Beijing Tea Travel
All right Steepsterites, in about a month I’m going to Beijing for three weeks, so obviously I will wish to saturate myself in tea while I’m there. I am officially soliciting any and all advice for the consumption and purchasing of tea and tea wares.
I know that the “tea street” is Maliandao, and that there are small tea shops on the street as well as a couple of large indoor tea markets. But does anyone have any specific recommendations, or tips for shopping on the street? I unfortunately don’t speak Mandarin (so if anyone can point me to a resource on properly pronouncing tea names I’ll take that as well), but I’m not afraid of having a conversation without words (easier than you might think), and I’ll have iPhone Mandarin dictionaries with me. I’m thinking I might also make “tea cards” for my iPhone with the names of teas on them in script so that I can just show those to merchants.
Anywhere else in the city that I should hit up?
As far as tea wares go, I’m looking for a good deal on a nice, small, unique yixing pot, and likely a gaiwan. Any advice on picking those up is also appreciated.
The number one essential tip about shopping in a Chinese tea market is this…
Always ask to taste the tea before you even think about buying. This is standard practice, and good vendors should be happy to prepare any number of teas for you to try. If a vendor won’t do this, you should take it as a bad indication regarding the quality of the offerings and/or the proprietor, and leave the shop. I’ve yet to go and experience this for myself, but David has told me a number of times that it’s the most important part of tea shopping in China. Hope you have an enjoyable trip!
You might have a look here.
I would spend most of your time in Maliandao. Take some time looking around and getting the lay of the land, and plan to make multiple trips – I haven’t been to Beijing myself, though I’ve been to one of the much smaller tea “cities” in Shanghai. Don’t be afraid to bargain. Expect to make mistakes.
Take good notes about what you’re trying, what you can get samples of, and keep business cards from the stores you visit. This will all come in handy later. You will probably have some basic water boiling facilities where you’re staying, so try to get samples, so that you can try teas when your palate is less fatigued and when you can control the brewing.
What type of teas are you looking for specifically?
Thanks for the link, that’s really helpful. Fortunately I’ll have enough time to visit several times while I’m there. I’m hoping to go my very first day to get some small amounts to have while I’m doing research during the week. Glad to know my thinking was on the right track!
I’m still trying to narrow down what teas I’ll want to bring back (so that I can come up with a managable amount), but right now som Tieguanyins (plus other oolongs I might not be as familiar with), some jasmine teas, and maybe some Dragon Well.
Maliandao is a good place for window shopping. Whether you can get good deals there depends on your shopping skill and whether you have a savvy local friend who takes you to shops they trust (that’s actually more important than your own shopping skills).
For travelers I always recommend the “brand name” stores. They don’t have the best deals. But their prices are still much lower than prices in American market, and they have solid quality. My favorite of this kind is Wu Yu Tai （吴裕泰）. I wrote before about why I like it (http://gingkobay.blogspot.com/2010/09/old-business-and-its-traditions.html)
Another “brand name” store is Zhang Yi Yuan （张一元）. Wu Yu Tai and Zhang Yi Yuan don’t offer tea tasting in the store. But you can generally trust their grading labels. Each of them has various grades for each type of tea, and within their grading system, quality is proportional to the price. You can expect their prices are generally 1/4 to 1/2 of the prices for the same quality in American market, depending on the type of tea.
Another “brand name” store is Ten Fu (Tian Fu, 天福）. It’s somewhat infamous for its high prices. It has probably the worst quality/price ratio among the brand name stores. But it has good quality control, and prices are still generally lower than in the States. They do offer free tea tasting.
All above three are chain stores and are found in multiple locations in the city.
In Maliandao there are chances of finding very good deals, but also chances to get very disappointed. Maliandao is a good place to get cute yixing, if you can distinguish quality levels of yixing and are good at bargaining. Buying porcelain gaiwan in Maliandao is much easier because porcelain is much simpler, and prices are generally inexpensive – unless you get the painstakingly painted egg shell thin kind of gaiwan, which are expensive but not something you want to travel with anyway :-D
If you visit TeaSpring.com, they have sound clips on their teas where you can hear how they are pronounced. Those are actually one of my favourite things about the site.
They also have the name written in chinese characters so you could make a print out and show the people so they know what you mean.
When you get there, have a cup of something awesome and think of me. :D
Some language tools are listed on one of my webpages here:
Among them, this one is probably most helpful (it’s the first one in the list):
It’s dedicated to tea terms and its creator is very knowledgeable about tea. He is active on twitter (@babelcarp) and he constantly updates the functions.
I’m so excited for you! It’s been almost two years since I’ve been in a tea market, and I really miss everybody.
Unfortunately, I was only in Beijing for a few days (I was teaching English in Northern China), and I never visited the tea market when I was in the capitol. There was some darn good food, though.. I’ll see if I can’t find the address of one of the places we went that had the most delicious bananas deep fried in sugar. YUM
However, I do want to share what I know from my own experience of Qingdao, Shanghai, and Kunming.
It’s true- you will be at a bit of a disadvantage without Chinese. At the very least, you should look up how to say “thank you,” “good taste,” “good smell,” “(I) like,” “very interesting” (so useful when you don’t know what to say!).. also good to know.. numbers, and the ever useful “I want…how much?” and “I don’t understand.”
A little phrase book will have all of these. Practice them on the plane or use that smartphone application.
Most real tea people do not speak English. OR they speak a little, but they are too shy to actually use it (ie: oh man, here comes one of those crazy foreigners who just likes coffee.. do I really want to muddle through a conversation about tea? Maybe I can just pretend to read a book to keep this from being awkward!).
I assume that the Beijing tea market can be a bit of a tourist trap. You’ll probably need to avoid the shops that are right at the entrance (and huge). These places will just try to offer you white tea and jasmine tea for very high prices. These people will speak English, and they will try to pressure you into buying something. As Geoffrey mentioned above, never, ever buy anything or spend time in a shop with someone who seems unfriendly at all. These are not really tea people.
At a real tea market, with folks who aren’t just tourist-feeders, you’ll be invited repeatedly to drink tea. The first tea you drink together will probably be a bit of a test.. it’ll be a middle of the road something or other. Depending on your reaction, they’ll see what your tastes are, and pull out teas that they think you might like.
Please ask lots of questions about what you’re drinking, or (without words) look really interested and inquisitive. Think of this as a learning opportunity, and you will get so much out of it! You will never be pressured to buy anything. There is no sense of obligation to buy in China like there is in the US (just like no one expects a tip, and they think if you leave one it’s weird). If you’re interested in a particular tea the vendor doesn’t have, they’ll go run around the market to a friend they trust a respect and they’ll make you some of that tea.
Again, if someone makes you uncomfortable at all, just leave. Go for the folks who seem nice and who are friendly. They will NEVER sneer at you or make you uncomfortable. That is so unbelievably rude and disrespectful to the tea. Only swindlers will do this, and they are to be avoided. A real tea person would rather spit on a policeman than dishonor tea, especially to a foreigner who truly wants to learn.
My recommendation is not to ask for a particular tea. Sure, if they ask, use those flashcards! However, you will learn more and have a better time if you ask the tea person what they think you should try. IE: What is your favorite tea? No one in America knows about tea, and I want to learn. What should I drink?
This should immediately make any real tea person smile and want to teach you. Being eager to learn about tea (for real) will immediately endear you to them. You’ll also get to try whatever they think they have that’s the best, which should be really good! ie: Wo bu ji dao. Meiguo ren meiyou cha. Ni shihuan shenma cha? “I don’t know. American’s don’t have tea. What tea do you like?” (the pinyin there is not at all 100%.. I learned through speaking, not writing or reading, so… sorry! You’re phrase book will help here)
If you ask for a specific tea (especially a tea like Jasmine, White or Lapsong Souchong), you’re going to raise a big red TOURIST IGNORANT AMERICAN flag.. “This person only wants healthy, popular teas.. they don’t care about tea culture or learning, so just give them your stinkiest jasmine and get them out because they don’t care at all.”
Tieguanyin or pu’er.. not so much.. these teas have so much to learn about, and if the person knows about these things, they’ll probably teach you. I can’t say this enough: tell them you want to learn about tea.
PRACTICAL STUFF (pricing, etc):
Teas are not sold in ounces. They are sold by the jin or half jin (a jin is a half-kilo). Then, there are ten liang in a jin.. so a liang is 50 grams. You’ll probably want to get at least half jin of stuff, but if there’s something cool that you just want a little bit of, try a couple of liang.
For a jasmine, the range is about 40-100 per jin.. for a Tieguanyin.. starts around 200, but good stuff is definitely in the 300’s. No real reason to pay 400 or over unless you are head over heels in love. Greens also range. Unless it’s the most heavenly longjing, I wouldn’t pay more than 300 or 350. And also, it shouldn’t be that expensive when you go, because it’s last year’s picking!
Bricks of pu’er can range between 50 for a brick (bing.. pronounced beeng / rhymes with dingding!) to 250 or 350. Again, don’t go over 350.. unless you are floating on air and you absolutely must have this brick or you will DIE.
I think 200 or 250 is a midrange sweet spot.. anything under 200 for a tea you really enjoy? Get it! Because that’s a good deal!
These amounts are in RMB.. but folks will call it by the measure word kwai (rhymes with why) or by the word money qian (chyen).
Bargaining really has no place at a tea market. Swindlers at the front? Yes, because they are just there to cheat foreigners. Real tea people? They will always give you the best price they can if they respect you. Bargaining is insulting, because it implies they are crooks and that they are selling something common and without worth.
Then again! I also spoke Chinese, and we all became good friends. So just because I wouldn’t ever bargain, I also have the benefit of have a lot of experience and I can sweet talk people in Chinese before pricing even comes up. Perhaps I should just say, be honest with what you can afford. If you love a tea, say so! But if it’s out of your price range, say so, regretfully. It’ll all work itself out, especially if you’re having a good time. If you can’t afford it, but it’s clear you love it, then they might be able to sneak you a sample, and then recommend teas that taste similar at a price point you can afford. That way, it’s just being honest, not doing the aggressive jade/trinket-market-style bargaining.
Be prepared to spend your whole day at the market. Seriously, if you find someone you like, you’ll probably spend at least three or four hours at their shop alone. I’m glad you’re planning on doing this early! If you really want to make good impressions, bring fun gifts from the States to give to anyone you really had a good time with. Gifts are important, and the folks will be really touched by your politeness and generosity.
BEJING TEA SCAM
Finally, AVOID the “Beijing Tea House” scam. A young person (student) with good English will approach you in a touristy area (like the Forbidden City etc) and ask you to come drink tea with them. They’ll take you to a swanky tea house and drink with you for hours, ordering several kinds of tea. (NOTE: you usually only drink one kind of tea at a tea house, and drink it for hours). Then they will leave you with a huge bill (300 or 500ish to over 1000 .. this is way too expensive!). These kids work for the tea houses specifically to bring in people who are green enough to get bruned. Avoid it if you can.
Tourist books (like Lonely Planet.. that’s a really good one for Beijing!) will tell you the same thing.
Have a good time, and learn as much as you can! Take pictures, get people’s cards or e-mails, make friends. I also recommend fun kid learning books like ‘Chinese in Five Minutes a Day" to read up on before you go or work on on the plane. It’s a long flight..
Woah! I write way too much sometimes.
In conclusion: wish I could go with you! That would be so much fun.
Haha, well I am happy to read it all! Thanks for all the tips and advice. I know I will be overwhelmed, but I am certainly very much looking forward to it.
I will be in Beijing in mid-April and will only have a few hours for Maliando. I love high-end oolongs (Taiwanese even more than Chinese). Any recommendations as to stores specializing in high end oolongs from Taiwan?
Dietmar – I will say that everything changes so fast in Beijing that it would be hard to recommend you any shops 2 years later. But maybe someone who has been recently will be able to chime in. Best of luck!
Also, if you contact Jason (http://puerh.blogspot.com/2011/05/bearsbearsbears-in-beijing.html) he may be able to direct you to the shop in the post above. It’s not in the tea market, but I believe the proprietor speaks good English, and the store is supposed to have some interesting teas and teawares.
You should also have a read of this other post of his, which gives a general “state of tea shops in China” report that’s a lot more up to date than my experiences.
Here’s another recent report from Warren Peltier, who’s lived in China for quite some time.
Beware palate fatigue. Just because a tea shop is willing to brew 8 rounds each of 15 oolongs sequentially doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to make a good decision by the time you get to tea 13.
As far as getting to maliandao or other areas, or back to your hotel, it’s a good idea to have addresses pre-printed (in Chinese characters) so that you can show the cab driver the exact written address.
Oh my I am so envious that you’ll be in the heart of tea-land, for days!!! reading everyone’s advice, esp Spoonvonstup’s has made me ache for a trip to the tea motherland. Have fun, and drink plenty of tea!! post pics if you can :)
Ok, here’s my report from my first trip to Maliandao!
Maliandao is known as the “tea street” and they aren’t kidding. It is so incredibly overwhelming. I would say that if you go without being accompanied by someone who knows a trusted shop (just getting directions will probably not work because geez it would be hard to find anything), or at the very least you can read/speak Chinese, you may have a shot. I’m not going to say that if you don’t fit those criteria you shouldn’t go (I don’t fit them), but be aware that it will be mind-meltingly overwhelming.
Beyond even getting good deals, just choosing a shop to start with is near impossible. I was going off these posts:
And even though the most recent one was from last july I still couldn’t find half of what he was talking about. Things change fast there. I walked all the way down to Chayuan but then I couldn’t remember if the way it looked was the way it was supposed to look so I turned around without going there. Maybe next trip.
I couldn’t find the Beijing Tea Corporation mall (well, there was no sign for it like there apparently once was), nor the new “brown” mall from his latest map. At first I started out going to the big orange building that is colored pink on his new maps. That has two floors of tea shops all facing out to the street (i.e., not an enclosed mall). I went into a couple of tea pot stores but I was too overwhelmed to do anything else, so I decided to check out one of the bigger malls. I kind of recognized what turns out is Jingmin Tea city (blue on the maps), and went in.
This thing is 5 floors of tea shops, mostly all small and, to me, fairly indistinguishable (gosh I hate being illiterate!). Some were definitely puerh shops (but I wasn’t looking for puerh) and some seemed to concentrate on oolongs (the ones with the big chest refridgerators). Others were a mishmash. I stayed sane by first concentrating on shopping for teaware. Teaware is easy to shop for, relatively. You can look at a pot and you know if you like the design. You might not know about it’s overall quality, but that’s true with anything. If you know what to look for (I thought I basically did), you can shop easily. Some places even list prices (still bargainable). The fourth (top) floor seemed to be pretty much all teaware stores, from zisha clay pots to ru kiln ware and everything in between. I saw some stuff I liked but I wanted to look in the big, touristy Maliandao Tea City. I knew I wouldn’t find a good deal on tea there, but if there was a pot I fell in love with I would pay a slight premium anyway.
Before I left I decided I would randomly choose a store and try some tea. I let myself be beckoned in a shop by two friendly ladies. They spoke almost no english besides “jasmine tea” and “green tea”. I didn’t want to lead off with jasmine because I thought it would be too touristy, so I went with “gongfu hong cha” (gongfu black teas). They showed me a couple of Tanyangs, and I ended up buying some. My first use of the “Peeyen-ee eedeeyar cuh-ee ma?” (my sounded out pronunciation), which means basically “Give it to me cheaper, could you?” That phrase usually immediately gets you 10-20% off the quoted price. I usually didn’t bargain much beyond that, except for the teaware I bought. I did try some jasmine then, and she insisted on showing me a flowering tea (a chamomile, as it turns out), and a bi luo chun green that was really interesting but not quite my style.
Then I went on to the Maliandao Tea City. That place was even bigger, with I think something like 5 floors of tea shops (much larger floors, though). The top floor of the building was all electronics. Weird. The top two tea floors were basically given over to two or three huge tea shops that shared the entire floor with lots of teaware and presumably tea. I already knew I wasn’t going to waste my time with tea tastings there, but I did shop around for teaware and picked up a pretty unique gaiwan.
After that I went to a newer tea mall (the purpleish colored block on his latest map), but it was so new that it was still partly under construction, and what was there seemed kind of ritzy (not for me!). Then I went back to the place I went first (pink on the map), and looked around a bit more. My palate having settled a bit from the previous tasting, I decided to go in a small shop that had a tiny, english “anxitieguanyin” on the door. Surprise, surprise, one of the two girls working this shop spoke pretty good English. I did have a sample of tieguanyin, which I liked pretty well (I’m so spoiled by some of the ones I’ve had from Verdant, for example), and then the girl who spoke English asked if I wanted to try a special tea from her hometown that no other shops had. Well, sure! This tea was awesome. It was a green tea, unscented, but oh it was scented by the flowering trees that grew near the tea trees. Man I wanted to buy some of that tea. When I said this the girl was kind of like “oh, well, I don’t know, it’s really expensive…” like she hadn’t expected me to like it or something. The girls called their boss, and the price was apparently dependant on my nationality and if I was going to buy it for myself or for a gift (I mean, I guess it was; I heard the word for America on the phone, and I was asked the second question). In the end the lowest price I got was 2000RMB for 500g. That is roughly $300! Too rich for my blood. I had the girl write the name of the tea down in pinyin (roman characters) and a quick google search for “Yong chuan xiu ya” yields a lowest price on ebay of about $100 for 500g. There certainly aren’t a lot of listings for it on the internet, so I guess it really is a fairly uncommon tea.
I left there disappointed, but I still wanted to buy some teaware so I knew I wanted to head back to the Jingmin Tea City. On the way, though, I diverted down an alleyway full of tea shops. I might have been one of the open air tea malls he talks about in his posts, but honestly nothing looks the same. I was wandering around back in the alleyways, possibly looking for the “brown” tea mall, when I came across another, single floor enclosed tea mall. This one doesn’t appear on his list, but it does appear in one of his pictures… just to the right of the Beijing Tea Corporation in his picture of it from the first post. I came in from the back and immediately saw a bunch of good-looking teaware shops and tea shops. I did a circuit and realized that everything was starting to close down! (It was 6:30pm). I had seen some pots I really really liked so I ran back to the shop and bought them. Then I walked back over to the Jingmin Tea City to see if those shops were closed too, and yes the entire mall was closed. So I will have to go back to pick up a few more teas and some teaware odds and ends. In the end I was already super tired and my palate was shot and I needed something to eat, so I headed back to my hotel.
Also, everyone goes to Maliandao by taxi, it seems, but I am taxi-averse so I took the bus (0.40RMB!). The 46 bus runs down Maliandao and it intersects with subway line 1 at Nanlishilu.
I’ll give another update when I go back this week sometime. Thanks again everyone for your tips!
Ah amazing! Thanks for sharing your adventures so far! Can’t wait for the next update, hope you’re feeling better :)
Bravo! to you for taking the bus :-)
I couldn’t help laughing at the part that the ladies can only say “jasmine tea” and “green tea” in English, and insisted on showing you flowering tea. That’s exactly what many Chinese tea merchants think “foreigners” like :-D
Beijing is a very fast changing city. Nothing is promised to stay the same from year to year, or from month to month. As I remember, it started to look like a big construction site since 1995, and the construction is still going on now. I sort of hate it, but feel the only way I could catch things I like is to visit more often. I grow up in Beijing, and couldn’t manage to go back between 2002 and 2005. Then when I went back in 2005, the numerous changes really scared me to the bone! Then I realize that I wouldn’t be able to stop the changes, and I had better manage to go back every year to avoid being so much scared again :-p
Write more when you have time! I enjoy reading it :-)
You are so brave! I would be such a chicken in your shoes, but then again, it is a quest for tea! Loved reading your account and your reviews of what you are drinking. Safe travels!
That sounds so fun! Keep us updated so we can continue to live vicariously through you :D
Thanks for your feedback, guys! It’s fun talking about it, and I hope it might be at least a little helpful for anyone else who comes here before taking a trip to Beijing (although if it’s more than a few months in the future, it will probably be all out of date!).
I went back to Maliandao this evening. My plan was to take off work a bit early and get down there about an hour and a half before closing time (6:30pm). Unfortunately things always run slower than you want them to, and I ended up not getting there until 5:30pm. First I hit up the tea mall that I went to last the other day, back to the place where I bought my tea pot so I could pick up a matching strainer and a few cups. I planned after that to go to Jingmin Tea City across the street for another tasting to find some tieguanyin, but on my way out of the mall I smelled the most amazing tieguanyin-ish aroma from one of the stores. I think I pretty much tracked it down to a store staffed by a woman watching Chinese soap operas on her computer, but of course I couldn’t just say “I want what I smell!” so I ended up asking just for some tieguanyin. She dug out three bags of oolong, and started with the lowest grade, of course. The tasting went smoothly, though it’s kind of sad not to be able to talk to people about tea during the tasting, because I would totally love to! In the end I actually preferred the middle grade TGY, and when I asked the price it was so low! Way lower than what I paid for the tea I bought at the other shop. That made me wish I had more time to spend in that tea mall. Then she took my 100g of tea and turned it into a bunch of individually vacuum-sealed gaiwan-sized portions, and she gave me a free sample of some random puerh to take with me. Definitely a good experience, even if we couldn’t talk. But that tasting pretty much ate up all the time until closing, so I didn’t have time to go to the Jingmin Tea City to pick up a few other odds and ends.
When I left the mall it was raining! No way! Beijing is so dry I never expected it. Luckily it wasn’t very hard because I didn’t have an umbrella with me. Still, I walked down to Chayuan, which supposedly would be open 24 hours. I didn’t know what to expect from outside the little “gate”, but inside I found another large tea mall, this one all one floor but very sprawling. Some shops had closed up, but quite a few were still open. It definitely seemed like the place to go if you wanted some late tea shopping. I was pretty much just looking around and waiting for the rain to stop, so I didn’t do any tastings or anything.
Finally I convinced myself that I had bought everything I needed to, tea-wise, and that I should go get some dinner. I definitely felt more comfortable the second time around, and it was good to get to go again. And, in another week and a half when I get home I look forward to reviewing the teas I bought and using all my new teaware!
Love those vacuum sealer things! They are so much fun to watch. Glad you got to do some back-to-back tastings.. it’s a great way to learn, and I really miss that there’s not as many opportunities to do that here.
Are you going to go back to the tea mall you liked from this time? Hope you get to keep shopping and trying!
Oh I also want to recommend Niu Jie district about 3 miles east of Maliandao. Not for tea, but it’s my favorite part of Beijing. It’s a traditional Muslim district and has a lot of nice food. Besides, there are Beijing’s oldest Muslim temple (Qing Zhen Si), oldest Buddhism temple (Fa Yuan Si) and oldest Catholic church (Nan Tang) all within 20 minutes walking distance between each other :-)
Spoonvonstup – If I go back to Maliandao before I leave I will definitely hit up that tea mall again. But I think I have probably spent enough money so far and I picked up pretty much everything I wanted. You never know when the lure will call me back, though. :)
Gingko – thanks for the recommendation!