When people ask me what the best place in China is, I usually say the terracotta soldiers, or the whole city of Xi’an, but that’s a lie. I tell them this because most of the time they are looking for a place they can actually visit in their few weeks in China. Really my favorite place in the whole of China is in Longzhou on a noisy little corner at the end of Barbecue Street.
The tea shop had big glass windows on both of its walls that faced the street, and a sliding door that seemed to always be open. In the windows were carefully cut shelves with neatly arranged tea wares of every kind. Full tea services with deep blue, hand painted dragons with their slight imperfections wrapping around each piece, fit for an emperor. There were large muddy colored clay jars designed to keep the precious tea inside from losing its flavor, and cups of porcelain so fine that you could see the light shine through. The tea shop was a place that was a pleasure to get lost in.
There were two girls who worked there. One was about twenty years old, and sat behind the large, desk-like table that seemed to be the focal point of the shop. She was always smiling, and when we first entered the shop offered us seats in front of her at the desk. On the table was a large bamboo tray with a slight lip. Arranged around the tray were 20 or so tea pots ranging from plain and round to pots with carefully formed dragons curled under the lid and ancient characters carved by a master calligrapher’s hand into the metallic clay.
Later we would name the shop girl Lily, she seemed pleased with it. Once we had sat down, she asked which tea we would like to try, and I chose TieGuanYin (Iron Buddha). She yelled something to the other woman, who to this point we hadn’t noticed, and waited as the other woman reached into the large freezer and pulled out a several gallon bag of tea.
This other woman opened the bag and gently scooped the leaves out into a metal dish, which was then presented to us for inspection. The small, tightly curled balls of deep green, with the lightest scent of fresh spring flowers seemed like a fine tea to us. Kyle and I had no idea what we were supposed to be looking for, but eagerly said “OK!” Lily, however, wasn’t satisfied with our quick glance and stopped to explain each detail we should be looking for in an exceptional tea. She extolled the value of unbroken leaves, which showed that it was picked by hand, the lack of stems, which would have made the tea taste bitter, and most importantly the rich color which showed that it had been processed in just the last few weeks.
She took a bamboo scoop, and ladled the leaves into a small brown tea pot that looked like it had been in service for generations. The kettle behind her started to rattle as the water began to boil, but she waited for it to shake before pouring it in the pot until a little spilled over the rim. Lily then replaced the lid and poured a little more hot water over the pot. She didn’t let it sit for more than a few seconds before pouring the faintly golden tea into the tiny cups, when the cups were overflowing she splashed the rest over some small statues of Buddhas and mythical creatures as an offering that lacked any real meaning to her. The first brew, she explained, was for waking up the flavor of the tea.
Again the kettle behind her began to shake, and the delicate smell of TieGuanYin hung in the air. This time as she filled the pot and splashed the water over the top, she instructed us to watch how quickly the clay pot dried. She poured the tea into the cups with the grace and precision of an artist, then carefully placed the cups on the table in front of us.
We both reached for our cups and slurped a little of the sweet nectar, it was boiling hot, but incredibly smooth. Lily again reminded us to slow down. Drinking tea in her shop was not an activity, but a ritual process with certain steps that could not be skipped. First we were to look in to the white porcelain cups that were used only for TieGuanYin and appreciate the slight golden color of the tea. After that she insisted we smell the tea, “Xiang yi Xiang” she would say. Then she would inhale deeply and for a moment seem to be completely absorbed in its aroma. Once we had satisfactorily taken these steps, we were permitted to finally taste the tea, it was heavenly.