Official Artist
craig leeson
Director , Producer , MC / Show Host
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Hermes gig

Top end fashion brand Hermes recently asked me to be their Travel Ambassador and one of my duties has been to take their VIPs on an oral travel tour of some of my favourite locations on the planet. Hermes fitted out its Galleria store in Central in the theme of three of those chosen locations - Xinjiang, Vietnam and Mauritius.

The Xinjiang set has been cleverly constructed and includes a traditional yurt home favoured by the nomadic ethnic tribes of Xinjiang and a full size replica of a camel! The Vietnamese set has a full size traditional river boat and a vegetable market, while the Mauritius set has a beach and a stuffed Nile crocodile!

Some of the notes and photographs from my talks are below -


Hello, thank you for coming.

My name is Craig Leeson, I’m a filmmaker and somewhat of an avid explorer and I've been fortunate enough to do a job which has taken me to some of the most exotic places on the planet. Today we are going to escape the noise and bustle of Hong Kong and travel to some of these locations, explore the cultures, talk about the people and compare something they all have in common: tea.

Among the top five places I’ve visited on the planet is Xinjiang, a land that time forgot.

Xinjiang is in the far northwest province of China. It has an incredibly diverse culture – some 54 ethnic tribes - with a history stretching beyond the imagination. Its landscape ranges from the tallest snow capped peaks to the most immense deserts on the planet.

Xinjiang isn’t actually Chinese. It was annexed by China in 1954 and the villages that were caught on the China side of the new border were cut off from their traditional lands.

This is the home of the Uyghurs, the Kazahks, the Kirgiz, and the Tajiks. It’s the gateway to China, where Marco Polo crossed over the Pamir Mountains from Afghanistan into modern day China. And before him, Alexander the Great spilled his armies through these mountains, mixing European blood with Asian, which is why the faces, hair and eye colour of these ethnic tribes are so diverse.

I first traveled through this area making a documentary film for National Geographic channel on the travels of Marco Polo. I took a copy of his book, The Description of The World, and followed his travels, trying to prove once and for all that he did actually travel to China.

Kashgar is home to the oldest continuous market on the planet. Here, men bring their donkeys, their barley, their hides, their yaks milk and sell it in a huge open market that time seems to have forgotten.

About a days trek from Kashgar is Tashkurgan. It’s here that the Himalayas, the Pamir mountains and the Karakorum Range (home to K2) all meet and where the nomadic tribes wander, tending to their herds, making textiles and moving with the seasons.

Many different tribes, like the Kirgiz and Kazahks, live in mobile homes called a Yurt. They are made from the hides of their animals, anything from camels to horses, and they house the entire family. Everything is done in the yurt - cooking, sleeping, working, playing during the cold months. It’s also the place where visitors are greeted and the first thing usually given to visitors is the favourite drink of the nomads: yaks butter or goats milk tea, and we happen to have some here for you today to try.

No matter where you are in Xinjiang, if you wander into the interior deeply enough, you’ll find a tribe serving this kind of traditional tea. It’s usually mixed with salt, a little bit of animal fat and it’ served continuously, so the more you drink the more you are served. It is custom among some tribes to signal that your visit is over by no longer serving you tea.

It’s made by breaking brick tea into a large kettle, which is boiled. Salt is added from its own bowl and tea is poured into it. It’s then poured back into the kettle to mix and steep. Bowls are then placed out and fresh milk heated then cooled is ladled into each bowl. Tea is then poured to mix them. The final product has bits of cream and curd floating on the surface and consumed with nan and Irimshiq – hard sour cheese.

I don’t know about you but for me it’s an acquired taste. The fatty ingredients help put a solid layer on you in time for winter but just the smell of this stuff is enough to turn my stomach.

That’s because I’ve been a guest in many yurts in my travels and at one particular occasion I was invited to a wedding. My hosts slaughtered 14 sheep for the festival, not wasting any part of the animal, which is either consumed or its bits are used for clothing, housing and making knives and implements.

I was asked to sit down and I was served the tea in the usual tea making ritual. A man came in with a large bowl of meat. He took the large lamb leg and with his bare hands ripped off chunks of the meat and then handed them to me. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad except that I knew from experience that these nomads rarely wash, and certainly never wash their hands before dinner. Whilst they aren’t exposed to the toxic germs we are in our refined lives in the city, the idea was difficult for me to grasp.

However, I couldn’t refuse, so I took the meat and began to chew on it. It was like trying to eat a leather boot. The only way I could get rid of it was to stuff it in my pockets while my hosts weren’t looking. The problem with this though is that as soon as they see you without food, they immediately give you more.

There is a better tea to be drunk in Xinjiang. It’s green tea, or black tea if you live in Tashkent.

The tea is poured out and then back into the pot three times. This helps it brew. Uzbeks say Loi Moi Choi which means the first tea is clay, the second is dirt and the third you may drink because it is finally tea.

While we try this tea, let me tell you the stories of the knife makers of Yarkant and the old man of Muztaghata.

The old man, 75 years old was watching over his flock and sitting on a carpet of incredibly colour and workmanship. It was here that I acquired this carpet you are now sitting on. Neither of us spoke each other’s language, yet the moment I approached him to ask him permission to film him and his family, I knew we’d get on. He smiled at me, grabbed a stick and scratched the figure 300 in the dirt. He then pointed at the carpet. I knew from that moment that we both spoke the language of trade. We bartered for about 20 minutes until his son, about ten, grabbed my hand and took me into the yurt. He wanted to sell me his hat, but none of them fitted my rather large head. He looked despondent so I asked him how much for the knife that was on his belt. We eventually settled on 20 yuan. The knife was old and worn and useless to him but a good keepsake for me. Made of hardened steel with a camel icon on it, the handle was fashioned from yak bone. His sister then grabbed me and started to trade one of the carpets she and her mother had been weaving with an old wooden loom outside. I bought it for 250 yuan. The old man then smiled at me, gave me his carpet for the last price we had reached (about 250yuan) and only then would he let me film his family. It is interaction such as this that makes these trips so special.

On one particular filming trip to the Taklamakan desert, we traveled to Hotan in search of a very special group of people: the Falconers of Hotan.

I had read about them as a child and being so close to them I just had to seek them out. We found a family of falconers with the help of a local interpreter in a village called Kumbag in Jaya township, Lop county. The old man, Aili Ahun Tedan, had a seven-year-old falcon he was still training. He explained that the relationship between the bird and the human was so close that he considered the bird more special than his wife! It takes many years for the bird to accept its human trainer and to hunt properly on behalf of the two of them.

Falconry was believed to have started in this region around 750 bc, although there is some dispute over whether it was here or in Mesopotamia.

The old man wrapped a piece of leather around my arm and hooded the bird. He then sat the bird on my arm and made me stroke it until the bird became used to me. He then removed its hood and the bird stared at me through inquisitive eyes, not quite sure of what to make of this tall, white man. Truly one of life’s special experiences.

Now, not far away from Hotan on the Silk Road is Jingjia, where you can find some of the oldest knife-making traditions on the planet. The knife makers of Yarkant were described by Marco Polo in his travelogue and nothing has changed in this part of the world since he visited in the 15th century. The knife that you see here was made for me by the head knife maker of Yarkant. Can you see the Islamic writing? The handle is made from antelope horn. The metal is beaten for days until it is hardened and almost unbreakable.



Like China, Vietnam is famous for particular kinds of tea and, also coffee. Infact the Vietnamese have been making tea for more than 2000 years and have some of the oldest varietals of green tea on the planet.

One of its more unusual teas though is actually a thistle and is one of the healthiest you can drink.

It’s called artichoke tea and as the name suggests, it’s made from globe artichokes. It has a fabulous aroma, a sweet taste, almost vanilla and chocolate and is very thirst quenching. When it’s iced, its taste changes almost to a licorice flavour.

Its active ingredient is Cynarin, which helps protect the liver against toxins, lowers blood cholesterol and prevents indigestion.

The tea also has the amazing ability to make anything you eat or drink after it taste even sweeter.

This tea comes from a place called Dalat in Lam Dong province, in southern Vietnam’s highland area.

The area was once the playground of the French aristocratic crowd who moved there to escape the summer heat of Saigon. Today, it’s quite a cheesy tourist town, but it has some of the best mountain biking and hiking in Vietnam.

Vietnam is a different place today than when I first started going there 15 years ago. Many areas were off limits to overseas people, especially filmmakers, and we had to sneak in through border villages to gain access.

One of the best routes to get in, although it was a tough trek, was on the Ho Chi Minh trail from Cambodia, used during the war. Today, these trails are used by smugglers trafficking in humans and animals. I spent two weeks in this area filming rangers stalking poachers who were trapping everything from tigers to Asian rhinos.

The rangers often end up in gun battles with the poachers and it’s dangerous work. The leeches were so severe, I was forced to stop every ten minutes to pull handfuls of them off my ankles. On one trip, a leech bite became infected with a mystery tropical bug. The infection became so bad that soon after I returned to Hong Kong that I was unable to walk and taken to hospital. After the second day at hospital doctors informed me that the infection had reached the glands in my groin and if it moved into my torso, it would kill me. They told me they would have to amputate my leg very soon. This didn’t really agree with me, so I called a doctor who was a specialist in S.E. Asian tropical diseases and asked him to come visit. He arrived in Hong Kong and took a look at the bug and said although he’d never seen it before, it look similar to a bug he was familiar with, so he brewed up a concoction of heavy antibiotics specifically aimed at such jungle nasties. Thankfully, he was successful, and the infection was arrested.

Now while artichoke tea is inexpensive, wholesome and refreshing, there is a more refined tea grown in Vietnam which is much preferred by the aristocracy. It’s called Lotus tea, is made by combining green tea from the far northern province of Thai Nguyen with lotus flowers.

The lotus flower is a symbol of beauty and nobility and the making of the tea is said to require the supple hands of skillful women.

A kilogram costs the equivalent of .12 tael of gold (roughly about 45 dollars) and contains around 1500 lotus flowers.

The lotus flowers are sourced from special provinces and about 30 Hanoi families specialize in the production.  Only the pollen is used from the flower to scent the tea. The flower buds are peeled back and the tea is inserted into the flower and the flower is then buttoned back up and left outside overnight. The dew infuses the pollen into the tea and creates the flavour.

These families can make upwards of 125 US dollars per kilogram for specialist teas, which is a lot more than the average hill tribe family makes in a month.

Thai Nugyen, where they produce the green tea for Lotus tea, is in the central highlands and if you push a little further to the West, you’ll come across Laos.

Several years ago, I crossed the Laotian border into Vietnam through Nah Trang with a camera team and crew from the Asian Development Bank, searching for a hill tribe we’d heard about which had never been filmed before.

We found the tribe after only two days of jungle trekking, in an amazing Garden of Eden. The children frolicked in a natural water slide in a river, while their parents used hand made fish traps to catch the day’s dinner. Many of the elderly women smoked hand grown tobacco from handmade wooden pipes. The younger women pummeled rice and grain the traditional way, using large wooden pestles and rock mortars.

There are around 50 of these ethnic tribes said to be in Vietnam’s highlands, but increasing tourism is exposing these once cut off areas.

The tribe we found, called the Bru, had never seen westerners until we came along. But the government was opening up the area to tourists and today, a 4 lane highway takes tourists right to their door. The Bru now make money from the tourist trade but they have so far managed to preserve their way of life.



Like Vietnam, Mauritius has a strong French colonial feel to it. But it’s about as remote as any place on the planet could possibly be.

Has anyone here ever been or does anyone actually know how to get to Mauritius?

The easiest way to explain its location is this:  head to Mozambique. When you get there, face the ocean and head straight out to Madagascar. When you get to Madagascar don’t stop. Continue for another 900kms further out to sea, beyond Reunion Island, and you’ll find it on its own in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius is a magical place. Infact, Mark Twain said in his travelogue Following the Equator, “From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven and that heaven was copied after Mauritius. Another may say that’s an exaggeration.”

Being an island it has great surf, amazing sea life and was the home of the dodo. It was also the fifth location in the world to issue postage stamps and its Red Penny and Blue Two Pence denomination are probably the most famous and valuable stamps on the planet. It also has a sizeable Chinese population.

Now the playground of Europeans, one of the most beautiful areas of Mauritius is the district of Pamplemousses, capital city is Triolet. At the northern edge of Mauritius it’s renowned for its botanical garden, which is home to a collection of indigenous and rare plants, including the giant water lily.

Used by the Dutch and then French as a stopover point on the spice trade route, Tea features prominently in late Mauritian culture. But it wasn’t until the British visited the island and took the colony from the French in a fierce battle in 1810 that it began to flourish. The industry boomed until the 1980s when tea as a commodity lost its value. Today, there are 680 hectares of tea plantations in Mauritius, the rest of the island grows sugar cane…handy if one prefers their tea slightly sweeter.

The growing period is between October and May with December and January the peak months.

The two popular teas under cultivation are Green leaf or China Jat and Black tea.

There are six active tea estate.

Now you are probably wondering why we have a very large crocodile parked in the display.

The answer is in textiles. Mauritius, being somewhat like Singapore and Hong Kong in that it has only a small space of land to play with, has diversified its industries and today its largest export commodity is textiles.

Nile crocodiles, sourced from Madagascar in the 1980s, are farmed and their leather used for goods such as handbags, shoes and purses and wallets.

Now, back to the dodo. Was it a real bird and how did it become extinct? Well, it was in fact a native to Mauritius. When the Dutch first colonized the island in 1598, they bought deer, wild pig and cats. The dodo couldn’t fly and was an easy target. It bred very slowly and therefore couldn’t regenerate. Hence the saying “dead as a dodo”.


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June 16, 2008