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Home > Fearless Mystery Traveler in Guìzhōu (Part 3)

Legendary in eastern circles for its extraordinary properties, it was first officially noted in 1406 in Zhu Xiao’s Materia Medica for Famine according to my research. Jiaogulan is said to be a powerful antioxidant, a blood pressure and cholesterol stabilizer, an adaptogen that helps bring the human biology into homeostasis, a beneficial agent on the cardiovascular system (and blood thinner), a substance that helps control diabetes and liver disease, and even according to some accounts a substance that shrinks cancerous tumors.

However, more significantly, this rather mysterious (but all-too-common-in-the-region) stranded blue vine has been credited for longevity. The locals steep its dried-out leaves in water and drink it multiple times a day as a sort of tea. An inordinately-high number of centenarians had been identified in the region. This was no small result considering the extreme poverty of the area, which meant hard agricultural labor and lesser medical care for the locals. Once, Yan (as I’ll refer to her here) had even told me that she was 38, though I certainly didn’t believe her. Yet it was all this that had me more than a little curious about the so called “herb of immortality”.

As I had sat there on an old barrel drinking the jiao, which had an iodine-like vegetal taste not unlike that of seaweed mixed with green tea, I had watched the steam rise up from the worn cup obscuring the wooden rooftops from the terraces of earth and the mountains that stood vaguely beyond them. Then I had felt slow- as slow as I had ever felt, and relaxed. The mist and the steam seemed to come and go with the sheets of green and brown. The sun had broken through in misty shafts and I’ll admit that a strange euphoria had come over me. I understood the appeal. After all, wasn’t it the real Shangri-La? Sitting there amongst the green terraces, the mountain tapestries, perfectly relaxed day in and day out- four cups of this euphoria juice per day? Yet, this was just a buzz, maybe a health buzz, but that’s all it was, I thought. I still didn’t buy this business about the case. But Charlie stated that this Artusco had been adamant.

I only told Yan about my actual reason for being in town that night after meeting Ru, the night before my second meeting (as I didn’t know how she would take it). She laughed when she heard the story. Yan had learned what English she spoke from the books- mostly bibles- that a missionary had brought with him when she was a child, and seemed to take some pleasure in practicing her English. I speak seventeen languages and though I probably could understand her better in her native tongue than she could understand me in mine, she made me promise to speak English only when I was around her so that she could continue her practice. She had been widowed some years back when her husband had been killed in a car crash in Guiyang, but that was all she would say about him; she always changed the subject when he was brought up. There was a soft intelligence to her eyes, even a playfulness that was countermanded by a seriousness evident in the curve at the edge of her mouth. She carried the seriousness and the skepticism of a person accustomed to hard work and rough living since early childhood. But, she had a good sense of

Jiaogulan-Hängeampel by Jens Rusch (via Wikimedia Commons)
Jiaogulan-Hängeampel by Jens Rusch (via Wikimedia Commons)

humor and we got on well since I had first arrived in town and caught her passing by on her way to her father’s shop.

“There is no way. It is not true,” she said, after I told her that I had come there because some wealthy guy had been contacted by a source who claimed to have a case of painstakingly-preserved Jiaogulan from the first stranded blue vine in the region.

Qin Shi Huangdi by an anonymous artist of the Qing dynasty (via Wikimedia Commons)
Qin Shi Huangdi by an anonymous artist of the Qing dynasty (via Wikimedia Commons)

This jiao was reputed to be more potent in promoting longevity than its descendants, to the point of near immortality, and there was even a legend among some (though believed to be false given that the first written account of the plant appeared in 1406), that Shĭ Huándì, the first emperor of China (who had built the Great Wall of China and died consuming mercury in the hopes of gaining immortality from it) had sought out this Jiao. I had even heard from a man in Singapore that Shĭ Huándì had offered extreme wealth and control over an entire prosperous prefecture to whomever could produce this plant. If so, it was a heck of a lot more than Sheng was offering me, but it was still a lot of money and I wanted to collect on it.

When we had finished, she lay there in bed a long time silently and then she finally punctuated the silence with her soft, deliberate voice.

“I always live here and they always tell of it, but it is just story. I used to, ah… think about it much. If it was true, I think I drink and travel like you, but I have to stay here and do papers. My father not know what to do without me. All numbers be wrong if not… I don’t like it, but I must stay here, probably for always.”

Just as her voice sank, her nose crinkled a little and then she smiled. Waving her thoughts away, she said, “I think you forget about it and stay with me, green eyes.” That was her nickname for me.

“You like Jiaogulan. I have large amount of it here. I go make cup for you.”

“I can’t,” I replied. “But, I’ll be back if I don’t get myself killed.”