With a quick glance behind us we took off along the path and were soon completely alone on the crumbling remains of a magnificent stretch of wall. Though it wasn’t obvious from where we had joined the wall, we could now see that we were in the middle of a mountain range dotted with sections of old wall and small stone-built forts that had been slowly overgrown by shrubs and trees over the years. Looking eastwards towards the snow-capped mountains, we could clearly see it snaking onwards into obscurity, circled over by eagles whose calls echoed between the peaks.
After a wonderful hour spent amongst the crumbling stone, we traced our steps back, descended the almost vertical staircase of the reconstructed wall and re-joined our group for a late lunch in one of the tourist outlets. We got talking to a man from Israel who had been working in Shanghai and was now making the most of exploring China before heading home. He asked us if we had yet visited the Arts District 798 in Dashanzi, just outside of the city’s centre, yet – which we hadn’t. “If there’s one thing you do in Beijing, make it that – you won’t be disappointed”. We only had two full days left in Beijing, and on one of those we were due to transfer to a hotel near Beijing central station, from where we were due to catch our train to Mongolia, so we had to make a call on what to see but decided that the arts district was definitely one of them.
The next morning we decided to take a cab to south of the Dàshānziqiáo flyover where the now defunct military warehouses which house the 798 Arts quarter (a sprawling settlement dedicated to freedom of expression comprising of art studios, galleries, bookshops, cafes and stalls) can be found. Factory 798 (as it is also referred to) became an underground arts hub and refuge to Beijing’s contemporary artists who were evicted from their Old Summer Palace residences by the government during the 1980′s. The site of the old factory with its industrial chimneys and sweeping ceiling arches offered inspiration as well as space to those who set up studios there and the area began to grow by word-of-mouth, in time attracting international artists to the area too. Industrial remnants are interspersed with exhibits that make use of materials scavenged from the old factories themselves, while quaint artists’ shops, cafés and residences now occupy the smaller buildings. It is now a fashionable hub of high-profile galleries, catwalks and event spaces for trend-conscious companies. Most of the exhibits are completely free but art can be found around every corner – from carparks to chimney tops – no space is left unadorned.
Inside buildings played to host to spotlighting one or two particular artists. One sculptor fashioned subjects that looked as though they were drowning or swimming in a pool of lrippling iquid cast from dark iron. It wasn’t clear if they were winning their battle against the tide, but fittingly for the area, the focus seemed to be in the struggle.
Another exhibition, Bashir Makhoul’s “Enter Ghost, Exit Ghost“, was set out as a maze of confusing holographic pictures, each simultaneously displaying a Middle-Eastern streetscape contrasted with an equivalent one made out of old cardboard boxes, to look like a ghost city.
In another brick-interiored industrial outhouse, blown-up photographs were being carefully ignored. I particuarly liked the contrast of this photograph with the group in front inadvertantly mimicking one of the pictures in the gallery, transfixed by their iPhones and tablets instead of the nude woman just behind them.
We were completely absorbed by the arts district and only noticed the fading light when the cold started to seep in. Stalls roasting sweet potatoes over a fire had sprung up next to an old steam engine which helped to warm us up. As the temperarture continued to dip, we made our way to the exit, not realising how tired we were until we flopped down in the hostel and slept for a full 13 hours in our clothes.
With one day left in Beijing before our departure to the Gobi desert, we decided to get up early to try and beat the crowds to the Forbidden City. It was so cold that the trays of milk drinks we had got used to seeing around the city had frozen tops and the groups of men who were usually outside playing Mahjong and dice were nowhere to be seen.
We got to the Forbidden city early, but not early enough to escape the mass of tour groups all colour coded by hats and led by guides carrying large flags and megaphones. We made efforts to avoid the sea of red hats (many clinging onto children dressed as little emperors) and headed to the side rooms instead, which gave us a bit more space to breathe and take in the detail. We spent a lot of time looking around the emperor’s theatre, which was still complete with trap doors and a wonderful selection of 1920′s vinyl recordings of the dowager empress’s favourite eunuch troupe. Next we visited the treasury within the Forbidden City, a collection of buildings housing some very extravagant teapots and trinkets including an amethist massage roller, a disgustingly striking headress made of brilliant blue kingfisher feathers, and an incredible golden astrolabe with pearls representing each of the star clusters. If you look closely at the signs outside each building you can see that they many were once upon a time sponsored by a certain American company, which has since been discretely painted over.
After a morning’s exploration of the Forbidden City, we made our way back to our hotel to prepare ourselves for the onwards journey. We could see Beijing’s Central Station, with its mass of crowds, from our 20th floor window and it felt strange, as we watched the people below disperse, to think that this time tomorrow, we’d no longer be in China…
The outer city high-speed rail terminal of Shanghai came as something as a surprise to us, though given the investment China has been inputting into its rail links over the past few years it probably shouldn’t have. It was light, bright, and shiny with something of a deserted airport feel to it (there was hardly anyone around which made a change from the crowds of Shanghai). Its postmodern concourse was vast and glassy, and the wide open ground floor space was flanked by a top floor of restaurants and little stalls selling expensive freeze-dried noodles and cakes. From here you can reach most of the major cities in China by direct train, and the number of high-speed routes seems to be increasing year-on-year.
The distance between the Shanghai and Hangzhou is 177 kilometres, but we got there in under an hour, travelling at 300km/h. This was our first experience on a High-Speed Train in China and its speed (in comparison to the open windows and gentle motion of the trains we had taken in South East Asia) was something of a shock – though we managed to take a few mildly blurry shots with our camera.
Once we pulled out of the station, the fringe of Shanghai’s vast suburban construction belt soon came into view. The evidence of fast expansion was hard to miss and we passed hundreds of small apartment blocks built in neatly arranged streets, in addition to slightly less sturdy looking housing blocks surrounding construction sites (perhaps for the people working on them). Considering that the city is still growing at a rate of a million people a decade, this construction is probably necessary but it was almost difficult to detect where the urban sprawl of Shanghai stopped and Hangzhou began.
We arrived in Hangzhou in the late afternoon, expecting to find a little tourist town surrounded by tea plantations. Our research should have been more thorough: the centre of Hangzhou is less of a country retreat and more of a sprawling metropolitan city housing 4 million people. When tourists speak of Hangzhou they are more than likely referring to the lake and ‘People’s Pleasure Garden’ which is about a fifteen to twenty minute bus ride from the city centre. After getting stuck in a long queue of traffic on the lake road (which is nearly always backed up with fuming coaches carrying daytrippers from the surrounding cities) we eventually got to our hostel which was located a few minutes walk from the famous “West Lake”.
It was one of the first hot days we had experienced in China so far and so we waited until evening to really explore our surroundings. After the majority of the day tourists had gone home, we found the lake to be rather beautiful and peaceful. It helped that all the magnolias had started to blossom leaving a wonderful scent in the air at dusk. The West Lake itself is pretty big and it takes about two hours to walk all the way around it so we decided to leave that for another day.
The next morning we were awoken at 6am to the sounds of Big Ben chiming. It took me a while to remember where I was and with bleary eyes, I opened the blind in our attic hostel room to find a schoolyard below and groups of children lining up in a very orderly fashion to the sound of the bell. The children then began to sing (a mixture of English and Chinese songs), making it impossible to go back to sleep, so we decided to head out for the day. As we were up early, we asked some people in the hostel about journeying up to the Lion’s Peak of Hangzhou, where Lóngjǐng (translated in English as Dragon Well), one of the most famous teas in China, is grown. What’s more, we had heard that the picking of the highly valued first flush had just begun and if we visited the right pickers we might be able to buy some at an affordable price. Luckily there was a bus stop just near the hostel along the West Lake road and about half an hour later a bus with some vines painted onto its side pulled up – so we were pretty sure it was the right one. We weren’t entirely confident as to where we should get off so we slightly winged it and travelled through a few villages, where we could see people returning from their early morning tea pickings with the leaves balanced in baskets on their heads. About 10 minutes later, the bus stopped ascending and the land flattened out with miles and miles of tea plantations before us. The bus came to a stop and as we realised we were almost the on only ones left on it, we decided that this was as good a spot as any to explore from. It was the right choice as we found ourselves conveniently outside the Green Tea restaurant, which we had heard about from someone in Shanghai. The queues outside were already forming so we decided to take a ticket and try it out.
We were glad we joined the queue early as it continued to grow until early afternoon. We found the location slightly better than the food but the menu choice and variety is pretty unbeatable and the free green tea on tap enriched the view of endless rows of tea-bushes that we could see from our table.
The more interesting items on the menu were Deep Fried Shredded Lotus, Spicy Bullfrog, Traditional Style Braised Duck Feet and Tea Tree Mushroom Stir Fry. We went for the Green Tea Roast Chicken (which was absolutely delicious, seeing as we had been mainly surviving on noodles for a couple of days by that point), followed by stuffed tomatoes and a mixture of boiled vegetables and potato.
The Green tea restaurant sits next to the National China Tea Museum, which is attached to a tea school and teaching rooms for those studying tea at university! Tea is taken pretty seriously here (you get the impression that they’d heavily disapprove of a bag of PG Tips or Tetley’s) and as well as a centre of learning the nearby fields are also a very popular backdrop for bridal photography – I think we saw about five or six different bridal parties all jostling for the best position while we made our way through the tea fields.
The Tea Museum itself contains a wealth of information which we are woefully ignorant of in the tea-drinking West, surprising when you consider how culturally important tea has become in Britain, at least. As we were coming out of season, we arrived to find the museum half empty and were greeted by a resident tea expert who took us to a back room full of glass teapots and kettles. She showed us many of the traditional tea preparation methods and allowed us to sample a wide variety of teas that they grow in the research plots in the museum.
One difference that she pointed out between tea preparation in China and Europe is that the Chinese always fill the entire pot once and empty it before brewing the tea for real. This ‘rinses’ any nasty taste from the outside of the tea leaves and warms the pot before allowing the tea to soak and release its real flavours. Different kinds of tea also need brewing for different times, and some black teas can be refilled over 10 times, yielding different combinations of flavours each time you pour.
Green tea drinkers also tend to drink the tea with the leaves in the glass (whether the tea leaves float or not is a matter of good luck!) and much care and attention goes into choosing the right blend for the mood and social setting, much as a wine would be selected in Europe. Green tea is by far the most popular kind of tea, followed by Black tea and then Oolong tea, which is often confused for the same but has a different method of harvesting and preparation!
Leaf tea and ‘tea cakes’ (compressed tea leaves) are much more popular than tea bags here in China (especially as most Western tea bags are bleached before being filled with tea!), and most of the teapots we saw for sale at the museum had built-in filters to catch the tea leaves and stop the larger ones from escaping into your teapot.
The last part of the museum focuses on traditional methods of tea preparation and serving across different regions in China. There was some time spent on the Gongfu tea preparation method that we came across in Hong Kong, and also some rooms decorated in traditional styles for serving tea (my favourite was the butter tea commonly served in Tibet).
Despite the wealth of information and the natural beauty of the surrounding fields there wasn’t much actual picking going on and we couldn’t find any tea to buy apart from the overpriced, nicely packaged boxes in the museum (which we had a feeling were all from last year’s crop). The sun was beginning to set so we decided to continue our journey up to the hills again the following day, staying on the bus about ten or fifteen minutes longer in an attempt to track down some of the real ‘first flush’.
In contrast to the day before it was a very wet morning but that didn’t dampen our excitement at finally finding what we thought was Lonjing itself and its fields and fields of tea bushes, each being carefully pruned by about twenty or thirty pickers in straw hats. We walked through the beautiful plantations where swifts were darting in and around the bemused pickers, until we found a nearby village (which we found out was not Lonjing but somewhere in between). This actually worked in our favour as there were no tourists here and at one of the local tea houses, with the aid of phrasebooks and hand gestures, we therefore managed to procure a small tin of the ‘first flush’ tea (at a negotiable price) which would keep us going through the rest of the journey. We also found a small heat-resistant water bottle with a tea filter built in, which allowed us to make leaf tea from our supply on the move for the rest of the long journey home.
We spent the rest of the day walking amongst fields of tea leaves as the rain cleared, which is a surreal experience for those unaccustomed to the sight. The organised rows of trimmed tea bushes (which would grow into entire trees if left on their own) have an effect on the landscape unlike any other, allowing you to see across the undulating hills for miles around, each one lined with little rows of different shades of green.
Pickers from the local villages (each village collective manages a plot of tea bushes and collects the harvest) walk between the rows and hand-pick the fully-grown leaves. All the picking is done by hand rather than machine as this preserves the tea’s flavour and makes sure that all the juices stay inside the leaves until the moment they are pressed (mechanical pickers, while allowing cheaper production, tend to damage the leaves and impair the taste and quality of the resulting tea).
At dusk, we returned to the West Lake in preparation for our onwards journey North the next day. The boatmen who ferry people around the lake all day were making their way back home to their various docks. Seeing the sun set behind the silhouette of the nearby mountains and watching the tiniest ripples float across the lake was a beautiful way to end our time here. We made the most of the peace and tranquility because our next stop would be Beijing, the starting point of our long journey home through Russia…