Hangzhou is famous for three things: its water, its fertile and picturesque countryside, and ancient tradition. All three combine in a perfectly brewed cup of Longjing tea (Lóngjǐng chá, 龙井茶).
Ideally made with water straight from the Dragon Well (Lóngjǐng, 龙井) and leaves picked from the terraces of the Longjing Tea Plantation (Lóngjǐng Wèn Chá, 龙井问茶), a cup of this delicate green tea connects you with some two thousand years of history, going back to the second century AD when Dragon Well water was discovered and combined with green tea leaves, lightly fried to stop the oxidation process and preserve the best of their flavor and nutrients.
The spring water's mineral content and cold temperature make it heavier than rain water so that when rain falls, it sits on top of the spring water, creating swirling patterns reminiscent of the image of a traditional Chinese dragon. Tea aficionados swear by the precise mix of water and quality tea, combined at just the right temperature. The results are so pleasing that Hangzhou's Longjing tea was declared an imperial treasure by Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi.
A visit to the Longjing Tea Plantation makes for a nice side trip from Hangzhou's main attractions. About 30 minutes by bicycle from downtown, situated just southwest of West Lake, the village of Longjing presents visitors with secluded paths running through a terraced landscape with tea growing on all sides. You can see the harvesting and processing of the tea and sample different grades and varieties, spending anywhere from RMB 500 to RMB 10,000 for a kilo of tea.
Expect enthusiastic hospitality (along with aggressive hawking) from local tea sellers—it's not unheard of to spend an hour or so being plied with tea and talk, even if most of the "conversation" consists of gestures, smiles and a mix of broken English and Mandarin. Just remember that you really should buy something after such an experience, so avoid giving the sellers attention if you're not serious about buying. Even if Longjing cha doesn't turn out to be your cup of tea, it makes a great gift. Prices generally start high, so expect to bargain—potentially as low as half to a third of the opening price.
But before diving in to tea buying, drop by the China National Tea Museum to get a little background on what you're buying. After your trip to Longjing, be sure to stop by Hangzhou's other famous spot for tea brewing water Running Tiger Dream Spring.
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