Maliandao was a bundle of laughs this year. I went to China alone, which makes it a lot harder (and a lot less enjoyable) than if I were able to travel with my dear wife. However, she had a conference taking place in Poland at exactly the same time - Xiaohu got to have a holiday away from both of his tiresome parents with his Nainai back in the UK.
Therefore, I got to practice my exceedingly ropey Mandarin. However, as Lei put it, "It's good for you. If I were there, I'd just take over the Chinese-speaking, and you wouldn't have to try." She is right, because such trying is both fun, useful for my (rubbish) level of Chinese, and, somehow, productive in terms of relationships with the tea vendors. They seem to love it when a laowai tries to speak their language. (Almost none of them speaks any English.)
This year, I concluded that Chayuan sucks. (Chayuan is the huge hypermall at the southern end of Maliandaolu, which runs north-south.) I was of this mind the last time that I went (immediately after submitting my DPhil thesis, in fact). Lots of the pu'ercha sellers have left; those that remain are sucky little outfits trying to sell Haiwan Laotongzhi. The majority are tieguanyin sellers, which I consider about as interesting as a steamed bun filled with cardboard (a foodstuff sold in the centre of town, for which roadside vendors were arrested because they attempt to sell it as real food).
The pu'er market has gone from the east-west intersection north of the Carrefour supermarket (where the latter is the unofficial hub of Maliandao, offering cash machines, food, and non-tea shopping). This just leaves Xiaomei's mall, if we exclude the large touristy malls on the main street.
Xiaomei's mall is a mall behind a mall. I recently wrote the following guidance for a correspondent planning an attempt to find it:
Step 1. Start at the Carrefour ("Jialefu") supermarket on Maliandaolu.
Step 2. Head south (away from Beijing West train station).
Step 3. Cross intersection ("Chamajie" - "Teahorse Road", or similar), staying southbound on Maliandaolu.
Step 4. Find a mall on your left as you head south, which has a big, green arch in front of it.
Step 5. Enter this mall - there is a "Lin's Ceramic Studio" at the main entrance.
Step 6. Go through this mall, and out the back of it.
Step 7. You are now in a backstreet. There is a mall to your right, with three entrances ("A", "B", and "C").
Step 8. Enter this mall through any of the three entrances.
Step 9. Taochaju is on the ground floor, on the left-hand side as you go in.
Step 10. Fangmingyuan is on the first floor up, on the right-hand side.
Step 11. ...
Step 12. Profit.
...where Xiaomei's shop is Fangmingyuan, and Taochaju will be covered in a later article.
Xiaomei's shop is awesome, and is the site of many bargains obtained in previous years. More than anything, I like to sit there and recover, drinking some good tea with gentle, pleasant people. It's really very enjoyable, even if my Mandarin is rubbish.
One of the first cakes we tried this year is this "Yizhuyuancha" [Yi (as in Yiwu)-bamboo round-tea]. I fell in love with it instantly. Xiaodi (Xiaomei's brother) has a handy knack of finding teas that he knows I'll enjoy, straight off the bat. He has a success rate up above 90% so far, which indicates that he is definitely in the correct business. You can examine the green-coloured wrapper in the first photograph, above. It's not a brand that I've tried before, but that's OK. In Xiaodi we trust.
The leaves, as you may have ascertained from the images shown above, are whole and delicious in their appearance. They have a very decent aroma of sharp sweetness. I loved this in Maliandao, and I love it now back at home.
The soup is clean and orange. It starts softly, then swells to a bitter, powerful finish that hangs in the back of the throat while I write these sentences. A woody Yiwu, with a surprisingly long time-constant before the kuwei [good bitterness] kicks in. Rouded, sharp, with good body and potency - I am happy to have bought a trio.
This really very tasty cake was 190 RMB, which is a good price. I don't ever haggle with Xiaomei or Xiaodi, because neither they nor I particularly enjoy it. The price is right, I buy the cakes - job done.
The second and third infusions open even further. I appreciate cakes that take time to get going, as if they have serious mass. It is quite penetrating. Later infusions emphasise the Yiwu sweetness, and remain both elegant and clean. I expect good things in coming years.