The problem with tea in China is that it’s everywhere, but it’s also a bit of a rigmarole to get just a cuppa when you feel like one. And that’s what we found when we arrived in Xi’an, our first stop in the country.
Tea shops are ten a penny. But they sell tea and are not the kind of places you can sit and have a good natter over a brew. You can let the shopkeepers take you through the Gong Fu ceremony and have you taste their teas, but then there’s a fair bit of pressure to buy a bag afterwards, and our cases were already getting too full to fit much more of the leafy stuff in them.
Contrary to my memories of 28 years ago, too, hardly anyone seems to have tea with their dinner in the evening (or maybe that’s more of a habit in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province?).
So we did struggle a bit to find good places to go for just that relaxing afternoon cup of tea we so crave around 4pm usually.
What we did find in Xi’an was the Folk House museum, a wonderful old building in the heart of the Muslim Quarter which was the old home of a local family, though it reminded me more of the set from Memoirs of a Geisha, and there did appear to have been a few geisha/concubines around in the building’s past.
You can pay a small fee to enter the Folk House and look around or you can pay the full 35 yuan (about £3.50) for the shadow puppet show and a spot of tea afterwards.
The shadow puppets were fantastic. Done by a genial old bloke, they delighted the Chinese audience and he even threw in a sentence in English, much to the merriment of the others in the room, just for us it seemed. It was all the story of love lost, of a woman so beautiful that ‘a glance of her eyes can cause a city to fall and a second glance the fall of a country’, and of rivalries between those competing for her affections.
Not many others had paid for the tea tasting afterwards so we had the full attention of the tea room manager, who took us through the Gong Fu ceremony and introduced us to the teas she had to offer.
Just to be different we tried a Ginseng Oolong, which managed to taste sweet without any sugar added; and then an exotic sounding ‘lychee concubine’ tea, which wowed us so much we went ahead and bought a sample anyway, in spite of those overloaded bags we are carrying.
I think you can just sit in the courtyard and have a flask of tea brought to you, but since this option wasn’t offered to us at the entrance and our lack of Chinese made it impossible to ask too many questions, we couldn’t tell you how to go about that.
But this is definitely our top tip for tea in Xi’an.
And the building is a fascinating place to visit in any case.
We don’t really have any more suggestions for tea in Xi’an. One word of warning though, if you go and visit the tombs of Jing Di (a sort of mini-terracotta warriors, and more domestic than warriors), don’t be misled by this rather inviting sign outside one of the main museums there.
I slipped away from our guided tour, desperate for a cuppa and didn’t even mind if it was tea or coffee at that stage.
But when I asked for a coffee, the reply I got was the all-too-frequent ‘Mei you’ (there isn’t any); and when I said I’d have tea then, I was shocked to hear another ‘Mei You’.
Instead of voicing my annoyance at their totally misleading sign, I decided not to make an issue of it, and instead made a point of taking a photograph of their very large sign.
They probably wondered why I bothered. And I have to say that having had ‘mei you’ said to me more often than any other expression in our three weeks in China, I’m not sure myself why.
But it makes a bit of a story for this blog. And I guess the lesson for any readers visiting Jing Di is: if you see someone else drinking tea or coffee, get in there quick and join them, because you may not get another chance of a cuppa until you’re back in the centre of Xi’an.
Or just stay with your tour party and see more tombs: they’re actually quite interesting…