HANGZHOU, Zhejiang — Hangzhou is one of the top tourist destinations in China, so on Tuesday Arthur and I played the role of tourists. We took a short bus ride to Mei Jia Wu, or Mei Family Village, a peaceful place full of white buildings, rolling green hills and tea plants — lots of tea plants. Mei Village’s sole reason of existence is the production of Longjin, or Dragon Well, tea, which the people of Mei Village not surprisingly say is the best green tea in all of China. And most tourists who visit Mei Village come for two reasons: to drink tea and buy tea. You see them arrive on their tour buses … and then you see them leave on their tour buses. No one seems to stay long: drink, buy, leave.
Well, Arthur and I didn’t arrive on a tour bus. We took public transportation, for a grand total of RMB 6, or around 75 cents. And instead of drinking tea immediately, we went directly to the source — the tea leaves themselves. We spotted a dirt path that meandered off from the main road and into the neatly planted rows of tea bushes that lined the hillside. We hiked to the top of a hill and were rewarded with a nice view of the village. You’ve got to work up a thirst before it’s tea-drinking time.
And working up a thirst is pretty damn easy in this weather. It was around 100 degrees yesterday, with high humidity and a scorching sun. All the villagers wore wide-brimmed straw hats to shield their skin from the rays. Female tourists sported pastel-colored umbrellas, which is pretty much standard practice during the summer throughout color-conscious China. Arthur and I , meanwhile, sweat — a lot. Arthur pointed to the sweat soaking through the front of my shirt, smiled and said, “Mickey Mouse.” Strangely, he’s not the first person to tell me the sweat stain on my chest resembled the Disney character. I don’t know, better than Goofy, I guess.
Back at street level, we spotted a man drying tea leaves down an alleyway. Seated, his legs straddling a large metal basin, he worked the tiny leaves with his bare hands against the worn metal surface that is heated to temperatures anywhere from 60 to 120 degrees centigrade. It takes him eight hours to dry just two kilograms of green tea leaves.
“And how do your hands feel at the end of the day?” I asked.
“You get used to it,” he said, holding out the palm of his hand, worn and stained black forever.
We were then invited into a building to try some Longjin tea … for free, but with the obvious hope that we would end up buying some. I was the only foreigner in town, so we were an easy mark. A smiley girl named Yan Jin Ping — badge No. 001 — took us through the finer points of tea production and consumption (in English!).
At Mei Village, they don’t drink tea, they eat tea, because they believe their leaves are good enough to eat. “No pollution,” Yan said, explaining that at Mei Village the entire production process, from planting to picking to packing, is done by hand. The women do the picking and the men do the drying. I asked why it’s not the other way around.
“Men are too slow,” Yan said. But it’s not because they are lazy. It’s because their hands are too big. At least that’s what Yan said.
(She mentioned that the Dragon Well Village, the tea village that Lonely Planet mentions, is too close to the city, and therefore its tea is not as good.)
“Green tea can help prevent cancer,” Yan said, before going through a laundry list of the drink’s health benefits. It can help you lose weight. It can moisten dry eyes. Yan said she drinks five to six thermoses of green tea a day.
“So you must be very healthy,” I said.
“Well, I also like to drink Coke,” she said with a grin. “Bad for teeth.”
We were drinking tea throughout the presentation. A couple pinches of Longjin tea are supposed to last through four or five cups of water. The second cup is supposed to be the best. Mine was fine, I thought. But, then again, I’m a guy who likes jasmine tea. And Yan informed me that’s the worst stuff out there. I, obviously, have not acquired a taste for tea.
And that’s a good thing — because the “best” teas are expensive. A 125 gram can of Mei Village’s finest is around RMB 300, or $36. The best tea is spring tea, leaves that were picked before the middle of April, when leaves are at their most tender. Yan let us examine some dried spring leaves and some summer leaves. Some smelled slightly of spinach and some kind of like chocolate. I forget which one was which.
Mei Village keeps its spring crop for its own sale and consumption. Yan pointed to the summer leaves and said, “This tea is not as good, so we export that to America.”
Click here for photos.
Dinner with the Hus: Dining with Arthur’s family I learned that Mr. Hu likes to slurp his Zhonghua Beer from a bowl, homemade wine that comes from the yangmei fruit is one vile concoction and, evidently, I pronounce the Chinese word for napkin (can jin zhi) perfectly. Unfortunately, all of my other attempts to speak Chinese to Arthur’s mom had to be translated by Arthur into, well, Chinese.
Notes from the road: I am typing this from a bus headed for Tiantai Mountain, a sacred spot about three hours southeast of Hangzhou. At the crowded bus station, Arthur noticed, “So many people are staring at you.” Well, just wait until we get to Tiantai — it doesn’t seem like many foreigners go there. As we boarded the bus a man stopped me to make sure I knew where I was going. Apparently, a few days ago a foreigner got on a bus bound for Tiantai … but he thought he was going to Shanghai. The man didn’t want me to make the same mistake.