Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shanghai Social Diary

My travel guide took me to Mei Jia Wu Tea Village to visit a local farmer's house.
by Jeanne Lawrence

HANGZHOU: I jumped at the chance to join a hiking trip through Hangzhou’s Bamboo Forest and the Longjing Tea Plantation, which produces one of the finest and most expensive green teas in China.

Hangzhou, 105 miles southwest of Shanghai, was one of China’s ancient capitals and home of the imperial court during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Today it has a population of 6.5 million, is a center of the electronic, biomedicine, textile, and IT industries, and was cited by Forbes for the last three years as the best place to do business in China, beating out Shanghai.
Hangzhou, one of the seven ancient capitals of China, is renowned for its scenic West Lake.
The city attracts tourists not only for its historical and cultural heritage, but also its natural beauty, including the calm of West Lake (Xi Hu), with its misty hills and lakes, historic bridges, pagodas, islands, and gardens. It has long inspired painters and poets.

There’s the Guo Zhuang Garden (also known as Guo's Villa), the best extant traditional private residence in Hangzhou, dating back to the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

But I wasn’t here to see the future; I was here for the past: the tea, the hiking in the surrounding bamboo forest, the pagodas, gardens, and temples.
Hangzhou (in the distance) has a population of 6.5 million and is an important business center.
Hangzhou's treasure is West Lake (Xi Hu), which has inspired painters and poets for generations.
The Guo Zhuang Garden and Villa, dates back to the late Qing Dynasty.
Guo's Garden.
Saturday: Hiking around the Bamboo Forests and Tea Plantations.

At 6:30 am, my friends picked me up in a taxi and we headed to the modern South Rail Station for the 75-minute ride on the bullet train to Hangzhou.

We were too early to board, so we headed to KFC (!) for coffee. Once on the train, we found the coaches (and even the bathrooms) very clean, and I was amused to see that despite the early hour and short ride, the Chinese passengers were already enjoying their picnic lunches.

A run-down, decrepit bus picked us up (that’s China, despite its high-tech media image), and took us first to the lush Yunqi Bamboo-Lined Path to hike. While cooler than the city, it was still bloody hot!
In Shanghai we met at the South Rail Station for a day hiking trip around - the city of Hangzhou.
Hangzhou is 105 miles SW from Shanghai. The 75-minute Bullet Train is much faster than a car ride.
We hiked straight up the mountain, through dense groves of bamboo, for an hour, stopping only to drink water. At the top we enjoyed our picnic lunch and then hiked back down through the rolling hills of the Longjing Tea plantations and terraces through a torrential downpour.

But we had brought our raingear and I must say I enjoyed it even more, as the rain cooled us off, although the steam fogged my camera lens, as you will see. At the end of the day, our group was sweaty and dirty and exhausted, but we’d had fun.
We hiked through the Yunqi Bamboo forests and Longjing Tea Plantations near Hangzhou.
We Saw Pavilions and rest stops as we hiked up the hills.
My welcoming committee as I reached the top. We stopped only to sip water.
The others rushed back to Shanghai, but I decided to stay in Hangzhou for two more days at the Shangri-La Hotel. Located in a prime location on the north shore of West Lake, it is surrounded by 40 acres of gardens, yet it needs a little refurbishing.

For my next trip, I want to experience two new luxury hotels, the Aman and Banyan Tree, both on the outskirts of the city, as I hear they are heavenly.

In my spacious guest rooms, I took a delicious long shower, ordered up room service, and enjoyed a heavenly in-room foot massage (a bargain in China) before I crashed.
At the top is a temple and cafe where we enjoyed our picnic lunch. Shanghainese Venture Capitalist Jennifer Yan and American Professor Lorna Doucet.
Others enjoyed eating, playing games, and resting in the bamboo forests.
Card games seem popular throughout China.
We viewed the villages below where generations have made their livelihood by growing tea.
Row after row of tea plantation terraces cover the slopping hills.
When a torrential downpour came, we were prepared with our rain gear.
We hiked downhill through the mist.
We were exhausted but exhilarated when we reached the bottom. A great hike!
Sunday – Visiting Longjing Tea Village

The next morning, as I was by myself and wanted to see so much, I booked a guide. We headed to Longjing Village, on the outskirts of Hangzhou, about 15 minutes by cab from downtown.

The area is famous for producing some of the best and authentic Longjing Tea (which means “Dragon Well”), a variety of green tea.
Longjing Village is famous for its Longjing Green Tea (Dragon Well).
The village is about a 15-minute cab ride from Hangzhou.
I asked my guide to visit with a local tea farmer, not stop at the tourist spots with the tour buses and we ended up at Mei Jia Wu Tea Village, where at the end of the lane, we visited the home of a local farmer—a new cottage industry for them.

He made me a fresh cup of Longjing tea by placing the slender, flat, green tea leaves in a clear glass cup and pouring hot water over it. I learned that in China tea is often served in a glass so that you can admire the color of the tea.
This local farmer showed me how he pan fries the tea leaves by hand to stop fermentation.
He brewed me a cup of the slender, flat green tea leaves and served it in a clear glass cup.
The farmer's kitchen where guests are served.
The taste of the young green tea was crisp and light and the color a light gold/green shade. We sipped the tea for more than an hour, during which time the farmer educated me about it, just as a cru-classe French wine maker would.

He explained the process of cultivating the land, hand-picking the young delicate tea leaves in early spring, stopping the fermentation by pan frying the leaves by hand, and concluded by telling me the correct way to brew the tea—hot but not boiling water.

Of course, I left with packages of the most expensive teas in the world, but where else could I buy the recently picked famed tea directly from the plantation. I now regret that I didn’t buy more for all my friends.
There are many tea houses for tastings and there is a Tea Museum.
Many stores carry the famous green tea, one of the most expensive in the world.
President Nixon was served Dragon Well tea when he visited the area with Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972.
On a Sunday afternoon the farmers Mei Jia Wu Tea Village have some leisure time.
The Village has old and new farm houses.
I asked to have lunch at a local restaurant rather than at a tourist stop. Inset: We were served country-style stewed chicken in a pot; Delicious!
Monday, Visiting Hangzhou Old Town

The next morning I visited Hefang Old Street, the ancient Hangzhou shopping street. As it is one of the most popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists, I made a point to arrive early before the crowds arrived.

The market has handicrafts, souvenirs, teahouses, chopsticks shops, silk stores and other touristy wares. As I strolled through the narrow lanes lined with slate-roofed houses, I noticed a great deal of renovating, rebuilding, and expanding in this ancient part of the city. I was glad to see the city is preserving this part of town too.
The Shangri-La Hotel lobby.
I felt I had stepped into another world at the Hu Qing Yu Museum of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine, build in 1874 during the Qing Dynasty. It seems like a movie set, with its old wood, high ceiling, and drawers filled with herbal medicine.

I hope there are fire sprinklers protecting this fabulous building, as it’s too precious to lose. I was fascinated to watch as locals came in to order herb mixtures, which the staff prepared on the spot.
Hefang Old Street, a popular tourist spot.
In the late afternoon I left for the Fuchun Resort, regretting that I had not accomplished all I had planned: seeing the Lingyin Buddhist Temple, taking the lake boat ride, bicycling around the lake, dining on more of the local specialties, and visiting a silk factory.

Hangzhou is worth seeing for the beauty and serenity of the West Lake, the history of the city as a former capitol of China, and the Longjing tea plantations. It’s definitely worth an overnight stay, especially with the new luxury hotels in the area.
I strolled the streets among slate-roofed-houses, that are now souvenir stores.
The area is a market for handicrafts, teahouses and silk stores.
Hu Qing Yu Museum of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.
The Pharmacy was built in 1874, during the Qing Dynasty.
I watched the locals line up for their herbal medicine.
The pharmacy has all sizes of ginseng.
These must be very special. Ancient houses are being renovated in the Old Town.
Recently renovated buildings in Old Town.
I assume this is a church. Bicycles for rent to ride around the city and lake.
They repaired my shoes at this shop, on the street, which was very convenient.
Tuesday and Wednesday, Fuchun Resort

Having once owned the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, I am passionate about hotels, which is why I wanted to stay at the five-star Fuchun Resort on the outskirts of Hangzhou. However, during the 30-minute drive past uninspiring development after development, I wondered if I had made the right choice.

Arriving at the resort dissipated my qualms. The resort is nestled in the lush, tea-covered Fuyang hills. It has 70 rooms with garden or lake views and 12 hillside villas, and is marked by a fine aesthetic sensibility, from the flower arrangements to the food-presentation.
Fuchun Resort is one hour from Hangzhou, and three hours from Shanghai by car.
The manager met me and showed me to my room, which had a view of the misty tea plantation terraces and the 18-hole golf course (USGA rated).

As it was mid-week, I was almost the only guest—which I loved, although I doubt the owner did. (As a paying guest, why didn’t they upgrade me to at least the Presidential Suite?)

The Resort is so spacious, and with so many nooks and crannies, that it took almost a half a day before I got my bearings, but I loved the exploration. Fuchun is mainly a luxury golf resort, but there’s something for everyone: two Astro-turf tennis courts, a gym, and a luxury spa that offers traditional Chinese massages, classes in Tai Chi with Master Chan, and Himalayan yoga.
The lobby of Fuchun Resort . A golf resort and serene retreat. Creative and stylish arrangements are everywhere.
The hotel was so spacious that I kept getting lost.
The Lake Lounge.
I loved the so called Waveless Pool, which is housed in a three-story building with beamed ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, with views of the mountain ranges. I felt amazingly serene swimming, given the atmosphere—flickering candles line the pool perimeter.

I took most of my meals outside on the terraces of the Lake Lounge, dining on a spa-inspired spa-menu, waited on by an attentive staff, and in the evening, watching the mist blanket the landscape. What a change from Shanghai.
The 18-hole golf course is surrounded by tea plantations and mountains.
As an ex-hotelier, I was thinking up marketing come-ons to bring in business. (How about a Shanghai Ladies’ Mid-Week Yoga and Spa Retreat?) But management thinks of the hotel more as a private golf club for the owner, his friends, and their friends.
If you’re looking for peace, tranquility and solitude—qualities otherwise wonderful Shanghai is short on—you can find it here. If you want action, this is not the place for you.

If it were near NYC or San Francisco, I’d move in, read all day and night, and perhaps become a monk. I loved it!
The serene 'Waveless Pool' is my favorite.
Lounging areas are scattered throughout the property.
A lake view suite.
In the boutique, I bought these embroidered slippers.
I chose my Tai Chi outfit at the Pro-Shop. My Tai Chi lessons with Master Chen.
As you can see, this lady had more practice than I.
Lunch on the Lake Lounge Terrace.
Lunch of Singaporean Stir-fried Chili Noodles with Vegetable Julienne and Shrimps.
We had spa foot massages in the afternoon.
I toured the private villas with the manager.
One of the private villas.
The villas are large, and well-appointed.
A painting in a villa dining room.
The largest villa offers meeting space.
I was mesmerized by the view.
Taiwanese Beef-Noodle Soup was offered on the all-day grazing menu at Lake Lounge.
The boat carries guests across the lake to Club 8 restaurant.
I leave paradise and return to Shanghai by train, uncrowded at midweek.
Reality hits as I arrived back in Shanghai—the construction zone.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence. New York based Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in Shanghai and San Francisco, and wherever else she finds a good story.