Killing the Green

I climb the steps through the rainforest to the ramshackle stone temple gate, dwarfed by the nearby banyan trees. Beyond, there is a new Buddhist pagoda, its upturned eaves sheathed in gold spires, its flanks decorated with murals depicting the Buddhist saints. I sit in the shadow of the gate, a mangy kitten poking around in the dirt beneath me, and turn to the camera.

“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I begin, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who–”

I stop. The kitten has stuck its head up my shirt, and is licking the sweat off my back.

 “It might look like I am in Thailand,” I repeat, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern–”

I stop again. The kitten has clambered up my shoulders and onto my head.

You are leaving the house, but today you are on camera. Are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday, or their exact duplicates? Are your shoes tied in the same way? Is your hair the same? Do you have your passport for military spot-checks? Were your sunglasses on your head or in your pocket? Are your feet presentable, because you might have to unexpectedly be barefoot on camera? Was the mosquito repellent sticker visible on your shirt? What hand did you hold that packet of tea in yesterday? Have you been burned by the sun? Is there a kitten on your head?

“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I venture, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who some say were the first to cultivate tea.”

I have finished the line after only three takes. The kitten pads along my thigh and mews up at me approvingly.

People keep inviting themselves along, and a refusal often offends. They don’t understand that any extra body on the production is another person who can trip over a chair in the middle of a take, whose mobile phone will go off when I am speaking, who will be taking the single free chair for the few seconds we can sit down on before being dragged off for another piece to camera.

If we are invited out to dinner after a twelve-hour shoot, sometimes it doesn’t constitute “relaxing”. Sometimes it means we can’t choose our food. It means folding our aching muscles onto tiny stools in some Thai restaurant, and being forced to try unknown dishes that might give us the squirts all night. It means that everybody has to spend another two hours speaking Mandarin, which only two of the crew have as a native language. Our would-be host still refers to me in the third person, along the lines of: “Can he use chopsticks?” It means we are not in staggering distance of our hotel. It means we owe someone a favour, which in China just accretes tasklets and obligations like limescale. So: no.

We are very far away from the cities of China. I ask my driver the name of the mountain on the other side of the valley, and he replies: “Myanmar.” The Blang tribe live out on the flanks of the mountain Badashan, supposedly the home of tea.

Yuyang, a Blang lady, leads me up into the hills. But we are not going to the neat rows of terraces of the tea plantation. Instead, we are clambering up to a tall stand of trees, said to be over a thousand years old. Little tea trees look like shrubs, each attached to a yellow square of insect-encrusted flypaper. But even these little bushes are over eighty years old, kept low by the constant bonsai of stripping off their youngest leaves. The trees are really trees, growing wild in the forest. I’m not actually afraid of climbing the tree to get to the young leaves at its top, but I do fret that my weight will permanently ruin what might actually be the first ever tea tree to be cultivated. So, I leave it to Yuyang to clamber up like a monkey.

The tea leaves are laid out to dry overnight, and then roasted in a large bowl-shaped depression cemented into the side of the house like a giant’s wok. A fire crackles underneath, as Yuyang’s brother Aizhang lifts and flings the tea leaves against the wok, wearing little string gloves. It is hot work and he seems oddly unused to it. After a few minutes, I realise that there is a tumble-drier-like device next to us which probably does all the roasting automatically when there is not a film crew in town.

After forty minutes of Two Men One Wok, the tea has nicely browned. This is called “killing the green,” since the tea leaves now look like tea leaves, and can be dried further and pressed into cakes for transportation. But that’s another story.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

There Will Be Blood

The sun is bright white overhead, and in the distance there are the red striated rocks of the Flaming Mountains, where the Monkey King once fought Princess Iron Fan, or as the Uyghurs tell it, where a hero once felled a dragon, causing its still-simmering body to break up into seven pieces.

Our van stops at the side of the road to look down a ravine at ancient Buddhist grottoes, cut into the rock. They were once by the bank of a river in a green valley, but are now marooned a hundred feet up, above a wadi that only has water in it maybe once a year. This isn’t part of our scheduled filming, but I do a piece to camera about the retreat of the waters from Xinjiang, and we get to give the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon a quick run along the valley to shoot it from the air. We only attract eight passers-by, which is a miracle in China.

We have come to Tuyuk village, a Muslim community out among the vineyards, where the locals dry grapes in the sun until they become raisins. There are five thousand people living here, spread out in single-storey huts across a swathe of land in the shadow of the Flaming Mountains.

Ismayil is an old man who makes merceles, a fermented grape juice that uses the wine production methods of Ancient Greece, but with no alcohol content. The Quran only forbids “intoxicants”, you see, whereas merceles is officially medicine. We have to shoot all the stages of its manufacture, from the grape picking, to the crushing, to the sieving, to the boiling and the adding of kebabs.

No, wait, what? Kebabs. The grape juice is boiled with hunks of meat, and then left to set for 40 days until it is drinkable. Then it apparently puts hairs on your chest. While I am trying to interview Ismayil about his herbal ingredients, a butcher is dragging a sheep behind me and slitting its throat, letting its blood drain into a hole in the ground. And while I am talking with him about the history of grapes, the same butcher is shoving a hollow tube up the dead sheep’s leg, and then inflating it like a lilo to push the skin away from the flesh. In fact, the whole day is taken with the slow dismemberment and cooking of a sheep, with some bits going onto kebab skewers, and the rest of them being boiled in a pot to make our lunch.

We sit gingerly on the divan and poke at the big hunks of meat. A neighbour (all Ismayil’s neighbours have come to gawp) hands me a cut-throat razor to saw flesh off the shank. It tastes remarkable – mutton this fresh turns out to taste the way lamb tastes for everybody else. I realise that Ismayil has had his flies undone all day, but that if I point this out, it will ruin the continuity. His granddaughter smiles at me experimentally, and two grandsons ask me if I am an American.

None of the interlopers speak particularly good Mandarin, which means we are all mercilessly taking the piss out of each other in our own little linguistic alleys. Viewers of the finished product should look out for the moment when Ismayil and I first greet each other, shot, for reasons not worth going into, late the day after I have already knocked back several bowls of his supposedly alcohol-free medicine. I come in through the carved wooden door in his courtyard, and he runs laughing to shake my hand. I greet him with an enthusiastic: “Ismayil! Big up your bad self!”

He replies with something unintelligible in Uyghur, which probably means: “Why didn’t you tell me my flies were undone, you arsehole?”

There is a knock at the door, and a very short woman in a green headscarf comes in.

“My legs are giving me jip,” she says, “and I heard there was a slaughter today. Can you do me a couple of pigeons.”

Oh yes, says Ismayil, and gets her to sit down and lift her skirt. Then he slits the throat of a spare pigeon and spatters her legs with blood, while the film crew look at their watches.

Right, says the director, if we can now get to the bit where we sieve the grape juice…?

There is another knock at the door.

“Hello,” says a man in a knock-off Armani T-shirt. “I heard there was a slaughter today, and I’ve got these pains in my legs. Can you spare me a pigeon or two?”

But of course, says Ismayil decapitating two more pigeons and spraying him with blood, before ripping out feathers and dropping them onto the result. His patient starts to look like a zombie version of Foghorn Leghorn, and we get back to the business at hand.

By the time I get to taste some merceles, I am ready for the worst, but it tastes like Ricola, and I am quite happy to drink it all day. You would never know that there was half a sheep and four dead pigeons in it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

Gold Remi

I am informed this morning that National Geographic’s Route Awakening season five has received a Gold Remi award for History and Archaeology at Worldfest Houston. A wonderful acknowledgement for the crew that schlepped across China in two long road trips, from Luoyang to Nanjing and from Kunming to Nanchang, to document some of the most amazing new museums in China, showcasing the histories of the Dian Kingdom of Yunnan, the Shang dynasty in Anyang, Luoyang’s history as a Chinese capital, the lost state of Yelang, and the golden treasures of the Marquis of Haihun.

Season five was my third with the series, and gave me a real chance to put my experience to proper use, quizzing archaeologists on their latest finds, some of which are still in the process of being restored, delving into evidence in the Grand Scribe’s Records, and in one moving episode, returning with a retired historian to the place where, in his younger days, he had uncovered game-changing ancient graves.

Professor Liang Taihe was the happiest interviewee I can remember having, a tall, grey pensioner with nothing to lose, who spent his whole career arguing with his peers that archaeology shouldn’t be impenetrable to outsiders. In modern, Western terms, he was all about impact and outreach, so we were ideally suited for each other. The picture below shows me at my lowest and him at his most playful — after a dawn start and a three-hour drive to a fantastic new museum in Guiyang, there was still a day’s filming to do. At one point, I nodded off in the Yelang gallery, a floor crammed with the materials that Professor Liang had painstakingly assembled during his career. Unable to resist, he snapped a picture of me so Chinese academia could have a good laugh.

“We are afraid of the media,” he confessed over a boozy dinner. “They try to turn everything into an adventure story. They want everything to be solved in 22 minutes. They make us out to be breathless idiots, and then our colleagues laugh at us because we fell for it. So it’s lovely to meet a bunch of people like you, who really care about what we do, and want to tell people.”

We drove through karst hills rippling with the signs of abandoned farm terraces, and huge caves torn out of the bare rock. The flat ground was reserved for market gardens, and the road too narrow for two cars to pass each other. At one point, when market day caused a jam at a junction, Professor Liang bounded out of the car and began directing traffic.

He hadn’t been back for 18 years, and was shocked at the sight of new buildings, including a temple-like structure intended as the entrance to the Yelang Capital Experience, a theme park under construction. While our cameraman filmed B-roll in the market, and our fixer argued with a woman whose food stall had been accidentally ram-raided by the crew’s van, Professor Liang stood with me on a windswept heath and swore at the picturesque scene down below.

“Where the hell did that lake come from? This used to be the Kele river. On that hill, over there, I found a really big roof tile, which makes me think it came from a really big roof. I think that was where the Han people built their offices.”

We edged through a trash-strewn pathway next to a car repair works, to stand in a field scattered with dead plants.

“This was where I found it. That copper pot-head burial that was the earliest in the record. Some king or warrior or great shaman from Yelang. In that hill over there, we found more than a hundred graves, ten percent of them with pots on their heads. Weapons, malachite and agate beads, and bells.”

An old lady comes out of the house nearby and stares at him while he stares back. They charged across the field to each other and embraced, switching into Guizhou dialect, reminiscing about their lives a generation earlier, and asking about each other’s families. He told her about his daughter, also a historian, who works in the Forbidden City in Beijing. They embraced again, and hold the pose a little longer than expected. She went back into her house. And then she came out again to wave him off watching us until we turned a corner and were out of sight.

“Nothing has really changed,” he said to me back in the car. “Not really.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

The Straw Hat Crew

Liu Tianjie at the Gulong Sauce Factory. Photo by Clarissa Zhang for Route Awakening (Nat Geo).

The Gulong Soy Sauce Factory in Xiamen uses methods that would not have been all that out of place two thousand years ago. The only difference is the scale. Soybeans are steamed and mixed in with wheat flour, and the all-purpose qu fermentation starter, then wheeled in to the drying rooms on trolleys the size of hospital gurneys.

Clad in his uniform grey boiler suit, fetching white wellies and a wide-brimmed straw hat, manager Liu Tuanjie walks me through the process, as his gloved assistants hand-mix piles upon piles of still-warm beans on gurney trays.

“This used to be a family thing,” he says. “Every household would have their own particular recipe, and their own home-grown qu. It was only over time that the process grew larger and larger in scale, until it was industrialised like this.”

The warm beans are left to dry-ferment in a hot room for three days, until they start to go a dodgy-looking yellow, at which point they are whisked away and tipped into child-sized jars of salt water out in the baking sun.

This, I realise, is why Mr Liu is wearing his straw hat, as we march along row after row of the large jars, each topped by an oversize straw hat of its own. They are sitting on open ground, stretching far into the distance – there are 60,000 of them, in an area the size of several football pitches. Each day, as the cool night air recedes, Liu and his assistants dart down the rows, lifting off the straw covers in sets of four, so the brine solution and its bean-mix contents get the maximum amount of sunshine.

I struggle to keep up with him on the next row over. My own hastily issued straw hat, which comes complete with a flowery brim to put me in my place, fails to keep the bright sun from my eyes, and my fingers have trouble gripping the rasping fibres of the heavy straw covers. He is already several jars ahead of me, flipping the covers off like they are bottle caps.

“We take the beans, we cook them and roll them in flour and yeast, we let them dry-ferment for a bit, and then we put them out here for a year. The sun rarely changes. It’s always hot, and that slowly bakes them down into soy sauce.”

“It takes a year,” he continues. “In each season, spring, summer, autumn, winter, we adjust the conditions.” So – covers off for longer in the slightly colder months, on for longer when it’s warmer. But with Xiamen being warm all year around conditions for brewing the soy sauce are not as fiddly as they might be elsewhere. “Each day, we have to optimise the daylight – lift the lids, let the light in… see how the fermentation’s coming along.”

“You couldn’t do this in Beijing,” he scoffs, whipping away another cover with practised ease. “The weather changes too much.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).

Route Awakening S05

Season five of National Geographic’s Route Awakening begins its broadcast run in China on 23rd August. Other territories to follow soon. But for viewers in China, this will be your chance to see me delving into sacrificial rituals at the Wastes of Yin; oracle bone scripts and divination in the Shang dynasty; the violent art of the Dian kingdom; Nanjing in the middle ages; the golden treasures of a deposed emperor; the immense cathedral-like complex built around a relic of Buddha’s skull; burial customs of the lost Yelang kingdom, and the shipyards of Admiral Zheng He.

Wrapped at Christmas

After six weeks of shooting and over 1,500 miles of driving, I’m on my way home having wrapped on season five of Route Awakening for National Geographic, taking in two lost kingdoms, a forgotten emperor, several sets of grave robbers, and your correspondent trying to learn the steps to the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. Yes, I was working on Christmas Day. That’s the way I like it. Look out for more details on the topics of season five coming in spring 2019. Also coming in the New Year, my latest book: A Brief History of China from Tuttle Publishing, which begins with cavemen and ends with reality television.

Gold Remi

Season three of National Geographic’s Route Awakening, in which I wander some of the ethnic minority communities of modern China, has just snagged the Gold Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival for “TV: Information, Cultural or Historical.” You can see the trailer here. Seasons one and two won the same award in 2016 and 2017.

Route Awakening 3

Season three of Route Awakening is now airing in China, with some thirty or so other countries fast behind it. You can see the trailer here for glimpses of me getting attacked by Kam tribesmen in fancy dress in a muddy pond, witnessing the shamanic rituals of the Gorlos Mongols, and sundry other explorations among China’s ethnic minority groups. The picture above is my favourite from the shoot, taken by Mack Zhang, our fixer, of me and Daniel the director of photography, interviewing the village “Ghost Master” in Tang-an, Guizhou.