Something marvellous is unfolding inside the delicate glass teapot. I watch mesmerised as the tightly rolled ball of tea leaves slowly opens to reveal a golden yellow flower. This, the Princess Flower Tea, is my tea of choice when visiting the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney.
Fast forward Beijing, the day before I board the trans-Mongolian train. Imagining myself staring out the train window at the vast Mongolian plains and Siberian birch forests while sipping an exotic Chinese tea, I’m making an excursion to Maliandao Street. Also known as Tea Street, this is where I hope to buy some ‘flower tea’ for the train.
Looking for Tea Street in Beijing
The receptionist at our hotel gives us a map on which she has circled the Subway station she says is close to Tea Street. She directs us to the station nearest to the hotel and explains how to purchase a day ticket for the subway.
It’s all so easy. Buying the ticket, catching the subway, counting the stations to the circle indicated on our map and climbing the concrete stairs up to the street. It’s hot and humid as we emerge onto the busy thoroughfare.
We check the map and look around trying to match our map with our surroundings. We walk first one way and then another. Something is not right. We need help.
A group of women stand expectantly behind a table loaded with brochures and other promotional products. Perhaps they can point us in the right direction. The problem is that our only common language is a smile and hand signals and our map and destination are printed in English.
After an elaborate pantomime, lots of finger pointing to the map and numerous repetitions of the word “cha”, the women appear to understand where we want to go. They nod, and chat among themselves discussing how we can get there.
The nominated spokesperson for the group, consults a map on her phone and bus timetables. She takes a leaflet off the table and writes down a few numbers, pointing to the nearby bus station.
Taking the Comfortable Route
She is recommending that we take the bus. This is far more complicated than the subway and a step too far for us. We may catch the right bus, but how will we know where to get off?
Indicating that we prefer to travel on the subway prompts more animated discussion between the women, and finally there’s a solution. Someone rummages amongst the brochures on the table and triumphantly pulls out a subway map. Circling Wanzi Station, they point to the nearby subway, and indicate the number of stops.
It’s smiles all round as we thank them and say goodbye and head to the subway.
Maliandao (Known as Tea Street)
Emerging from Wanzi Station, it’s clear that this time we’re in the right place. Besides numerous tea shops on either side of Maliandao Street, an arch stretched over the multi-laned road advertises “Teajoy Market”.
All the Tea in China
We wander into one of the shops, taking in the shelves groaning with jars and boxes of numerous tea varieties presented in a range of different ways. The phrase “all the tea in China” comes to mind.
Loose leaf teas of varied textures and colours stand in clear glass jars. Balls and cubes of tea wrapped in different coloured foil fill other jars. There’s gold, red, and silver foil as well as purple, pink and blue. If I didn’t know better, I’d think these coloured treats were specialty chocolates.
Discs of dried tea, wrapped in a waxy type of paper sit on another shelf one on top of the other, the size and shape of thick pancakes. There are canisters of tea and calico bags of tea.
Looking for ‘Flower Tea’
Language difficulties complicate things again. I try explaining that I’m looking for flower tea, “one that opens up when hot water is poured on it”. No wonder the man looks confused. I only recently discovered that there are many different flower teas and he has no idea which one I want.
We leave with a bag of gold foil wrapped balls, not quite sure what we have bought, but eager to unwrap the foil, pop the ball of tea into a cup and watch to see what happens.
Wandering down Tea Street, we pass racks of brightly coloured bicycles, part of a bike share system, one that never seemed to work well in Australia. Two women sit on low plastic chairs beside the road passing the time of day. Caged balconies of nearby apartments overhang the pavement.
Tasting the Tea
In another tea shop, tea paraphernalia is set out on a little tray on the counter. We sit down to sample the full tea experience. First a large spoon of loose-leaf tea is poured into the pot. The assistant adds hot water and waits for it to draw. Then she pours the clear gold liquid into the little tea cups. It’s a white peony tea, and my husband is sold. We walk out with another bag to take on our trans Mongolian journey.
Teajoy Market Beijing
Finally, we walk into the multistorey Teajoy Market. Quite different from the shops lining the road, the smaller tea shops on the ground floor of Teajoy are more like large cubicles, sparkling under bright fluorescent lights.
Some sell tea, while others specialise in tea sets and other goods related to the preparation, presentation and drinking of tea.
Up the escalators, fine china tea sets and heavier earthenware sets are laid out on counters. On the third floor, all the female assistants are dressed in white. I am unable to discover why, but guess that customers here are VIPs.
Surprisingly the next floor, has nothing to do with tea. Cubicle after cubicle sells different brands of camera gear. This is a camera warehouse like no other and one not known to many travellers.
The End Result
While my gold wrapped flower tea didn’t quite live up to the Princess Flower Tea of the White Rabbit Gallery, the white peony tea my husband bought was a real hit. I really must find a supplier here in Sydney.