It’s hard to be in China and not drink tea. Every train station, bus station and public building has a hot water machine for public use and it feels like 90% of Chinese people carry a thermos around with them every day. On some trains the conductors even provide a piping hot thermos of hot water to each cabin and refill it for the morning. It’s impossible to escape it so we caved and bought ourself a small thermos ($1.30) and some loose tea and joined the addiction.
Drinking tea in China is an activity. You go to a tea house, which functions more like a public living room than a restaurant, and are presented with a long menu of tea. Usually this is in Chinese so we’re totally lost and just point to the cheapest one available. The glass, not a mug or teacup, arrives filled about ¼ with tea leaves and a large thermos of water is placed by the table. You simply fill the glass with the hot water, drink and repeat. We sat at one tea house for five full hours in Chengdu drinking hot water from the same tea leaves. No one bothered us at all except to provide more hot water. Although that tea house was rather mundane, some tea houses provide snacks, card tables, mahjong sets, music and all sorts of entertainment. People come around the tables offering table-side massage and even ear cleaning.
Tea growing is no small industry in China. Thousands of acres of tea plantations thrive across the country and the different varieties span the price bracket. It’s not unheard of for a nice tea to go for $10 a glass in Beijing. Some of the most expensive green tea’s come from the south of China and are believed to hold significant medicinal benefits. Puor tea, from southern China was so sought after in Tibet that the Chinese successfully traded the tea for horses.
Tea is so ingrained in the culture that stores sell tea flavored snacks. I mistakenly picked up a pack of Oreos, labeled only in Chinese, that had a dish of ice cream on the front. Green with a sprig of leaf on the side, the picture looked to me like mint. Excited I thought I had found mint Oreos, but after the first bite it was clear that either they had gone bad or it wasn’t mint. After a few bites (or one: the number of bites Danny needs to consume the creamy half of an oreo) the flavor finally dawned on us– they were tea flavored. Needless to say we didn’t buy those again!