By Dr. Teresita C. Yu
For my Mom’s 75th birthday, I took her on a trip to the western part of China following part of the ancient Silk Road. From Beijing, we flew with China Northeast Airlines to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province. It is by far the most modern and industrial city in this part of China with a mixture of contemporary Chinese, early 20th century Russian and Islamic buildings including a number of mosques. This is home to the indigenous Uygur people but being the capital, attracts many representatives from the national minority peoples (i.e. Khazaks, Huis, Mongolians, Tajiks, Manchu, Tartars, Xibes, Kirgiz, Uzbeks, Russians etc.). This region boasts of the beautiful alpine Lake of Heaven and on a clear day, one can see the snow-capped peak of the two mountain ranges of the Tianshan.
Our memorable first night in Urumqi introduced as to their festive and lively night- markets and fine- dining on the streets. I was told that every night, the main streets around the people’s park are closed to traffic after eight. All sorts of merchants and entrepreneurs put up stalls to sell their wares. There are several main streets that are for food stalls where the owners put up stoves, cookware, meat and vegetables and noodles to be cooked right there on the streets. In front of each stall are wooden dining tables, some nicely spread with colorful tablecloth and chairs. I had smoked fish with a bowl of noodles and Mom had a big bowl of vegetable noodles. The food was well cooked, steamy, hot and delicious! I remembered paying just about six dollars for the both of us and that included drinks. These markets were crowded with people — lots of young couples out on a date and others shopping for goods at prices you can’t beat. After a satisfying meal and shopping around for souvenirs we headed back to our hotel just a few blocks away. Right in front of our hotel is the People’s Park, now lit with colorful bright lights. It has a carnival-like atmosphere. We crossed the street to join the fun. In one corner, there is Chinese poetry reading, in another, a small scale Chinese opera is being staged. In the far end of the park, music was blaring and when we were closer, to my surprise, it was playing country western music and people were engaged in the two- step and line dancing! Later on, tango music played and some very well-dressed couples from the crowd came out to dance to the music. What fun! I thought for sure that this would be the world’s cheapest date. Dinner and dancing and even theater for just $6!
Leave it to my mother to recall a story told by Kung Kung (grandfather) a long time ago. This is about the legendary snow lotus flower and it’s magical ability to prolong life. It is supposed to be found only in this part of China. Her story prompted our hunt for this elusive plant. It turns out that our local guide Parhat knew one of the four professors involved in the research. He recommended that we go to The Snow Lotus Institute one afternoon and meet with him. We were fortunate to have an extra afternoon for optional activities. Was there anything more important to do than discover the whereabouts of the snow lotus? We thought not, and were thus off to the research institute accompanied by our guide. When we reached the area, we were stopped at the gate and were told that the professor was at lunch and the institute was closed. No one knew what time it would open or whether the professor would be back. Our guide asked the guard of the professor’s whereabouts and we were told that he was having lunch at a nearby eatery. We decided to wait for more information. Parhat returns shortly afterwards, asking us to wait a while longer until the professor finishes his lunch. At the gate, I can see the old, dilapidated four story building in need of new paint and repairs. I wondered what kind of research is being done in such a sorry place? I was beginning to doubt the stories until, our guide told us that the inhabitants of Xinjiang have some of the longest lifespans in China and the province is home to about four thousand centenarians! The people there believed it has to do with drinking snow lotus tea. So, we waited. An hour or so passed. Finally I saw an old man with long white beard walking briskly towards us. With a toothy grin, he greeted Parhat warmly and shook our hands, welcoming us to the Snow Lotus Institute! We climbed the cemented staircase up to the fourth floor where the conference room is located and were offered some tea. We find ourselves at a large rectangular table sitting in comfortable chairs surrounded by glass door cabinets. Stacks of books and some red boxes add to the curious setting.
The professor’s name is Lee Tayking, a foremost researcher of the snow lotus plant and it’s medicinal qualities. He is a professor of traditional medicine in Xinjiang Medicine University in Urumqi. I was told confidentially that he is 80 years old and although he looked old with his beard, his demeanor, speech and walk speak of unusual vitality. He proceeded to give us a talk on the snow lotus and his research. That afternoon, I learned that the Tianshan Snow lotus is a sexennial herbage and a rare medicinal herb, a special Xinjiang local plant growing only in the rocky mountains and glaciers near the snowline about 5000 meters above sea level. The snow lotus has the ability to resist severe cold, intense ultraviolet radiation and low oxygen --- in such an environment no other plants can grow. The snow lotus begins to blossom around the middle of August in the fifth year of it’s sexennial growth period. The stem, root, leaves and blossom of the snow lotus contain a variant composition of alkaloid, volatile oil, steroid, polysaccharide, reduced substance, manganese, zinc and some other trace elements. Some of the ailments where it has been proved to have medicinal value are Rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago and muscle soreness. It has also been shown to alleviate menorrhagia, functional irregular mentruation, impotence and weak physique. There are no known toxic side effects according to their research.
The harvesting of the snow lotus is regulated by the Chinese government and mostly by the military in view of the location of the plant. A certain number is allocated to research, some are sold to foreign researchers and to the public. My mother expressed wanting to buy some of the flowers to make tea. I pictured tea bags or loose tea leaves like what we are used to in the west. Instead, the Professor went to the cabinet and chose from one of the red boxes and handed it to us. The sealed box was made of glass and was heavy. Inside I could see one snow lotus plant, stem, root, leaves and blossom well preserved as if it was just picked! We were also given a sheet of paper with instructions on how to measure and boil for tea. The special container is to keep the plant fresh, as mildewed plants cannot be used for decocting and infusion. Furthermore, containers made of iron cannot be used. Our guide suggested we buy a special cooking pot from the local market. Each plant cost $50 and lasts for a month if you drink a cup daily following the instructions for brewing. So, back to the night market to hunt for a teapot!
Back home, my mother immediately set on to the brewing of this special tea. I must say that this green tea tastes heavenly! It is well worth the effort to get them. The only regret I have is not being able to buy more of the snow lotus plant because of the bulk and weight of the boxes required to contain them and not to mention the cost! In view of this, my mother managed to stretch the one plant into three months of delightful cups of tea. I should mention that my mother is now 80 years old and can out-walk me anytime.
The Hunt For the Snow Lotus is one of the stories in Dr. Teresita Yu's upcoming book about her travels.