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I decided to go to Qimen on a whim. That’s the nice thing about living in tea-producing areas, you can visit regions on a whim. I woke up early, kinda, took care of the dogs, and got on the bus.
The last time going to Qimen was a mess. I got off the bus on the opposite side of town and could not find a taxi to save my life. After walking around like an idiot for an hour I got on the bus home, in the end spending more time on the bus than in Qimen. This time, I was smart. I got on the bus and immediately told the women collecting money that I wanted to be dropped off at the tea city. With a simple “Hao De” (good/ agreement) she agreed. Two hours later the bus dropped me off at tea city. Hilariously the bus driver almost drove past tea city but the whole bus, who was fascinated by a Chinese-speaking foreigner riding this small bus, yelled at him to stop and let me off.
Entering tea cities, more commonly known in English as tea streets, is always an experience. You enter the equivalent of a 4x4 city blog full of cross streets and alleys packed with tea stores. Walking through you almost don’t know where to start because they often look very similar. A small shop with boxes of tea stacked against one wall, a fridge against another, and a shop owner sitting behind a tea table often smoking a cigarette and playing on his or her phone. While these shops are exactly dirty, they also aren’t clean and organized. (expect the good ones). Walking into the first shop is the hardest for me. You don’t want to waste your time at a shop, going in, tasting tea, and not liking anything, but it’s inevitable. This is especially true as a foreigner as shopkeepers will assume you know nothing about tea and will often spend 20 minutes explaining the absolute basics of tea, despite you telling them you already know.
I popped into a few shops with no luck, usually told by the smell there was nothing there. When I first walked into tea city I saw a shop with awards on the shelf. Awards on the shelf are not a promise of good tea, but it usually means their tea was better than somebody’s. The shopkeeper was relaxing in the sun outside the store on her phone and didn’t even get up when I walked in. It took me mingling for a second to stir her from her spot. I forgot exactly what I asked for, but she brought me to the shop. As it would turn out, the shops in tea city were not always a keepers-only shop. It was almost as if keepers had a shop on the main street than from there they could direct customers to their main shop which was at a less convenient location.
I was brought to a large shop with a game of poker going on in the first and a decent-looking tea table in the back. When I’m in tea cities I try to find shops that look beautiful. A shop that looks nice is often in the ownership of someone who truly loves tea and isn’t trying to sell tea because they have land with tea trees and tea is profitable now. When you are walking down the street you will see most shops are a little thrown together like mentioned before then you will see a shop that is organized and is decorated in a way that celebrates tea; that is the shop you want to go in This shop wasn’t bad, not disorganized, but also not beautiful. The woman who brought me in was about my age and it was her grandparents who ran the shop.
I asked for really good tea. “好一点的茶“ (hao Yi dian de cha: good tea). They warned me that it would be expensive and I told them I didn’t fear expensive. “我不怕贵“ (Wo bu pa gui: I dont fear exspensive). They nodded to each other, asked me to sit down, and brought out a box of tea. I got up to smell it and wasn’t impressed at all by what I smelled. “How much is this?” I asked.shops0rmb” they replied. (a little less than 50 USD). For Qimen that is cheap. I tried to explain that I wanted better and they replied that we were going to start cheap and then work our way up. While at first, I didn’t love this idea, I needed to catch the last bus and had dogs waiting, I eventually decided this would be educational and worth the time. We tasted the tea and it was nothing special.
As we tasted this tea I chatted with the grandfather.
“Where are you from?” He yelled across the room.
“America” “Ah! I don’t Americans”
“Why?!” I said laughing, clutching my heart like I was heartbroken.
“Americans are bad people,” He said with a laugh.
“Americans don’t understand Chinese culture.” He continued.
“Chinese people don’t understand American Culture,” I replied; a replied which brought various comments from the pokers players. Some are in agreement, others not.
"We don’t sell tea to Americans.”
“We sell tea to Americans!” The grandma cut in. “We don’t sell tea to Japanese.”
This argument went back and forth for a bit. The grandpa a few minutes later backed up 50 grams of the tea we were drinking and gave it to me, refusing to let me pay. It had become clear at this point that they expected me to buy this tea. I asked for a more expensive tea to which they responded by asking me how much I usually paid. I double the number and said 600. They responded by telling me that Tunxi sellers buy from Qimen and double the price, so the 300 tea I was drinking was the same as the 600 I tasted in Qimen. As the people I buy Qimen from are Qimen natives themselves, I knew this wasn’t true. Plus, this tea was not the same as that that I paid 600 and up for. I tried to make the argument that if I was used to tea that was 300 that I would love tea that was 600+. It didn’t work. I have never seen shopkeepers so adverse to the idea of selling their expensive goods.
I got the feeling that they didn’t want to spend the time tasting other teas and instead said I would buy 50g of a 600 RMB tea and taste it at home. They accepted this and bagged one up for me. I think they were afraid I would waste their time tasting their good tea and not buy anything.
After that shop, I walked around the tea city a bit. I was looking for a shop that stood out. I came across a shop that was owned by a big company. Even from the outside, you could tell the shop was huge. It had two big sliding glass doors that led to a small atrium containing two traditional wooden chairs. Once you got past this though you came into a shop that was only half-finished. There was a shelf of teas on one side of the room and the other was more wooden furniture that was not yet unpacked, still wrapped up in the foam that protects it in the truck.
The women greeted me and invited me to look around. On the shelves, in glass bottles fully exposed to sunlight, were Qimens that were priced in the thousands of RMB. I knew exactly what this was and when the woman invited me to try it I didn’t even want to bother.
Up until recently giving tea as a gift was a common practice. High-priced teas were given to government officials and important people as kinda a pre-bribe. This practice was outlawed a few years ago as part of a corruption crackdown. You could no longer give tea as a gift to government officials. This disrupted parts of the tea market that were based solely on people buying tea for the sole reason that it was expensive. In cases like this, the quality of the tea was of no matter, the only thing that mattered was the price tag and any other fancy things you could say about the tea. (such as a high mountain or a famous cultivar). More often than not, these tea were average at best. When I saw the price tag on such a uniquely stored tea I knew this was the case.
I began to walk out but then thought “Ah, why not.” and turned around to try the tea. Needless to say, it was subpar. The woman was nice enough but not a tea person. She quickly grandpa styled the leaves without letting me see or smell. (not a way you serve truly expensive tea) I politely drank a cup then left.
I walked out and made my way to a shop I had been eyeing for a while. It was cleaner than the other shops. It looked newer and more appealing. There were more people playing poker in it which made me shy because my Chinese isn’t good in a group, but I walked in. Once again after a short conversation, the boss invited me into his car so he could bring me to the main shop as this as well was not their flagship. Walking into this shop I knew I had found it.
While not very organized, boxes everywhere, this shop had more than most shops. For starters, in the front of the shop was a traditional wooden rolling machine. This is what I mean when I say celebrates tea, the first thing you saw when you walked into a shop was a homage to handcrafted tea. I walked in and the next thing I saw was two ladies sorting tea by hand. Behind them was a wall of An Cha, a local hei cha. He took me to the back of the shop and the stacked boxes gave away to a proper tea room. A full tea table with multiple cups, gaiwans, and tea pets sat front and center. Behind was a shelf of antique cups and pots. I told him the same thing I told the other shop, I don’t fear expensive. “我不怕贵“ (Wo bu pa gui) and he immediately brought out the good teas.
We tasted three. Out of the three I wasn’t very impressed but I did notice something special. I also noticed that he was using about half the leaf amount that I use and therefore the flavor was cut. I ended up buying two of the teas to take home to try. The tea that I liked in the shop was not as good as the one I was less interested in. (The third tea which I bought a sample of later was not as interesting as the other two.) The one I was less interested in turned out to be incredibly balanced with complexity to the aroma that I have not seen in other Qimens. This Qimen, different from other Qimens I have tried before is available b now on the website.