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April 29, 2008

Hanging out at a Hangzhou tea village

The girls fell asleep before we got in the van so we loaded their strollers into the van (with them still sleeping in them) and drove to a Hangzhou tea village. Since they were still asleep when we arrived and unloaded the strollers, I stayed with them until Andrew finished the tour.   I don't care much about tea but he was born in England and I'm pretty sure I once read somewhere that Brits bleed either Marmite or tea if you cut them.  I can't confirm this but I have experienced his gift for writing and I can assure you that you'll love reading about his tea village tour experience here:

(Andrew typing)  We visited the Meijiawu tea village in Hangzhou, where they make Long Jing (Dragon Well) tea.  The girls were sleeping, and Donna's not as passionate about tea, so she sat with them while I went in for the tour.  We started with the tea plant itself and a demonstration of processing tea.  From picking to being ready to drink the tea is dried twice and goes through various forms of processing -- all this can readily be completed within 8 hrs, so you can drink the same day you pick.  I was a little surprised at the tea plants themselves.  They're unremarkable oversized shrubbery, maybe four feet across and three feet high.  Only the fresh green leaves are picked, and there are three picking seasons:  spring (the best), summer, and autumn.  Each bush can live for around a hundred years, but each 25, it must be cut back to the roots and given three years to rejuvenate.  The new leaves are picked and then dried -- they're dumped into a big vat kept at around 200C, and some poor soul sticks his hand into this oven and stirs them around in a complicated manner.

After that high-level process overview, I went inside to a beautiful tea garden, showcasing a statue of a solomonic-looking fellow who turned out to be tea master Lu Yu, revered for his wisdom in pronouncing the local tea the best in China.  Per this declaration, Long Jing has been formalized as the national tea of China, and various complex grading systems have been put in place.  There's even a system by which individual batches are labeled with a seal of approval that contains a lottery-style scratch-off number whose correctness can be verified by the buyer at an online website.

After hanging with Yu, I continued to the next pavilion where a tea expert (saleswoman) would help me to understand (buy) tea.  She had mastered the snap transition from imperious to servile depending on whether she addressed me or the underlings -- I had encountered this before in high-end rug dealers, so knew myself to be in capable hands.  An underling poured water into glasses moving the kettle up and down three times, signifying welcome.  We would then tap three times, signifiying our gratitude.  She showed me three plates of Long Jing tea leaevs, and explained the three key criteria for evaluating them:  vegetal smell, light green color, and smaller leaves.  By now our tea was ready for drinking.  She instructed me to cover the glass with one hand, leaving a small opening, put my eye to the opening, and let the steam from the tea bathe my eyeball in ancient goodness.  The vitamin A from the tea would counteract the effects of excessive reading or computer use.  It's an unusual sensation.

After the eyeball bath, she reached in hushed reverence for another packet of tea and explained solemnly that she would now show me tea that wasn't available anywhere else -- not Shanghai or Beijing, certainly not whatever benighted country I came from, just right here outside Hangzhou, and only because I seemed to be a trustworthy sort with a passion for tea and a clean set of eyeballs.  She unwrapped this new package and encouraged me to emote with her about how vegetal it smelled compared to the other tea that had been sitting around getting stale, which I did.  She then suggested that I might be interested in buying some of this remarkable tea, which I was.  We went through some price discussions, and she offered some highly complex package deals involving gift boxes of different sizes.  I told her I didn't really drink caffeine, and she explained that green tea is low in caffeine and the highest quality tea required only 2/3 as many leaves as the next grade down, neatly skirting the issue that Long Jing is apparently surprisingly high in caffeine.  I asked whether I could buy a smaller packet, and she told me that yes indeed I could, but she couldn't recommend that I waste my money in that way when the larger packet was slightly cheaper by weight.  Once my small packet had been prepared, and its virtues extolled, she went on to offer me a wide variety of dried flowers that unfurl in boiling water producing rehydrated dried flowers (also known as "flowers") -- I was to imagine the potential for party fun involving guessing whether a jasmine or a chrysanthemum would eventually emerge.  They were quite beautiful, but I demurred and was sent on my way with an efficiency that left my head reeling.

Oh, I forgot to mention:  the surrondings of the tea village were stunning, and the tea being cultivated on the mountain is beautiful.  It was a great trip, and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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