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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Herbs, tea, soup and monks-a Chinese experience

Herbs, tea, soup and monks-a Chinese experience

Herbs, tea, soup and monks-a Chinese experience

Cross the bridge: A must-see spot outside Lijiang, Yunnan, is the Black Dragon Pool. Photo by Chris/Wikimedia Commons.Premium

Cross the bridge: A must-see spot outside Lijiang, Yunnan, is the Black Dragon Pool. Photo by Chris/Wikimedia Commons.

For my first trip to China some time ago, I chose not Beijing or Shanghai, but Yunnan. As a student of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I was more interested in China’s herbs and healing traditions than Shanghai’s infrastructure buzz or Beijing’s vaunted economic policies. Yunnan, I believed, was where Chinese traditions began and where its ferocious ambition came to stillness. It is the old China that exists in Bette Bao Lord’s books and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Are you a checklist traveller or an experience seeker? Most of us do both—sometimes ticking off tourism hot spots (Sistine Chapel: check; Mona Lisa: check; Angkor Wat: check; Taj Mahal: check) and other times seeking adventure and experiences. I am less interested in checklists than experiences, hence my interest in Yunnan.

Cross the bridge: A must-see spot outside Lijiang, Yunnan, is the Black Dragon Pool. Photo by Chris/Wikimedia Commons.

At an elevation of 6,000ft, Kunming, the capital, has the feel of a frontier town. Mist hangs over Green Lake Park at the city’s centre. Weeping willows border walkways, bringing Chinese ink paintings to life. My guide, Ming, takes me to the herb market. Yunnan’s salubrious climate is the source of prized Chinese herbs: cordyceps, tian ma, ginseng and a variety of mushrooms. In one herb shop, I pay a small tip to the in-house physician, who feels my pulse and prescribes a few herbs, all piled right outside in wooden barrels. Yunnani herbs aren’t cheap but the sight of locals swarming through the aisles, forking out $25 (around Rs1,275) for a small bag of herbs, is reassuring. Ming says he makes a soup with cordyceps—fungus—every month to improve his blood circulation. His wife uses tian ma for all “women’s diseases", he says.

At the Yum Cha tea room across town, a pretty Yi tribal girl clad in red introduces herself as a sophomore in the department of tea science at Yunnan Agricultural University and tells me the many benefits of tea. Chinese talk about tea the way the French talk about wine. The girl hands me a cup of “monkey-picking" tea, so named because, according to legend, monkeys used to pick tea from high branches and brought them to their masters. “Hold it in your palm, circle it around and inhale its aroma," she commands. “Take a sip and hold it in your mouth for the bouquet to develop. Then swallow it."

We sample a few more teas—jasmine, green tea and oolong. Finally, she hands me what she calls “the king of teas". Smoky in flavour and packed like a tea cake, pu’er tea is called a “drinkable antique" in Yunnan: It costs more as it gets older. It used to be sent on mule caravans to Tibet, where it was prized as a delicacy. Chinese people use it as a digestive and for weight loss, drinking four cups of pu’er tea after dinner. If it makes you fart, the girl says with a giggle, the tea is of good quality. I drink. Something happens. The tea is good.

To reap a reward from a journey, there has to be a link to life back home. If you are learning a language, you might consider visiting the country where it is spoken. Recently, I encountered an Indian-American man who had been learning Kathak for many years in the US. He visited India with his MBA class and gave his first Kathak performance in the country of its origin. It made the journey meaningful, he said. Leu Chong Chiang Lee, as the Chinese proverb goes: The journey is the reward. I found this by typing “journey is the reward" in Google Translate and got the Chinese phrase.

Chinese phrases are both poetic and evocative. Outside Lijiang, arguably the prettiest town in all of China, exists the Black Dragon Pool and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. On the bus ride from Lijiang to Shangri-La on the Tibetan border are a series of Naxi tribal villages with neat spare homes surrounded by sunflowers and paddy fields. At lunch, a “homestay" lays out a delicious vegetarian lunch, with a vegetarian version of “Crossing the bridge" noodles, Yunnan’s signature dish. The story goes that a scholar’s wife used to get him soup every day, but it would turn cold by the time she crossed a bridge. Then she figured out that if she carried plain chicken soup with an insulating layer of chicken grease, it would remain hot till she reached her husband. From that day, she carried very thinly sliced meat and vegetables in a separate container. She mixed the meat, vegetables and noodles on site and served her husband piping hot soup. My vegetarian version is delicious with crunchy bok choy, julienned beans, carrots, all in a hot comforting stock.

My final day in Yunnan is at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. Buddhist prayer flags, wooden prayer wheels and colourful frescoes fill the soaring space, which dates back to the 17th century. In its heyday, it used to house over 2,000 monks and is the largest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. A stream of Chinese devotees come in, carrying joss sticks and incense, and offer prayers kneeling down. An old monk sits near the giant statue of the Buddha and hands out beaded prayer bracelets. I pick up one and sit in cross-legged quietness. The next day will take me all the way down to the plains, an arduous 9-hour drive. But for now, I listen to a roomful of Buddhist monks chanting and enter that dream-like state between sleep and awakening. Perhaps this is what meditation achieves: Be here now. The journey is the reward.

Shoba Narayan watches Kung Fu Panda every time she misses the serene mountain air of Yunnan. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 26 Apr 2012, 11:21 PM IST
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