Buying from Taobao is a real adventure. The range of available tea is vast, it's usually fairly reliable, and, sometimes, you strike pure, unalloyed gold.
I buy via Taobaofocus these days, which has the best shipping rates of those I've tried (including Panli and Taobaonow), combined with excellent service - including photographs of your various teas taken in the Taobaofocus warehouse prior to shipping. I recommend the use of SAL - products aren't usually going to sell out in a few days on Taobao, and I'm happy to wait a fortnight or so for an arrival. However, their Airmail and EMS rates are the lowest I've encountered, should you be in a hurry. Shipping costs add up quickly, however, because tea is heavy! Hence, SAL.
Taobao Focus shipping costs to the UK are shown above, with RMB:GBP at the exchange rate currently quoted by Google.
This cake was previously described by your friend and mine, His Grace, the Duke of N. I'd encountered a sample from Essence of Tea kindly provided by someone whose identity eludes me (thanks again!). I bought it from 999我心依旧 (999 Wo Xin Yijiu), on Taobao, for the offensively low price of 200 RMB (below £20, $30). I'll discuss the vendor a little later. Let's consider the tea, first of all.
This cake is worth your attention. I certainly found that it held mine throughout the sessions I've had with it. This is a chubby cake, comprising big, fat leaves (pictured above and below).
The soup, as you may see below, is clean, fresh, and nicely orangered. The character of this tea described in one phrase is "spicy wood": it has a decent, solid presence, with plenty of complexity waiting around in reserve. We encounter a floral aroma in the finish, and a long, strong aftertaste. It has been stored well, and has good duration - indication enough that it hasn't been prematurely stripped of its content, at what is coming on for the ten-year mark.
So! $30 for a lovely, charming tea? A bargain! Surely I should be buying a tong or two of this without hesitation?
If only life were so simple. It turns out (from two Guangzhou-based correspondents, who wrote to me independently) that the vendor has a particularly poor reputation, locally. Before finding out this, I joked that anyone who names their business after something related to Titanic / Celine Dion ("woxinyijiu" approximately means "my heart will always go on") must be treated with extreme caution.
One correspondent said that he had even visited the vendor's premises, and had been offered clearly fake tea, supposedly over a decade old, for less than 200 RMB ($30). "It's not the kind of place you'd spend your money in, if you visited it", he wrote.
To be fair, he also reminded me of the saying, "If it tastes good, who cares if it's fake?"
I don't think this cake is a fake, as it is very similar to the Essence of Tea version, which I understand to have been procured from a vendor in Taiwan. However, the reputation of the vendor has given me significant pause. Should I order a tong? I have letters from several readers indicating that they have bought single cakes from this vendor which all turned out well. And so we are all teetering on the threshold, wondering about tongs. Who will jump? Perhaps me!
(The cake is available from other Taobao sources, but at prices that would add up to an extra 25% or so over a whole tong. Hence, "My heart will always go on" remains attractive.)
Such are the delights of Taobao - a hint of the thrills and spills that buying tea in the PRC so often manages to provide...
This cake turned out very well. The seller, despite her poor reputation, provided a whole tong of perfect-condition tea, and even gave me an eighth cake for free. It remains sweet, dense, and pleasant.