There's a saying in China: "Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou." Having visited this city in east central China, I can vouch for this ancient Chinese adage, one that suggests the magnificence of heaven has somehow trickled down to earth. But I would suggest a slight amendment to the assessment: 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. Going there during China's National Day holiday in early October didn't help with the crowds.
The walkways around Hangzhou's West Lake bustled with camera-totting tourists, myself included, eager to photograph every inch of the area around the lake. Elbow to elbow, we shuffled along the lake's perimeter making our way to Leifeng Pagoda, a large tower overlooking the waters. Then it began to rain, a light drizzle that quickly turned into larger, steady droplets. The crowd trudged on.
From the pagoda's top tier, I got a decent look out over the fog-covered lake. Boats leisurely glided across the waters. Smaller, gondola-like vessels rocked back and forth in the wake of larger sightseeing boats. And all around the lake was the constantly moving crowd. In the distance were gentle rolling hills and taller mountains, their peaks hidden by mist.
Aside from its lakes, Hangzhou is known for tea, some of the best and most expensive tea in China. The hills and valleys to the west of Hangzhou 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. My hostel concierge said it would take me two hours to hike to Longjing, the closest and most renowned village. It ended up taking five and a half.
The road to Longjing, which means dragon well, was long, snaking up hills, down into valleys and then back up other peaks, much like the curvature of a dragons body. After leaving the main road and trekking up a dirt trail, I finally reached the village just as the rain picked up again.
Approaching Longjing, my head concealed by the hood of my jacket and my umbrella, many of the villagers paid me no attention as I walked into town. When they realized I was a foreigner, the calling began.
With each little tea house I passed, an equally little Chinese woman would pop out and run my way. "You, drink green tea?" every one of these women asked. Although meant as a question, it sounded more like a command.
Since coming to China, I've been told to drink green tea. If I have a head cold, drink green tea. If my stomach aches, drink green tea. If my leg hurts, drink green tea. My feet were cold and wet from walking in the rain all day, so even without the badgering or insistence of the locals, I wanted to drink some green tea.
Before I could answer "Yes, I will drink green tea," an elderly arm latched around mine, dragging me in the direction of a few large umbrella-covered tables.
I started at the top of one of Longjing's side streets, near the former royal tea gardens of China's emperors. China's last dynasty crumbled 100 years ago, but even today, locals still labor away picking tea leaves by hands. I tried to stay away from the crowded tea houses where other tourists sat talking loudly, opting, instead, to enjoy my tea at smaller, mom-and-pop-like places.
At each house, I had the same tea, Longjing tea, one of the most popular and pricey varieties in China. The more expensive cups were brewed with water from the dragon well and at 80 yuan ($12) a pop, so I expected nothing short of a magical tea tasting experience. The teas 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 structure 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. A few chickens clucked about.
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 consumed about four cups of tea 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 the tea fields of Meijiawu. And much like in Longjing, the calls to "Drink green tea" were prevalent. 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.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.