Garnered with confidence from our warm welcome in Shanghai, we board a train destined for Hangzhou. An old Chinese saying states, “Above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou”. Heaven on Earth, as it was described to us in Shanghai. Heaven sounds nice, but we are here for the tea.
The train drops us on the outskirts of the city. From here, Hangzhou can be described as virtually any city in modern-day China: omnipresent haze lingers in the air so that you’re never quite sure if it’s sunny or cloudy. Green taxi cabs prowl the streets, their incessant horns blaring so loud and ceaselessly that you long for silence, or at least the sound of something more soothing—like a garbage disposal. Bikes and scooters ride past in dizzying numbers; a cryptographer may be able to discern a pattern from their paths; I, however, cannot, and crossing the street is more an act of faith than one of logic.
Put a few blocks between you and the train station, however, and the Hangzhou of legend begins to reveal itself. Green hills roll down from the western horizon and touch the inner city limits. Where the hills end the Willow trees begin, and they carry you all the way to the city’s crowning jewel: West Lake. Ancient Chinese legend says that West lake is the incarnation of Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Adding to the mystique are spots along the lake with epic Chinese names like Spring Dawn on the Su Causeway, Listining Orioles Singing in the Willows, or Lotus in the Breeze at the Winding Courtyard.
The lake covers an area of nearly sixty square kilometers, and almost the entirety of its shore is lined with parks. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: If China has gotten one thing right, it is parks. Hangzhou is no exception and may, in fact, be the prime example. The parks that surround West Lake are hands down some of the most beautiful public displays of landscaping I’ve ever seen: Weeping Willows bend gracefully into the shallows of the lake; deciduous redwood trees provide shade for tiny, moss-lined footpaths; green ponds overflow with red carp; camellias, rhododendron, and azaleas; bamboo groves. Individual parks are designed to flourish in particular seasons: Plum blossoms in February, Cherry Blossoms in April, and so on. It’s late August, so we are treated to the blooming of the Lotus flowers, with literally thousands of them gracing the edges of the lake.
Adding to Hangzhou’s appeal is the fact that China’s most famous and well-known green tea is grown here: Longjing, or Dragonwell as it’s known to Westerners. The tea is grown just west of Hangzhou in fields that date back before the Tang Dynasty, though then the tea was known as Xianglin Baiyun (Fragrant Forest White Cloud). Legend says that Dragonwell got it’s present name when workers in centuries past pulled a large rock—shaped in the form of a dragon—from a well being dug. Tea manuscripts from the era state that proper brewing of Longjing tea must use water from the Dragon Well.
Dragonwell tea is revered throughout China for it’s four defining characteristics: jade green color, sweet orchid fragrance, pure flavor, and the flat shape of its leaves. There is a staggering variety of grades, though accounts of exactly how many vary. It is commonly divided into seven grades—Superior (qiqiang), Special (queshe), and then numbered 1 down to 5. Others argue there are more than thirteen grades, while others still say there are more than forty distinct grades. Regardless, the highest grades are picked in early Spring. Historically, the harvest date is three days before Pure Brightness, a term on the Chinese Lunisolar Calendar. The absolute highest quality Dragonwell tea is picked during the first three days of the Spring harvest, and these grades are typically only available to presidents, diplomats, high-ranking politicians, and very wealthy businessmen (crossword puzzle fans and history buff may like to know that Dragonwell is the tea that was presented to President Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China).
Here’s a little secret: Dragonwell is not my favorite green tea. I’m more partial to Bilouchun with it’s richer, nuttier flavor. And if I’m being completely honest, I think the Japanese have refined green tea to it’s highest form yet. Nevertheless, Dragonwell is a fine tea, and one with much history and acclaim. One thing is for certain: sitting in the local tea shops, drinking from a traditional gaiwan, the tea takes on characteristics I haven’t experienced with the imported stuff I’ve had back home. You feel like you’re drinking time, imagining poets or emperors from days long past enjoying the same tea, likely not far from where you’re seated now.
Hangzhou is in the middle of a heatwave, as seems to be customary on our trip. “Wikipedia”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangzhou says the average temperature in Hangzhou in July is 33.8 centigrade; in late August, it’s pushing 40. To escape the heat, we spend our first few days visiting some of the 700 hundred teahouses in the city. It’s simply beautiful that, in China, it’s perfectly acceptable to wile entire days away drinking tea in local shops lost in thought and conversation. We come nowhere near seeing all 700 of the teahouses, but our favorite is, by far, the Taiji Cha teahouse (which we talked about in our previous post). In addition to the excellent Dragonwell, they serve a special tea made by their own teahouse called Shui Dan Qing. The tea is a mix of four different tea leaves, all small in size. To serve, it is first quickly rinsed with hot water. Then, the next few steepings are done in cold water, which taste especially refreshing in the summer heat. After three or four cold steepings, the tea is served hot, like any other green tea.
China National Tea Museum
After a few days of doing little more than drinking tea and eating, we decide it’s time to head out for the village of Longjing to see the famous Longjing tea fields as well as find the Dragon Well from which the tea gets its name.
Several kilometers before you reach the village of Longjing, you pass the Chinese National Tea Museum. Here they have a small exhibit inside a modern building, which you walk through following a timeline that traces the development of tea from it’s beginnings to present-day. The exhibit is nice, but the real attraction of the museum is the grounds, which, once again, are stunning. The museum has a healthy collection of various tea plants, illustrating the tremendous diversity that exists within the tea plant. All tea comes from one plant—Camellia sinensis—but the plant has been modified to create different tea characteristics: tall and tree-like, low and shrub-like, flat leaves, round leaves, various shades of green, and so forth. The tea fields are open to the public (no entrance charge), and it was the first time I got to really sit and examine a tea leaf while it was still alive and unaltered. In addition to the tea plants, multiple paths wind through the grounds leading you to various gardens and different buildings used for conferences and other “cultural” events.
Longjing, And Search for the Dragon Well
In late afternoon we reach Longjing. It’s the time of day that makes you thankful to be alive with late summer sunlight casting a golden glow on the countryside. Longjing lies in Luohui Valley, and is surrounded on three sides by steep hills lined to their very crests with rows of tea plants. It is perhaps a falsehood to call Longjing a village; those who live here and cultivate tea for a living seem to do quite well for themselves, if the quality of their homes indicate anything. The ouses line the streets, many with residents selling tea from their front doors. Most of the houses are beautiful, multi-story affairs with large balconies, well-kept gardens, and satellite dishes. A far cry from the image usually conjured when you use the word village. In 2005, Longjing was renovated through the West Lake Comprehensive Conservation Engineering Project, which a plaque proclaims has helped the village show the “richer characteristics of a tea production land”. All this seems like a lot of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo for Let’s make sure no visitors have to see any squat toilets lest the name of Dragon Well be tarnished, but that’s just my opinion. Facade or not, the residents here seem to be living an idyllic life.
Longjing is no secret, and the tourism board has done everything it can to promote the village and the tea grown within. Every few hundred meters you see wooden signs directing you to various places of interest: the ancient eighteen imperial tea trees, the ruins of Guangfu Temple of the Southern Song Dynasty, and so on. Regrettably, the day is getting late, and with only an hour or so of sunlight left, we pick the straightest path that leads to our destination: the Dragon Well.
After what feels like a long climb up a side-street, we find the park that holds the well of legend. You have to pay ¥10 a person to enter, but yet another gorgeous display of landscaping more than makes up for the cost of entry. It’s early evening now, and most of the landscape has fallen into shadows. After some wandering—all of the signs here are in Chinese—we find the well nestled up in the back of a garden along the base of a stone cliff. To our luck, the well is still bathed in sunlight.
In all reality, it’s pretty anti-climatic: the well really is just a small pond—a spring-fed well to be precise—perhaps 5 meters in diameter at it’s widest point. The water has a subdued, jade color, and man-placed rocks line its outer edges. Shortly after we reach the well, a tour group of perhaps fifteen Chinese tourists—mostly all men wearing dark slacks, tucked in polo shirts, and cell phones clipped to their belt—arrive with a tour guide, who is saying something in Chinese—presumably about the history of the well. For the first few minutes, everyone pays attention. Several minutes later, most are smoking cigarettes. Several minutes later still, only a few are pretending to even listen; others are talking on cell phones. Eventually, the group moves on, and Julie and I find ourselves alone.
On the backside of the well is a stone sculpture of a dragon head. I run my hands through water; it is surprisingly cool and as the fallen leaves swirl in the water, I look into the depths and can’t see the bottom. I fill an empty plastic bottle I brought with water from the well, intending to transfer some into a small vile to take home with me later—a silly gesture, but one that seems more meaningful than the various souvenirs available back in the city limits. The evening is still hot, and I dip a bandana I have into the well and squeeze the remaining water out over my head. We sit and let the evening fall, absorbing the moment. It’s one of those places I had read about while planning this journey and I have the feeling one gets when arriving in place they had previously seen on postcards. The moment is ethereal. I muse over how something as simple and innocuous as tea has brought me half-way around the world to find myself sitting on the edge of a well. I think back to the countless artists and poets who have been drawn to Hangzhou throughout time—those who sat before this very well seeking refuge, refreshment, inspiration, or, perhaps, all three—and realize that I am no different.
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