Hangzhou, in pursuit of tea

longjingTaking off from Shanghai for a day trip, a quick passage on the high-speed train got me to the nearby city of Hangzhou. I only did cursory research before arriving and was expecting a quaint sort of place, but quickly had that erased at the packed train station with high rises in all directions and observing a thick, ever-present smog intermingling the crevices of the town. Supposedly claimed by Marco Polo as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world", and knowing train stations aren’t the place places to judge cities, I was still holding my breath (literally and figuratively) to check out the particular kind of tea produced here, longjing tea, and the natural scenery.

Most of the sightseeing revolves around Xihu, or West Lake, and the surrounding hills which are used in tea cultivation. With my host, Mr. Voorheis, the dad of a high school friend of mine working in Shanghai, we arrived in the morning and tracked down a place to rent public bikes. City rental stations were everywhere, but we had to get to the central office to put down a deposit for rental. After about an hour of walking and asking for directions in broken Mandarin, we got a hold of bikes which only ended up costing about $3 for the whole day.

lake 1We started off on the east side of the lake and went counterclockwise in a winding path for a few hours towards whatever looked or sounded interesting on the map. The areas by the lake, mostly filled with domestic tourists, really were nice to bike around on save the shroud of smog that limited the distance one could see. Artificial, well-manicured bike and walking paths connected man-made islands in the lake, and the cozy, wooded environment with the occasional blossoming plum tree encouraged the all too pleasurable activity of whiling away the afternoon. However, we had some places to visit and we first headed to the surprisingly vacant National Tea Museum on the southwest side of the lake. Though having some really interesting information on the varied processes and traditions involved in making the varieties of tea, it was borderline overkill on information that left my head as soon as I biked away.

Afterwards we headed further southwest since I wanted to hunt down a place known for sourcing cheap longjing tea, the the Dragon Well (Longjing) Tea Village. After we climbed a tiring uphill stretch lined with forests and tea fields, I wasn’t energetic enough to search very hard for a vendor and stopped at a lady who had a bag of longjing tea out front. I tried a little, which to my utterly untrained palate tasted good, and bought a few dollars worth. Even though this was a touristy place, I thought I was going to get away without having any of the creative pricing common in those sorts of areas, but the lady that sold me the tea brought my expectations in line when she tried to charge for the sample glass of tea. It’s unheard of to charge for sample tea if you buy some, but these areas a full of open-wallet tourists who don’t want to argue and don’t know the norms. I hate the feeling of knowing that I’m on the receiving end of a slick move for a few extra dollars just because I’m a foreigner. tea fieldIt’s not the money, since the few dollars is insignificant, but rather the tension between my pride in not getting tricked and knowing that they could use the money. For me, the tea is an exotic curiosity, but for her it was a livelihood. Writing this, I’m realizing I should explore this in more depth, so I’ll leave it at that.

In any case, we continued on to one of the oldest Buddhist temples in China, the Lingyin Temple, and took a climb up to where it was situated several hundred meters above the lake level. There was bizarre, anachronistic juxtaposition between the cell phone and radio towers that were placed directly over such a revered temple and people talking on cells phones as they lit incense and prayed.

The view from the temple was, well, interesting. It was high above the surrounding area so I sort of had an expectation of a great view, but was saddened to see I could only make out a short distance due to the ubiquitous, ever-present smog that gently lined the hills. I double checked with Mr. Voorheis to make sure it wasn’t just my eyes. My camera couldn’t take a good shot since the contrast was far too low for a point-and-shoot, or any camera really.smog I found it more interesting that the Chinese tourists were gazing out in fixation and taking pictures with DSLR cameras (that, given the awkward handling, they obviously had no idea how to use) because nothing could really be seen with the smog layer. Perhaps they saw it as a sign of economic progress, but I just felt bad for the kids that thought it was how it was supposed to look. Granted there are places all around the world that have pollution problems, and most definitely in the US, clamoring to get a picture of it seemed odd. After regaining some energy atop, we took our time on the way back to return the bikes in the evening, and exhaustedly took a train back to Shanghai.

lake 2

As a side note, there are a few humorous things in China that are indicative of the largely new-found wealth and the urge to tech-out. One of these is that DSLR cameras and lens sizes appear to be status symbols, perhaps from seeing tourists coming in an out with them (many of whom don’t know how to use them either).



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