Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tea Time in Hangzhou

There’s a saying in China: Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou… This adage of old suggests that the beauty of heaven has somehow trickled down to earth and -- voila! -- Hangzhou was formed! Having visited the city in east central China I can vouch for this assessment. It is beautiful, heavenly even, but the ancient saying leaves out one critical factor, so I propose an amendment to the heaven-Hangzhou comparison. Perhaps it should read: "Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou… and people, and people, and people".

The lakes, hills and pagodas make Hangzhou China’s most visited tourist destination – around 20 million foreign and domestic tourists visit each year. I was there during China's National Holiday in early October. I knew there would be crowds but I desperately needed to get out of Beijing, which would be even more mobbed than other places in China.

The walkways around Hangzhou’s West Lake bustled with camera-totting tourists eager to photograph everything. The mass of people gave a collective Ohhh and Ahhh to every temple, pagoda and bridge around the lake. I was just looking for something new. Once you've seen a temple or pagoda in China, you've pretty much seen them all. The fact that the friend of a guy who grew rice for one of China's emperors once visited said temple or pagoda doesn't add to its historical value, at least not in my mind.

Aside from its lakes, Hangzhou is a hotspot for tea, some of the best in China. The hills and valleys to the west of Hangzhou that I saw were littered with villages and tea plantations – so that was where I wanted to be.

The invasion of tourists for the holiday made it impossible to flag down a cab to the villages. Buses were too crowded; biking was too dangerous. So I walked. It took five and a half hours.

The road to Longjing, which means "dragon well", was mostly paved, but soon turned to a dirt path through a valley then up another hill. I arrived at Longjing soaked and ready to drink.

Approaching Longjing, my head concealed by the hood of my jacket and my umbrella, many of the villagers paid me no attention. When they realized I was a foreigner, the calling began.

At each little tea house, an equally little Chinese women would pop out and run my way. “You, drink green tea?” each asked. Although meant as a question, it sounded more like a command. Before I could answer “Yes, I will drink green tea”, an elderly arm would be latched around mine, dragging me in the direction of a few large umbrella-covered tables.

At each house, I had the same tea, Longjing tea. The more expensive cups were brewed with water from the dragon well and at 80 yuan ($12) a pop I expected nothing short of magical. They didn’t disappoint. Each tasted just a little different from the last; some stronger than others but all refreshing and providing a boost of energy from my long trek to the village.

The last tea house I stopped in was my favorite. It was a simple house: a two storey, white walled construction with one door and no windows. A sign with the character for tea (cha) hung above the doorway and there was one table and one chair -- an appropriate setup for me, the lone traveler -- out front.

Walking toward the house, a small woman saw me and ran out to usher me the rest of the distance – about 10 feet – to the chair. She ran inside, brought out a cup, threw in some tea leaves, repeating the words “longjing cha” several times and then added hot water. After each sip, she would quickly refill my cup. With the free refills, by the time I had finished, I’d downed about four cups for the price of one.

Now full of tea, and in need of a bathroom, I decided to wrap up tea time. I thanked the woman, bought a small box of tea handpicked by her family and made my way back up the hill and out of the village to the nearest bus station.

The next day I ventured even further into the hills to Meijiawu. Much like in Longjing, the calls to “Drink green tea” were constant. It was time for tea, again, and I spent the rest of the afternoon sipping tea, exploring the quiet village and enjoying short walks through the peaceful, tourist-free hills.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Brandon, Happy Birthday China

The People’s Republic of China turned 62 this year to a modest celebration. Instead of parading its nukes, Cold War-era tanks and aircraft carrier-killing missiles up and down Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west axis, China’s leaders laid flowers at the Monument of the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Political speeches about China’s rise as a global player were prevalent.

October 10 marked the centenary of the 1911 Revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, ushering in the birth of a Chinese republic.

Smack in the middle of the festivities was another celebration, albeit a largely overlooked one: my birthday. And not just any birthday, but my quarter century milestone. On October 6 I turned 25.

China’s working masses get a week off work for the National Day and related festivities causing trains, planes and automobile lanes to become mobbed with people.

Wanting to avoid the inevitable baijiu toasts and shot drinking that accompany any birthday bash, I, too, decided to travel. I also needed a desperate change of scenery and some fresh east coastal Chinese air. I spent my special day in an American restaurant in Nanjing, China’s capital pre-World War II, eating a deliciously decadent cheeseburger, listening to classic American rock and fending off a particularly annoying prostitute. She didn’t even know it was my birthday, but still, she persisted.

The thrill, or anxiety, of turning 25 just wasn’t there, because in a sad sort of way the celebration wasn’t a true milestone. While October 6 made it official, for the better part of three years I’ve pretended to be 25.

Age in China, especially the workplace, is a delicate subject. The top spots at most companies are reserved for those experienced professionally and chronologically. Beijing Review and most Chinese publications are no exception. Almost all the foreign consultants I’ve worked with have been older than 35. And then there’s me. Brandon Taylor. Age: 25.

When I started at Beijing Review, I was 22, an unheard of age for a foreign expert. At the time the magazine was desperate to fill one of its foreign editor positions. I had no professional experience, but I spoke English. That was good enough for them.

My first day in the office I made the mistake of telling people my real age. Some of the Chinese staff immediately began looking down on me. I was just a kid. I was no foreign expert.

It was true. I was a kid, and definitely not an expert, but I learned quick and established a solid reputation at the magazine as a hard worker. I also learned to lie about my age. For the rest of that year, and the two following, I was 25. When I would let my beard grow, I passed as 30.

Having reached this age, I can see the appeal of turning 25. By this point, most people have added experience to their professional and social resumes. Some are married; some have families. And some are still trying to find themselves or get their lives on track.

When the People’s Republic was 25, in 1974, the country was in the late stages of the nearly decade-long Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous time where unchecked nationalism caused the destruction of thousands of historic buildings and relics and almost tore the nation apart. When the country’s great helmsman Mao Zedong died in 1976, the madness ended and a new era was ushered in with Deng Xiaoping and his reform and opening-up policy two years later.

Today, the country is a much different place.

I guess I can be glad the most drama I have in my life right now is paying off college loans and worrying about whether I will start going bald, following in dear old dad’s footsteps, any time soon.

PHOTO CAPTION: Guards stand by the perimeter of Tiananmen Square as a large red lantern shines brightly in commemoration of the People’s Republic of China’s 62nd anniversary. The large red lantern, and 20 million potted plants scattered around the city, replaced the enormous hammer and sickle that was placed in the square in July to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.