The top tip for tea in Chengdu from Tashkent’s tea shop owner Deng had been to go to the People’s Park in the centre of town. He was not wrong.
On a Sunday afternoon the People’s Park is buzzing with bodies; thousands throng there every week just to do their thing, whether that be tai chi line dancing, Chinese opera busking, flower gazing or taking tea.
We enjoyed watching all of this, though only took part in the tea tasting bit.
Mind you, we got a few stares when we arrived in the ‘tea room’ and sat down for a cuppa. I guess they don’t get that many westerners in there, and they were probably intrigued to see how we’d go about drinking our tea.
You might think having a cuppa is something I should know something about. After all, I’ve probably had 10,000 or so cups since I began this tea and coffee blog.
But tea in Chengdu’s People’s Park is just a little bit different.
The menu you get on taking your seat has ten or so teas on it, though none of them looked familiar to me. I plumped for the top one on the list, something called West Lake Tea.
Basically, the waitress (if you can call the lady in overalls who turned up at our table a waitress) chucked a handful of green leaves into a cup, and poured some water from a giant flask over the leaves.
Now that may strike you as pretty normal. But then the problem comes how you manage to drink the tea without a mouthful of swollen green leaves. Not to mention knowing how long to let the tea brew.
I mean, I’m not a big fan of green tea at the best of times, but I’m willing to give most tea things a go, so after what felt like a suitable number of minutes, I tried to have a sip. Hmmm, it tasted more like a cup of warm water in which some lawn grass cuttings had been sitting.
This was not my favourite cuppa in the world, and those green leaves were making a beeline for my mouth.
That’s when I realised the lid-looking piece of crockery might just have those little dimples in it on purpose – maybe they weren’t chips in the china. Maybe you were actually supposed to sip the tea through the little gap they left if you turned the lid upside down and placed it over the tea.
That did kind of work and made the tea palatable, though I think I’d choose another tea if I went there again.
Having said all that, the overall experience is fantastic.
The tea garden is packed with people sipping tea in between naps, while reading a novel, having a good old natter and a laugh with friends or playing a lively game of mah-jong.
And that big flask of water is all you need to refill and keep that cuppa going for hours, judging by the people around us.
All the travel guidebooks suggest Chengdu is packed full of tea houses.
The trouble we had was finding them. Without a good map it’s pretty hard to find anywhere, even with an address. And often we’d walk for hours (once we had a city map) only to find the tea room had closed down or was in fact a restaurant which also did teas.
So we didn’t come away from Chengdu with the best impression of its tea scene.
But we did also find a whole run of tea shops near Fancao Street (in the south of the city).
This felt like a more organised collection of People’s Park-type tea gardens, with wicker chairs where people sat to while away an afternoon at the mah-jong table or to have a siesta with a flask of hot water by their side.
It’s a nice concept, though lacking in something to nibble (or cake to eat) along with the tea for our liking.
Chengdu certainly has hundreds of tea shops, but most of these are shops, places where you sample and buy tea rather than somewhere to socialise.
The People’s Park is a great place, though, and an insight into the real China we had come to see. I’d just steer clear of that West Lake tea in future…
While in Chengdu, we also took a day trip to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, and the other wonders of the Buddhist world around him.
There is a tea house of sorts right by the big Buddha’s head, and it had a terrace with fabulous views over the river below.
We saw one couple sipping tea there, so sat at the next table to wait.
And, boy, did we wait. At first we were told by the other couple that the waitress had gone to the toilet and would be five minutes. Ten minutes later they shouted downstairs to get some attention, and were told she’d be another ten minutes. The other couple actually got so embarrassed on our behalf that they offered us some of their own tea while we waited…
When we’d been there 25 minutes and were about to leave, a rather sullen young woman came back (clearly from her lunch break) and rather grudgingly brought us what was actually a delicious chrysanthemum tea.
But instead of ‘sorry for the delay’ or ‘sorry I was at my lunch break’ (which was pretty extraordinary for a venue with only one member of staff), her first words were ‘you pay now’, and not even a smile with it.
So go to this tea house by all means, but expect possibly the worst service I have ever experienced in four years of reviewing. Having said that, the tea was good and the view tremendous.
But that’s China…