Take a sip: the perfect China for a pot of tea
DUNK, dunk, dunk. Tink, tink, tink.
It's the familiar sounds of someone making a warm cup of tea that makes you want to sit down and take it easy for a while.
But as I discovered on a recent trip to China, there's much more to the humble cup of tea that we've come to take for granted as we haphazardly dunk a teabag and tap our teaspoon on the edge of the mug.
It's a warm 30C in Guilin in southern China, and the humidity is high.
We step out of the mini-bus and into the heat. We amble past grey concrete walls and crumbling structures around us in the quiet street.
What waits for us beyond the drab exterior of our surroundings is a lush-green tea plantation: known as the Guilin Tea Research Institute.
Rows and rows of bushes line the 17ha organic plantation.
Each green leaf thrives off the rich soil, which feeds from the mighty jagged limestone mountains.
The ancient mountains rise at sharp angles and envelope the plantation like strong bookends to the green land. Workers in bamboo-woven hats run their fingers over each bush to find and pluck just the right leaf among the 250 different types of tea plants.
It's a tedious but essential process which has allowed the plantation to produce tonnes of tea for centuries.
The Guilin Tea Research Institute was founded in 1965, but it was the epicentre of tea manufacturing in Guangxi province long before that.
It was the royal tea garden in the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago.
More than 90% of tea produced nowadays is set aside for the Chinese government. The remaining tea is sold to the public.
A young man named Nico meets us in the fields and tells us he attended university for four years to be a tea master. Tea is serious business in China.
Twirling a tea leaf in his hand, he begins to tell us about the different types of teas grown, processed and hand-dried at the institute.
That's oolong, green, white, black, jasmine and osmanthus.
But perhaps the most special variety is the yellow tea.
Only produced in Guilin and with limited supplies to the public, it is a rarity.
We take off our woven hats and head inside, and out of the heat, to a small tea room.
A low-set table made from a thick slab of timber sits in the middle of the room surrounded by small wooden stools.
Nico gestures for us to take a seat. We do. Gladly.
In front of us are clay tea pots and a stack of delicate tea cups.
There's not a tea bag, carton of skim milk or packet of Scotch Finger biscuits in sight.
Nico is prepared with a spread of tools. It is all very serious and laced in tradition.
He holds the jug of boiling water high and pours it into the pot.
He then tips it out.
He goes again, swirling the tea from a height and splashing the drops into the cup.
He then tips it out again.
"The third or fourth pour is always the best," Nico tells us.
He trickles water over the clay pot and tells us once it is dry, the tea is ready for drinking.
Before we can try our tea, Nico explains the protocol for sipping the tasting servings.
Two hands, reaching over each other and fingers poised in the air.
It's a bit awkward, but I follow the tradition, twist my arms as best I can and take a gulp - three to be precise.
The first is a small sip, the second the main sip and the third is for the after-taste.
Tea ceremony guests must say "xie xie" (that's Mandarin for thanks) for the tea by tapping the table three times with two fingers.
I take a sip from the delicate cup, counting the sips in my head.
The experience is soothing.
I can feel the tea going down my throat and I'm processing the taste, smell and sight.
I'll never look at a teabag the same again when I'm tinking the teaspoon on the side of my cup.
But I think I'll still have a sneaky Scotch Finger or two.
* The writer was a guest of Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Wendy Wu Tours and Guilin Municipal Tourism Bureau
GETTING THERE: CATHAY Pacific flies 11 times a week from Brisbane to Hong Kong and from there connects to daily flights to Guilin with its regional airline Dragonair. Return economy airfares start from $1007 from Brisbane. Visit www.cathaypacific.com.au.
TOURING PACKAGES: WENDY Wu Tours has a range of fully-escorted group tours of China, as well as a selection of itineraries for independent travellers. An example of the latter is the Guilin, Yangshuo and Longji short stay package is priced from $650 per person twin share and includes four nights' accommodation with daily breakfast, private touring with local English-speaking guides, including entrance fees and some meals. Visit www.wendywutours.com.au.
VISAS: A PRE-ARRANGED visa is required to travel to China, which must be obtained from a Chinese Visa application centre. Short visits fall under to Guilin without a visa on the new 72-hour visa-free transit policy; www.travelchinaguide. com/embassy/visa/free-72hour.
CHINESE TEA ETIQUETTE
Tea is to be consumed in three sips, the first a small one, the second the main one and the last the after taste.
Tea drinkers should cradle the cup with both hands and enjoy the tea's aroma before taking a sip When someone hands you a cup of tea, take it with two hands.
Always say xie xie (thank you) to your tea master