Robert Fortune was the original tea hitchhiker. He was so skilled at it, that he was able to thumb a ride on an airship, which traveled over the Himalayan mountains and deposited him in the foothills of the Yunnan province.1 It was here that he had his first encounter with really good tea, and it was those adventures that led him to create The Hitchiker’s Guide to Tea. Of course if you believe all this baloney, you’re as mad as Fortune. Why don’t you just take off on an airship and go to Mars and write a book on coffee.
Originally published as Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China, Fortune’s first book became an instant bestseller across the British Empire. Obviously not in China, because they’d have chosen to rewrite the the book naming it: Three years rotting in jail. The success of the sales from the book, encouraged Fortune to return to China and continue writing about his travels. At the time, China was largely an undiscovered country, mainly because once in, you didn’t make it out. Unperturbed Fortune played upon his role of adventurer well, offering commentary and observations, often in the form of storytelling, about – what appeared to the West – to be a mythical and mysterious land.
Life as a botanist
Generally, life as botanist is pretty boring. One is surrounded by shrubs and bushes with the highlight of one’s day digging in the dirt and squishing grubs. If you get really good at digging ditches, squishing grubs and knocking plant-eating insects out of the air with spitwads, someone may come along and send you on a trip deep into a mysterious land full of mists and dragons. However chances are virtually nil, so if that’s why you’re trying to become a botanist, just forget it. Also, why would you want to become a botanist anyway?
The famous airship. Well not really, it’s only here because it’s pretty cool and if Robert Fortune had taken a ride on an early experimental airship kept in the air by Hydrium - that would have been awesome.
More importantly, advances in airship design would have helped establish Britain as a Colonial power which would have helped with the subjugation of natives in the colonies. Of course, that’s all a lot of woulds for nothing because that never happened.
British Life in China
Being a Briton in China during the Victorian Era was a pretty difficult affair, because it was pretty obvious that you were foreign, worse English, and even worse; probably a hooligan. Burdened with this affliction, and a complexion not matched to the local population, most Britons stayed within the walled city of Canton (also known natively as Guangzhou). As Canton was the only location willing to overlook those foreign oddities, and allowing their presence, the city served as Robert Fortune’s headquarters and base of operations during his time in China. While he spent a great deal of time in the interior disguised as Mandarin, he always returned to a small research garden he maintained in Canton. Probably because he could take off his clothes and happily play in the dirt in his birth suit.
When he wasn’t deep in dirt, he spent time with fellow Brits studying and reading. There were no golf courses, or pubs at the time, so there was little else to do. How much studying was in fact undertaken is murky. A man can only take so much reading, so he frequently ventured out of the city in disguise. In Three Years’, Fortune talks at length of how he was attacked in one of the suburbs of Canton, probably because his Union Jack socks were visible when he took big strides. In the book, one of his compatriots recounts how he and a group of other Britons were attacked, robbed and nearly stripped naked by the local Chinese. What the book fails to mention is that it was a mob of Chinese teenage fans that got ahold of them mistaking them for a British boyband. Once the crazed girls began tugging at the shirts, revealing a load of pasty flab, they realized their error and took off running. 2
Fortune decided there must be other ladies who would be more accommodating, so he continued to leave the city frequently, hitchhiking across the country. Since that wouldn’t have gone down too well, with the lady back home, he announced it was purely to search out tea. Anyone would understand putting your life in danger for a good cup of tea.