It can now be revealed: in 1993 I returned to Yunnan in order to realize my childhood dream of becoming a tea baron. Yes, it all started in 1975 when I encountered the magnificent book by Robert Fortune, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China; Sung-lo and the Bohea Hills (1852), in which the intrepid Fortune manages to steal into the interior of China and abscond with the tea plants that subsequently helped to establish the British tea industry in colonial India. Disguised in wooden clogs, straw hat, and a wig with a long black queue hanging down his back, Fortune managed to punt along the waterways in the lowliest of riverboats. He dined on what he described as a miserable gruel, called congee, and reconnoitered the tea plantations and temple gardens along his route. Once, caught red-handed in a private garden while trying to steal a flower specimen, he was — instead of being turned over to the local yamen — given a nice cup of tea and a neatly potted living sample to take with him. Having yet to discover the reckless undertakings of Kingdon Ward and Joseph Rock, I was fascinated by the idea of botanist-explorer. This of course led me to read various volumes on tea barons, tea manufacturing techniques, and to distinguish a broken orange pekoe from a souchong. Many a pot of oolong was brewed for me that year by the sympathetic owner of the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant that once was located next to the Pyramid Adult theatre on Route 66. Later on, when I founded the tea club at Albuquerque High School in 1977 (with Tim Crews, Erik Stout, and Lars Tomasen), I thought becoming a tea baron was a fait accompli! Little did I know, that tea is produced in quantities on the order of 3 million tonnes per year, and at the time of my venture to the China National Native Produce and Animal By-products Import and Export Corporation Yunnan Tea Branch that there was a total glut of tea on the market and thousands of unsold tonnes laying about at every market in sight. Nonetheless, I was introduced to the delights of various pu-erh teas, which have since then become my personal favorite… not the dessicated bricks of tuo-cha that look like donkey shit laced with straw, but rather the delightful, freshly dried pu-erh, which tastes of the very soil of Yunnan, a rich, hearty, unforgettable flavor as thick as coffee and tangy with minerals, pineapple sweat, and snake venom. The manager of the Yunnan Tea Branch gave me a wonderful descriptive flyer, reproduced here, for your edification:
Well I just returned from a terrific trip, including a visit to Osaka and Kyoto with my Dad. The Namba Dotonburi district is always fun, with its giant seafood sculpture signage. The Red Devil takoyaki grilled octopus ball shop is looking pretty fashionable, too! In Japan there is no shortage of robots, and the one in Namba that amused me was the fat automaton struggling and hobbling with two cases of Asahi beer in front of the liquor store. This strikes me as a really good use of a robot - to portray a sweaty human carrying cases of beer, and none too steady on his feet! After swilling beer and munching seafood, you may want to stop for a rest at one of the fanciful hotels nearby, like the “International Hotel” with it’s curious facade.
In late August 2001, I boarded a plane at Hongqiao airport in Shanghai and flew to Urumqi. Riding in on the airport bus, I decided to jump off randomly in the center of the city and make my way by foot to the Hilton. Typically I would stay at a cheap guesthouse, but Dru Gladney said he was staying there that night and I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of creating a gazetteer of Uighur placenames. What an interesting place Urumqi was! After checking in and failing to find Dru, I took a camera and a notebook and started wandering the streets. Walking south I eventually found a large botanical park, fronted by a very large nursery selling plants and clay pots of every description. After wandering back through the center of the town to the Xinhua Bookstore, where I purchased my usual pile of maps and atlases, I decided to try a roast mutton stand that caught my eye earlier in the day. The place turned out to be well worth the extra hike, and I feasted on a platter of roast mutton and fresh baked Central Asian round-bread with sesame. The fellow outside carving the lamb carcasses and tending the grill was a good sport about letting me take his picture hard at work.