Explorations in China - Part 1

As some of our frequent readers of coffeecrew.com know, I recently completed a month-long. multi-purpose trip through China. I say multi-purpose as this trip served a few purposes. Before I dive into the details of my trip, let me first provide some background.

I joined the coffeecrew while studying geography, and working in the lab with our editor Colin at the University of Victoria. During my last year studying human geography, I was awarded a travel grant from the department to help fund a trip through China (sort of a "see-what-you-studied" grant). However, after two more long years of education in Vancouver, I finally found a natural break in my schedule to undertake this journey (and use the grant before the money expired). I then spent the entire month of June 2005 travelling through the still largely-unknown country of the Peoples Republic of China as a vacation and an end to my six years of post-secondary education.

Before I set out on my trip, coffeecrew editor Colin and I felt that doing some research in China on the local emerging coffee scene (and tea of course!) would be imperative for the website! The extent of my knowledge of the coffee scene in China did not go beyond previously knowing that a Starbucks Coffee exists inside the Forbidden City.

I began my journey in Beijing, one of the three gateways in the country for any Westerner. Luckily, a friend I studied with in Victoria was living in the city this summer - needless to say, my accomodation was taken care of.
After overcoming the culture shock of the country (a complete 180 from Canada), and a one day trip to the Great Wall, I had now gone four days without a decent cup of coffee (Japan Airlines serves up a pretty lousy cup of Nescafe).
My first sighting of a "decent" cup of coffee was at the Starbucks located inside the Forbidden City. Normally, I do not drink Starbucks coffee, but at this point, this is the only coffee I have seen in days so I decide to go for it - until I saw the price.
Now, for a westerner to travel through China, nothing is very expensive - $2 for a meal, $4 for accomodation - but a cup of coffee at a Starbucks is more like $4. Basically, when I saw the prices, they were equivalent to western prices - even more! I found this quite suprising, but I thought perhaps it was just the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. No such luck - prices the same everywhere, as there are Starbucks locations sprinkled throughout the city.

Although my explorations did not take me into some of the more posh hotels and restaurants in the city, coffee is still a relativley new product to China - tea is naturally the drink of choice! Coffee is still relativley tough to come by (not like Vancouver - on every street corner), but tea houses are plentiful! Tea houses are a cultural icon of China, and have a long history in Beijing, but are only now emerging in large numbers again after Mao attempted to have them all destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (Mao Tse-Tung believed that tea houses were a common place of discussion, perhaps even political discussion, which was not allowed). With the re-emergence of these tea houses, they are becoming a must-see for any tourist to the city. My experience in one of these unique and tranquil little houses actually came by accident: while biking down a Hutong (mandarin for "narrow alley"), taking a few wrong turns, and seeking cover from a sudden rain/thunder storm. The selection of different teas I was presented with was astounding: green, black, herbal, the list went on! While sitting inside the teahouse, a group of three men sat beside me discussing the daily event in Beijing, showing exactly why Mao believed the teahouses to be such a dangerous activity and a threat to the government. My one other experience with tea in Beijing was at an ancient tea-pouring ceremony, in a teahouse that dated back to the 1500's. Although expensive and somewhat touristy, it was very intersting experience.

Beijing is a facsinating city, with plenty of ancient sites to see such as the Great Wall, Fobidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. It is an even more interesting site today, with the ever-increasing western influence, which is slowly overcoming their traditional lifestyle. It shocked me to see a Starbucks in China, a country still holding onto its political background. I then began to see a real clash between traditional China, and new-age and westernization. Starbucks was the tip of the iceberg. Beijing, with the upcoming 2008 Olympics, has recently been seeing an influx of western firms (Ikea, Costco, McDonalds, KFC). The most surprising was the site of a Lamborghini dealership - the site solidified my belief that the socialist values of Mao and Lenin are long-gone. Beijing is now an interesting mix of, as I like to think, convienent socialism with an ongoing emergence of capatalism.

As I have much more to report on from my trip, I am going to write a second, separate article of my travels through southern rural China - where everything, including the food, drink, and people become much more interesting!