An alarm so rudely bleats at us in our warm sanctuary of comfortable bedding among the plastic city that offers so little other than this pile of crumpled sheets, there’s quite literally nowhere better to be than in this bed. Possibly the breakfast buffet has a claim to that title and in the tumbling rain of a shower the buffet does indeed take the mantle as the place to be, clothes stuffed into bags we catch the elevator down to repeat the stuffing job on our stomachs for another days ride. There’s two days to go now and where just a few days ago breakfast times were filled with fear jacketed in mirth for the physical challenge ahead gone now are the pensive looks, the uncertainty and the fatigue. The G8 dons a coat of immunity to the kilometres ahead, today is just another sight seeing day in the saddle.
The riding shall begin in a moment or two, Robbie and I both have upset tummies so it’s a short toilet stop before the lazy 30km; never thought I’d say that. Squeezed into two unisex cubicles too close for the cheap chipboard separator to dull any sound we both wait pensively holding onto the door that invariably doesn’t shut properly by itself. It’s a delicate moment with bad tummies in these stalls with the acoustics of a concert hall, the pensive calm before the storm. Like the starters gun at a swimming meet a squirty farting sound ushers the end of restraint as we metaphorically throw all the kids in the pool at once. I knew we’d all bond on this trip but I never thought this would be the fashion; whatever happens in life hereon, Robbie and I will always have Menghai. Rushing from the toilet just in the nick of time the call goes out; ‘ECHO’ screeches Wendy, the human trumpet becoming a now familiar cry, Wendy’s famous heavy rimmed glasses reveal squinted eyes at the effort of the howl.
What a piffle 30km seems now, we arrive at Mrs Li’s for more tea education, this time we’re off picking tea. After learning that the bud is bitter, the leaves make the body and the stem gives the sweetness we’re all unleashed on the tea plants to pick a perfect balance of flavour; or just pick whatever we can reach but who’s counting. Back at the vivacious Mrs Li’s we have a go at frying the tea in a huge wok before kneading it to break up the cells and release all the nutritious goodness. By this stage we’ve had an insight into pretty much every part of tea manufacture possible, a window into a great industry, a great history and something so rare to be granted the insight to.
After a short market stop we’re into the van and off to the upper mountain reaches of Nannuoshan, a wealthy small community built on old growth tea. It’s not because there’s money, clearly China does bad taste money with the best of them, but Nannuoshan is by far the most stylish and tasteful place we’ve stayed: rustic but clean, traditional yet sophisticated. As if our tea overload wasn’t enough we take a walk to see an 800 year old tea tree. Through wild forests that are actually the tea fields this place looks very different, massive floral diversity masks the old tea trees that simply make up part of the forest; it’s industry but not China style at all. Or is it? We’ve become good at getting into the middle of nowhere and here we are again; of course there’s a rustic tea shop plonked in the middle of a seemingly inaccessible forest. Taking a huge pot from an open fire a gorgeous young woman finds no excuse in isolation, the tea ceremony is conducted as if it was Wendy in a custom designed setting, gorgeous and divine are the words so aptly thrown around.
Just when we thought we were going to be able to rest, our dinner is crashed by some local Aini people in traditional dress, and Ms Li the crazy tea lady is here too. After dinner we, and by we I mean they, get rotten drunk and we are treated to never ending traditional song and dance. Amazingly it all looks very latin american, we could be in the mountains of Ecuador. Interestingly there is a huge amount of genetic connection between indigenous Latin America and Asia, many Latin cultures bare the iconic ‘Mongolian spot’ birthmark tipping off a genetic link from ages past. We’re under massive pressure to return a dance and after drawing blanks I lead the group through the Rocky Horror dance, the time warp. I can’t help coaxing these traditional icons and the four grannies do the very sexual ‘pelvic thrust’ move, this is what memories are made of. Ms Li tries to shy out of it but no chance, I grab her into the circle and she’s off her face pelvic thrusting the air in traditional Aini dress. I manage not to laugh somehow.
Buoyed by my time bossing around the group and the few beers I can’t help myself, I’ve wanted to do this for days. I grab Wendy’s glasses and launch into my own imitation of the famous howl: ‘ECHO…. ECHO… ECHOOOOO!’ I screech as the heavy glasses blur my vision. Tricked into method acting by the concealing wall of myopic shelter I lose myself, I am Wendy. After regaining my vision I’m relieved to see everyone laughing, no offence taken; phew! And finally we head off to bed, today we cut loose undaunted by a small ride tomorrow and again we ticked the tea box. We’ve had an insight into everything pu’er tea imaginable, more than we could ever dream of. we have always been coffee snobs and wine snobs: what’s the chances of the trifecta?