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A Beginner’s Guide to Pu’er Tea

Think of walking through a forest in late autumn, a few hours after rain. The smell of wet leaves, moss and rich earth mingle as you scuff the gently decaying leaves.
This is how a good cup of pu’er tea should taste and smell – complex and earthy. Forest and stone, woodsmoke and lichen.
Having grown up on supermarket English tea with milk and sugar, Chinese teas were a brave new world for me. Mostly, they were a revelation – fresh and vibrant grassy green teas, and delicately floral oolongs. But I remained unconvinced about pu’er tea, thinking it tasted dank and musty – less like forest and more like wet basement and mouldy attic. I didn’t like it at all.
Pu’er is considered the pinnacle of tea-drinking for the Chinese, and often the most difficult for the rest of us to appreciate. Like wine, pu’er improves with age and develops more complex flavours. 
I hoped that by travelling along parts of the ancient Tea Horse Trail in southern Yunnan – the route by which tea travelled from its origins in Yunnan overland to Tibet, Mongolia and the rest of China – it would give me a new appreciation for the China’s finest tea. 
Completely unable to convince the rest of the family that visiting a tea workshop in the middle of nowhere followed by a climb up a mountain to a grove of ancient wild tea trees would be a fun way to spend the day, I went by myself on my own little tea trail, and learned a lot. 
The owner of the guest house in which we were staying (Yourantai) happened to be good friends with Chen Ying, a quiet Chinese woman my own age who had left a career in forestry conservation to run a tea workshop in a quiet, clean, remote part of Yunnan blessed with clean air and water and robust tea trees.
Starting in Jinghong near the Myanmar border, south of the ancient town of Pu’er for which the tea is named, I headed west and up into the hills past Menghai, visiting first the tea workshop, then tea terraces in the surrounding countryside, and lastly the mountain of Nanla, home to some of the oldest tea trees in Yunnan. 
Here’s what I learned (with still a great deal more to learn), thanks to my knowledgeable teachers that day.  

下面这就是那天我了解到的一些东西 (还有很多东西要学习) 感谢知识渊博的老师们.

Chinese Tea: The Basics 中国茶: 基本要素

Chinese tea falls into three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):
1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: tea  pu’er tea, black tea

Southern Yunnan is where tea originated, a place of lush green hills terraced with rows of tea bushes, patches of thick green jungle, valleys filled with sugarcane and banana trees. Large leafed pu’er tea,  related to the original wild teas of the region, is grown on the sides of steeply sloped hills and harvested twice a year in spring and autumn. 
Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which pu’er tea is grown, the age of the trees, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of pu’er tea.
Differing from green and oolong teas, after full oxidation (drying and warming) pu’er tea is left to naturally ferment, causing it to develop complex flavour characteristics over time.

Making Pu’er Tea 制作普洱茶

After picking, the leaves are first converted to ‘rough tea’ or maocha by drying for 5-6 hours on bamboo trays, then briefly cooking in warm metal pans and ‘rolling’ by hand, curling the leaves a little. The leaves are then sorted to separate the premium larger leaves from twigs and small leaves.
The leaves spend one day in the ‘greenhouse’ drying further – a large airy room with a glass roof concentrating the warmth. 
在采摘之后,叶子首先通过在竹盘上干燥56个小时被转化成“粗糙的茶”或者说是毛茶,然后短暂的在金属平底锅里蒸煮处理一下,在用手“揉搓”,将叶子弄卷曲一些。然后将茶叶分类,将大一些的叶子和细枝和小叶子分隔开来。 用一天的时间将叶子在“温室中”进一步烘干——一个有玻璃房顶保暖又通风的大房间。

The dried tea is measured into 200g portions, placed into a cotton bag and steamed briefly before being compressed into a cake or bing. The bag’s twirled knot gives the pu’er cake its distinctive indentation.
Each cake is then placed under a heavy stone weight and the stone ‘rocked’ to further compress the tea
The tea cake is removed from the cotton bag, still steaming but now compressed flat, and placed to dry on racks for two further days. After this the tea is fully oxidized and ready to start the process of aging or fermentation.


Wrapped in locally made paper, free of chemicals that might taint the tea, the tea is stored in traditional bundles of seven cakes wrapped together in banana husk – qi zi bing cha

This is sheng cha or green pu’er tea. Over the next eight to ten years the residual moisture in the tea leaves will allow it to slowly ferment, developing more and more complex flavours with age
Brewing the Perfect Cup of Pu’er Tea 酿造完美的普洱茶

The mysteries of the perfect cup of tea seemed insurmountable to a mere tea mortal like myself with way too much fuss, bother, equipment and paraphernalia involved.  So it was entirely refreshing to have Chen Ying tell me she makes her pu’er both the traditional way, and a quick way if she’s drinking tea alone.
The necessary equipment:
1. A small teapot made from pure clay (eg Yixing ware), so as not to cause any chemical impurities to seep into the tea.
2. A glass jug into which the tea can be decanted
3. Porcelain tea cups
4. Boiling water and tea
1. Break off a small of amount of pu’er tea from the cake, add tea to pot
2. Fill the pot to overflowing wth just-boiled water, replace lid and pour water over pot to warm it
3. Allow to brew very briefly then pour the first brew of tea over the tea cups – this rinses both  the tea leaves (removing any dust or impurities) and the tea cups
4. Fill pot for a second time with boiling water
5. Allow to steep for 30 seconds
6. Decant tea into glass jug, and from there pour into individual tea cups
7. Refill teapot with water and repeat for up to 15 steepings, according to taste
If she’s in a hurry Chen Ying says she just puts some leaves into a lidded porcelain teacup and allows it to steep in the cup, adding more water as needed. She explained though, that tea drinking should always be a relaxing activity, with the proper time taken to do it well.
When to Drink Tea
There is really no better reminder of the best times to drink tea than to follow the esoteric directions in Hsu Tse Shu’s Ming Dynasty poem:

Proper Moments for Drinking Tea

When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.






Pu’er Tea: The Taste  普洱茶:味道
I tried five different pu’er teas that day – a recently pressed sheng cha or fresh pu’er, which had a light herbaceous taste, then a one, three, four and five year old tea. Each different year brought a variety of new tastes – light smoke, polished wood, wet leaves and earth. None were musty or mouldy tasting, and there wasn’t a single hint of basement or attic. They were all smooth and very refreshing.
I had officially been converted. I bought two cakes of the oldest tea I could afford, which turned out to be three years old. One to drink now, and one to keep for as long as possible. Chen Ying’s oldest tea, eight years old, was entirely out of my price range at around $150 per bing. Imagine the price of a twenty, thirty or fifty year old tea!

Buying Pu’er Tea 购买普洱茶

As the exclusivity and value of pu’er tea has increased in China, so has the ingenuity and guile of those willing to risk prosecution to make money from the everyday consumer – you and me. 
Scams I heard about included (but clearly weren’t limited to) the classic bait and switch (try a tea of very high quality, then be sold a pu’er cake of inferior tea) and the sale of semi-fake cakes of pu’er with high quality outer leaves (so when you break off a little and test it, it seems the genuine article) but filled with cheap, inferior tea on the inside.
Buying aged pu’er is also problematic, as the price rises exponentially with the age of the tea. What condition has the tea been stored in for all of that ten or more years?  Has the tea changed hands during that time?
Just as it’s difficult and daunting to know which red wines to buy when you first start out (and in China the red wine market is equally full of fakery and quackery) the suggestion is to make friends with a tea lover and learn from them. Taste plenty of teas and learn which you like best, find out who their trusted tea suppliers are buy only from them.
Ultimately though, it comes down to taste – your taste – and buying what you enjoy drinking even if it’s inexpensive or younger than fully aged pu’er tea.

Storing Pu’er Tea 储存普洱茶

Pu’er needs to be stored in a clean, dark, dry, airy place, wrapped in its original paper to keep it clean. Excessive moisture will lead to mould. 

Resources for Learning More:
Seven Cups  – a US website dedicated to Chinese tea
Making Pu’er tea – a demonstration video at
Information about Pu’er tea and Chen Ying’s tea workshop can be found at her website

Post 500: How I Went To China and Became a Writer

Five hundred posts! How the hell did that happen? 

Five hundred posts couldn’t happen without all of you – a blog is nothing without readers and I’m enormously grateful to you wonderful food lovers and adventurers for dropping by, reading, sending emails, posting comments and continuing to drop by, making it all worthwhile. It’s been a great joy to get to know so many of you in person too.

So please drop in for dumplings anytime you’re in Shanghai – it would be a pleasure and an honour.

To be honest though I’ve been struggling with this post in my head for quite some time. The 500th post should be deep and meaningful, reflective and insightful, right? Needless to say it’s been sitting here half written for some weeks and now it’s down to the wire. It has to be posted, because otherwise it will be Post 501 or Post 504. Not as punchy. 
Three years ago, almost to the day, I started Life on Nanchang Lu – ostensibly as a way to document Shanghai life around me, but in reality and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it was because China was completely overwhelming me and I subconsciously needed to make some sense of it.

While outwardly I claimed to be loving my new life in China, inwardly I was struggling with the loss of identity that comes with leaving a well-established career in medicine to relocate to a country where you know no one, can’t work and don’t speak the language. The combination of frigid wet weather and the frustration of being functionally illiterate and friendless in a society I found extraordinarily confusing (how can a country of 1.3 billion people function if nobody queues??) was tough, at least for those first months.
A blog seemed a good place to start to clear through the confusion and frustration I was feeling. Lord knows intensive Chinese classes and therapy sessions might have done the same job but there it is. A blog was born.

Who would have thought that three years, five hundred posts and a lot of late nights later, I would be a food and travel writer with more than sixty published articles under my belt? I honestly didn’t see it coming and I didn’t set out to become a writer, but I love writing and telling stories about food and places. And if I hadn’t come to China (a country which I now dearly love, even with all its faults) this would never have happened, so for that I will always be thankful.

So here goes Post 500, about how I came to China and inadvertently became a writer, dedicated to all the many talented but as yet unpublished writers out there.

I Started Small

Two years ago, just as I began to think it might be possible to write outside of my blog, I was introduced to the editor of Parents and Kids Magazine – a monthly magazine for Shanghai’s expat families. We got chatting about a recent holiday and I was asked to write a travel piece for the magazine. It would be unpaid because I was an unpublished and untested writer, but it seemed like a great place to start because if I was going to write I wanted to write about travel and food, the two topics close to my heart.

It turned out to be a good decision – Parents and Kids belonged to a group of publications under the same owner, so after that first article was published I was asked to write a series of blog posts for their main website, City Weekend Shanghai, on new things to try in Shanghai followed by a blog series called Try Everything Once.

As is common with many print magazines, online blog content is essentially unpaid, written largely by either staff writers or by bloggers like me. Part of me baulked at doing so much work for nothing week after week for several months, but I felt confident it would lead eventually, one way or another, to paid writing commissions.

Soon after, City Weekend’s family columnist resigned and I took her place writing Family Matters: a fortnightly column about family life in China, and this time a paid gig in their high-circulation print magazine. I was overjoyed! That column became my regular for well over a year until I resigned after leaving for the Great China Roadtrip.

Now you might say writing about family life wasn’t ever going to lead to writing about what I really wanted to – food and travel – but it got me a byline and an audience and gave me a valuable grounding in the way magazines work and what makes an editor happy. I considered it my magazine apprenticeship.

This regular published work led to my becoming the Food Feature writer for Shanghai Family Magazine, then travel writer for That’s Shanghai and That’s Beijing Magazines, which led to work with the Sunday Times, CNNGo, and Oryx magazine. I would never have had a chance with any of those bigger publications if I hadn’t started small and built up experience.

I Found a Mentor

Negotiating the tricky world of freelancer contracts, editorial decisions and pitching stories would have been unimaginable for someone like me without a journalism degree. I needed the help of those wiser and more experienced than myself.

Luckily blogging helped put me in touch with just the people whose advice I needed. It turns out a lot of food journalists, writers and editors come to Shanghai at one point or another for stories, and they often look to local bloggers as a source of information and referrals.

Whenever I met a writer or editor I asked questions, lots of them, and learned from their years of experience. They were all, without exception, delightful people and happy to pass on their knowledge and expertise to someone way below them. Some became firm friends and continue to be mentors to me, some became my editors. Which leads me to the next point…..


I Tried to Keep My Editors Happy

I was in terrified awe of some of the editors I met, but once I got to know them I realized they all wanted one thing from their freelancers: to make their busy and stressful lives easier, not more difficult. 
All editors want articles that are on time, come close to the specified word count, and have been edited for spelling and grammatical errors. It sounds basic, but I heard editors so often complain about freelancers who turned in 3000 words for a 750 word piece they ‘couldn’t trim’, or had to be chased for weeks past deadline and then turned in nothing publishable.

As The Grumpy Traveller (freelance travel journalist David Whitley) notes, editors will take reliability over brilliance almost every time.

I Kept My Day Job

Let’s be perfectly frank here – writing is possibly one of the most difficult ways on the planet to make a living. If you break it down to an hourly pay scale, you’d be fiscally better off working in a supermarket – so if your day job pays better than supermarket wages, keep it. At least until your fifth novel goes gangbusters and makes you super, super rich.
As a day job it’s hard to better working in Emergency Medicine – if you happen to have done six years of medical school and six years of specialist training that is. The hours are flexible, it pays pretty well and you’re often free when everyone else is at work – perfect conditions for getting a lot of writing done.

I Learnt Another Skill

I took up photography for the creative enjoyment when I arrived in Shanghai, but it gradually became a marketable skill I could offer editors.

Before print publishing was decimated by online media, magazines would rarely dream of hiring the same person to write and photograph a feature. But in these days of tight budgets and major online competition, being able to offer editors a package of writing and photography means I can command a higher fee than for the writing alone, and may mean the difference between an editor choosing my pitch over someone else’s.

Obviously I’m not talking about National Geographic, but about magazines who need good quality photography to illustrate a story. I have always provided my own images for the stories I write, which means I also have more input into which images are chosen. It must be frustrating to write something amazing only to have it illustrated with a stock photography beach shot.

I Kept Writing

Week in, week out, whether I had a deadline or not I kept writing – blog posts, ideas and pitches. I blogged because I love to share stories, and I’ll continue blogging as long as all of you wonderful people keep reading.

Blogging keeps up the habit and practice of writing until it becomes an ingrained part of life. Blogging isn’t my job and I make absolutely no money from it, but it has given me the freedom and space to develop my own writing style and voice, and at the same time has become my online business card and CV rolled into one, a place where potential employers can see what I do for themselves, and contact me easily.

The Future

I hope to be able to continue writing about China for a long time yet – there’s certainly a bottomless pit of stories from my last three years here, most of which are untold.  Life on Nanchang Lu will continue to be around whether I’m in Shanghai or back home in Australia and just dreaming about Shanghai.

And once our travels are over I’m planning to sit down in a quiet place to write a book about them – my biggest writing project yet. I’m terrified and excited by the prospect all at once, but can’t wait to get cracking. I’ll keep you updated with how it’s progressing.

Helpful Resources:

Dianne Jacob’s practical, sensible and extraordinarily helpful book Will Write For Food is like a road map for carving out a food writing career. Although written specifically for food writers her solid advice applies equally to budding writers in any field.

Pitching Errors: How Not to Pitch – from website The Open Notebook  offers valuable advice on what  not to do when pitching a magazine story. They also keep an interesting Pitching Database of successful pitches.

The Single Most Important Piece of Advice for Freelance Writers by The Grumpy Traveller is well written advice that should give all freelancers heart. He also has a useful section on Writing and Media

If you have a story to tell or a tip to share about writing, I’d love to hear it! 

Ten Must Try Foods in Yunnan 十大不容错过的云南美食

Yunnan is mountains and clouds, mists and forests, jungles and wilderness, and a richly textured and coloured human landscape of different ethnic minorities, each with their own strong food culture. Tucked into a corner of China bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnan’s diverse food reflects its topography, unique climate, human population, and the food of its neighbours.
Here are a group of ten foods we enjoyed over the last few weeks as we travelled through Yunnan from the cold and mountainous north, to the subtropical jungles in the south and the exquisite rice terraces landscape of the east. We’ve eaten well, as you can see!
There are some Yunnan foods you won’t find here, either because I’ve written about them before (Crossing the Bridge Noodles, Bugs, Barks and Dragonfly Nymphs and Yunnan Ham) or because I’m writing about them in an upcoming post (like Yunnan’s famed Pu’er tea).
Feast the eyes!
1. Mi xian 米线
A warming bowl of rich stock filled with slippery smooth rice noodles, and topped with a dizzying array of bright bursting tastes: sour, salty, fiery, and bitter. This is mi xian, possibly the most popular street snack in all of Yunnan and one of the few that is eaten in every corner of the province. 
In the last four weeks I’ve tasted ten or fifteen variations of this noodle dish, each particular to a local area and/or a particular street vendor. The essentials are always the same – rice noodles, thick or fine, your choice – served in a broth made of stock, along with some leafy greens and the addition of various condiments and toppings. 
The condiments might include any or all of the following – pickled beans, chili oil, pork cooked with fermented soybeans, soy sauce, cilantro, finely diced fat pork, fermented chili, hot tomato salsa, or pickled cabbage. In the middle of Yunnan in the small town of Changning, every bowl comes topped with hearty hunks of cold cooked pork and crispy shards of pork crackling, just for something different.

2. Wild Herbs Ye Cai 野菜
When I read ‘fresh wild herbs salad’ on a menu in Lijiang I thought of mint and wild plants. It sounded fresh and delicious and very, very green – just what I was hankering after. When this plate of brown lichen arrived I sent it back to the kitchen, thinking a mistake had been made, where the chef patiently explained to me this was ‘wild herbs’ ye cai 野菜, an all encompassing term apparently meaning ‘anything growing wild in the forest’. 
I’ve since tasted many delicious versions of this salad with frail feathery lichen, mixed with cilantro and mint leaves, a little sharp chili, and a touch of sweet soy, but sadly the bark-like lichen doesn’t improve no matter what you do to it.

3. Sour fish stew 酸汤鱼

The first flavour you recognize is sourness from the fermented chili sauce used, and the sweet fish – then the full force of chili heat sears your lips. After that, you taste little but chili but the texture is sublime – the silky, soft, soothing cubes of fresh tofu and the crunch of scallions. 

4. Roast Tofu 烤豆腐
This Yi lady sits at a low table inside the restaurant with an old wok full of charcoal covered by a grill, carefully turning each of the squares of 五天豆腐 wu tian doufu, five days old and just starting to ferment and soften slightly in the centre, while dry on the outside. 
The outsides begin to brown and soon enough they’re little nutty, crispy balls with soft warm centres, ready to eat, dipped into a sauce made with soy sauce, ground sichuan green pepper, cilantro and pickled chili.
And yes, that’s what she wears to work every day, and no, it’s not for tourists. Beautiful isn’t it?


5. Dai Style Feast 傣族宴会

In southern Yunnan the local people, the Dai,  share much in common with those of northern Thailand and Laos. They love communal eating, hot and sour flavours, and the dishes feature the local fish and a combination of mint, ginger, chilies and sour pickles.
A Dai feast arives all at once, with everything meant to be sampled and shared. Bowls of steamed wild greens and uncooked herbs are served with a choice of four dipping sauces – a mild crushed peanut sauce, a sour pickled chili sauce, a fiery fermented tomato sauce, and a rich, deep, dark sauce made with fermented tofu.
At the centre of the table is a platter of roasted fish and meats, all char-grilled and smoky – sweet slices of barbecued ham, crispy-skinned chicken, fish wrapped in banana leaves, pork and mint sausage, and siced fatty pork. There is a tiny dish of a salty, peppery, spice mixture in which to dip your meat.
There are several hot dishes too – a free-range chicken (tuji 土鸡)cooked in a light broth, and pumpkin leaf shoots in a soup that magically takes away the heat of the chillies.

6. Egg Yolk Fruit 蛋黄果
Yunnan is full of the most unusual foods you won’t find anywhere else in China. I had seen these globe-sized yellow fruits in the markets – bright golden yellow and very soft on the inside, the first mouthful feels just like a bite of soft-boiled egg. 
Your mouth is confused by the texture because the taste doesn’t match – the fruit is a little sweet with a flavour somewhere between sweet roast pumpkin and ripe papaya, but mostly unlike anything else. It goes very well with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

 7. Baba 粑粑
This popular street snack, served hot and wrapped in banana leaf, is chewy, sticky, and sweet.  Circles of purple sticky rice dough are first grilled over charcoal, where they puff up into a ball over the heat and soften, then flattened and filled with dark brown sugar which quickly melts, before being folded or rolled into a neat, sweet package.

8. Fresh Lime juice 柠檬水
In southern Yunnan, neighbouring Burma and Laos, tropical fruit grows abundantly even in winter. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes and passionfruit are served up as juice in tiny streetside juice stalls.
Everyone’s favourite refresher though is ning meng shui 柠檬水 or homemade sweet lime juice. The juice of two or three limes, some sugar syrup, ice and cold water. 

9. Paoluda 泡鲁达
Intriguing and bizarrely addictive, the individual components of paoluda 泡鲁达 don’t sound altogether appetizing: tapioca, sweet condensed milk, black sticky rice, jelly cubes, chunks of dried bread or biscuit and shaved coconut. But this hot weather desert or drink (depending on whether you have it in a bowl or a tall glass with a thick straw) served over ice is surprisingly fabulous.
The locals told me the desert is Burmese in origin, and the name is a pinyinised version of the Indian and Persian drink falooda, which it closely resembles.

10. Sticky Rice Sticks 糯米油条
Small balls of sweetened sticky rice dough are stretched into short lengths before being laid gently in bubbling oil, where they puff and lengthen into a crisp sweet stick with a chewy gooey centre. These nuomi youtiao 糯米油条 (sticky rice oil sticks) are sweeter and lighter than their street food breakfast counterparts, you tiao
I declared them Yunnan’s version of the donut, minus the cinnamon.

Travels Round China by Food:

All Smoke, No Lava: Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山公园

Ever since the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii and saw volcanoes I’ve wanted to see a real volcano too, glowing with lava and occasionally letting off spurts of sulphurous steam. Like Indianna Jones faced with the Temple of Doom, the thought of a sacrificial pit filled with bubbling lava was very thrilling to my fourteen year-old self, although I wasn’t as keen on the human sacrifice component involved. 

Suffice to say I have a highly romantic and somewhat idealised mental vision of volcanoes, dented somewhat when Mount St Helens erupted, completely lava free, killing fifty seven, and rekindled after recently re-reading Mark Twain’s American travel odyssey Roughing It, with a description of a night-time walk across the three-mile wide crater of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii:
“Under us, and stretching away before us, was a heaving sea of molten fire of seemingly limitless extent. The glare from it was so blinding that it was some time before we could bear to look upon it steadily.
It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden—a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor.”
Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872
“在下面,我们面前是一条绵延至远方的道路,一片起伏的火海看起来没有尽头。耀眼的光芒使人目眩,带我们平稳的看清下面还需要一定的时间。就像是在正午时分直视着太阳一样,除了刺眼的光不是那么白以外。沿着湖岸边不规则的距离都是白热化的烟囱或是中空的鼓形熔岩,四五英尺高,在它们之上是一团团熔岩华丽爆炸的喷雾还有像闪烁发光的珠宝一般,一些是白的,一些是红的,还有一些是金色的一连串的爆炸,发出的无与伦比的光彩吸引着你的眼球。” 马克吐温艰难岁月1872

So after hearing that western Yunnan is home to China’s own volcano cluster, we took an almighty detour towards the Myanmar border to the centre of the action at the Tengchong Volcano Park, or more properly and Chinglish-ly named the National Geo Park Of Tengchong Volcanic And Geothermal. I guess that covers everything.
My expectations of volcanic satisfaction were high, given that in China everything is big. This was going to be major, and we could also say it was educational and therefore justify the four days’ round trip out of our way to see it.  
The whole Tengchong region is a hotbed of seismic activity with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and reasonably frequent earthquakes. We thought it might be an exciting place to take the kids to maybe see some science in action, but just in case we saw a bit too much science in action we made a family pact not to tell anyone back home until after we were safely somewhere else. Which we now are.
I’d built up quite an exciting level of risk in my mind, imagining walking Twain-style across a just-cooled crater of lava, but my first niggling doubts that the experience might be just slightly underwhelming came when we arrived at the Volcano Park and purchased tickets.
“Would you like tickets to Big Empty Mountain, Small Empty Mountain, Black Empty Mountain or all three?” the ticket seller asked. 
Empty? I thought. Empty? Surely not. 
We opted for Big Empty Mountain, being the biggest, but first took a turn through the Volcano Museum where they displayed an out-of-work geiger counter and a battery-operated volcano replica at least as tall as a person, rivers of red cellophane lava flowing endlessly down its sides. This was going to be GOOD.
Outside beyond the impressive five flagpoles Big Empty Mountain looked decidedly small up close, so I checked the map just in case we had detoured to Small Empty Mountain by mistake. We hadn’t, because the flat tree-covered hillock off to our right was, in fact, Small Empty Mountain, and Big Empty Mountain was dead ahead.

“你想要去大空山小空山, 黑空山或者包含三种的门票吗?” 卖票人询问.
空的? 我想了一下. 空的? 当然不要了.
Big Empty Mountain. Be very afraid.

The climb up Big Empty Mountain’s 648 stairs was just the thing for building anticipation of what a real volcano crater would look like. Never mind that the volcano itself was small. The crater would be black. Crusted with ancient lava. Perhaps occasional little puffs of high-pressure steam. Maybe.

Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the top to find this:


Possibly the boring-est photo of a volcano ever taken. Ever.

At least the view from the top was lovely, and for a very brief minute we were able to convince the kids that the far off hill was smoking, until the cloud moved and destroyed that illusion.

I asked the girls how they thought it might have been better.

The older one favoured a scorched earth approach to volcano improvement:

“They should have taken away all the trees and grass so it looked more like a real volcano” (volcanoes in her mind being blackened cones of rock glowing red from within).

The younger one felt some lava inside the crater would have been better than “a bunch of trees” or failing that “at least a lake you could swim in”.

In summary, they named it a “spectacular disappointment” and didn’t even stop to look at the lava souvenirs carved into fish shapes, something they may one day regret.


The Sea of Heat 热海
Which is how we ended up later that day at the fabled Tengchong Sea of Heat, acres of boiling waters, geysers, bubbling mud and noxious gases. At least, that’s what we all thought it should have. We did know there was an outdoor swimming pool heated with therapeutic underground spring waters, and if there’s one thing that makes up for pretty much any disappointment when you’re a child, it’s the thought of splashing around in a swimming pool for a few hours.

We spent an hour searching through the campervan’s dozen or more cupboards for everyone’s swimming costumes, unworn since the beach on Lian Island, packed them into a bag along with changes of clothes and hairbrushes, and fought our way to the ticket office through a hundred tour buses and a hundred ladies selling eggs wrapped in raffia in the carpark. Why eggs? We had no idea.

The smiling ladies behind the vast ticket counter asked whether we wanted to see everything in the Sea of Heat, or just a select few things like the Boiling Cauldron and the Sea of Pearls.

“We just want to go swimming actually” we said.

“OK, so altogether that’s one thousand and seventy two yuan” she told me.

I handed her a one hundred yuan note, thinking she’d said seventy two yuan.

“No, no, a thousand and seventy two yuan. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan each person” she replied. That’s close to a hundred and eighty dollars. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan is the same price you would pay for dinner for ten in a local restaurant, or a room in a 4 star Chinese hotel.

At this point, expensive disappointing volcano behind us and promise of swimming rapidly evaporating before us, I became one of those tourists. The one who can’t believe how expensive everything is. The one who has to make her point known to the poor dummy manning the ticket desk, the same dummy with no say over the obscene prices charged by private enterprises who have bribed their way into running a business inside a national park.

“268 yuan? Why is it so expensive?”

“It’s very, very good.”

“Can you sleep there overnight?”


“Do you get breakfast, lunch and dinner for free?”

“No, of course..”

“So HOW can you justify charging 268 yuan to go swimming??”

“It’s very good. The waters are very steamy.”

My husband gently pulled my elbow. “Let’s just pay to see the hot springs, how about that?”

事实上我们只是 “来游泳的” 我们说.

我给了她一张一百的, 想她还会说还有七十二元




So we paid the relatively paltry sum of forty dollars to see the Boiling Cauldron, an impressively scalding pool of sulfur-bubbling water where suddenly eggs wrapped in raffia made perfect sense. Why just look at a pool of boiling volcanic water when you could cook stuff in it? Genius.

The cheapskates who had brought eggs in from the carpark were relegated to a simmering puddle in a far corner, away from those who could afford to pay the premium price charged by yet another private enterprise for the privilege of having their eggs (and peanuts and potatoes) cooked in the actual Boiling Cauldron.

At that point I could feel the familiar buzz of a bee in my bonnet but thankfully kept it to myself. We had all paid the same entry price, and yet we couldn’t all cook our eggs in the Boiling Cauldron, and we couldn’t all enjoy the view from the outdoor seats because those things were all extras run by private companies.

As we walked through the park VIP Beauty Spas and Very Expensive Tea Shops popped up at every turn. I don’t mind paying an entry ticket to see an attraction, far from it, but when most of my path is roped off to permit access only to people who’ve paid VIP prices? It’s just….just….JUST NOT VERY COMMUNIST now is it??


Unfortunately, the best view of this waterfall of boiling water and frog-mouthed geysers was roped off, obstructed by a large tent selling photos of tourists taken in a VIP position with the best view.


And the previously impressive boiling river had been diverted with a very attractive rock wall and pipe to feed the VIP Spa nearby.
之前印象深刻的沸腾河已经被改变了, 变成一个吸引众人的石墙和供养附近水疗的一个管道.
The pavilion and bridge were, unbelievably, Included in The Entry Price. I kept waiting for someone to spring out and charge me for walking on it.
We rounded a corner and there it was, the Unbelievably Expensive Swimming Pool in the midst of a Costly Private Resort, smack bang in the middle of a national park we had all paid to get into. The path through the valley was no longer passable because the resort had requisitioned all the land.
The girls made little conciliatory remarks to make us feel better, like “I bet they wouldn’t even let you play Marco Polo in there” and “people probably spit in the water”. 
We stood on one side of the fence and watched the only two occupants of the pool, men with white towels wrapped around their waists, walk past smoking. 
“You’ve been ripped off!” I wanted to yell at them, and at all the tourists around us. But they were too busy lining up to pay for a laminated copy of their geyser photos. Oh China.

Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山地热国家地质公园
Approximately 25km north of Tengchong just outside Mazhanxiang village.
Admission 60 yuan per person

Sea of Heat 热海
Approximately 10km south of Tengchong
Admission 60 yuan per person for limited access to attractions

Yunnan’s Biggest Market: Yousuo Friday Market 云南最大的集市: 右所周五集市

Every Friday in Yousuo, north of Dali, Yunnan’s biggest, noisiest and liveliest market takes place, spilling across the main road through town and into side streets, lanes, and a vast open area at the foot of the mountains. The local Bai people arrive from nearby farms and villages, baskets on their backs and dressed in their finest to buy and sell goods – livestock, vegetables, embroideries, woven baskets, pots and pans, sweets and tea.

Markets are a peek through the keyhole into another culture and way of life – what people eat, how they do business, how they dress. And markets are full of what the Chinese call renao 热闹, translated literally as ‘heat and noise’ but meaning ‘noisy excitement’ or ‘hubbub’. 

Renao is one of my favourite Chinese words and describes that indefinable atmosphere of all-round enjoyment and festivity that makes a good restaurant great, or a party unmissable. Noise and heat. Bustle and excitement. Crowds and activity. 

I love renao, and would rather visit a local market than a hundred temples, if the truth be known. 

Impressivley well-travelled writer Thoedora Sutcliffe recently wrote about 100 Lessons Learned from 1000 Days of Travel around the world with her son. It’s a great read and a  great list, but Number 3 particularly caught my eye:

3. Big Ticket Sights Are Almost Always Worth It …..if you’re within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and don’t see it, you’ll be kicking yourself for decades.

I mostly agree with her, but if there’s a market within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and I miss it, then I really will kick myself.

So what will you find at Yunnan’s biggest, most renao-ish market? Have a look.




Piglets in baskets: one farmer tried to swap a piglet for our youngest daughter, but we resisted. Just.

Bai women shop with baskets on their backs, straps on their foreheads or over their shoulders. Cane baskets are still the most popular but coloured woven tape baskets are becoming a new trend.
The women favour a sleeveless cobalt blue or red tunic belted with a hand-embroidered sash, and a scarf or flower-embroidered head dress to cover their hair, often with a straw hat perched on top. Those who wear the flower-embroidered head-dresses often cover it with a net scarf to keep it clean in the dust of the marketplace.

Local sweets: peanut brittle, rock sugar, ground sticky rice flavoured with rose water, sesame toffee
本地甜点, 花生太妃糖, 冰糖, 玫瑰味的糯米糖, 还有芝麻太妃糖.

Tricycle truck – slightly larger than a motorbike, holds slightly more than a wheelbarrow. Maximum load seen carried: six people plus a pig and eight chickens.


If you don’t have a tricycle truck you can also carry your chicken purchases like this. Friends have suggested it would be a useful way for carrying unruly small children.

Not everyone wears traditional dress of course

Coolest dude in Yunnan, selling thermoses. Because everyone knows only cool people use thermoses.

云南最酷的人, 都卖热水壶. 因为人人都知道只有很酷的人才会用热水瓶.

Bai woman selling joss papers for burning at the temple.

Yunnan has a unique climate and topography, so you’ll find plenty of unusual foods not seen elsewhere in China
Left: mao doufu – mold fermented tofu  Right: hai cai hua 海菜花 (ottelia accuminata) – a water plant with delicate white flowers that float on the water surface of lakes, the stalks of which are used in cooking.
云南气候和地形都很独特, 所以你能发现很多中国其他地方不会生长的食物.
左: 毛豆腐发霉的一种豆腐
右: 海菜花 (海菜花属一种生长着精美白色小花的水生植物,漂浮在湖水表面,它的茎干可以用来烹饪)

The man who sells everything from his square-metre shop: kitchen scourers, rubber gloves, safety pins, sewing needles, packets of single-use shampoo, zippers, plugs, and a thousand other useful things.

And lastly the street dentist, who for 50 yuan (about $8) will fit you with a shining silver cap for one of your front teeth, on the spot. Without even taking off his sunglasses.

Yousuo Friday Market
Every Friday from early morning until mid-afternoon
Yousuo is on the  G214 about 40km north of Dali, Yunnan
GPS: Lat 26.018064  Long  100.063546 

Heavenly Lugu Lake 泸沽湖

We never intended to go to Lugu Lake, way off our path and straddling the border between Yunnan and Sichuan in China’s remote southwest, but as we travelled south through Sichuan to Leshan, and then Ebian, the smog and smoke that had clung to us since Chengdu cleared and we were suddenly in the midst of glorious autumn countryside, clear blue skies and pine forests, with whitewashed Yi village houses hung with garlands of bright yellow corncobs drying in the sun. It was rural China as I had always hoped it might be, without the belching factories and ugly billboards.

The air smelled of autumn leaves and fir trees and we felt uplifted and relaxed, although the roads under us were bad and getting worse – bitumen giving way to uneven concrete, then cobblestones, and finally dirt. Bits of the road had fallen into the river, and other bits were more holes than road. Driving was like a constant battling obstacle course.


Just 200km from Lijiang and the promise of a warm bed, the dirt gave way to mud as mountain springs washed across the road and left deep mud-filled furrows. There were black pigs and water buffalo wallowing in the road, the mud was so deep in places. We tried but couldn’t get through, and had to detour around Lugu Lake, which turned out to be our luckiest break in ages – climbing up to 2600m through a stunning river valley with cliffs and high waterfalls we arrived at a vast expanse of clear, deep blue water ringed by mountains. It was stunning.

Local legend says the lake was once small and shallow, and in its middle lived a huge fish with his head stuck out of the water. One day a greedy man pulled the fish out of the water to eat it, inadvertently unplugging a hole in the base of the lake from which rushed a flood of underground spring water, and the lake was made.

We stopped by the lake’s edge – the deep blue water was full of mysterious underwater forests we could see clearly below us, and blooms of white water hyacinths floated on top, moored by their long, trailing stems reaching down metres to the lake floor. Villages were clustered around the shore, populated by Yi, Naxi and Mosuo peoples living in log cabins and everywhere were flowers – marigolds, geraniums, azaleas, daisies and deep purple bougainvillea.  

I had sort of forgotten that in some places flowers are grown just because they’re lovely, after living in a country where every last bit of land is dedicated to food production and even the pots on people’s inner city windowsills are used for growing vegetables.

In the far distance was a little temple on a hill, and below us a man rowed a dugout canoe across the lake, gathering wild plants from the water’s edge. 

Before we knew it we had cancelled our three day stay in Lijiang (beautiful, for sure, but we’d been there before) and booked ourselves into a guesthouse in sleepy Dazu village, with a sun-drenched balcony perfect for reading. It would have been even more perfect for drinking a glass of chilled wine, had we been able to get our hands on some.
There’s not really very much to do at Lugu Lake except look at the water, and the sky, and read a few more chapters of your book. If you have a surfeit of energy you can cycle around the lake shores to see other gorgeous villages, or take a dugout canoe trip to one of the small islands while the Mosuo women sing canoeing songs to you. I’ve heard the Mosuo women live in the world’s last fiunctioning matriarchal society, where children take their mother’s name.

We spent three long lazy days swimming, canoeing, cycling and eating, just enjoying the chance to do very little for once. Our guesthouse cooked us farmer food when we were hungry – a whole chicken braised with pickles and potatoes, fried slices of gourd, mountains of rice – or we walked to one of the little restaurants around the shore and ate char-grilled chicken cooked on a spit, or charcoal lake fish sprinkled with spice and salt. 
Sitting together in the sun, my daughter said to me ‘Travelling is great, but it’s not exactly a holiday, is it?’ a distinction I’d never made myself, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she was right. 
Travelling and holidaying are not the same thing. Travelling is often difficult, and tiring, and sometimes just wears you down. Holidaying implies a much more relaxed state of mind and much less attention needed to the issues of roads and maps and food supplies and drinkable water. 
I resolved there and then, when possible, to try and spend more of this last third of our long, long travels holidaying more. Roads and drinkable water permitting. 

Nature Inn, Dazu Village

Lugu Lake 泸沽湖
Entry 80 yuan per person from either Sichuan or Yunnan side, valid for whole lake

Nature Inn 本色客栈
Dazu Village, Lugu Lake, Sichuan
Doubles from 168 yuan/night
+86 18280617758
两人 168/

The trip so far….

Aliens in Ebian 峨边的外国人

‘Are you from Singapore?’ the man at the petrol station asked me.

‘Singapore?’ I said, wondering what part of my fair skin, freckles and light hair looked exactly Singaporean. ‘No, no, Australia. Ao-da-li-ya’
‘Australia!’ he repeated, but mixed up the syllables so that it came out sounding like Italy in Chinese.
‘No, not Italy: yi-da-li, Australia: ao-da-li-ya’ I clarified.

‘Yes! ao-lo-di-yi!’ I’m pretty sure that was an entirely made-up country just for my benefit. Australy. Itstralia.
‘Yes!’ I said, handing over the money. ‘Very big! Not many people!’
Meandering south from Leshan’s Giant Buddha, we entered the long river valley of the Dadu River in southern Sichuan, a place very similar to my standard description of Australia – very big, and not many people, even fewer of whom seemed to have heard of my home country. Perhaps it was my accent.

The area was remote and beautifully wild – tall craggy cliffs rising vertically from the river bed towards the sky, with plummeting narrow waterfalls rushing back down to the river at intervals. In such remote and mountainous country flat land for farming was scarce.


I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that we had covered all of China’s worst roads in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Qinghai. But Sichuan had saved the worst of all for us – a 68km stretch of rocks and mud weaving in and out below the construction of a new riverside highway, alarmingly punctuated now and again by landslides.

The road, if I can truthfully call it that, was only one lane wide, so we drove in a caravan between trucks until there was a slight widening, then stopped so the caravan of trucks and cars travelling in the opposite direction could pass us. The going was painfully slow.

The road also welcomed us with a sign saying:


which we neglected to photograph on the grounds that it might later incriminate us.

‘Are you an alien?’ I asked my husband. 
‘Certainly not!’ he replied. ‘Are you?’
‘No!’ I said, as we both failed to make eye contact with the police patrol parked under the sign.
‘I’m sure they’ll let us know if we’re considered aliens’ we decided, knowing full well we might be turned around at any minute by the men in black. Except turning a campervan around on a single lane mud track when there are sixty impatient trucks banked up in both directions was always going to be tricky. At least, that’s what we were counting on.

That 68km section of road took eight long exhausting hours to traverse, and as you can well imagine there was nowhere to camp that wasn’t already occupied by a construction crew or a broken-down bus.

Amongst all of this, the town of Ebian rose up like an oasis. More accurately, Ebian peered through a dense fog of pollution from the nearby nickel smelters and factories, sitting at a sharp bend in the Dadu River and clinging to the steep slopes of the riverside hills. It twinkled at us in the growing dark, beckoning us to come and find a guest house or hotel, a more attractive option than camping at the petrol station amongst people who confused Italy and Australia.

乐山县:外国人不准进入。” 由于担心事后受到指控,我们没有在路上拍照。

We wound down the steep and twisting road into the centre of town, utterly chaotic with a mayhem of tricycle taxis, blaring music, horns, and bright flashing lights, a place that was rapidly outgrowing itself and hadn’t worked out yet what to do with all the surplus people. 

The surplus people, meanwhile, had suddenly spotted us.

Fifty incredulous faces watched us park, then watched me get out of the campervan to ask about rooms at the tiny hotel across the road.

In the lobby three young women wearing suits were playing on their mobile phones over a scale model of a new Ebian housing development. They looked up in unison and their jaws literally dropped. Perhaps I was an alien after all.

This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the process of registration which involved twenty very interested locals crowding the hotel’s small counter and shooting me with a battery of questions:

‘Where are you from?’
‘What’s your job?’
‘How much do you earn each month?’
‘How come you can speak Chinese?’
‘Are those your children outisde?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She’s from Australia. Monthly income 10,000 renminbi. Two daughters.’

Our passports did the rounds of the crowd.

‘We don’t have any foreigners here!’ the teenage girl manning the desk told me. This reassured me not at all, but as yet the local police had shown no interest in us and we wanted to keep it that way.

For people unaccustomed to aliens, Ebian’s locals were mighty keen to get to know us. A tight crowd followed us around the small night market until we found a restaurant that looked clean and welcoming, but as we sat down the rosy-cheeked waitress took one panicked look at us and ran off, returning five baffling minutes later with the owner, an older man.

‘Hel-lo!’ he said, slow and loud. ‘Speak Chi-nese?’
‘Yes, we can’ I answered, in Chinese, at which the owner turned to the waitress and scolded her for pulling him away from his TV show to come and speak a language to these foreigners she could clearly already speak.
She blushed and giggled and then sat herself down at our table, and in the most incredibly rapid-fire Sichuan dialect said:
‘Ha! I’m-so-relieved-you-speak-Chinese-for-a-minute-there-I-thought-I-wouldn’t-be-able-to-communicate-with-you!! You-can-understand-everything-I’m-saying-right??’
‘So!’ she continued, with scant pause for breath, ‘Where-are-you-from-where-do-you-live-do-you-eat-spicy-food-how-much-do-you-earn?’
‘Can we order some dinner first?’ I asked.
By now, all the other kitchen staff and the owner were also seated at our table, along with their kids, waiting to hear the answer to her questions.
So we ate dinner, and in between bites tried to answer everything they wanted to know – how many square metres our house in Shanghai was, whether we thought Sichuan was better than any other province in China, and why we were able to eat spicy food, despite everything they’d heard to the contrary. 
The next morning, by now familiar with everyone in downtown Ebian, we went for a walk. What I hadn’t noticed in the dark the night before was now obvious. Ebian’s population is about half Yi people, the women wearing intricate beaded headresses and looped plaits. They thought we were incredibly exotic, touching our daughters’ hair and skin, but we felt like very shabbily-dressed…well…aliens. Strangers in a strange land.


For a touch of familiarity we ate breakfast at the same restaurant as the night before, where our rosy-cheeked waitress (above, left) whizzed between tables filling in the other customers on our particulars and answering questions on our behalf. I was ever so grateful.
I never did find out whether we were actually allowed to be in Ebian or not, or why that particular area might have been restricted to us. But should your craft ever land there, a friendly and curious welcome is guaranteed. 


Where is Ebian?
Leshan County
Sichuan Province, China
Practically in the middle really.