I’m at the South Shaolin Temple in Quanzhou, shaking a large carved cylinder full of red-tipped wooden sticks, each one bearing a number in Chinese script. The idea here is that after you dramatically rattle the cylinder, you hand the stick that stands the tallest to the monk, who fetches you a yellow piece of paper with the same number. This is your corresponding fortune. Today my lucky number is 29, prompting the monk to sprint toward me and shout in excitement. “Tiger woman!” comes the translation. “Dragon lady!” What this means, I’m told by local onlookers, previously bent in prayer with incense and oranges, is that I can get anyone to do what I want them to do, which makes me smile as widely as the giant golden Buddha shining down on us. Because at the outset of a trip through the mountains in southeastern China, it’s good to know that things are going to go your way.
As foretold by the wooden stick, things do go my way as I criss-cross the lush Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. Curious to see if “old China” – from ancient temples to some of the world’s earliest food and tea traditions – still has a place in contemporary society, I’ve come here to get a sense of what life was like before the country turned into a frenetic 21st-century landscape of bullet trains and gleaming towers. Quanzhou, on the South China Sea, is, I’m told, awash in history, having been a major port on the Maritime Silk Road back in the day. And as you travel northwest from there, over the mountains and into Jiangxi, you clamber through some of China’s thickest forests, saved from development thanks to the challenge of pulling off infrastructure projects in such rugged terrain.
“It’s the busy season, and we’ll be sharing our beautiful mountain with 12,000 other hikers,” explains Li Zeng, or Lily, my guide and de facto Chinese interpreter, when I ask why we’re getting such an early start in Jiangxi’s Mount Sanqingshan National Park. Even before we set out, we catch a break on this unusually sunshiny morning (it rains here more than 200 days a year). Still, if there had been a fog as thick as my breakfast congee, it couldn’t have diminished the magic of the spectacular backdrop of 48 granite peaks and 89 granite pillars, along with meteorological phenomena like luminescent halos and white rainbows caused by light, water and ice suspended in the atmosphere.
So you really can’t blame us hikers for causing bottlenecks on the 1,817-metre-high Mount Sanqing, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s sacred to Taoists. The kilometres of stone and concrete stairs and trails are breathtaking, both for their scenic beauty and for their fitness-level requirements. Ringed with Sanqing pines, Chinese yews and cantilevered walkways, it’s the sort of place whence parables about tigers and dragons and quests by warriors are born.
I shuffle past nature’s ancient granite landmarks while taking note of their justifiable nicknames, such as the Gigantic Boa, the Dolphins and the Oriental Goddess. I pass teary-eyed visitors hugging rock faces and rethinking life choices while others howl spiritually into the abyss below (causing others still to fire off eye-roll emojis over WeChat). Everyone’s recently purchased bamboo walking sticks (and ostensibly more important selfie sticks) are put to good use as their owners zigzag around the mountain, stopping now and then for snacks of hard-boiled eggs and steamed purple taro root.
Eight hours, two-thirds of the mountain and 22,973 steps later (according to a friend’s Fitbit), I practically collapse onto a gondola that takes me back to earth. I ride down with a retired couple from Beijing who look as happily exhausted as I feel. The husband says the steep stairs were hard on his wife’s knees, but this was one of the most stunning mountains they’ve seen in China. And they should know: Twice a year they take a month-long trip to a different region, planning it by themselves. “Research on the computer,” he says. “No groups.”
A river cuts a curvaceous swath through the middle of Plum Village in Fujian’s Mount Wuyishan area. Cradled by misty skies, the hamlet is an unbroken stretch of weathered bridges and wood-and-stone houses with mossy ceramic roof tiles. This is the enchanted China of my storybook days. It’s also where oolong-tea production began in the country more than one thousand years ago. Different regions are known for growing specific varieties – jasmine in Fuzhou, for instance, and black and oolong here in Plum Village (Xiamei), where men used to sell tea from the river, a starting point for a trade route that eventually led all the way to England.
Today, most of the tea is trucked away, though not much else has changed here in the ensuing centuries, with some families dating back a whopping 72 generations. I watch women hanging laundry along the riverbanks and rosy-cheeked children chasing a rooster and then a goose around a courtyard. Men are playing cards inside and out, and everyone is as warm and welcoming as the five-alarm tofu I had for lunch.
I stop at a teashop, a dim hole in the wall with shelving holding canisters of tea and pots for sale. I sit down on a plastic stool at a squat wooden table for a traditional tasting. The tea lady warms a handful of thimble-size teacups, discards the first wash of black tea and then pours the second pot into our wee cups. I’m offered the first sips, “the queen of the tea,” she says, so-called for its finest of fragrances compared to the subsequent pours. It’s subtle and smooth with not a whiff of bitterness. “If you have this tea, it’s like having the fish head,” she says encouragingly. I guess I must have pulled a face because she immediately clarifies: “No, no, it’s good!” In the end we piece together that her fish head is my chocolate – something that gives you great pleasure.
Perhaps the only thing better than chocolate is a bowl of fragrant homemade soup based on an ancient recipe. Buddha Jumped Over the Wall is a famous dish served in a famous restaurant called Ju Chun Yuan, a ritzy spot in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian. Swanning into one of the ornate private rooms bathed in gold and velvet, my new friends and I start the evening with “Gan bei!” cheers over sip-shots of Bordeaux (the Chinese are big wine buyers but little sippers), before tucking into the celebrated soup. Cooked in a clay pot with a Buddha on the lid, it’s packed with coastal bounty, such as abalone, and chicken and mushrooms, rendering it so delectably perfumed that, story goes, it enticed vegetarian monks to jump over the temple walls to taste it. I know just how they felt. And that’s before I get to the lychee pork stuffed with water chestnuts (like sweet-and-sour chicken balls made for royalty) and golden noodles with quail eggs in a rich broth that’s got its own dense texture.
As I travel from villages to towns, I discover that the recipes are so regional, so local, no dish ever repeats. One lunch I’m sitting at a plastic-swathed table in a windowless room nibbling on braised river eel and Tumen peanut candy, and the next I’m eating alfresco in a bamboo restaurant built over a river (complete with bridges and waterwheel), slurping back fried tea mushrooms, spicy snails, smoked goose and soft fresh tofu that’s still draining through cheesecloth in its wooden box.
When you’re told to visit the countryside to see what’s pegged as “one of the most beautiful villages in the province,” you quickly come to understand that it is not that it’s necessarily so beautiful (though the Hui architecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasty homes, with their gentle wooden carvings and lattice windows, is gorgeously evocative). It’s that the particular village is here at all. Saved from destruction by virtue of their remoteness, these age-old places are a welcome getaway for city dwellers longing for simpler times. “People miss their lives from before,” says Lily. “They miss the old China.”
As we pad down a dusty road in Wang Kou, in Jiangxi, flanked by shops and bustling with people, I snack on a fresh tea cake made from rice flour and seasonal barley grass. (Filled with sesame and sugar, it’s sweet and earthy and I love it.) Wood smoke fills the air as men whittle bamboo into long, handy vessels for storing rice wine. A smiling woman in an open-air storefront lets me taste her fire-hot moonshine from the jug while kittens scuttle around my feet. The pace and peacefulness of this place make me think back to an earlier discussion I had with Lily, who though grateful for her country’s rapid growth and development, worries that places like this could soon be lost.
Yet with every floral sip of tea I take, every traditional instrument I hear and every monkey I spot along the banks of the Nine-Bend Stream while bamboo-rafting down it, the past flows seamlessly into the future. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jingdezhen, the country’s porcelain capital, in Jiangxi. On my stop at the city’s Ancient Kiln Folk Customs Museum, I’m mesmerized by the delicate handiwork of artisans busy hand-moulding, painting and firing local clay – just as artisans have been doing for 1,700 years. Lily tells me Jingdezhen’s porcelain shot to fame when an emperor fell in love with it, gifting it to international dignitaries. But back then, she says, the city still went by its original name, Changnan, and, legend has it, for the traders who did business with the Middle Kingdom, Changnan soon became the name of the country itself. It’s how China became China.