I woke up this morning with no idea of the adventure ahead of me.  I hadn’t planned on going sightseeing, but when I strolled down to the lobby of the hotel, a group of my friends were planning a trip to China’s national tea museum, and then they were heading to a teahouse for the real experience.  It sounded to me like a great day out, so I decided to join them.  We grabbed two brochures from the front desk with the tea museum written in Chinese characters so we could show each of our two cab drivers where to go.  However, somehow in the confusion of who was going with who, both people with the brochures ended up in the same cab.  I climbed in the cab without the brochure; feeling pretty confident nonetheless because we had showed the driver where we wanted to go and he seemed to be clear on our destination.         

Well, about 5 minutes into the drive the driver turns over his shoulder to us and says, “Gobbldy goobily gook shu,” and I’m pretty sure that he’s lost.  We had absolutely nothing with us that would even suggest where we wanted to go, so we began playing a grand ole game of charades with the taxi driver.  We pantomimed drinking tea and looking at paintings in a museum, but eventually it became clear we weren’t getting through to the driver, and our crazy gestures had him focusing far too much on the backseat, and not enough on the traffic in front of our vehicle.  In defeat, we decided to just enjoy the drive and keep our eyes peeled for anything resembling the museum.  We drove for quite a while through 4 long tunnels and out into the country.  Our spirits heightened as we passed fields and fields of what looked like tea plants.  We must be close, we thought to ourselves.          


After what seemed like a few tense hours, but what was really only about 15 minutes, we pulled over on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.  There were tea fields to our left and a few houses on our right.  Within a few seconds, several woman arrived at our car door, and began shouting “Cha” (tea!) and pointing up to the upper level of the houses.  At this point we realize we’ve been scammed, and my brave friend Christine began to yell at the cabby and shake her finger in his direction.

“You screwed up,” she scolded.  “And you know it!”  The cabby looked away sheepishly and pretended he didn’t know what she was saying, although I’m pretty sure her body language and the look on her face were verily universal.            

Finally, after lots of gestures and more screaming, we give up and follow the woman upstairs.  We enter what is clearly her home, and see a table in the corner occupied by several Chinese men smoking and playing some chess game.  The woman ushers us to the other table in the room and we reluctantly sit down.  The cabby, who has followed us up the stairs, stands outside this little room on the balcony jabbering on his phone, while simultaneously jabbering to the woman who has “kindly” invited us into her home.  She scurries into another room and returns moments later with two trash bags that she plops on the table in front of us.  She then encourages us to smell the contents of the bags, dried leaves that resemble and smell an awful lot like rotten marijuana.  Moments later she again appears with glasses and hot water and proceeds to fill the glasses with teaspoons of the garbage bags contents and water.  She then stands and stares at us, apparently waiting for us to consume our mystery drinks.            


Well, when in China…Just kidding, mom!  Well, I did take a small sip to be polite…not so tasty.  At this point we had decided to accept defeat and retreat back to our hotel.  Chris showed the driver the hotel’s card, and explained in large gestures that we wanted to go back.  As we got up, the women went into a frenzy, and we began to understand that they expected us to pay for the “tea” that we hadn’t even really touched.            

One of them wrote something down on a blank sheet of paper in Chinese characters, Tiffany gestured that she couldn’t read what the woman had written.  So, the woman wrote down the same phrase in pinyin.  Tiffany gestured, “closer, but I still don’t have a clue.”  Frustrated, she then wrote below the pinyin, “I don’t understand,” in English.  Clearly we weren’t getting anywhere.  In the end, we each threw down 5 ding-dongs and walked out.  There was no frenzy, so we figured we had paid our debt.            

After about 5 minutes of riding in the cab, Tiffany exclaimed, “Hey, that’s the tea museum” as we drove by a large sign, saying just that.  We motioned for the cabby to stop.  Chris and I left the cab a bit perturbed without paying, but Tiffany, bless her, said she just couldn’t do it, and paid the jerk.           

Once we entered the museum, we played our roles as clueless tourists by looking around in confusion, searching for anything written in English, or anyone who could speak English.  This went on for a few minutes until a small, Chinese teenage boy approached us and said meekly, “My name is Ken, I will be your guide.”           

Ken was a Godsend.  We told him about our adventure thus far, and he confirmed that we were indeed ripped off by our shady taxi driver (apparently many of them make deals with the local tea farmers who offer a cut of their profits if they drive the gullible tourists to their local farms to buy their wares).  He then acted as our guide for the entire museum.  He certainly had a wealth of knowledge for a mere tenth grade student.  His English was miles better than the botched translations on the museum plaques, which we read anyway for entertainment.  One sign explained the medicinal qualities of tea.  According to it, tea could cure ailments such as “detoxifying, sobering up, dispelling grease, farting, and anti-mutation.”  This information was located alongside an old man, resembling Santa Clause gleefully enjoying a thimble-sized cup of tea.            


The museum also featured a large artistic tea brick composed of 2000kg of fresh tealeaves, which again resembled marijuana.  I think we discovered the contents of our mystery glasses from earlier that day.  Ken told us that this brick was made of Jingling leaves, which are grown locally and produce the Jingling tea for which the area is renowned.           


Ken informed us that the museum was built in 1987 in the hopes of informing visitors of the great importance tea holds in Chinese culture.  The Chinese not only drink tea to cure ailments, but also believe tea infuses it’s drinker with honesty. Chris told Ken that drinking alcohol has the same effect.  Despite his excellent grasp of the English language, I’m not sure he understood the joke.            

When our personal tour was finished, we had Ken write down the Chinese translation for a teahouse near the West Lake we had found in a pamphlet at the front desk of our hotel.            

“I am going home now, if you want to go on the bus with me, I can show you,” he said.  We excitedly accepted his offer, to which he said, “Now, when I get off the bus, you’ll get on either 1 or 2 and ride until just before the end of the route.  Then you get on bus 1,3 and get off once you’ve passed three gardens.  From there you get on bus….”  He continued to ramble off directions, as we looked increasingly more confused.            

“We’ll just take a taxi,” I said, cutting him off mid direction.  “Thank you so much for your help and the tour.  You’re very kind.”           

“It was my pleasure,” he said with a smile, and then continued on down the road under his umbrella towards the bus stop.            

After a long day full of learning (both willingly and unwillingly) about the Chinese tea culture, it was definitely nice to sit down with some good food, and actually enjoy the drink we had heard so much about.  We followed the locals’ example by loafing in the teahouse for a good two hours, refilling our glass tea cups, eating heartily from the buffet and enjoying each other’s company.  It was a perfect end to a perfectly “expect the unexpected” day in China.