Taihu Lake – the homeland of Bi Luo Chun Tea

If you take a car to the town of Suzhou, your eye will right away register a range of low hills, the outline of which in the predawn sunrays resembles the back of a huge dragon. Your gaze will fall onto the amazing lush verdure of emerald green with specks of sandy yellows; an expert on tea, who is no stranger to poetry, will inevitably compare this to the blossoming of Tieguanyin tea. Lakes that emerge and then again disappear, roofs of low little houses curved upward in the shape of pagodas, fruit groves, and ancient rocks. That day we were heading toward TaihuLake and plantations of Bi Luo Chun tea, the celebrated sort of these lands. Taihu is a vast, majestic lake, the gem of Jiangsu province, with its grayish-green water, seemingly bottomless, bewitching and beckoning. The infinite, slowly moving train of barges, the adorable mountain and water landscapes, enormous parklands, and nature untouched by human civilization – everything here is called to tune you in to the process of contemplation, poesy and meditation.

 

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Travelling along LakeTaihu is captivating: caves and ravines, shadowy alleys and ancient moss-covered rocks, fanciful flowers. These are the most secret places reserved for the birth of tea.

 

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In the midst of the lake the legendary island of Dongting Bi Luo Chun is located, which is connected to the mainland by bridges built in traditional Chinese architectural style. Sacred hills majestically tower over the island – climbing up their tops is a must for every traveler, especially Chinese. If you climb one of the hills toward an old Buddhist temple located on the very top where the sensation of sacredness is spilled in the serenity and quietness upon all things and the ancestors’ voices call out and the time is slowed, and a slight fragrance of incense permeates the crystal air – you will then give yourself up for a moment to contemplation of the lake, the flowers, the pagodas peeking through the green of the leaves, and will unavoidably become one with the eternal harmony surrendering to the beauty of these lands.

 

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And having looked a little harder, being the true connoisseur of tea, you will make out the famous Bi Luo Chun tea plantations.

 

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Plantations of the world-famous tea are located in the fruit (plum, apricot, tangerine and peach) groves. This is what makes them unlike anything else. Local tea growers seriously believe that the tea bushes enter a certain symbiotic relationship with the fruit trees. To the person looking from the road it will seem as though they are driving past just the fruit trees. Yet if you stop the car and walk a little deeper into the copse, you discover svelte plantations of carefully planted tea trees growing in the virgin untouched land. All around you see trees bending under the weight of hundreds of pieces of fruit.

 

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New tea buds are born having soaked the intoxicating sweet fragrance of fresh flowers and fruit. Along the road resembling scooters with large open trunks the amusing vehicles of local tea growers are parked. The new freshly painted ones belong to well-to-do growers; the old, rusty and often hand-maid – to growers of a lesser social status.

 

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The buzzing of insects, the crystal clear air, and the bamboo hats of women tea-pickers… Come a bit nearer and look closely at their professional, precise, jeweler-like work. With their quick skillful motions the very tips of the tea flushes are plucked and thrown inside a basket.

 

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The true master coming from a family of tea pickers then carefully layers fresh tea leaves into a cauldron and starts their frying – a fanciful dance of dexterous hands and tea leaves begins. The temperature inside the pan reaches over a hundred degrees; for a tea master however this is in no way an inconvenience. He is focused on the process; perfect execution of this stage defines the quality of the tea. There are, of course, technological rules - but one could hardly just replicate them following instruction. The true family-bred master relies on his own rich experience and always knows perfectly in which sequence, for how long and with what intensity he or she should be applying the techniques of pressing, shaking and tens of other manipulations. The generations of ancestors stand behind these actions. Only his own experience and intuition, his hands and his nose will correctly tell him when the tea is ready.

 

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The highest and the most expensive gradations of Bi Luo Chun are picked before the Qingming season begins (before April 5). The tea picked later costs a little less. In a tea shop you can compare various gradations. Possessive of certain experience one can discern some barely perceptible nuances. This sort is very delicate, very capricious. Having been transported over long distances it loses its qualities. Therefore, unfortunately, its true flavor one can only enjoy at the place of its production. Visit a local teahouse. Here you will be offered fresh newly prepared Bi Lou Chun steeped in a glass tumbler using water from an ancient spring.

 

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The infusion is clear, emerald-green, and pure with an abundance of little hairs. The steeped little leaves graciously open up in a cup. The tea’s fresh pure taste with a hint of ripe fruit permeates you, pleasantly enveloping you from the inside. While enjoying the tea try to let the surrounding harmony in, become one with it. And if you manage to capture this special incomparable state you will never be able to forget it.

 

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Taihu is the main Chinese center for river pearl production. On a local market one can come across stalls with an astounding variety of pearl items, for any wallet and capable of satisfying the most discriminating of tastes. Here – you can rest assured that the pearls are genuine.

 

 

 

A separate note on the cuisine of LakeTaihu. Its peculiarity is in its – whiteness. White chicken soup, white shrimp, newly caught and freshly prepared white fish, astonishingly good. If you order traditional rice, tofu or snail to go with it, even the person who is not normally a fan of Chinese cuisine will for a moment think himself in the midst of a culinary paradise. If you choose to drink your coffee on an upper floor, you will be able to enjoy the views of Taihu through the open window. This commands a special beauty to the midday meal.

 

 

We spent three unforgettable days here. We felt a little sad. We were leaving Suzhou having taken a piece of charm of this land and bringing home fresh Bi Luo Chun. Taihu said her goodbyes to us with a strong penetrating wind of the days of old.

 

Meditation, the way to oneself

 

Bi Luo Chun Tea

 

A strange place it is – the DongtingIsland. Coming here for the first time, you vividly feel a strong energy permeating everything around – the rocks, the water, the trees, and the tea.

 

The sole of your foot barely touches the stony steps of the old park, and the time slows down; you enter a state resembling one’s falling asleep with your thoughts preserving their clarity yet becoming deeper, changing direction and speed.

 

Slowly, slowly we climb up the narrow stony path. The wind of antiquity is singing its song to the cypresses, a light splashing of the waves is heard faintly; there’s no need to hurry: just close your eyes and take a deep breath.

 

Where am I…

The eternal life is of the color of a southern night sky. The Path to Eternal Life is a road of the Milky Way stretching from the west to the east.

 

Forever young, I want to be forever young

Do you really want to live forever…….

 

This song is barely perceptible, whose voice is this? Who is this?

It is you; it is your own voice. It is just singing inside you.

 

Eternal Life has the look of Gingko tree leaves. Here it is, by the way, appearing from behind the bend of the path. Its branches, ancient yet forever young, are entirely covered with ribbons of wishes, touchingly fastened with tiny iron locks. Some have been hanging here for ages.

 

Stop, sit down onto the warm stones along the path, close your eyes and take a breath. Again, and again, and again…

 

We walk on…

Over the tree branches the roof of a pavilion is peeking out. Voices. The smell of tea leaves being fried in a pan. A small pavilion. A terrace on the edge of a precipice laid out in stony plates.

 

Square wooden tables, each with four chairs around it. We stop. We ask for tea.

 

Here it is the Bi Luo Chun tea, just out of a pan, still hot… We’ll breathe in its fragrance once again, close our eyes and feel the green wave rushing in.

 

A Chinese woman places the thermoses with boiling water onto the table, sets out the glasses. Easily and gracefully she pours hot water into the glasses and then in quick efficient motions throws a pinch of tea leaves into each glass.

 

The tea consisting of small leaves and buds instantly soaks in the water and sinks to the bottom of the glass. This is Life – look at it! Watch the white hairs of the tea buds fill up the glass; watch the tea leaves form a mystical picture at the bottom of the glass. What is this…

 

White steam is rising off the top of the glass; do not hurry, allow the drink to ripen.

 

Try to feel, try to listen to yourself from the inside. Let us settle comfortably in the old chair and try taking the first swallow, then another one, and one more. Where am I and why the voices around me have all of a sudden quieted down; the mellow state of half-dreaming is bringing on the visions, letting the memories from the most secrets corners of your conscience float up to the surface…

 

Now you have experienced your blood taking in the wave of tea, the green message of Life being carried by the river inside you. Choose the addressees to deliver this message to. Breathe in and take another swallow.

 

Oh, what is this – the wind has started blowing from the lake. In order to prevent the drinks’ dying away pour some more water into the glass.

 

Yes, such a strange place – the island of Dongting.

The sweet and astringent taste of tea enveloping the sky.

How long have we been here, an hour, two hours, maybe…

Eternal Life has the taste of Bi Luo Chun tea.