Suitcase and World: Hangzhou. Natural Beauty.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hangzhou. Natural Beauty.

I had signed up for a one day tour of Hangzhou. My guide Helen arrived promptly at 7am and met me in the hotel lobby. I had made it downstairs just a few minutes earlier and had not eaten breakfast. With Helen’s help, I darted across the street and ordered 4 pan fried dumplings and a soybean milk to go. Breakfast cost me 5 RMB (about 70 cents). I got in the car and Helen told me that we had one other passenger to pick up – there would only be the two of us in the tour group. A few minutes later, we pulled up outside another hotel and a man got inside the car. He introduced himself as Lennart (sp?) from Stockholm, Sweden.

The drive to Hangzhou would be about three hours but we hit rush hour traffic on the way out of town. Rush hour traffic in Shanghai is as bad as I’ve ever seen in a major US city. Surprisingly, traffic is bad in both directions as many locals live in town but work in factories and other enterprises located in the burbs.

Lennart and I kicked back and started the usual tourist chit chat. Before we knew it, we had arrived into Hangzhou.

First destination of the day - West Lake. The reason anyone comes to Hangzhou. It’s a city where greenery predominates the landscape – a nice and welcomed change of scenery from the concrete in the cities.

The driver let us off in the park and we strolled….well, as best as anyone can stroll in the heat and humidity of China . Despite the weather that would wilt anyone from the west, the park was packed with locals.

According to Helen, Chinese come to Hangzhou for its scenic beauty and is a popular honeymoon spot. The lake is surrounded by hillsides and every now and again, you would see a Chinese pagoda though it was so hazy today that all you could do was make out the outline of the structure – the details were lost in the haze. Stone bridges connect portions of the lake.

After a short walk, we boarded a boat for a ride around the lake. I was hoping that the ride would cool me off but no luck. Lennart and I endured the sweltering heat and managed to snap photos as the boat cruised around the lake. Helen did her dutiful and pointed out sights of interest as we went along including the three famous little pagodas that look like stone bouys. These are the pagodas that are depicted on the reverse face of the 1 RMB bill.

Thankfully, it was a relatively short boat ride and we soon got back to land. We continued to stroll around the park. It is a pretty little city park and I think if the heat and humidity was not so oppressive, I would have enjoyed it much more.

We came across fish ponds and pavilions and of all things, peacocks!

The peacocks were obviously accustomed to being around people so we were able to get up close to them. The most surprising thing though was the white peacock! I didn’t know white peacocks even existed so I was completed captivated by the sight of the ones in Hangzhou. Then, there was one that seem to be a mix of the typical iridescent blue and white peacocks – a pretty and most likely unusual hybrid.

By this time, Lennart and I were starting to wilt in the heat but Wendy pushed us on. Next on the agenda was the Liuhe (Six Harmonies) Pagoda which stands on a hill above the city. Our tour ticket only paid for us to be on the grounds of the pagoda and so Lennart and I each paid an additional 10 RMB to go inside the pagoda and climb the stairs to the top. From the top tier of the pagoda (or at least whatever tier was the highest level we could go), we got a hazy view of the skyline of Hangzhou.

After a few minutes of admiring the views from the pagoda, Lennart and I climbed back down and met back up with Helen at the parking lot. At Helen’s suggestion, we broke for lunch. Off we went to a nearby hotel restaurant for a typical Chinese lunch. An hour of air-conditioning and a cold Coke later and I was ready to hit the road again.

Next on the agenda was to visit a tea farm. The area surrounding Hangzhou is renowned throughout China for being THE tea growing region. Chinese tea connoisseurs covet the tea that comes here. On the way to the farm, Helen explained the different types of green tea to us – spring tea which is the first harvest of the year is the most prized. The tender new leaves are plucked by hand so it’s also the most expensive of the green teas. Spring tea is only available in small quantities and therefore, is not available for export. The tea leaves are also harvested in the summer and fall. Black tea are the same tea leaves but fermented. White tea is the tender new shoot that first emerges in spring and is even more highly prized than spring tea.

The tea farm was nestled high up in the hills, in a quaint Chinese village.

At the farm, we saw how the plucked leaves are hand dried and sorted. Then, can came the tea tasting where I learned how to properly brew green tea (not boiling water and only steep for a few minutes) and that if the green tea is of good quality, the color of the water will remain the same faint shade of green no matter how long the leaves have been steeping. I realized I have been drinking the cheap stuff all these years so I could not leave without buying good quality tea so I decided to splurge and bought a half kilo of spring tea. I will share the tea with my mother and each time I drink it, I know it will bring back memories of my day in Hangzhou.

....oh and I bought a Yixing teapot to add to my collection. :-)

After the visit to the tea farm, it was time to leave Hangzhou. The heat had really drained all of us so in the comfort of the air-conditioned car, I caught a short nap. It had been a short, but nice visit to Hangzhou.

....and when I got back to the hotel, my backpack had finally arrived and not a day too soon!! It was another great day spent in China!!