Homebrewing Kombucha – Tea fermentation in the Jing

Beijing, 09th of September 2018 (Today is also my third anniversary on WordPress)


I recently discovered tea fermentation and became fascinated with the idea of brewing Kombucha at home. Since we moved to Beijing almost three years ago, the fast pace of the big city life and the constant exposure to the noise, grime, and the general sensorial overload of this megacity had me craving a more balanced life style. Apart from physical exercise and mental fitness I wanted to also improve our diet. From a health perspective there are a variety of reasons why drinking fermented tea is good for you, especially to improve your digestive systems due to its naturally high concentration in enzymes and probiotics. It has cleansing and detoxifying properties that improve immunity and boost energy, since it is made with either black or green tea and contains beneficial amounts of caffeine. Kombucha is also a great source of natural antioxidants and contains medicinal amounts of alcohol occurring during the fermentation process. Besides, what intrigued me is the myth that the process of tea fermentation actually originated in China and dates back thousands of years. Some say a man called Kombu discovered how to make “cha”, which is the Chinese word for tea, into this health elixir, hence the name Kombucha. But no matter where it came from or who discovered it, today its widely accepted if not scientifically proven that fermented tea is good for you.



So when a local start up recently offered a kombucha workshop at the Tech Temple fleamarket and advertised that each participant would get to take their scoby home I was in. The scoby is what makes sweetened tea into fermented tea, translating into “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”. It looks like a sort of sponge, is firm to the touch, and smells somewhat like vinegar. The cultures feed on the substantial amounts of sugar that need to be stirred into the black or green tea and provide the energy necessary for the scoby to ferment the tea. This natural process produces small amounts of alcohol and carbonizes the drink, giving it a nice fizz, making it the perfect drink to substitute for fruit juices or sugary sodas. Any kind of sparkling beverages are a rarity in China, due to the fact that Chinese people are not particularly fond of drinking liquids with bubbles. Sparkling mineral water for example is quite expensive, and if you don’t fancy drinking coca cola every day you have a hard time finding a naturally sparkling drink. This made the prospect of brewing Kombucha at home even more alluring, since the second fermentation in the bottle like in the picture above infuses the ferment with quite a lot of fizz. I open the bottles daily to let out some of the pressure and to prevent the burst of the glass. Unfortunately, even that does not always guarantee the stability of the bottle, and last week I had my very first bottle of second fermentation Kombucha explode while I was at work. It was a nasty surprise coming home after a day in the office and finding the kitchen submerged in over a liter of sugary tea.



Lesson learned, I went online and purchased round bottles instead of squares one in the hope that this would give the glass a higher degree of stability to withstand the carbonation pressure. I also scaled up my fermentation vessel, going from two liters to four liters, and added a scoby hotel to store excess scobys in the future.

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Currently our third batch of Kombucha is brewing in the dark cupboard under our oven and this morning we have opened all three second fermentation bottles to release the pressure. As seen in the top picture we added three different kinds of flavours, one with blueberry puree, one with mashed kaki, and a third one featuring sliced ginger. I expected the one with the ginger pieces to ferment slowest, but opening the bottles this morning we discovered that this one had already build up an astonishing amount of bubbles. During breakfast, we tasted the ginger version and were again surprised that although the kombucha  sparkled a lot in the bottle, most of this fizz was lost when poured into glasses. We will let the remaining two bottles sit at room temperature for at least another day, opening them daily to prevent them from bursting, and will see soon enough if longer fermentation will increase the stability of the bubbles.


To good health – Cheers!

Traditional Chinese medicine treatment – Cupping/Acupressure


At the beginning of this week, a good friend from work asked me if I wanted to accompany her to a traditional Chinese wellness treatment. Apart from receiving three month of medicinal acupuncture a few year back when I hurt my knee during a run, I had fairly little experience when it came to alternative medicine. Since I knew I had a tough week ahead of me I agreed, and asked her where she wanted to go and what they had on offer. She took out her phone, opened an App, and showed me some of the practices the health center she had picked specialized in. Since she already had some experience with this, she suggested I try something called “scraping”. I remember her telling me about the last time she had this technique done, where the skin on her back got scraped with a sort of blunt spatula to increase blood circulation. I’m ridiculously ticklish so I knew I could not live through the experience of someone moving a pointed object up and down my back. Then I remembered that I always wanted to try acupressure, or cupping. Lucky for me, this was also offered and we even got an nice discount for booking the treatments via the App (gotta love China!). We finished work in time and took the bus to Tuanjiehu subway station, which is close to where the Wuzhisheng Foot Reflection Health Center is located. I have to admit I was a little nervous, because I didn’t do any research on how a session of cupping would go about and if it was painful to have these cups stuck to your back. I didn’t have a lot of time to ponder my fears, though, because the moment we entered the building we were greeted by an enthusiastic employee ushering us into the elevator to the fourth floor. Once there, we were quickly given a double room where we were to change into pink cotton pajamas. As is typical in China, the first thing that arrived in our room were two tall glasses of hot water. A minute later two women knocked on the door and pushed a small cart with around 40 tick-walled glass cups into the room. I went first with the cupping, since my friend had booked a combined session of scraping and cupping. We removed the pink shirts, and I lay face down onto the treatment table, placing my head onto the stretcher hole looking at the floor. When I peaked up a minute later, I saw the woman light what looked like a small honey dipper soaked in fuel. She kindly asked me to put my head back down and relax, and I really did feel a little uncomfortable then, not knowing what she was doing.



Later when I watched her apply the cups to the back of my friend I new what had happened, but I was clueless as to what was expecting me when I returned to looking at the floor. Another minute went by before I heard her clank the burning honey spoon against the inside of the glass, which she used to heat up the air inside the cup before quickly placing it on the skin of my back. I think I have to do this a few more times before I could get used to that feeling of my skin and underlying muscle get sucked into the glass by the vacuum. Repeating this technique 16 times I soon looked like a porcupine with glass cups sticking up from my back instead of spikes. I flinched a couple of time, not only because I was tickled, but also because of this completely new sensation all over my back. Surprisingly, the cups were only attached to my skin for less than five minutes. It felt longer since I concentrated on trying to relax a little to enjoy the treatment. It really wasn’t that bad, I think this is something that takes a while to getting used to, but it felt really good when the cups were removed and a deep relaxation spread through my muscles and uncramped my back. I’m sure I will do another session when I return from my summer holidays, because I think now that I know what to expect I won’t be surprised by the feeling. Although I have seen a few people with the resulting dark marks on their backs, I’m still a little astonished when my friend took a picture of my back and showed me the large round impressions on my skin. Now, five days after having done this, my skin itches a little bit and the circles begin to fade. It is somewhat difficult to find business clothes that cover the dark marks when going to work, though. Especially since it is summer and I can’t wear long sleeves. I honestly can’t say yet if I really have benefited from cupping, then again I was a bit nervous and might have missed out on some of the relaxing effects.


Traveling through Yunnan – First Leg: Lijiang

May Day Holidays, 28th – 30th of April, 2018


The May Day holidays were spent traveling through Yunnan province! Its a beautiful place with very friendly people, delicious food, and incredible sights to visit. Just sitting in one of the rooftop cafes and enjoying the view of the city is a great start into our travels. The weather was cooler than expected, even though we knew that we were traveling in somewhat higher altitudes than usual.

Its not only available in Yunnan, but breakfast every morning consisted of Xiaolongbao, local bread, and a bowl of Doujiang, which is a sort of Tofu drink. In the background is the oldtown of Lijiang, a UNESCO protected part of the city famous for its cobble stone streets and traditional buildings.

Streets like these are a typical sight in Lijiang, with narrow stone paths winding through rows of old traditional Chinese houses. Many of them are used as hostels now, but it is easy to imagine how people used to live here in the old days.

A well-known feature of Lijiang are the small water ways running through the whole city. In former times these were used to channel water to every part of the city, and today especially the older generation still uses it to wash vegetables.

During the day there are still a lot of quite places to enjoy the architecture and serenity of this ancient town, but come nighttime many of the shops turn into booming tourist bars with loud blaring music and bright disco lights. A lot of local tourists seem to enjoy this as well, we preferred to the quite Lijiang, though.

Backpacking Northern Vietnam IV – Three day motorbike tour to Meo Vac

29.01.2017 – 30.01.2017

So here is the fourth part of our travel documentary from Northern Vietnam at the beginning of this year (2017). In the last blog entry we were still discovering Bac Ha and the trekking routes around that small village with our local guide. We stayed one more night in “downtown” Bac Ha in the Ngan Nga hotel to discover the village a little more.

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The roadtrip, 31.01.2017 – 02.02.2017

A map of the route from Bac Ha to Ha Giang.

Since we were still travelling during the Vietnamese New Year, we had to be a little inventive to get all the way from Bac Ha further up north to Ha Giang. Again, Mr. Dong proved to be a very helpful contact who organized a private shuttle bus with driver in less than 24 hours before the trip. Drawing a linear line from one city to the other, the distance might be less than 80km. In this part of the world these units mean little though. First of all, there is no straight route connecting the one place with the other. There are very few streets passing through the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and even fewer that are accessible with anything else than a heavy-duty motorbike. Most of the streets are mere dirt paths with potholes the size of small swimming pools and our vehicle had to drive at under 30km/h average in order not to break down or get stuck in the muddy mess the spring rains caused. Needless to say there are no highways here, so it took us the better half of a day to make it up to Ha Giang. Once there, we took a room in the Cao Nguyen hotel and asked the receptionist to help us apply for a travel permit into the frontier regions of the north.

The travel permit officially allowing us to enter the frontier regions bordering Southern China.

Since it was only allowed fairly recently for foreigners to access the mountains bordering the People’s Republic of China we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to rent a scooter for the roadtrip, the girl at the reception of our hotel was very helpful again, renting us her uncle’s motorbike for around 8€ per day. She made sure it had a comfortable seat that was large enough to fit two people plus backpack. Next, we went to a mobile phone store and tried to buy a SIM card with mobile data so we could access online maps during the trip. Unfortunately, they were sold out (or that is what we thought we understood the sales person said) and in the end the receptionist provided us with a mobile phone card. Right in front of our hotel a street market wound its way a kilometer up the road and we spent the evening before our trip buying fruit for the tour and discovering Ha Giang a little more. Very early the next morning we left most of our luggage with the hotel and only took one backpack with clothes for three days with us. Since we did not pay a deposit for the scooter, I guess this also served as a form of security for our return.


Photo documentary of our roadtrip from Ha Giang to Tam Son, over Yen Minh and Dong Van all the way up to Meo Vac and back.

 


The Vuong Palace and the past glory of the H’mong people

On the way to Dong Van we stopped by the Vuong Palace, a two-storey mansion built for the local H’mong king. In the 20th century, this old mansion was once home to an influential family headed by a powerful don. Up there in the mountains, where buildings tend to be small and practical, this structure takes a very special place in the landscape. The road winds down into the valley, so we expected to see the palace from a distance. But since it was built in a turbulent era and had to be protected from enemies, a small forest of trees was planted all around to hide it from view. Relatively speaking the place isn’t large and you would probably have overlooked it in any other context. In the mountain ranges of Ha Giang province though its quite a unique sight. Built in a Chinese courtyard style with a communal open-air space in the middle, the four “wings” on each side house more than 60 small rooms, some of which have secret passages that connect the whole structure. Some of the doorways were tiny, and even though the people who used to live here were probably smaller, I still have to wonder if they had to tuck in their heads to pass through like us.

With fresh snacks in our backpack we continued our roadtrip up north. The landscape became steeper still and the mountain road twisted and turned around the conical hills. Except for the occasional car we only encountered people on motor bikes or walking on foot alongside the street. I often asked myself what the people on the other bikes where doing today and what purpose they had driving or walking along this road that day. This being the only way through this region some of them might have traveled between the few larger villages, maybe from Tam Son to Yenh Min, or even farther up all the way to Dong Van to visit family. Some people obviously went grocery shopping, one couple even carrying a live chicken bound with a rope around its feet to the backseat of their motorbike. Every few hours the public mini bus would pass us by, speeding along the dirt round and announcing its arrival before every corner with a honk from its horn. That is what every one did to make sure they were not run over by oncoming traffic, so every time we made a turn – which was more often than not – we also sounded our horn. The best thing about doing this trip on a scooter rather than by public transportation was that we were free to stop whenever we felt like it. Since it was early in the year, it was still quite cold and my knees would freeze stiff when I sat too long on the bike. Even without that excuse to take a break every once in a while, it gave us the possibility to take in the landscape whenever we saw something interesting. Sometimes that would be a small stonepark long the street, or like in the pictures above a street market popped up on an intersection of the road. But most often it was simply the breathtaking views over the misty mountain ranges that made us hit the breaks and simply enjoy the nature.

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The Eastern Qing Tombs and Dowager Empress Cixi’s Final Resting Place

Sunday, 30th of April 2017


Strolling towards the tombs of one of the most powerful women of the Qing dynasty – the dowager empress Cixi.


Weekends are for daytripping – at the end of last month that motto brought us to the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, almost 130km northeast of the Jing in the province of Hebei. Since online research suggested that regular public transportation wasn’t an option we went to Qianmen to buy a bus ticket with one of the public tourism companies a day in advance. We must have scored two of the last tickets, because early the next morning when we entered the bus, almost all the seats were taken. Five hours later, when we finally arrived at the Qing Tombs, we definitly learned some lessons:

  • Always arrive some 30 minutes ahead of time if you want to have adjecent seats

    I’m not gonna translate that (go ahead and use the translator)

    in the bus (that one should go without saying, and it proved to be true once more);

  • Boiled eggs are a type of “fast food” snack in China and a fart-like smell that creeps through the centre aisle does not necessarily mean that somebody couldn’t restrain themselves;
  • No matter how innocent an intersection looks, you can be almost certain that traffic will jam for miles nonetheless (giving you the time to stretch your legs and buy some ice cream at a rural 小卖部);
  • If you didn’t think about “doing your business” before the trip, you better be prepared to pay 10 Kuai to use the roadside thunderbox for a No. 2.
  • Never trust that the bus driver knows the way – even after continously consulting his cell phone map, he chose a road that allowed only vehicles no taller than 2.9m (yes, a long distance bus is taller than that). Luckily, pragmatism wins, and ten minutes after being stuck here a

    Our bus driver didn’t agree with the hight limitation of the road he chose, so he asked the gatekeeper to lift it.

    chubby gatekeeper arrived to ramp up the steel barrier and let us pass.


Exploring the Qing Tombs

The burial site was too large to see it all in three hours, and we will definitly come here again with a rental car. Along the way many locals offered rural homestays for rent, so it might even be an option to make this a weekend trip. The imperial mausoleum complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and requires a whole day of sightseeing if you want to see it all. On the tomb grounds, shuttle buses and golf caddies transport visitors from one grave to the next.

Again, I have embarrassingly little to write about the historic significance of the Qing Tombs. In fact, I am still waiting to discover a tourist site in China that actually has meaningful descriptions that provide some background information about the place you are visiting. So instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia I trust that the images convey the grandeur and splendor of the Qing Tombs. Enjoy.

At the entrance to the expansive tomb grounds ponds with water lilies and marble bridges greet the visitors.

Three gates granting access to the necropolis of the Qing emperors. The left (eastern) gate is the entrance gate for the emperor, whereas the west gate was used by the ministers. The coffin was carried through the center gate.

The Eastern Qing Tombs.

Yu Tomb (Qian Long) Stone Tributes, representing an altar with an oven, two candle holders and two vases on it. It was used to worship the ancestors. During the Qing dynasty, the royal harem could go no further than here.

Yuling, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor is one of the most magnificient royal graves in Chinese history. A series of nine vaults separated by four solid marble doors, weighting 3 tons each, are located at a depth of 54 metres. In 1928 the underground palace was robbed by the warlord Sun Dianying.

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Down below in the Yuling tombs, all the walls, vaulted ceilings, and gates are covered with Buddhist imagery and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture and Sanskrit.

Reenactment of a royal ceremony.

Marble bridges leading to the Xiao Tombs Tablet Tower. The double eave gablet roof covers the tablet on which Emperor Shun Zhi’s title is carved in three languages – Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese.

Cixi Tomb Small Tablet Tower.

Looking down from the Ming Tower of Cixi’s Tomb, the highest site of the mausoleum.

Below, the grave grounds span all the way to the mountains.

The Pride of Lions guarding Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge

Saturday, the 29th of April 2017


One more of Beijing’s sights is down from our tourist bucket list. Last weekend we took a bus all the way out to the suburbs of Beijing and visited the Marco Polo Bridge, a historically significant place in the south-west of town. There is not much else out there, but the bridge in itself is definitly worth the trip. Along the railing over the river some 500 different lions from different eras of Chinese history guard the bridge, and myth has it that no two persons will count the same number of lions there. One of the reasons why is that each individual lion is oftentimes joined by many more small baby lions hiding all around the stone sculpture. Below is a small selection of the creatures that can be seen there.

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Temple of Ancient Monarchs Li Dai Di Wang Miao in Beijing

Saturday, the 21th of January 2017

The Temple of Ancient Monarchs


Today is another day of brilliant blue skies and sunshine in Beijing. Three weeks into the new year the weather is freezing cold, but due to the icy winds the air is clear again and you can see the mountains surrounding the city miles away. Naturally, we always want to make good use of bright days like this and decided to go visit the Temple of Ancient Monarchs, also called The Historical Emperial Temple of Beijing [Li Dai Di Wang Miao 历代帝王庙].

Personally I get the impression that many of the sights in Beijing look quite alike and I’m sure architects or historians see the many unique features in every one of them. Risking to appear ignorant I’d say I rather visit the temples that are a bit off the trail and attract less visitors but appear to be carved from the same wood than join the masses and squeeze through the entrance of the Forbidden City. First time visitors to Beijing will probably disagree and will gladly endure the crowds to enjoy the magnificence of the top rated tourist sites. And I have to admit that you probably cannot travel to Beijing and later tell your friends and family that you wouldn’t visit the Lama Temple in fear of too many people. I will still try to convice you that the Temple of Ancient Monarchs is very worthwhile even though it might not be the number one priority on your Beijing bucket list.

Since we only have one week left until Chinese New Year – a week of holidays with abundant fireworks and merry family get-togethers – red laterns and lucky symbol appeared all over the city virtually over night. Contrary to the jammed experience of tourist sights during the Spring Festival itself, today the Temple of Ancient Monarchs was almost completely deserted. On the one hand, that might be due to the fact that almost nobody is actually a “native” Beijing citizen and thus returned to their home provinces for the festival already. On the other hand minus 5 degrees C and a stiff wind probably convinced people to stay indoors despite the beautiful sunshine.

The Historical Imperial Temple of Beijing is easily seen in an hour’s time. There are three major halls, all of which contain religious artifacts. There are also two halls housing a large buddha, and two pavillons with traditional Chinese “turtles”. In the west annex hall leading off the main structure to the left you’ll find the small Guan Di Temple. Outside, a small steel oven is used to burn incense, while inside a regious entity may be adressed for prayers. In the east annex hall visitors may see the Well Pavilion, used to make sacrificial soup and to clean up after the animals were slaughtered for sacrifice.The well’s roof has a square hole in the center facing the mouth of the well, symbolizing that heaven and earth were linked together.

For an overview of the temple’s layout see the map below.

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