Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
Sunsets in Hangzhou are revered across China. The waters of the mystical West Lake (Xihu) ripple gently, while the surrounding parks and gardens become misty silhouettes. The most magical aspects of the darkening landscape, however, are the overlapping hills, dotted with temples, that enfold Hangzhou.
This early evening imagery partly explains why this lakeside city ranks high among China’s most cherished, and most visited, tourist destinations. For centuries, visitors from across this vast land have descended on Hangzhou — one of China’s eight ancient capitals — to take a boat trip on the lake and revel in the green scenery that inspired generations of poets, painters and philosophers.
As the burning pink sun dips behind the hills, clients should take another look at those coruscated terraces because they hold the key to the other reason why Hangzhou is celebrated in China: Longjing tea.
Having sat peacefully at the water’s edge for sunset, I decided that, once the light reappeared the next morning, I would venture into those mysterious hills to Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea Village, the heartbeat of Hangzhou’s historic tea culture.
The 30-minute taxi journey southwest of Xihu is beautiful, winding upward on a spiraling, narrow road that leaves the heat of the city behind and embraces the cool humidity of the tea-covered hills.
It’s not difficult to know when you’ve arrived. At the edge of the village, men sit on stools outside their houses, gently pressing fresh tea leaves around a curved iron wok set in a bamboo casing. The fragrance of the drying leaves is as invigorating as the early April air, when Longjing tea is harvested.
The sales talk soon follows. A handful of ladies seemed to appear from nowhere offering cups of green tea and the chance to purchase fresh leaves at slightly inflated prices. I politely declined their offer to bargain and, instead, headed further into the village.
The road dips and rises en route and, once on the upward slope, a spectacular vista emerges up ahead. Luxuriant, intricately terraced hills rise over the village, seemingly sucking in the low-hanging clouds. Neat paths run between the tea bushes, and it’s possible to follow these up the hill to look down on the village.
From here, I followed the road back down the valley in search of Longjing Manor — one of the area’s hidden culinary gems. Writing for the New Yorker in 2008, the chef and food critic, Fuchsia Dunlop, profiled the owner of this beautiful place, Dai Jianchun, whose mission is to serve exquisite MSG-free Cantonese cuisine using carefully sourced organic ingredients.
Entering via a circular moon gate, the restaurant’s well-tended gardens are filled with Osmanthus trees, landscaped lawns, ponds draped with lotus flowers and rockeries. Viewed from the terraces of the eight private dining rooms (there is no central dining room) housed in small pavilions, the steep slopes of the tea valley yield a photogenic backdrop. This feels like the fabled rural China of those ancient paintings — and miles from the stuffy, skyscraper-ridden cities that define China of the new millennium.
Yet don’t be fooled by the idyll — the diners who frequent Longjing Manor are extremely wealthy local business people and government cadres. After all, Zhejiang province, of which Hangzhou is the capital, is among China’s richest regions. The Longjing tea served here is of premium quality, and the set-price menus reflect the restaurant’s exalted status in Hangzhou high society. Fellow foreign tourists are rare, and English is not widely spoken, but the service is excellent — and the cuisine is a cut above anything served in Hangzhou itself.
My final stop was in the nearby village of Shuangfeng. Opened in 1991, the China National Tea Museum occupies more than nine acres of prime tea land. As I approached, I noticed that the fields were being tended by workers in conical-shaped hats. Each wore a facemask and elbow-length gloves as protection from the thorny tea bushes and the mid-afternoon sun.
The museum charts the history of tea in China, both as a medicinal aid and as a beverage. It details the different ways in which tea can be prepared and the historic utensils that form part of the tea ceremony, plus the importance of the teahouse in Chinese society throughout the various dynasties.
After all the hill-hiking and learning about how the tea is picked, dried and served, there was only one thing to do. I sat back on the terrace, cradling a cup of China’s favorite green tea. I felt I had earned this small luxury.
China National Tea Museumwww.teamuseum.cn
Hangzhou Tourism Commissionhttp://en.gotohz.com
Frequent daily trains connect Hangzhou with Shanghai South Station, and the journey time is between 1½ and 2 hours. The Shanghai to Hangzhou high-speed rail link is scheduled to launch in October, reducing the journey time to 38 minutes.
AmanfayunAmanfayun, an Aman Resorts property, is an idyllic 42-room, mini-resort in Xihujiedao, Hangzhou. More specifically, it is located in a leafy Tang Dynasty village and linked by an ancient pathway to several Buddhist temples. www.amanresorts.com
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou The popular 390-room Hyatt Regency Hangzhou offers fine lake views and contemporary in-room amenities. The prime lakeside location is unmatched.www.hangzhou.regency.hyatt.com
Where to EatLongjing (Dragon Well) Manor Occupying beautiful private gardens with views across a tea valley, this unique restaurant features eight private dining rooms, each serving exquisite organic Hangzhou dishes. The fixed multicourse menu costs around $250 for six people.86-571-8788-8777
28 Hubin LuThe Hyatt Regency Hangzhou’s traditional-style restaurant is one of the city’s classiest Cantonese eateries. The menu also features other favorite dishes from across China.www.hangzhou.regency.hyatt.com
What to SeeImpression West LakeThe Impression West Lake is a spectacular evening light and music show on West Lake created by movie director Zhang Yimou (who produced the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony), with fellow film director Wang Chaoge and composer Fan Yue. www.hzyxxh.com