If Hangzhou were to be likened to a person, it would be a woman – cultured, beautiful, delicate. A Shanghainese by birth, I am even more acutely aware of the gentle allure of the city since my hometown, China’s international economic and financial centre, is a bustling hubbub of activity.
Hangzhou, on the other hand, is all about historical sites, cultural centres and breathtaking beauty, chief of which is the famed West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site of freshwater lake dotted with manmade islands framed by ancient temples, towering pagodas and flowering gardens.
Apart from the many scenic sights this city has to offer its over 20 million tourists each year, Hangzhou also boasts a well-known tea culture. Tea has long been a part of its economy, shaping the development of its key features for 1,500 years. No visit to this capital and largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China would be complete without a tour of its tea-themed destinations.
Plant a Thought for the Tea
Tea harvesting season begins in late March and lasts till August. So this month is a great time to visit a tea plantation. There are four major ones and I recommend Meijiawu Tea Village, the largest production base of Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, a green tea native to Hangzhou and often called the national drink of China.
Meijiawu Tea Village is a charming 500-household strong rural enclave that lies on the west of West Lake. Surrounded by rolling green hills, it is on these picturesque slopes spanning some 800,000-square metres that top quality Longjing tea are planted. You can join them after a 25-minute ride from my serviced residence, Citadines Intime City Hangzhou, at the core of West Hangzhou.
Once there, walk the grounds of the tea plantation, join in the tea-picking, learn about tea processing, have a go at hand-frying tea leaves, take part in a tea ceremony to shore up your knowledge of China’s tea culture and experience the sweetness of country life.
History buffs can also look forward to ancient sites related to Emperor Qianlong (1735 – 1795) as well as historical wells and age-old trees amidst streaming waters, pretty bridges and tranquil greenery.
Do not leave for home without taking some Longjing tea with you. The high quality pan-fried green tea produced mostly by hand has a history that spans some 1,200 years and conferred the status of Imperial Tea or Gong Cha by Emperor Kangxi during the Qing Dynasty.
House Your Thirst for Tea
When you need somewhere to put up your feet after your explorations, drop by any of the 160 teahouses run by the locals. In their quaint wood-lined interiors, you can be enthralled by the history of tea in the area as well as it many uses. Then, indulge in a pot of exquisite Longjing tea known for its sweet, woodsy aroma.
To go with your tea, sample some local dishes such as pickled vegetables, succulent chicken infused with Longjing tea, tender braised pork, and beggar chicken all paired with rice cooked over firewood like in the days of old. Other must-tries in my book are stir-fried shrimp with Longjing tea, stewed duck with tea soup, and sliced fish soup with fresh tea water. Most of the teahouses have no menus. Let the proprietor be your guide.
Back in town, should the craving for tea overcome you, drop by Tian Fu Ming Cha Tea House, a tea shop chain with some 20 outlets across China. The branch in Hangzhou is just a three-minute walk from Citadines Intime City. The store supplies all grades of tea in different sizes to cater to different tastes and capacities. My favourite tea is Pu’er because of the intensity of its flavour. For a fragrant cuppa, I like green tea.
Take a Leaf from Hangzhou’s (Tea) History Book
The only museum dedicated to tea in all of China is in Hangzhou, situated also west of West Lake. The China National Tea Museum opened in 1991 and is quite unlike any. In lieu of walls, the compound is enclosed by greenery. Inside, the green theme continues with flowers, manmade hills, ponds and waterways seamless integrated with the exhibits.
Some 22,000 square metres are dedicated to all things tea. Within the exhibition building are six halls devoted to the history of growing and processing tea. I love to immerse myself in the traditions and customs of tea through China’s vast territories and across its extensive history. Find out how the Tibetans eat their tea with butter and salt or how the ethnic minorities drink a bitter-sweet baked tea.
Apart from being a museum, the place is also a research institute and a venue for tea-related conferences. Here, you can watch various tea ceremonies, too.
Tea evokes a sense of calm and is a beverage rich in history and culture. So it is fitting that it is in a place like Hangzhou, full of history and culture, that tea has such a pride of place. Take some time from the bustle of life and come away for a cuppa in Hangzhou and truly enjoy not just the brew but the gentle culture it embodies.
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