Making it down the mountain was much easier than climbing up since I was able to easily find the actual trail. The village seemed still and quiet as I walked its dirt lanes. I poked my head into the compound where we had used the family’s outhouse. Now up and preparing the food in the yard, I encountered the wife who had been sleeping. In gesture and my spastically with my limited vocab I got her attention such that she ran to get her husband, I think more out of concern than comprehension. Glad to see me again, I was able to convey my thanks at his graciousness before I walked on downhill to the car. Zhao was leaning on the hood, smoking and tapping his foot when I walked up; Michele was sitting in the car with the door ajar. He smiled broadly at me, crushed his cig under his other foot and we were off.
He made a few calls as we left the village, obviously now able to plan his next move upon our return to the city. Our level of trust and communication had dramatically increased between us. I was able to convey that we didn’t want to return to the hotel. I gave him the option of 798 the art district or the Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan shrine in town and one of the spots identified by Alan, Dalia’s friend back in NY. He chose the latter based upon the geography. In reality, 798 would have been more practical once we began to hit rush hour. Michele dozed, while Mr. Eveready, aka me, fixated on the buildings and vistas from the shotgun seat. Arriving at our next destination and a parting of the ways, Zhao shook both of our hands and then briefly embraced me, looking into my eyes as we both stumbled out thank yous and I realized the level of trust we had developed with each other.
Air pollution and dusk had begun to cloak the Lama Temple in another layer of mystery. Unfortunately, with the traffic we arrived moments before its closing hour. This was the only opportunity to experience it on this 3 day moment in Beijing. We walked around t compound and got a sense of the physical beauty of this shrine to the Tibetans, now excommunicated from the Chinese cosmology. The vibrant colors though weathered stood out in the half light with an ethereal glow. Stoic stone sentinels describing lions and dragons were as effective as the numerous military guards shepherding visitors towards the gate as they joked about their evening plans.
Back onto the street after just a tease of a visit, we crossed the boulevard to enter the hǔtong, vestigial alleyway communities, set on a oppositional axis as the street grid for better Feung Shui; a remnant of the TARTARS (?) existence/destruction of Beijing centuries earlier. The hǔtongs are an essential feature of Beijing’s architecture just as their cousins, lítongs characterize Shanghai’s. The dense single story rabbit warren network of homes, single item shops, teahouses, intermittent communal bathrooms, and home clusters reminded me of the Anastazi dwellings in New Mexico. Similar to those ancient Indigenous housing developments, these homes appeared to force residents to walk through each others’ rooms to arrive at their own. Being visual guests not invited ones; this conjecture cannot be confirmed without an architectural history guide. I saw a sign and asked Michele if she would like tea at the teahouse indicated in the crude sign. We entered deeper into the angular maze, volunteer Skinner subjects looking for our reward. Arriving at the brick framed doorway we knocked on the steel door. A young woman, possibly 16, slightly shy possibly due to my hair or our foreignness beckoned us in. My dreadlocks created instant admiration, wonder and eternal giggles with palms fighting to silence the betrayals of loose mouths. Pulling out my blue school notebook, I began to string together my limited vocabulary into a marginally coherent sentence. Crossing the threshold, I realized that this home must have been built for a higher class family. The doorway opened onto a central compound with many rooms and doorways opening up onto this yard. Some of the rooms had windows to view the activity in the yard. Even in this cold a clothesline was strung off to our right and a few garments hung in the dim light of dusk. Our hostess pointed to our left, and another open doorway. Through the windowless framed openings, I saw a woman sitting reading, no watching TV; probably the mother, and another young girl sitting quietly in the central room. There were three adjoining rooms. We were led into the farthest one, past an antique chiffrobe that was later described as Ming dynasty. Two love seat sized wooden sofas sat at angles to each other with one chair near the entryway. Pillows covered in a variety of traditional woven textiles, a few antiques and various draperies, a low wooden table, hangings and art objects decorated this salon. She indicated for us to take a seat, while she made ready for tea. She gathered the implements as we took turns in the bathroom, those indoor outhouses, with a ridged white porcelain square spot to squat and do your business, fully plumbed and thus not as primitive as the outdoor variety.
We were told her name, and that of her sister, but as with many exchanges in China, if I didn’t write down the names, and attempt a phonetic spelling all the data was forgotten. Our teen hostess had placed a carved wooden raised rectangular platter on the low table that sat between the love seats. On the platter she set a large ceramic tray with one inch high sides, a highball glass with an herb tea that Michele had requested after reading the menu. For my choice she brought out a Yi Ching pot, the regional ceramics from Southwestern China whose traditions and artistry dated to 500A.D. with myths and monks to add drama. A large bowl, a few cocktail sized napkins, two of the dollhouse like cups, a wooden cylindrical stand filled with half a dozen wooden implements and a crude funnel , all in the same wood as their container; a small tin of the Taiwanese Oolong I had requested and a small, clear glass pitcher. Her sister came in with an oversized kettle steaming straight off the brazier, whose fire smelled of coal.
First she poured boiling water into the bowl and placed her pitcher and our tea cups and saucers into the bowl, showing us how to gently spin them around on all sides, pseudo sterilizing them before placing them in front of us. Next she did the same with the teapot. Pulling out a 5 inch shovel-like tool from the wooden container, she dug into one of the two tea canisters to gather the leaves. The first batch went into Michele’s highball glass, and the second into the teapot. She filled the waiting pot, and then quickly poured water in it to fill it, immediately pouring the tea water into the bowl. This was the washing of the tea, blooming the leaves slightly and I assume pulling out any dust or unwanted sediment. She filled the pot again, replaced the lid and then poured boiling water overtop of the pot to heat it equally inside and out. She explained in simple sentences that this insured an even brew. Waiting just a moment for the steep before placing the wooden funnel over the glass canister she produced a metal screen filter that I hadn’t noticed and setting on top of the funnel. She poured the tea into the pitcher and took another wooden tool out to stir it gently, homogenizing or blending the yellow amber liqueur in the pitcher. She quickly removed her tools and poured the contents of the pitcher into our cups. There would be enough for a second cup. We were instructed to smell the aromas and drink tea. Her sister entered with a small tray of snacks, coconut teacakes, our first of many iterations of coconut confections, savory dumplings one set filled with sweet bean paste and the other with finely chopped vegetables. Giddily we ate and drank our yumcha. Michele alternated between her glassful of tea, and the tiny cups. The herb studded black tea had become slightly bitter, and after a few moments, she pushed it aside. This process was repeated five times. We were told that generally six was the maximum amount of brews from one pot. Looking into the pot before the second replenishment, we noticed that the unfurled leaves tightly filled the pot, insuring that the hot water bath would produce a quick full bodied brew. Each potful had slightly different taste profiles. She indicated that with this tea she best liked the third steep. I was torn between the first and second versions. I noticed that the liquor color changed with each successive brew,. She was careful to observe the color before the final pour into the pitcher. The steeps became longer in the later brews. The aromas and taste profiles morphed on the tongue, throat and gums, yielding sweetness and tannins in different places from each pitcher or potful. The girls’ mother had stopped her TV and what looked like accounting briefly to see that we were content. I chose that moment to stand and look around the compound. Michele said she had done the same as she had exited the bathroom, while standing at the sink and washing her hands in cool water. Unheated water flowed from the taps of our few home based experiences in Beijing.
Once we were done, we looked more closely at the furnishings, settled our bill, trying to accurately estimate the exchange rate and need to add a tip or not. The second sister I realized now was older, and that she was probably quite adept at managing this family cottage business. So, our hostess her kid-sister was being evaluated for her capabilities as a practitioner and hostess of tea. The two girls showed us pots and tea that they had for sale as well as describing a few of the antiques in simple phrases. The opportunity to practice their English with native speakers by their admission appeared to be a necessary and slightly uncommon event. We made our way out to the main lane, stopping for directions and ending up buying a/2 caddie or probably 4-6 oz of tea at a small dimly lit teashop before happening on a small museum-like antique store of sculpture, scrolls and carvings. Not wanting to dwell in one place we exited onto the side street that had been our way into the hǔtong from the exterior neighborhood. A young man, I guessed in his late teens manned a pushcart that looked like a tin or corroded steel file with cylindrical drawers. Pulling one open, I saw the fire that he used to roast the bright yellow or eggplant colored sweet potatoes that he sold by weight. I bought one for 7 yuan, about $1 dollar, and easily a pound in weight. He offered to put it back in its drawer to make it piping hot for me. Holding the tough skin helped my hands fight the chill I had forgotten existed during our teatime. I was in. Sweet potatoes and yams are a ‘go to’ mainstay snack for me. My memory fell right into Ralph Ellison’s Harlem sweet potato vendor story captured in Invisible Man and the recent excerpt I had read from Damian’s dissertation of a Mrs. ______, who had moved up north in the early Harlem Renaissance amassing a fortune off selling hot baked yams also in Harlem. Would this man realize some measure of success with his craft, or just eke by? As I walked and ate, I hoped that his entrepreneurship would be fruitful. For the next hour we walked in and out of several small shops which straddled the perimeter of the hǔtong and the main thoroughfare. These one room businesses sold simple foodstuffs, knickknacks, jade, incense, carved Buddahs, antiques, jewelry and New Year’s accoutrements; fireworks, red envelopes, posters and paper dragons. Each peddling a single item.
Trying to shoot a few shots in the half life, we were now quite exhausted and I descended onto the shoulder of the roadway, looking to signal a taxi in the bumper to bumper traffic making its way home, out or somewhere. Luckily, I had learned to always leave the hotel with a note in character detailing our destination. It took time to find a ride, but we made it home to rest before considering dinner. Life is good. I realized that the idea of going to the Peking Opera was a pipedream, and in fact Michele got home and crashed while I wrote, sauna-ed and ended up eating upscale Hainanese Chicken in the hotel restaurant. I learned that the night crew, menu options and service standards were much more limited than at breakfast.