HANGZHOU, China — Few cities in this vast, complex land rival Hangzhou in the hearts and minds of the Chinese.
They rush in like pilgrims, more than 20 million a year, eager to drink in the classic scenery of mountains, pagodas and tea fields while reveling in the cultural grandeur of the vanished Southern Song dynasty.
The Song, who believed Confucian values were best elevated through the arts, made Hangzhou their capital, appointing poets as governors who drew inspiration from the shimmering West Lake in the center of town.
When Marco Polo visited in the 13th century, he described a 100-mile-wide metropolis of canals crossed by 12,000 bridges, sumptuous pears weighing 10 pounds each and perfumed courtesans skilled in the "arts of allurement."
"A city of heaven," the Venetian traveler declared, "the finest and most splendid city in the world."
Everyone I met in Shanghai, an hour away by train, urged me to go. The lake, the temples, the history, they said, would help me understand China. All true, but I had something less lofty in mind — the prospect of an exceptionally good cup of tea.
After a nasty battle with cancer, I became an avid tea drinker, convinced that every swig of the antioxidant-rich brew fortified me against a recurrence. I routinely drink half a gallon a day. Green teas are my favorite, and Hangzhou is home to one of the best on Earth.
Shortly after arriving, I picked up a brochure from the Hangzhou Tourist Commission.
"In this earthly paradise, you'd better do nothing but take a walk in the scenic village path, breathe fresh tea aroma in green woods and listen to moving love stories beside the West Lake," it said. "Close your eyes and enjoy Hangzhou with all of your heart."
I was skeptical. Hangzhou looked less a paradise than a teeming city of 8 million. Cars, pedestrians and motorbikes played chicken on streets and sidewalks. Noisy construction sites rattled and banged.
"Listen, Hangzhou is the best city in China, at least according to Marco Polo," said Stone Shih, a local college teacher and occasional tour guide hanging out in the lobby of my hotel. "The tea is so good here you can actually eat it. You can eat a cup of tea!"
Eat a cup of tea?
Hangzhou's subtropical, drizzly climate produces longjing, or Dragon Well tea, an expensive variety famed throughout the world.
I headed for the National Tea Museum to learn more.
The museum, surrounded by manicured tea fields, offered a detailed journey through the history of tea.
The first recorded tea drinkers were the Ba-Shu of China's Sichuan province. The habit became a symbol of upper-class refinement during the Tang dynasty and a mass-market commodity under the Southern Song who ruled from 1127 to 1279.
Cakes of tea the size of wagon wheels were given as tribute to emperors, and longjing was allegedly offered to Buddha himself.
I bought 2 ounces of the stuff for $25 in the museum shop. The taciturn clerk carefully weighed out the tea leaves like bits of gold, depositing them into a small, green tin.
Once outside, I asked a cabbie to take me into the green hills surrounding the city. A half-hour later, he dropped me in Weng Jia Shan, a tea-growing village engulfed in rain and fog, where I was immediately waylaid by hawkers.
"Drink tea? Drink tea?" they cried from open doorways.