Liralen Li (liralen) wrote,
Liralen Li

Guilin -- Tea and the Reed Flute Caves -- May 30

I woke up feeling really awful on this morning, and while I went to breakfast with the boys, I was coughing like crazy. There had been no sneezing, whatsoever, but my lungs were not happy with me. We didn't have to get our luggage together for pick up until 10, and the group wasn't leaving the hotel until 10:50, so the boys had planned for a morning walk after breakfast along the river.

I told them that I'd go a short way with them, but that I really needed more time in bed than time outside. I'm glad I did it, but even happier that they got some time to wander the city. It's a beautiful city, and runs far more at the pace I love than the BIG ones, I think... still... I got a little time to look around before going back to collapse on my pillows...

Taichi Sword
We found our taichi practitioners, the ones we hadn't found at the Temple of Heaven park were all over the river bank earlier in the morning. With the female retirement age set at 50, there were a lot of ladies that fit that bill out there, doing tai chi sword, as you see here, fan, with the great big red battle fans, and even just bare handed as well. There were cha cha dancers, flamenco dancers, and a ball room class, all lined up neatly along the huge walkway alongside the Li river.

You can also see the graceful camphor trees in the background, beautiful black and deep green foliage, all just outside our hotel. It was a magnificent setting, and the hotel was set in the center of the city.

The river was running under the clouded skies, the overcast turning it more brown than blue, the way it was the day before, and the forecast spoke of plenty of rain. There was a man in the river, swimming. No one really seemed to notice, and I wonder if that bundle behind him was all his clothing in plastic? Or some kind of buoy for something he was setting in the river?

The running of the water, though was peaceful and I loved just being by it, even feeling as woozy as I did. And the walkway was so easy to traverse. There weren't the crazy tourist vendors that there were in all the other places we'd been to, though most of them had never camped outside the hotels, either.

Cleaning The River Bank
Right before the bridge, we saw this guy cleaning out this area. I'm not sure if it was a docking area, a place for kids to play in the water? Or what? But it was beautifully built, and they were maintaining it as if it were something that really needed to stay clean.

Just across the water were statues of running horses that were as underwater as the bottoms of these wells, so either the river was up with all the rains, or they were just designed to be like this.

From here, I went back to my bed while John, Jet, and Dad went on. They walked for a good hour and a half and discovered a few things that are also in the pictures, because John took the camera at that point. I love that there's one of the bridge from underneath... and they crossed the bridge to see a bit more of the city. I pushed all the luggage out into the hallway and then slept like the dead until they all came back.

It had been pretty dry when we walked, but after they got back, it just started raining, a steady, slow rainfall that reminded me of Seattle. It wasn't the kind of downpour that would drench you in an instant, rather it was the slow steady fall of root-deep waters. No wonder this place is so green.

It was falling so heavily, that they decided to change the order of what we were going to see. The Elephant Trunk Hill is only a fifteen minute walk from the hotel, but it took the bus half an hour to get into the parking lot only to stop there in the steady rain. Lily and Jevons consulted with each other and decided that we should do the tea plantation, first, and do the Hill later. So we wended our way out to the Tea Research Institute of Guilin.

Rain Hats
The plantation is 400 years old, and in the Eastern suburbs, up in the mountains, so it's one of the wealthier parts of town. There were actual houses out there, not multi-family apartments in big blocks. It was created during the Ming Dynasty, when one of the emperor's elder brother's son needed a place to get out of the capitol, so he went down to Guilin, got himself declared "king" of the area, built a castle, and started stocking up on the things he wanted there, including the local teas. His castle is now the University of Guilin.

It was raining there, too. *laughs* But the beauty was that they had all of these tea pickers' hats for us. They're lined with newspaper and plastic to make them rainproof, but there's no chin strap, we had to just balance them on our heads. Though they were very versatile in that they could hold tea as well as shade a picker.

It was also nice that most of the area was covered, like this, as if they were accustomed to the rain and made plenty of allowances for it. Still, it was wonderful to be outside in that, listening to the rain fall on the roof, the leaves of the bushes, and smell it in the air. I loved that. I was really thankful that whatever cold I had had gone straight to my lungs because my nose was unaffected. I could smell just fine, and it smelled wonderful out by the plantation.

Tea bushes under the rain
Meet camellia sinensis in the cultivated state. The basis of black, green, white, oolong, and more deeply fermented teas. It's supposedly just the processing that differentiates teas, but really a particular tea represents its climate, location, soil, cultivation, care, as well as the processing toward a particular end product. I've been a tea lover since the late 80's, and studied a lot of the nuances of what was available in the US for at least that long, and it was very bemusing to me to hear some of the things the man from the "Tea Research Institute" was saying with enthusiastic reinforcement from Jevons.

I did, however, love seeing the source plants, and seeing the pickers out among the plants carefully picking buds and new leaves. I loved touching the clipped bushes and seeing how the new growth was establishing itself. What surprised me was seeing a pile of clippings between the neatly hedged rows. I suspect that these bushes were more for show than for use? I'm not sure.

Our Tea Expert
This was our guide. Showing us the difference betwen the bud, bud and first leaf, bud and two leaves, and the old leaves that aren't used for making tea. He said that the one bud was for white teas, the one bud with one leaf for best quality green, and one bud with two leaves for less quality green.

I've known whites with one bud and one leaf. I've had greens that were made from must the bud/tip. I've also had some excellent greens that had the two leaves with the bud and some not so great greens with one bud and one leaf. It's really the care in processing and the quality of the leaf and bush. He was also quite gleeful about calling all black teas "trash". But I've had amazing pu-erhs, reds, and oolongs, which he didn't cover with this bud demonstration. The funny thing was he and Jevons said that all whites have no caffeine and that greens all have much less. He's obviously not drunk a new pi lo chun or had much gunpowder green (which might qualify for a trash export tea? Not sure). I've had a Silver Needle that gave me a really nice mid-afternoon pickup, and White Peony has kept me up at night.

Hot Treatment
They were talking up the old verbal myths about various varieties of tea, and while that rankled me a little, it was really great to be able to stand in the midst of the lands that made these teas. It's also really obvious that these people don't have to back up medical claims for their teas the way they have to in the US.

I will say that I really loved seeing the equipment and technique that's gone into making these teas for millennium. The Institute is also about picking the leaves by hand, using organic methods of growing these bushes, and keeping alive cultivars of the tea bush that no longer exist elsewhere. That I highly respect.

This woman is doing the old, old, old style of withering by hand in a hot wok. I could see the heat waves coming off the metal and when the leaves hit, there was a waft of steam that came up. They used a lot of old-style bamboo for drying the leaves, just set to the side. They let the leaves dry for a while (3 days in my notes, but that seems like a long time), and then they wither them like this in a 180°ree C wok for about a minute.

Frementation under a Basket</a>
While the leaves are still hot from the withering, they knead them on bamboo trays like this for half an hour. Tea oils come out of the leaves, they're thoroughly broken, and opened up for any fermentation, if that's going to happen.

With green teas, the leaves are just heat dried for another two hours, in the tray, over the hot wok. For white teas, they're dried for 22 days, not cooked, not kneaded, but they are heat dried for two hours. (I'll admit I thought there was a fermentation process for the whites, but these guys said that that whites have no fermentation whatsoever, but some of the greens are capped with a bamboo lid and left to sit for a little while after the kneading process but before drying).

Oolongs are fermented for two days, half of that time under cover, and then they get the heat treatment, the kneading, and two hours of drying time. Pu-erh bricks are fermented for two months, or so they said, but they didn't say which order, i.e. fermentation in the leaf and is the leaf broken for that to work? Or are they counting that as the fermentation after they're bricked and buried? I know some pu-erhs that are buried for decades to let them age well. Anyway, it was a sea of data that at least indicated the range of preparations for tea.

Tea RoomI want his tea setupSipping

The tasting room was next, and I envied the guy his setup, vastly. *laughs* He had temperature controlled water heaters, all kinds of Yixing clayware, and porcelain and glass as well as all the tea he wanted to brew. They basically said that everything but oolongs should be brewed in porcelain or glass, as the Yixing's insulating properties were too hot for the delicate greens, yellows, or whites.

They served a High Mountain Yellow tea, a Osmanthus blossom green, an Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong, and their 6-things tea. *laughs* It's a local brick that's supposedly blended from all six kinds of tea (green, white, oolong, yellow, black, and herbal?) that are all pressed together into a brick and then aged. It was a local specialty, spectacularly expensive, and came with a nice little brick tea knife.

The yellow was buttery, rich. The Osmanthus green was perfumed and clear. The oolong was good and deep. The brick tea was sweet. The Imperial Tea Court serves a "Prosperity Blend" that is a herbal concoction that has a sweetening herb in it, and it tasted just like that. Dad said that it was mangosteen, but it was more Stevia-sweet than fruit-sweet. But it also turns out that the mangosteens are a local specialty, too, as we'd experienced the night before.

Anyway, I only bought a little of the oolong, as I hadn't been impressed with the rest, and I had plenty of osmanthus blossoms, now, to spike my own greens or oolongs with. There were cool tea toys, and Jet was particularly taken by the tiny yixing clay tea toys that, when they were soaked, would spray water when doused with hot water, including a little boy statute that would pee amazingly long distances when doused. *laughs* But he decided not to buy one there.

I Got To Walk In Bamboo
When we first got to Guilin, I asked Lily if we were going to be able to walk in bamboo or a bamboo forest and she said a very clear no, that we weren't going to get out that far.

When we came back to Elephant Trunk Hill, we walked through a really pleasant park, over bridges, and there I saw several groves of Phoenix Tail bamboo! I have walked amid bamboo plants before, mostly in Balboa Park, in San Diego, and maybe also some in Portland, in the Chinese garden there. And this was no bamboo forest, but it was really cool to just get in there and push at the resilient stalks and see how the leaves are shaped on these Phoenix Tail stands. There are hundreds of types of bamboo, short, tall, skinny, thick, big leafed, thin leafed, but these were kind of the quintessential bamboo of the paintings I'd emulated for so long. They were dripping with rain water and swaying in the breeze, and the rustle of their leaves in the wind was all I'd hoped for, really. So no forest, but... it was fun to experience these.

It was still raining, but not quite as heavily, and everyone was decked out in rain gear and borrowed umbrellas from the hotel. I was feeling tired at this point, but the walking was very easy.

Photo Op!
Everyone got their pictures taken by or around the rock in the distance. Jet loved the umbrellas, too, as they were big, hefty, and fun to make go foom when they opened.

It's just a formation, made in the same ways that the caves are made, and the karst, as the stone can be very vulnerable to water and currents.

It was fun taking the time on the platform to get everyone's pictures. As a group we'd all gotten quite good at the hurry up and wait sequence of events that always happens when a large group is getting or going anywhere. We got quite good a helping each other out at stops and getting pictures of each other.

Dad, at this point, also asked Lily if we could please, sometime, hear her sing. I loved that he asked her.

I like the elephants on the side of the bridge
We crossed this bridge to get to another portion of the park. I loved seeing all the little elephants on the side of the bridge, and all the bamboo boats parked on the edge of the water. There were also concrete elephants everywhere, which seemed oddly tacky.

But there was a huge park on the other side, too. The City actively keeps a lot of open space and parks because lots of the living quarters are so restrictively small, so having lots of space for people to get out of their living areas and just walk and interact was very important.

Phoenix and Dragon Tree
Further in was this Dragon and Phoenix tree. It's covered in red ribbons with wishes attached to them, it's known as the Love Tree, and if you throw a ribbon with the name of your beloved on it and it sticks in the tree, you'll have a lasting romance together. Or so the legend goes. So lots of people throw things into the tree, and there's dozens of little kiosks around the tree that have things to do with love, reading about your love life, and, of course, someone selling ribbons.

At the feet of the Dragon and the Phoenix are their nine sons, and each of the son's statutes had their names carved on them. I'm fascinated by the sons, their temperaments, abilities, and their tendencies were something I hadn't known at all, before and they were everywhere! I couldn't read the wording, but Dad did a little, but he knew the whole background for the nine sons (many of whom are quite destructive), but didn't really want to detail them all to me.

Chile and Garlic
Lily said that this is one of the local specialties, a chili garlic sauce that's basically just those two ingredients, choppped and canned in bottles. We didn't buy one, but I was very tempted to do so, eventhough it was being sold like this, in an open booth just outside the Love Garden.

We walked back to the bus, got back on it, and were deposited right back in the hotel's parking lot! That was because our lunch was in the same mall we'd wandered through the night before.

It was a beautifully light lunch. I was surprised to see "orange chicken" on the menu, along with a tomato soup that no buyer of Campbell's would have ever recognized. The tomato soup had a clear broth, onions, and chunks of slow cooked tomato in it, and it was surprisingly good.

Jet liked the lightly fried rice, here, and I liked the dry cooked string beans and the last course of a bone-in duck. Few of our lunch companions really wanted the duck, so Jet and I had fun eating extra. *laughs* The restaurant also had a huge bottle of snake wine, which I could get closer to actually look at, and it was fascinating. I refused a sample, but I had never seen them before this trip, so it was just fun to get a good look.

Movable Menu
Just outside was this menu that could be reconfigured for the day, and I thought it a very elegant design.

The city itself had all kinds of interesting quirks and unique characteristics. I hadn't seen so much personality in Beijing or Xian, so it was fun to just catch glimpses of it everywhere here. We all headed back to the bus and got on it to go out to the Flute Reed Caverns. Lily said that just as the city is 2000 years old, there are 2000 caverns through the land around it.

On the way there, Jevons has fun telling us how to get married in China, through the decades. In the 70's you had to have a watch (for status), a bike (for transportation), and a sewing machine (so your wife could sew all the thing she had to do for the whole household). In the 80's it was a TV (status), a washing machine (daily work), and an air conditioner (you can cool your apartement?). In the 90's it was a cell phone (status), a computer, and a refrigerator (so they'd finally not have to buy groceries every day). He also talked a little about the Buddhist custom of burial, that one had to stand guard on the body for two nights, and then cremate on the third day to usher the soul on into the afterlife.

Doing It By Hand
When we arrived at the bus parking lot, there was, again, a good long walk to the entrance of the caves themselves. Along the way they were doing maintenance on the paths, and I saw this guy breaking the rock to the side of the path to open it up again. He was doing it with a sledgehammer!

There's plenty of manpower here, but significantly fewer power tools. In the US it would be taken for granted that someone doing something like that would be using a jackhammer. It was intriguing to experience that particular shock. The culture is just *different* here. The entrance of the cave could only be gotten to through a vast gift shop.

I think some of the shock for me came from having visited the Carlsbad Caverns so close to this trip, and the contrast between how the caverns here were being used for tourism and how the Carlsbad Caverns were so carefully preserved made for easy comparison.

This is "Mushroom Hill" next to "A Bumper Harvest of Melons and Vegetables". And they, like all the formations through the caves, were beautifully and artistically lit in brilliant colors.

There are bats in the caves, but they avoid the lit areas. And Jet mentioned to me that he'd seen places where people had touched the near formations, because they were now shiny. He knew from Carlesbad that once a formation is touched and the skin's oils get on the stone, the dropping limestone solutions have nowhere to stick. They just roll off and can't add rock to the bottom formations anymore.

The whole place as beautifully paved, leveled, and lit. There was a lot of the pavement was grooved like this, because, of course, there was water everywhere. Lily was quick to say that you needed three things to make formations like this: limestone, cracks in the ceiling, and water.

I'll admit that I was fascinated by all the names they had for all the formations, and what kind of stories were connected with them all. I loved that there were two old men having tea together on one ridge. Or that there was a magic mirror at the top of another, and there was finally the explanation of mirrors and their use in so many Asian stories.

Jet and I have played Okami dozens of times, and I while I knew that the wolf uses a mirror a lot, I never really knew why. It's because a mirror reveals evil, and it can either bind the evil within its reflection or scare it away when it looks into the mirror. I saw a Jet Li movie, where the mirror held dozens of demons in its depths. Anyway... itw as good to finally get the reason for why a mirror can be used to fight evil.

In the furthest part of the cave was the Crystal Cavern. This was a large open area with a lot of formations around the edges, and the floor had been completely studded with lights for a light show to accompany a little laser show that happened at regular intervals through the day. This edge was called the cityscape, and as backlit from red through to blue on the spectrum, and with the reflection in the still pool of water, really did remind everyone of the spread of a city.

The light show arrived with music while we all stood there, and the stone floor lit up with little inset cans at regular intervals through the whole thing.

"You could never do this in the US," someone said, and I had to agree. The National Parks, who hold most of the big caverns in the US would never do something like this, and I'm not sure if it's because they simply would lack the funds or if it would be in an effort to preserve the caverns as they are, and not make them into some kind of entertainment for people.

I still have no way of figuring out how they lit this. *laughs* But it was fun to see. From the depths of the Crystal Cavern we wended our way back out again, going on through the loop of the entirety of the paved path. One of the last formations was a jungle with a lion and her cubs running around in it. That was pretty fun, especially since we'd seen it from the other side, and couldn't see the cubs until we came through the other way.

Once outside the coolness of the caves, we were back under overcast skies and humid and warm tropical temperatures. The gardens around the exit of the caves were as extensive as the ones inside, with a magnolia tree taller than a three-story building, mangrove trees growing along the water, creating islands, and there were circular paving stones for walking across part of a man-made lake.

This is the lake, with people going for rides on rental boats with cranes as the main feature of the landscape.

It was interesting what features were added, including a concrete molding of a bamboo standing raft, that jutted out into the water. They had a tourist booth on the side of the lake where you could rent one of those bamboo rafts with a pole, just to see if you could maneuver one around. I noticed that only some of the people riding on the raft out on the lake had life vests, it seemed like it was an optional thing.

It seemed very peaceful, though, and the view of the surrounding mountains was beautiful.

Bears and Tigers
One strange thing we saw on the way out to the airport was this tiger and bear preserve. It's a place they hold 1200 tigers for breeding., and a nearly equal number of bears. They release many into the wild, to repopulate areas where they've been destroyed.

Lily said, quite frankly, that they used to take tourists there, but do so no longer because many people were distressed for the poor water buffalo, which they used to feed the animals. I suspect that they used to feed them live water buffalo, probably because these tigers wouldn't eat dead meat and because it used to make for a good show.

The kids were happy to all sit in the very back seat of the bus on the way to the airport, playing with their iPhones and electronics. We got to the airport at a pretty late hour, and Jevons ushered us all to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the basement of the airport. John and Jet refused to have anything to do with it, so all four of us went to one of the gift shops and bought dried noodle bowls that we could cook once we got to Shanghai. They were easy to get through security, and the flight was pretty short and non-eventful. I napped, didn't eat the plane food, and couldn't actually speak very much because I'd just start coughing.

223 gates?
When we reached Shanghai, I was better for the nap, but it amazed me to see signs for 223 gates! *laughs* Jevons was on the later flight, so he had a friend pick us up in another bus, get our luggage, and take us to the hotel. That friend gave us a quick rundown of the history of the city while we drove.

Shanghai might have the third highest population in the country, but it has the highest flow-through of trade and money for the whole of China. It's also got the second-worst traffic in China, with Beijing being first, since Beijing doesn't put many barriers to getting a car licensed. In Shanghai you have to pay the equivalent of $16,000 US to get your car licensed, and everyone who wants one has to apply for a chance to get the license through the city run lottery!

The city used to be just a tiny sea/fishing village, until 1840 and the first Opium War. The name Shang=Up or Getting onto/into ("shang tsu" == getting into a car) and Hai=Sea means getting to the sea. Because China lost that war, it had to open trade with the Europeans, and Shanghai became the port of call for all those foreigners. That's why it has the most Victorian influence of all the cities, and why it is also probably one of the most Westernized. It has also taken on a personality of its own and grown into a vision of what China sees as its future.

The Sheraton hotel we got to that night, at nearly midnight, was one of the most modernistic we saw for the whole trip, but the funny thing was that it also had the smallest drinking water bottles of any hotel for the whole trip! So even with all the drinking water combined from both rooms, we didn't have enough water to boil for our soup bowls!

Luckily, John had brought a military-grade water filtration system that could take non-potable water and make it safe to drink. We filtered a bottle or two of water through that, and used THAT to make up the water we needed to eat our meals, brush our teeth, and finally just fall into bed to sleep. I was lucky, for all that I was coughing so much, I wasn't having a hard time just breathing, and I realized that it wasn't really my asthma anymore, it was an upper respiratory infection that had just skipped the nose phase and gone straight for my lungs.

> > The Next Entry: Shanghai

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