The Longjing Tea Village in Hangzhou is a sort of holy land for tea drinkers. Longjing tea is smooth, mellow, and can be ridiculously expensive. If you’d asked me two years ago whether I thought I would become a tea drinker or even care about the subtle differences in types of tea, I would’ve spit black coffee right in your face. Now, after living for a year and a half in the land of tea, I can say I’ve been converted. I’m a tea drinker. And my heartburn’s much better now.
Hangzhou, and the Longjing Tea Village, is only an hour or so away from Shanghai by fast train. It was an energizing, non-jitter inducing day trip.
Why is Hangzhou’s Longjing Tea Village so special?
Ancient travelers from Marco Polo to Ibn Battuta have written about the beauty of Hangzhou. It was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, and holds a special place in Chinese culture as the site of the Legend of the White Snake. (No relation to the band.)
It’s still a pretty nice place today.
I’ve never actually seen the modern city of Hangzhou myself, despite having been there three separate times now. Sure, it’s the headquarters of Alibaba and supposedly China’s Silicon Valley. Nuts to that. The real action is around the West Lake.
Close your eyes and imagine a picture of a peaceful, classical China. Maybe you’re picturing calm water with floating lily pads. Maybe a willow dangles its long fronds almost touching the water. In the background there’s maybe an arched bridge, and a pagoda, and then some mountains in the background. You’ve just pictured Hangzhou’s West Lake. It’s great, and should be an essential part of any visit to China.
But, what about those mountains? That’s where you’ll find the Longjing Tea Village. It was an easy, and cheap, bus ride from the lake to the home of some of the world’s best tea.
Legend has it that the Qianlong Emperor was so impressed with Longjing tea that he declared 18 bushes “Imperial Tea Bushes.” Those bushes are supposedly still around today, and their leaves are worth more than gold. Lucky for me, there were plenty of vendors selling bulk tea for much cheaper. And honestly, give me a cup of budget tea and “Imperial” tea side by side, and I probably couldn’t even tell the difference.
Hidden Royal-tea (get it!?)
The tea vendors were a little bit pushy, to be honest. One elderly woman in a conical bamboo hat straight out of your basest Chinese stereotypes followed us around for almost ten minutes, trying to sell us tea, food, and probably a few other things I didn’t understand. Still, dealing with a few hawkers is a small price to pay to walk among the same paths once trod by Emperors, Presidents and Communist Party Chairmen.
Before hiking the tea fields, we needed a bit of a pick me up. If only there were some sort of caffeinated beverage around… Oh yea, the Long Jing Tea Village in Hangzhou is full of tea houses. It’s touristy enough that you can probably knock on the door of any house and buy a cup of tea.
We were there for the atmosphere though, and walked up a long staircase to a quaint little tea house with a view looking out over the mountains and surrounding tea fields. The tea was reasonably priced, and we got some sunflower seeds and fruit to snack on as well.
The woman who owned the shop gave us some recommendations on where to hike. We followed her advice, and walked down a peaceful trail through the forest, passing a few low tea fields, and generally enjoying being out in nature.
On our way back, we stopped by a site that turned out to be the home of those famous original 18 tea plants. Of course, we didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, I only just made the connection while writing this blog post. Let that be a lesson to you, do your research ahead of time or you might miss seeing some historical bit of trivia, or not realize you actually saw it until a month later. I didn’t even take a picture. Honestly, they just looked like regular old tea plants.
Mao drank some tea here once
After that, it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of Hangzhou, restaurants in the Longjing Tea Village are hard to find. We walked around for almost twenty minutes before finding a little shop that would sell us some bowls of noodles. It was less of a shop, and more just a woman who ran a convenience store out of the front of her house.
But it was delicious. As I’ve said before, food in the countryside tastes especially good in China. Our noodles were mixed with chicken that had been probably killed that morning and fresh young bamboo shoots. I felt like some kind of carnivorous, carb hungry panda.
It was the perfect fuel for our last hike of a day, a hike that brought us through, you guessed it, more tea fields. There is kind of a gorgeous symmetry to the rows of tea bushes, all neatly pruned and manicured, as they climb up the green mountainside. Despite the surrounding caffeine content, it’s remarkably peaceful scenery to hike through.
On our way up the hill, we passed by a covered roof over a large stone with an inscription in Chinese. Thankfully, we were with our friend who can read Chinese. At some point, some years ago, Chairman Mao stopped on this very spot and drank a cup of tea. He said the tea was very good.
Following in the footsteps of the founding father of modern China, we hiked to the top of the hill to see the sunset. Unfortunately, the hill was facing the wrong direction. That was okay, it was still a very nice walk until the mosquitos came out.
We walked back down, caught a cab to the train station and made it home in time to wonder how Mao dealt with mosquitos during the Long March.
The Tea Museum: Still in Hangzhou, but outside the Longjing Tea Village.
If you want to know more about tea, you can go to the National Tea Museum. We did it on a previous visit, before we even knew the Longjing tea village existed. The Tea Museum is set among the hills, amid tidy rows of tea plantations that you can walk around. There’s a great view of Hangzhou’s skyline.
The museum itself is pretty interesting. Did you know that, for example, tea was probably first cultivated in Yunnan province? Or that the wild tea plants are actually tall trees, but were bred to be short little bushes? Or that it was originally sold packed together in bricks?
These tidbits, and other chunks of tea trivia are all found at the National Tea Museum. It doesn’t take long to walk through, was relatively un-crowded when we went, and best of all… it’s FREE!
Tea, tea, tea. It’s great. Hangzhou’s Longjing tea village is great. But I’m starting to lose steam writing about it. Maybe it’s time to close my laptop and go pour myself a cup.