Famed tea region of Mount Wuyi remains steeped in tradition

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CHINA-tea2Cruising down the Nine Bend Stream on a traditional bamboo raft, safely ensconced in comfortable bamboo chairs while two navigators use poles to steer the craft in the placidly flowing water is a perfect way to admire the wonderful mountain scenery prevalent in the Mount Wuyi Scenic Area, in the northern part of the eastern Chinese province of Fujian.

The Chinese have a special reverence for mountains. Visitors will find large numbers of locals touring areas where the mountain scenery is spectacular, enjoying the fresh air and scenery and partaking in various activities. In fact, the day I rafted down the Nine Bend Stream -- the trip takes about 90 minutes -- our boat was one of about 200 similar craft. The rest were full of Chinese tourists who were all intrigued by the Westerners on our boat and wanted to know where we were from.

The Mount Wuyi area was declared a World Heritage List site by Unesco in 1999. The Chinese authorities have catered to the rapidly increasing number of visitors by building a separate tourist town near the city of Wuyishan.

The area is famous for its tea, grain and timber production and, in addition to numerous new hotels, the tourist village is dominated by shops offering tea-tasting ceremonies (apparently in hopes of spurring purchases of overpriced tea) and places containing enormous, and often grotesque, wood carvings.

The Yeohwa Resort and Spa Hotel is highly recommended: stylish and well-run, with excellent facilities, including both Chinese and Western restaurants. One of the noted mountains in the area, Dawang Peak, provides a dramatic backdrop to the hotel.

The Mount Wuyi Scenic Area has many attractions. The Nine Bend Stream winds through some magnificent mountain areas, odd-shaped peaks appearing at every turn. Small temples and pagodas cling precariously to the edge of steep cliffs.

At a couple of places, visitors can spot large crevices where "hanging boat coffins" used to be placed long ago, in a practice unique to this part of China. At the end of the rafting tour, at the mouth of the Nine Bend Stream, tourists shouldn't miss the excellent local museum (for explanations of the boat coffins) and Wuyi Palace.

For a different perspective on the scenery, it is worthwhile tackling a couple of the walks to viewpoints high above the river. Steep steps lead to pagodas on such points as Heavenly Tour Peak, from which the whole panorama of the region is exposed. The rafters in their red life jackets provide a colorful focus against the green of the river and hills.

CHINA-tea2The Chinese often give very evocative names to scenic spots. The Mount Wuyi area offers Eagle's Beak Rock, Ever-Happy Temple, Nine-Dragon Nest, Peach Blossom Cave and Twin Breast Peaks, among others.

Tea remains a major product of the area, as it has been for hundreds of years. Wuyi Rock Tea is regarded as the first among the Top 10 famous teas in China. Popular with visitors is the pleasant stroll along a valley to a place called Dahongpao, where six bushes, each more than 350 years old, are thought to be the originals from which all oolong tea bushes in the region are descended. The spot is revered by the Chinese. Wuyishan claims to be the only "city of tea culture" in China.

Just south of Wuyishan lies the small village of Xiamei, where a small group of ethnic Shanxi people continue to live a traditional lifestyle.

Old ladies deftly sort out the tea leaves on large bamboo platters, while others carefully rake rice grains drying on concrete pads. Animated groups play cards or mah-jongg, women knit on four needles while chatting in doorways, old men sit contemplating life and, nearby, young men shoot pool. 

Tiny shops tucked away inside houses sell artifacts, including knives, vases, pots and paintings, all supposedly 200 years old. It is a vivid reminder of a lifestyle only now starting to change.

For more on Mount Wuyi and Fujian province, contact the China National Tourist Office in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228, or visit the CNTO online at www.cnto.org.

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