Suitcase and World: Hangzhou Revisited. The Tea Pickers.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Hangzhou Revisited. The Tea Pickers.

The Qingming (phonetically pronounced "Ching Ming" in English) Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, is the day when Chinese people visit family graves or burial grounds to pray to their ancestors. They sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, and joss paper, among other items, to the ancestors. This year the festival will take place on April 5 which is just a few days from now.

The Qingming festival holiday has a significance in the Chinese tea culture as this specific day divides the fresh green teas by their picking dates. Green teas made from leaves picked before this date are given the prestigious 'pre-qingming' (清明前) designation (i.e. 1st flush - the first pair of leaves and single bud that appear as the plant emerges from winter) which commands a much higher price tag. These teas are prized for having much lighter and subtler aromas than those picked after the festival.

Hangzhou is famous for its Dragon Well (longjing) tea which is a type of green tea that has been grown in the hills of Hangzhou for more than a century.  Aficionados of Chinese green tea consider longjing tea to be the most prized of green teas and have given it the moniker, "Green Queen".  You can read this page if you want to know how to assess the quality of longjing tea.

So, here we are in Hangzhou, at the perfect time of year and it would not have been a proper visit to Hangzhou if we did not visit a tea village so we went to a popular one called Mejiawu.

As we approached the village by car,  the road wound its way through terraced hills filled with tea plants.  The occasional dot, in the landscape, was someone hunched over a plant, picking leaves.

It was on our tour itinerary to visit the village so Meloday asked if we wanted to go into the field where women were working.  Of course we did!  So, out of the car we went and up the hill we went.  I have to say, it was not easy climbing the hill as there are no paths.  You literally have to climb to get up from one terrace level to another and they are not low terraces either!

We all started out clamoring up the terraces together but I very quickly got caught up in taking photos of the women picking tea leaves.   Pretty much all of them were wearing conical shaped hats to shield their heads from the rays of the sun and each had a basket on their back that they tossed their leaves into.  I was fascinated watching them deftly pick the leaves and tossing them into the baskets.  Had I been able to speak Mandarin, I would've asked them how long it takes them to fill the basket and how much they get paid for a basket's worth of leaves.

With years of experience under their belt, their skillful fingers swiftly pluck just the first set of new leaves and bud from each limb.  As the plants are debudded from each picking, the plants will grow fuller as new leaves and buds emerge.  I think the leaf picking also keeps the height of the plants in check because from afar, the rows of plants look like well manicured shrubs.

I would've also asked the women why they wear what looks like a hospital gown - covered in the front, open in the back.  Perhaps the tea plants have resin on the leaves and the gown is a layer of protection from the women getting their clothes dirty.  That might explain the use of the sleeve covers as well.  I also assume that picking takes place even in the rain and the straw hats have a water proof covering to ward off the rain drops.  Everything in China has a practical purpose.

The women chatted and laughed the entire time I was in their presence.  I don't know if they were laughing at me but I didn't care.  It was nice to see them having some fun as I cannot imagine that picking tea leaves all day long is a fun job.  In fact, I think it would actually be a very back breaking job - you're hunched over tea plants all day long.  I don't think the pay is all that good either but it's a decent way to make a living.  Watching how hard the women work makes me appreciate the tea that I drink all that much more.

I was so caught up with being around the women, I forgot about the other three.  Next thing you know, I look up and I see them several terraces ahead of me.  They waved to me so I could spot them but I waved them on as I figured that by the time I made it up to where they were standing, they would be ready to head back down the hill.  They looked happy where they were and  I was perfectly happy standing where I was, taking photos of the women and they didn't seem to mind having a stranger in their presence.

I was just about ready to call it quits when the other three made their way back to where I was.  We all headed back down the hill and to the van together.

We then went what I would describe as a small row of shops.  I don't exactly know if Mejiawu Tea Village has a central commercial area or not but this would be close to something like that.  There were a few shops selling all things Chinese tea - tea itself, pots, and other accoutrements.

Outside one of the shops, a man was hard at work roasting tea.  Every lot of tea is roasted in small batches over low heat.  As the tea leaves are roasted, each one is manually folded so that the dried leaf is flat and oval in shape.  I just use the simple method of looking at the shape of the dried leaves to distinguish longjing tea from other types of green tea in general but very often, the folding method is copied so you do have to be careful about whether or not you are buying real longjing tea.  Best thing is to come to Hangzhou to get it!

It's incredible to think just how artisinal longjing tea is.  It's all picked and roasted by hand.  I shall never complain about how expensive it is and as I savor each sip, I will remember just how hard these women and men had to work to get those leaves to me.  Our itinerary included a gift of tea so I opted to not buy any.  I still have some from my 2009 trip here.  For a true green tea aficionado, keeping green tea for nearly a decade is a most likely a no-no but for me, it still makes a nice cup.

Just before we got back into the van to continue to our next destination, I paused to take in one last view of the tea pickers who were working the terraces across the street.  We were really lucky to be in Hangzhou at this time of year.

An ancient Chinese temple awaits us next!