Legend has it that tea was born 5,000 years ago when a leaf fell into a cup of hot water. place to exchange news and gossip. Nowadays new tearooms are beginning to appear in Beijing and Shanghai, but the status of Sichuan's tea culture as China's richest is unchallenged. The natives of Chengdu say that the three most important places in daily life are home, work and tearoom. Chengdu's most popular tearoom is in Renmin Park. Spread out in the shade of trees are dozens of bamboo tables, which are all packed with customers. A lively buzz of chatter accompanies the smoking and mahjong games. I order one of the tearoom's favourite beverages, chrysanthemum tea, and sit at a table beside a small pond. Soon the tea master arrives carrying a longspouted copper teapot and a porcelain tea set. Besides the handle-less mug, it includes a top that keeps the tea leaves out of the drinker's mouth and a napkin so as not to burn one's fingers. A cup of tea and a thermos bottle to refill it with costs just a euro. As I sip my tea, a group of massage practitioners and earwax removers approaches our table. After a few moments of pressure, the photographer gives in. After ten minutes of poking with sticks and cruel-looking tweezers, his ears are cleaner than ever. The aromas of tea are not overwhelming here, but at the Renmin Park tearoom, the tea itself does not seem to be the main focus. Rather, it seems to be an excuse for chatting with friends or business associates. At the same time, one can listen to a woman singing Chinese opera or watch a dance performance. Sometimes there are lively public debates among the customers as well. "My wife likes the noise and people; this is where she hears all the latest rumours. So that's why I'm here," says a smiling Mr. Lu, sitting at the next table. The 57-year-old says he visits the Renmin Park tearoom every weekend. "I started coming here with my parents when I was five years old, but my sons prefer more Western cafés. But I think this is a great place to talk and meet new people, sort of like a bar without beer. You can just sit and listen to what those around you are talking about, and if the subject interests you, you can just join in!" MARVELS OF THE MARKETPLACE Chengdu boasts two huge tea markets, which sell tea grown in every corner of China. One of them, Da Xi Nan Cha Chen, opened about a decade ago on the city's north side. It is actually a whole neighbourhood with shops stacked floor to ceiling with a mind-boggling array of teas. Shelves are lined with hard-packed discs of tea, their surfaces embossed with tigers and dragons. On the floor there are piles of green and dark tea leaves as well as colourful dried flowers. Prices are traditionally labelled by the half-kilo and vary according to the season and type of tea. The more times the same leaves can be used, the costlier the tea. Nearly every shop has a table for tea tasting. The most famous of Sichuan's teas is green tea (lu cha), which is better the fresher it is. Another favourite are the powerfully aromatic pu-erh teas such as tuo cha, which are traditionally drunk in Yunnan province. Pu-erh is easy to recognise. It is pressed into a hard disc, which is often wrapped in paper. Pu-erh continues its fermentation after it is manufactured, aging like cognac. In China, pu-erh tea can be found Nearly every shop offers tea tastings. TOP LEFT At the Renmin Park tearoom, locals play cards, mahjong or just chat with friends. TOP RIGHT Huang Zhi Ming is proud of his shop's most exclusive tea, which sells for more than 7,000 euros a kilo. BOTTOM RIGHT A cup of unforgettable oolong tea. BOTTOM LEFT The character for "tea" is one of the oldest in the Chinese language. 44 BLUE WINGS NOVEMBER 2009
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