There’s a saying in China: Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou… This adage of old suggests that the beauty of heaven has somehow trickled down to earth and — voila! — instant Hangzhou! Having visited the city in east central China I can vouch for this assessment. It is beautiful, heavenly even, but the ancient saying leaves out one critical factor, so I propose an amendment to the heaven-Hangzhou comparison. Perhaps it should read: “Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou… and people, and people, and people”.
The lakes, hills and pagodas make Hangzhou China’s most visited tourist destination – around 20 million foreign and domestic tourists visit each year. I was there during China’s National Holiday in early October. I knew there would be crowds but I desperately needed to get out of Beijing, which would be even more mobbed than other places in China.
The walkways around Hangzhou’s West Lake bustled with camera-totting tourists eager to photograph everything. The mass of people gave a collective Ohhh and Ahhh to every temple, pagoda and bridge around the lake. I was just looking for something new. Once you’ve seen a temple or pagoda in China, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The fact that the friend of a guy who grew rice for one of China’s emperors once visited said temple or pagoda doesn’t add to its historical value, at least not in my mind.
Aside from its lakes, Hangzhou is a hotspot for tea, some of the best in China. The hills and valleys to the west of Hangzhou that I saw were littered with villages and tea plantations – so that was where I wanted to be.
The invasion of tourists for the holiday made it impossible to flag down a cab to the villages. Buses were too crowded; biking was too dangerous. So I walked. It took five and a half hours.
The road to Longjing, which means “dragon well”, was mostly paved, but soon turned to a dirt path through a valley then up another hill. I arrived at Longjing soaked and ready to drink.
Approaching Longjing, my head concealed by the hood of my jacket and my umbrella, many of the villagers paid me no attention. When they realized I was a foreigner, the calling began.
At each little tea house, an equally little Chinese women would pop out and run my way. “You, drink green tea?” each asked. Although meant as a question, it sounded more like a command. Before I could answer “Yes, I will drink green tea”, an elderly arm would be latched around mine, dragging me in the direction of a few large umbrella-covered tables.
At each house, I had the same tea, Longjing tea. The more expensive cups were brewed with water from the dragon well and at 80 yuan ($12) a pop I expected nothing short of magical. They didn’t disappoint. Each tasted just a little different from the last; some stronger than others but all refreshing and providing a boost of energy from my long trek to the village.
The last tea house I stopped in was my favorite. It was a simple house: a two storey, white walled construction with one door and no windows. A sign with the character for tea (cha) hung above the doorway and there was one table and one chair — an appropriate setup for me, the lone traveler — out front.
Walking toward the house, a small woman saw me and ran out to usher me the rest of the distance – about 10 feet – to the chair. She ran inside, brought out a cup, threw in some tea leaves, repeating the words “longjing cha” several times and then added hot water. After each sip, she would quickly refill my cup. With the free refills, by the time I had finished, I’d downed about four cups for the price of one.
Now full of tea, and in need of a bathroom, I decided to wrap up tea time. I thanked the woman, bought a small box of tea handpicked by her family and made my way back up the hill and out of the village to the nearest bus station.
The next day I ventured even further into the hills to Meijiawu. Much like in Longjing, the calls to “Drink green tea” were constant. It was time for tea, again, and I spent the rest of the afternoon sipping tea, exploring the quiet village and enjoying short walks through the peaceful, tourist-free hills.