I’m looking for Shangri-La. (I was actually really close to Shangri-La. Not the metaphorical, can’t-have-it city. Shangri-La, Yunnan Province.) Where is it authentic? Where is real China? Where is the place that has real China people, where it is unusual but friendly, where is there good food, where is there scenery, where is there manufacturing and service and agriculture, where can I get a good hostel on the cheap, where Chinese tourists haven’t overrun, where I can ride a bike, see culture, meet a backpacker (but not too many), engage a local and sip a tea? The Shangri-La of traveling?
After being restless for a few days, I’ve partly figured it out. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need Shangri-La. This whole journey is Shangri-La. No matter where I am, I’m accomplishing the goals of this trip. It’s not all fun, culturally interesting, friendly and comfortable. Sometimes it’s not any of those things. But it’s fine. It’s all great. At the noodle shop, the train station, the tourist square, the market – it doesn’t matter – it’s all real. It’s all China. I’m having incredible moments, observed and taken part in. Here’s one:
At a Kunming Tea House. It’s a local’s joint through and through. An unmarked entrance off a side road along a river. Inside are men, 40-70 years old. Not a lick of English among them, or at least none that anyone cares to offer – everyone was happy to sit back and enjoy the show.
I wanted the tea that is packaged as a compacted disc. It’s a black tea. I’ve heard about it, but I don’t think I’ve had it. It’s something like “pu urh”, or so (1). I said that word, the guy waved his hands. I’m not sure if that meant, “I understand, we don’t have that” or, “No speaking words, you! Point at menu!” Anyway, I got some tea, loose leaves in a beer mug, after being brought over to the jars of tea to inspect them. I don’t know what I picked out, tea leaves look like tea leaves…
So it’s just men here. Lounging the afternoon away with mugs of tea, banter, cell phones and giant cigarette bongs. I felt like I had meandered into a sufficiently weird, and, to me, foreign, piece of Yunnan local life. There are ponds, tiny ponds, with goldfish, there’s bamboo growing, beat up tarps and umbrellas making it into an almost-indoor space, electrical cords dangle randomly, and also hanging are a couple stereotypical and extremely dusty ‘oriental lanterns’, red globes with the skirt of yellow strings draping off the bottom (2). Men talk loudly, cough, hack phlegm, a few birds chirp, the cigarette bong gurgles. Sufficiently weird.
Then walks in a fellow with a porter’s rod across one shoulder. Common sight, usually laden with some kind of fruit or nuts. This guy, though, he walks to his own beat. From one end of this guy’s porter’s rod hung two mesh bags, one bag with one grouse, one bag with two grouse. Birds. Rather big, live birds. Off the other end – turtles. Two pieces of twine, each tied to the rod on one end and wrapped around a turtle on the other.
The patrons looked toward me with excitement, expectation. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I knew they are egging the porter/turtle-grouse salesmen on, encouraging him to pitch the birds and reptiles to me, to have me consider taking one home for dinner (or maybe they were for pets!?). He offers. I decline. He holds out a turtle. I hold it by the shell and giggle. “No, thanks, it’s a nice turtle, pretty cool, I don’t want it though.” He set the birds down, letting the bags onto the ground, so they could stand, ruffle their feathers, demonstrate their vitality. The other patrons also declined, but they sure did take interest in watching me take interest in the bird-and-reptile-porter/salesman and his wares.
(1) In Yunnan they call it pu’er. It’s a fermented and aged tea. It’s typically packaged as extremely compacted ¾ pound discs.
(2) According to the internet, these ‘oriental globes’, the kind that alert you to every Chinatown around the globe, are simply called ‘Chinese Lanterns’.