one of the most prized green teas in china, longjing, is grown in the verdant mountains that surround the scenic west lake in hangzhou, near the dragon well that gave the tea its name.
the flattened leaves, a lustrous shade of green and with a distinctive three-tip shape, swirl at the bottom of the transparent glass as hot water is poured into it. typically, the tea is brewed in water of about 80°c, a temperature that is supposedly best for drawing out its flavours. the infusion is steeped for about a minute, long enough for its bouquet to become discernible: a fresh and comforting note that recalls chestnuts or baked mung beans. the brew, when ready, is a translucent liquid gold that glides down the throat smoothly and leaves a slightly bitter (or golden, as the chinese would say) aftertaste.
the longjing, one of china’s best known teas and among the world’s most sought after, originates from hangzhou in the zhejiang province. the epicentre of this popular tourist city – including for visitors to shanghai as the two cities are connected via a high-speed rail that takes just under one hour each way – is the scenic west lake, known to have inspired many poets and other literati of ancient times. till today, despite the throng of tourists and the commercialism that has enveloped the area, the natural landscape is postcard perfect and continues to be a muse to artistic souls.
past the lake’s main scenic area, head south west towards leifeng pagoda and you will notice the tea fields – low bushes of dark leaves in neat rows – in between pockets of forests. as the road climbs uphill, the air gets crisper and thinner and more tea plantations come into view, not around you but in the mountains ahead that surround longjing tea village. this here is the famed home of longjing tea and is where one of the legends that attributes to its name, which means ‘dragon well’, is found.
legend has it it’s little more than a hole in the ground, its circular stone wall rising just over a feet above the cemented pavement. visitors to longjing tea village are first ushered to this local landmark that some say was once the home of a dragon that controlled the rainfall over hangzhou and thanks to the legendary animal, the climate here was always ideal for a variety of crops including tea. because the dragon breathed fire, the water never goes cold, even in winter and tea that was steeped in its water had a sparkling quality to it. a more pragmatic version tells of how the emperor qian long had visited the village and was so enamoured by the tea he sampled that he decreed the plants a royal status. the old well was thus renamed after his majesty (the ‘long’ in his name means dragon). its fame, as well as that of the tea and village, reached far and wide.
the 1,200-year-old well once fed all of the village’s water needs, until about a century ago when piped water became a convenience. the well is maintained as a symbol of prosperity and visitors are encouraged to clean their hands and faces with water drawn from it – villagers will automatically hand you a pail as you approach – as a gesture of blessing. as soon as you’re done, the same villagers will try to entice you to visit their nearby homes, which are also their ‘showrooms’ and retail outlets, for a fresh cuppa and show you their harvest.
stacks of heavy sacks are filled with loose leaves of varying grade and quality, depending on which crop the tea was picked from. harvest season is in april and the timing is of utmost importance; tea growers will tell you that the leaves are like treasures if picked earlier but useless as grass if picked too late. tea that is picked before the qing ming festival (all souls day), usually in the first week of april, is known as mingqian tea and considered to be top of the range.
the tea merchants move about briskly, opening up the different bags of teas to let you take a whiff and steeping them in cups for you to sample while telling you about the many virtues of longjing: rich in anti-oxidants, and said to help prevent heart disease and even cancer.
like other precious commodities, the price of longjing usually appreciates annually, its value further boosted by the small production levels. last year’s average market price was rmb8,000-9,000 (about usd1,300-1,500) per 500g, up about 15% from the previous year. although, a recent governmental crackdown on spending has led to reduction in premium tea spending and thus, this year the longjing suffered a drop in value.
at any price, the competition is also fierce; take a stroll along the short main road that cuts through the village and you will quickly lose count of the number of times you are asked if you would like to try some tea. as much as it is an attraction, this village is also undeniably commercialised. if you’re picturing yourself sipping a steaming cuppa while resting your eyes on hangzhou’s famously picturesque greenery, stroll through to the next village.
up the hill and under the mountains the longjing tea village itself is actually made up of two parts; the ‘upper’ village is where the iconic well is located while further down the mountain is the ‘lower’ village, marked by a tall wooden arch bearing its name so it’s easy to mistake this for the real deal. you won’t find the well here but this hamlet is also lined with tea houses and merchants, and is as popular among tourists who just want to sample some authentic longjing.
cab drivers and buses typically drop tourists off at these two stops but ask the locals about longjing and they will point you in the direction of a third village, yang mei ling. at the end of the ‘upper’ village, walk up a stone staircase in between the houses, down and across a forested area – with patches of tea fields in between the trees – and you will come to yang mei ling village. a narrow road winds between two rows of traditional homes at the foot of the tea-growing mountain and like the other villages, you will be met with invitations to step in for a cuppa or to pack some tea home. but it’s a lot quieter and the village has a somewhat old-world feel about it, its uneven road paved with stone slabs.
at the end of the row of buildings, a soothing sight greets you in the form of tea garden vip, a spacious tea house and restaurant made up of several dining and relaxing areas. get a table at the outdoor terrace and order yourself a pot of longjing. while the tea is being steeped, munch on the popular local snack of roasted sunflower seeds. overlooking a low hill with hedges of tea growing in neat horizontal rows, this is how china’s most treasured tea should be savoured: in serenity, with birds chirping in the background and a soothing view to feast the eyes on. this must have been how the emperor struck his moment of inspiration back in the day, enough to transform what would otherwise have been yet another tea into one that’s now as famous as the mythical creature that features in its name.
best time to visit during harvest season, in april, you can see tea pickers at work and inhale the aroma of tea being roasted. sign up with local tour companies to join tea-picking sessions and tea roasting workshops.
getting there longjing tea village can be reached via bus no 27 – the ‘upper’ village is a short uphill walk from the last stop, near leifeng pagoda. the ‘lower’ village is one stop before that. yang mei ling village can be reached on foot from the ‘upper’ village and also via bus no 27 on its descending route. taxi is the preferred option for many first-time tourists as buses are limited and only runs until certain hours.
tea and more complete your longjing experience with a visit or a stay at these other tea-inspired attractions:
china national tea museum 88 longjing road tel +86 571 8796 4221 opens 8.30am-4.30pm, tuesday-sunday (october-april)/9.00am-5.00pm, tuesday-sunday (may-september) admission free english.teamuseum.cn
china’s only tea museum opened in 1991 to capture the history, development and cultural significance of tea to the country and its people. from the main road, a short drive past tea fields lead to a complex divided into eight exhibition halls, each displaying a different aspect of tea knowledge with information in chinese and english. surrounding this complex are lush, restful landscaped gardens with flowering shrubs and featuring traditional chinese elements and architecture. there’s a tea house with alfresco seating under the shade of old trees and by a stream while jiama restaurant serves tea-inspired cuisine. a number of tea-related activities are often held on site, including traditional ceremonies, art and tea-baking workshops.
landison longjing resort 86 lijilong mountain, longjing road tel +86 571 8691 6666 www.longjingresort.com
set within an actual working and living tea village, this 51-room boutique property celebrates tea in many forms – from its interiors to spa treatments and guests’ activities. green tea bath amenities await in your choice of abode (rooms, suites or lofts) while the t lounge in the atrium serves a selection of chinese tea. cha restaurant offers western and south east asian specialties – including tea cuisine. for staying guests, the resort offers a series of complimentary classes each day, including the traditional chinese tea ceremony on saturdays.
this article was first published in eat stay love issue 4, produced by mediascope publicitas (india) pvt ltd