Traveling to China is no small feat, but upon arrival, the country offers centuries' worth of cultural experiences set against a vast backdrop spanning more than 3.7 million square miles.
While many travelers set their sights on Beijing (the Great Wall and the Forbidden City), Chengdu (giant pandas and Sichuan cuisine) or Shanghai (art deco architecture and international shopping), Hangzhou is a lesser-known gem that offers culturally enriching experiences that are worth building into an itinerary. A high-speed train will transport travelers in 45 minutes from Shanghai to this dynamic capital city of the Zhejiang province, which I visited last fall at the invitation of the Hangzhou Tourism Commission.
Tea for two
It's hard to believe that Hangzhou is home to more than 6.2 million residents when visiting the Meijiawu Tea Village. Tucked into the city's southwest corner, the village is adjacent to Hangzhou's most famous attraction: West Lake, a man-made lake that was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2011 and offers a bucolic backdrop for lakeside strolls, boat tours or partaking in a picturesque meal.
For those seeking a deeper sense of Hangzhou's rich agricultural history, an immersive tea ceremony at one of the family-run tea plantations enables visitors to participate in a local ritual that has been passed down for generations as well as sample the famous Longjing green tea. A visit to the Yuan Family Farm begins with a casual walk among the tea bushes, which from a distance are reminiscent of rolling wine vineyards. Get a little closer, though, and you'll see delicate white and yellow flowers blooming amid the densely planted bushes.
After harvesting, drying and roasting, which occurs seasonally and attributes to slightly nuanced variations in the end product, the tea is ready for steeping. At upwards of $150 per pound, technique is key. Lina Yuan escorts visitors to the open-air rooftop of the family's home, where she steeps the tea leaves then purposefully discards the first batch. The second pouring is for consumption as the blooming leaves reach their optimum flavor profile with complex, herbaceous notes and a clean, earthy finish.
While nothing glamorous (this particular tasting is set amid abandoned gym equipment and clotheslines), the tasting is a chance to witness a true slice of life in Hangzhou's tea-farming community.
A calligrapher at work at the Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society. Photo Credit: Matthew Wexler
Signed and sealed
At more than 100 years old, the Xiling Seal Engraver's Society embodies some of China's most notable artisans. Seal engraving and calligraphy can be traced back to the Ming dynasty, but it wasn't until 1904 when a national academic society was established to preserve the craft and train future generations.
Visitors can try their hand at carving their own seal, but be prepared to navigate the upward climb among the society's ancient building complex. Entering at the foot of Gushan Hill, the stone path switchbacks among Bail Hall, the Shanchuan Yulu Library and the Yangxian Pavilion, among other pagodas and pavilions that offer plentiful photo opportunities.
Inside one of the pavilions, a master engraver provides all of the tools necessary to create a personalized seal based on a Chinese character. Participants first transfer the chosen symbol onto a stone block, then carefully chip away using a blunt knife. The intricate carving requires a deft hand, but regardless of the outcome, the master's optimistic instruction creates a welcoming environment and the final outcome, a personalized calligraphy on rice paper, provides an original and authentic keepsake.
CYTS Tours, one of China's largest inbound travel companies, can help facilitate personalized experiences in the Meijiawu Tea Village, Xiling Seal Engraver's Society and more. See www.cytstours.com.