Marco Polo called Hangzhou—the cosmopolitan capital of China’s most decadent dynasties—“City of Heaven.” Eight centuries later, Patrick Symmes finds something familiar under the rising skyline: a refined pleasure dome where a good cup of tea melts all resistance
It was 6:03, a porcelain dawn of fog and nothing else, when my body clock finally quit for the American day just as the Chinese one was beginning. I turned off the laptop in my room at the Fuchun Resort, outside Hangzhou, lay down on a settee beneath the window, and finally, with a deep breath, unplugged myself. E-mails and Internet telephony have their advantages—I’d put in a full day’s work and had just chatted with my wife at home—but only now, after forty-eight hours in the country, was I really, at last, in China.
Over the next hour, the mist thinned and lifted, receding to reveal first the bushes outside my window and then the foreshore of a pond. A wind blew the surface clear all at once; a rowboat waddled across the water. By seven, the far shore came into view: contoured hills covered with orderly tea plantings dividing several holes of a golf course.
When it is not teatime in China, it is tee time. A few minutes after seven there was a sharp thwack, followed by a cry of anxiety, and the day’s first golf ball dropped into the water hazard with a plop. Soon, four Chinese men ambled out of the haze—small, shrouded, and heroic, like the boatmen in a Taoist scroll painting. They peered into the pond and then played on.
It is often foggy in Hangzhou, especially during the long and temperate seasons of spring and fall, when the hot and humid air of the Shanghai lowlands blows in. The city sits on the first row of hills, wrapped in green forest and built around a sheet of cool water. Here, the air chills and condenses into not just billions of tiny droplets but an artistic medium. If Hangzhou is the canvas, then fog is the brush—a subtle and complex mingling of atmospheric conditions that plays out most days throughout the city. In China, landscape is metaphor, its shapes and combinations buried in everything from a sacred peak mimicked in the roofline of a pagoda to the logographic alphabet, in which the character for mountain depicts just that. This obsessive geomancy, a response to the harmonies of the natural world, is what makes Hangzhou catnip to the Chinese.
Having come into prominence during the decadent Sung dynasties (a.d. 960–1279) and filled with grand architecture dating back a millennium, Hangzhou is a living expression of the aesthetic values of imperial China. The lake is not merely a lake, the hills are not merely hills, and the forest that girds the rippling ridges around the city is much more than trees. The ultimate harmony in a landscape is shan shui, or the interplay between mountains and waters, and in Hangzhou the shan shui is simply more copacetic than in most other urban environments. Foreigners may come because of its biotech industry or for a refreshing respite from Shanghai, but the Chinese come for the sight of leaves shivering before a multilayered landscape of hills, as carp dapple the surface of West Lake.
“We often say, ‘Above, there is heaven, and on earth there is Hangzhou,'” says Willow Hai Chang, the gallery director at New York’s nonprofit China Institute, which promotes traditional and contemporary Chinese culture. She travels to Hangzhou often to prepare exhibitions on its famous silks and ceramic tea sets. When not working, she does what one does there: “Just the basics,” she says. “A walk along West Lake is very relaxing. And always, fish.” She means the city’s famous waterfront restaurants, where a customary dish is lake fish marinated in yellow rice wine until it can be eaten with a spoon. After a $250 million restoration, the waters are cleaner than they have been in decades, the surrounding acres have been reforested, and more than four hundred teahouses have been placed under landmark protection. Hangzhou is preserving the traditional ambience that other cities in China are undoing. The next big project is to restore the Grand Canal, a twelve-hundred-mile waterway connecting Hangzhou to Beijing, which is today a gritty, polluted corridor serving 100,000 coal, grain, and gravel barges a year.
Above all, modern Hangzhou is still in sync with its original setting, occupying only half the shoreline of the vast West Lake, which gives the city its shape and purpose. Beyond the lake, in tight fields where some of the most famous tea in China is grown, bamboo-covered valleys lead up into hills and rippling rows of minor peaks. Unusually for China, the view is all green: Twenty-three square miles of forest backstop Hangzhou. For two thousand years, man-made accent marks have risen to marry heaven and earth: West Lake is ringed with dozens of pagodas, palaces, and temples—some a millennium old, others named Gucci, Hermès, and Ralph Lauren. Aside from the names, not much has changed since around 1280, when Marco Polo came to town.
The venetian was impressed. He called Hangzhou “City of Heaven” and devoted the central chapters of The Travels of Marco Polo to it—for good reason. Even to a man who had seen a lot, this was a place of marvels, with “preeminence to all others in the world in point of grandeur and beauty, as well as from its abundant delights, which might lead an inhabitant to imagine himself in paradise.”
Hangzhou was the premier source of revenue for Kublai Khan, Polo’s principal patron at the time. Then, as now, it exported silk and manufactured goods. Merchants from India crowded the wharves; the explorer found a Christian church at his disposal and special bathhouses for barbarians.
“The position of the city is such that it has on one side a lake of fresh and exquisitely clear water…and on the other a very large river. The waters of the latter fill a number of canals of all sizes which run through the different quarters of the city, carry away all impurities, and then enter the Lake; whence they issue again and flow to the Ocean, thus producing a most excellent atmosphere.…Both streets and canals are so wide and spacious that carts on the one and boats on the other can readily pass to and fro.”
Polo detailed the waterborne picnics that were common on West Lake—party boats still ply the waters today—and the particular honesty and refinement of the people, their orderly and luxurious households, their fair treatment of women.
China has changed, and in a continent-size nation of terra-cotta wonders and Tiananmen must-sees, Hangzhou merits a scant two or three pages in the guidebooks. It can wrest only one superlative from all of China: most relaxing. Other Chinese cities are a whirlwind of busy crowds and roads, furious progress and speculative bubbles, pollution and stressed-out people. The country’s few quiet places often require time-sucking travel to remote provinces, whereby the journey is of more consequence than the destination. Hangzhou is otherwise: a pinnacle of leisure in a society of work and a place where the Chinese themselves come to mellow out.
Polo warned that visitors will leave Hangzhou “intoxicated with sensual pleasures…and pant for the time when they may be enabled to revisit paradise.” I’d reached the panting stage myself while checking out of the Fuchun on my third morning in China. I was leaving a remote and idyllic resort set among tea plantations for the city center, the urbanized environment on West Lake itself.
I had landed in Hangzhou a wreck after fourteen hours in the air, a half-night’s sleep in Shanghai’s French Concession, and a train ride that dropped me in the city just eighty minutes after I’d boarded. The Fuchun had given me more than an understanding of mountains and golfers. Tranquillity, a hot shower, and a sleekly streamlined restaurant had smoothed my way, for China can mean a rough landing. My only setback was the toilet: a heated Japanese model with blinking lights and hair-trigger buttons that threatened to blast me with warm water or hot air if I made one jet-lagged mistake. At the Fuchun, the staff had the creepy but impressive habit of meekly stepping to the side when I marched down the hallways, as if I were a feudal lord. China is China, and hierarchy matters.
The resort had only a handful of guests, mostly foreigners who played golf all day and discussed Shanghai business at dinner. Groups of Chinese businessmen making their first assays at leisure would skate through the stone lobby in their golf spikes. But there was also a smattering of something new, at least since the Cultural Revolution: a more refined upper class; not the nouveau riche wheeler-dealers of Beijing and Shanghai, with their lucky license plate numbers and bling-encrusted cell phones, but an internationally savvy, quietly ambitious class of inventors and technocrats, the Ph.D. elite.
After checking into the Sofitel West Lake, I rented a bicycle from the concierge, who set me up with a properly tough hybrid actually large enough for a foreigner. Having tested the brakes in the parking lot, I ventured into a streaming bike lane and headed for Long Jing (“Dragon Well”), the artesian spring that is the font for China’s most famous and beloved tea. Dragon Well is the Bordeaux of Chinese teas and comprises all the tea grown in the valleys around Hangzhou that are watered by this one source, located high in the bamboo hillsides outside the city. I’d watched its traditional preparation at various places around town, from a Qing dynasty teahouse on Wushan Square to the daily demonstrations at the Fuchun using the hotel’s own harvest. It starts with the same bright-green leaves that are in all true tea, which are laid out in a bamboo basket to dry slightly before being withered by hand-stirring for ten or twelve minutes in a warm wok. Once the leaves have shrunk to a dark, brittle green, they are quickly cooled in a second basket.
Although it is a hotly debated point, the best brew may be made from the waters of Dragon Well itself. The result is a mild tannic “green tea” that is actually the palest of yellows. Sipped slowly from tall, thin glasses, it is an astringent drink that sharpens the senses in a place that deserves sharp senses.
With a cheap tourist map from the concierge—and little more Mandarin than is needed to ask the question, “Where is Dragon Well?”—I pedaled my way around West Lake. The streets were good, marked with bike lanes that everyone ignored. I passed the ancient Evening Sunlight at Thunder Peak Pagoda, which is, in a sense, brand-new: This towering seven-story stupa with commanding views of West Lake was actually rebuilt in 2002. (By day, it looked venerable, but when I biked past it again the next night, multicolored neon lights hidden under the eaves made it glow like a Ferris wheel.) The same was true of the Sung dynasty’s Imperial Palace, which was already in ruins when Polo saw it, yet today appears newly refurbished.
It wasn’t hard to find the route to Dragon Well, since the little valleys have only one road each. After just twenty minutes, I was out of urban Hangzhou and into the tea fields, passing ponds, plantations, and the strikingly ugly houses of some of the wealthiest farmers in China.
Hangzhou’s tea industry is big business and has all the requisite snobs, tycoons, trade shows, and luxury pilgrims. The fields were dotted with pickers, men and (more commonly) women hovering over the knee-high rows of bushes, meditatively plucking individual leaves, stuffing them into wicker baskets that rode on their hips, much like trout creels in England. The most precious tea in China is “first leaf,” traditionally harvested before April 5. I’d arrived at the end of the month, as the harvest was wrapping up.
Although local Dragon Well tea sells for the highest prices in China, there is nothing to stop anyone from calling their tea Dragon Well. “Now that name is used all over China,” said Sebastian Beckwith, founder of In Pursuit of Tea, a Connecticut-based importer. Beckwith has taken clients through Hangzhou’s tea markets and atmospheric (as in musty) old teahouses. “There is no definition of origin with teas like there is with wine,” he said. “So, unfortunately, you do get counterfeit Dragon Well.” If the people of Hangzhou have their way, a new appellation system will be put in place within the next few years. Still, in a land of flagrant fakes, the only way to be sure of what you are getting is to go to the source.
So I tried. The road to the actual Dragon Well climbed and became narrow, hemmed in by forest. I huffed up two switchbacks before encountering a sign that warned NO BICYCLES. When a tour bus hurtled around a tight corner, I understood why. I meekly turned around and, coasting downhill, stopped instead at the National Tea Museum, a complex of about a dozen buildings scattered across a hillside tea plantation. There were picnic grounds and a burbling stream carrying the cold outflow of the hidden Dragon Well.
After getting a history of the tea bush, its multiple uses and vital role in global trade, Chinese feudalism, and imperialism; after hearing about the many and varied techniques for infusing different flavors and colors into what is, after all, a single plant; after studying the bubbling, steaming in-wall display of three different methods of boiling water (too little, just right, and too much); and after learning the “nodding Phoenix” technique of pouring water onto tea leaves—only then did I realize that you don’t drink tea for the flavor.
Tea’s popularity had spread via Buddhist monks, who were forbidden to eat or sleep during long study sessions. Tea kept them alert, and the unadulterated taste that I find bitter was, on an empty stomach, an alluring blend of herbal concentrate and appetite-killing tartness. In 1391, a Ming emperor said it plainly: Tea was prepared and drunk for the moral effects, not the taste. His words were a moment of liberation for me—even the emperor of China didn’t like tea!
“Of course, they drank tea because they were thirsty,” Hai Chang of the China Institute told me, “but that wasn’t the only reason. It was a matter of appreciating the tea ware, the best water for the tea, the most suitable fuel for boiling it, the tea leaf. These were all-important because they made drinking tea an art, part of pursuing a refined, poetic life. And when the literati got together they needed something to drink besides wine.”
Travel within China is famously infamous, a rapidly improving brew of timeless antiquities and turbid masses, sublime insights and ruinous encounters. Privacy and individual space hardly exist, apologizing may be rude and staring polite, and laughter can indicate discomfort, not happiness. Nodding, like pushing and shoving, means nothing at all. There are few moments and places where China is peaceful, quiet, and empty; no wonder people escape from Shanghai to Hangzhou.
Nine nights brought a change to the city and to my experience of it. I began severely jet-lagged, rising long before dawn and walking the Su Causeway across West Lake before it filled up, sitting with the placid fishermen and their poles and watching the famous peaks-in-the-mist view unfurl as the day progressed. In the afternoons, I would rent a mountain bike and hold off sleep by riding around the lake or to the sights scattered in the hills: the Silk Museum, covering thousands of years of sericulture and global trade, and the restaurants and tea gardens hidden among the bamboo groves. I sometimes ended up in the bar of the elegant Hyatt, the best-looking contemporary building in Hangzhou, but I couldn’t get a room—it was May Day, the first day of Golden Week, a traditional holiday blown up to untraditional proportions by the rise of a new middle class. Chinese vacationers had flooded into Hangzhou, crowding the causeways, packing the bike lanes, spreading out picnics and pouring tea at every beautiful spot, patch of grass, pagoda, temple, fortress, and sacred site within rifle shot of West Lake. Every road was a traffic jam.
The crowds can stun, even after much experience. China on the march is a sight that resets your understanding of the relative size of the world. It is frustrating but also humbling to share a languid place like Hangzhou with the new Chinese. Mao cannot rope off this city anymore.
After decades of ascetic communism and a generation of frantic consumerism, Hangzhou is one of the few places in China that has paused, taken a breath, and decided not to trash the old. In recent years, the city has resurrected “a real culture of going and hanging out and drinking tea, with both ancient teahouses and modern, updated versions,” Beckwith said. There are teahouses in Hangzhou catering to every taste, from ancient kitsch to urban hip.
There are mass-market versions such as the Qing Teng Tea House—located directly across from a Starbucks and with much the same atmosphere—and upscale ones like Vogue Tea Bar, a venue of luxurious red banquettes that must be reserved in advance, each equipped with a toy roulette wheel and serviced by black-sheathed waitresses. I myself settled into the homey, bohemian He Cha Guan, off Wushan Square. It has antique statues of dancing demons, Qing dynasty paintings, fish tanks, and collections of elegant tea ware, as well as a pleasantly disheveled atmosphere, with children running wild, bursting into my curtained-off corner to practice their English. What all these teahouses share is the food. Tea in China is taken with a combination of snacks that can bewilder the Earl Grey crowd—unfamiliar buffets larded with Asian persimmons, hard-boiled eggs, steamed and jellied sea creatures, chocolate cake, and squares of sulfurous tofu.
At He Cha Guan, I went to the poles of the tea experience. I started with a classic glass of Dragon Well, with its now familiar yellow tinge, and then switched to a mysterious deep-black brew from Yunnan. This may be where the tea bush originated, but the smoky concoction was overwhelming to me, a slap in the face after the subtlety of Dragon Well. Life has its little setbacks. So I took Beckwith’s advice and, after finishing the dregs of the Yunnan and noshing on the buffet, went downstairs and behind the building to an anonymous little shop that promised me one heck of a beating.
I was timid, I admit: I had never had a professional Chinese foot massage before. The attendants were neatly attired in red uniforms, and the bright, cool room was tempting. Before I knew what I was doing, I had agreed to a haircut. I did need one, but what I got was a fifteen-minute scalp and shoulder massage with a little hair trimming. Finally, I was ready for the real thing. Joining a half-dozen Chinese customers, I lay back in a deep lounge chair and allowed my feet to be undressed and soaked in a hot mineral solution for ten minutes. This was followed by an hour-long pounding, probing, digging, jabbing, smoothing, caressing, scrubbing, pulling, and general worshipping of my toes the likes of which I have never before experienced. When it was done, I felt about foot massages the way Polo felt about Hangzhou’s courtesans: “Strangers who have once tasted their attractions seem to get bewitched, and are so taken with their blandishments and their fascinating ways that they never can get these out of their heads. Hence it comes to pass that when they return home they say they have been to…the City of Heaven, and their only desire is to get back thither as soon as possible.”
Crowds? Golden Week? Bring it on.
My breakthrough realization came, as these tend to, after a brisk bit of exercise. I rented another bicycle from the health club at the Shangri-La Hotel, donned a helmet and a bad case of denial, and headed west around the lake for another attempt at Dragon Well.
To me, the western shore of West Lake is the most beautiful, with its vistas back over the causeways toward the downtown skyline. That’s my shan shui, and in some places, where there was a bicycle lane, I was able to steal glimpses of the view as I rode through the cool morning air. But often I had to remain focused on the traffic: Pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of everything from silent electric scooters to smoke-spewing trucks careened at will in all directions, ignoring lights, signals, signs, bike lanes, and even policemen with batons. I am used to commuting by bicycle in New York City; China is a whole new level of crazy.
But I have to recommend it anyway. Now, late into Golden Week, I wended my way through a Hangzhou paralyzed by gridlock, part of the great river of bicycling Chinese, a society of equals. Locals gawked: A foreigner on a bicycle! “Hello! Hello!” cried beautiful women and old men and idiot teenagers. My passage was greeted with a chorus of approval. It was an effortful, slow, mindful way to see the city, appropriate to the celestial side of life.
The bicycle made China smile at me. The country I had visited for eighteen years came flooding back to me on my ride: the determination and strength of its people; the pride in their collective achievements, new and old; the crafty wisdom embodied in the world’s longest-running civilization. When the road turned away from the lake, I stopped for a while and peered into the cold, tranquil water of a stream that fed into it. Tiny orange koi twitched in the current; this was the end of not just a mountain spring but the mountain spring: Somewhere up in the hills was the actual Dragon Well.
I rode another few minutes along the Dragon Well road, which now began to rise steeply, heading into forested hills. I passed the National Tea Museum and once more reached the sign that forbade anyone to ride a bicycle up the hill. After a week of cycling with the Chinese, I’d learned to ignore such prohibitions, and I powered up the hill with a wary eye on the blind curves. Soon, I reached a trail in the woods. Carrying the bike, I walked into a complex of temples and to Dragon Well itself, a simple stone circle where an attendant stirred the upwelling, which poured downhill, through the Long Jing plantations, into West Lake itself. People sat around drinking Dragon Well tea made with Dragon Well water, playing cards, smoking, gossiping. I joined them for one hot glass of the brew and then took a long walk along the moss-covered forest floor. After that, I shot down the hill on my bike, gleeful and relaxed.
A friend had recommended a new tea place called Spring Summer Fall Winter, and with those four characters written on a piece of paper, I found myself near the Tea Museum, in a deep grove of bamboo where private tables were nestled in small clearings. The stream was full of orange fish and Dragon Well water; chirping birds hopped from branch to branch; a waiter brought the standard tall glass of withered green leaves. He poured the water in a long stream. It was a nice job of mixing and aerating the leaves, and the water was perfect—just shy of a roiling boil. But I was disappointed not to get the full nodding Phoenix, in which the server decants the water into the glass three times. He only dipped the thermos once.
Nine days and already a tea snob.
Chinese families sat all around, drinking their tea weak, in between bouts of shelling sunflower seeds, demolishing oranges, and knocking back Pepsi. Everyone was laughing, as happy as the birds that flitted through the bamboo, awaiting their crumbs. This was tea. I sipped it, slowly. It was bitter, astringent. As usual, I disliked the taste at first. But after a while, I realized that were I a starving monk, this would be just the thing. Finally, I accepted what I really am: one of the overfed literati. A bracing cup of tea was just what I needed. There is no such thing as bitter in Hangzhou.