China: Sips of Hangzhou are savored like a fine tea

Old men leapt up from mah-jongg tables making sipping motions. Women trailed me with jars of tea leaves. A young woman batted her eyes before a nicely set table, "Just taste," she purred. The prices were extortionate, often three or four times higher than the museum's.

Earlier that day a guide had offered to show me around.

"Don't buy the tea at the museum," he warned. "Buy it in the villages."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because then I'll get a commission," he replied.

I suddenly wanted a cup of coffee.

Plus I was lost, and my Chinese was severely limited. A narrow path led down the mountain, so I took it.

In a moment the world changed, swallowing me up in a profusion of green.

Arched stone bridges crossed ponds laden with lotus plants. Nameless paths forked left and right. I entered a misty bamboo forest planted by a Buddhist monk 1,000 years ago.

Down, down, past Bamboos in the Wind Ridge, through the serene Guioxi Pavilion with its walls of inscribed poetry.

The land opened up, terraced tea fields spreading into the mountains on either side.

This was Dragon Well, where tea has been cultivated since the 9th century. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty fell so madly in love with these jade hills that he made a list of his favorite spots — the Top Eight Scenes of Dragon Well.

I realized I was walking through every Chinese watercolor painting I'd ever seen. Mountains, emerald pools, upturned roofs crowned with dragon heads — scenes that have inspired a thousand romantic journeys.

"Places like Hangzhou are places of cultural memory where you go to connect with the past," said Richard von Glahn, a frequent visitor to the city and a professor of Chinese history at UCLA. "The original city is long gone, but the setting — West Lake and the mountains — is still here. Hangzhou continues to inspire."

The path ended near Lingyin Temple, founded in 326 and a major center of Zen Buddhism.

Before reaching its gates I crossed a stream and walked up Feilai Feng, or Peak That Flew From Afar, with its hundreds of Buddhas, including a fat laughing one, carved into the mountainside and dating back more than a millennium.

Lingyin's main attraction is an 80-foot-tall Buddha made of camphor wood and gold. Pilgrims outside bowed and burned incense. It was November, and autumn winds sent the fragrant smoke billowing over the temples and into the heavens. The air was crisp, the mood transcendent.

After hours of blissfully wandering the temple grounds, I caught a taxi to the Hupanju Tea House overlooking West Lake. Once inside the waitresses eagerly pounced on my every request.

I had but one — longjing tea.

They brought me a glass garnished with a kumquat and sweet osmanthus flowers. It was the best green tea I'd ever tasted — mild, sweet and nutty. I drank endless glasses while happily grazing on dragon fruit, dried fish and abalone.