China: Sips of Hangzhou are savored like a fine tea

Outside, the setting sun cloaked the slow-moving boats in golden light. Causeways led to islands that once served as refuges for poets such as the famous Su Dongpo.

"It's gorgeous under clearing skies, a lake all billows and light, and lovely too in rain, mountain colors among empty mists," he wrote. "I can't help comparing West Lake to Lady West, her makeup just barely there or laid on thick: she's exquisite either way."

Swollen with tea, I slowly circled the three-square-mile lake, enjoying place names such as Melting Snow at Broken Bridge and Three Pools Reflecting the Moon.

Rarely have I seen so many people enjoying a place so completely. Peddlers sold candied apples and octopus on a stick. Street musicians played lutes and zithers as elderly couples waltzed in time. Jewel-like koi flashed in the shallows.

That evening I attended a performance of "The Romance of the Song Dynasty" just outside the city.

I ran into Stone Shih escorting a tour group going in. He was, as always, brimming with information.

"When Nixon came to China in 1972, he watched this play and loved it," he said. "This is the 'Romeo and Juliet' of the Song dynasty, and it helped thaw relations between the U.S. and China."

I squeezed into the dark theater with thousands of others.

Then my mind was blown.

For the next hour I witnessed the most colorful, psychedelic spectacle I've ever seen. It snowed on stage, it rained on stage, horses galloped on stage. Performers dressed as butterflies, tea leaves and courtesans.

Beautiful women in lotus flower costumes sang while twirling lily pad parasols.

I loved it and can't even tell you what it was about.

Hangzhou had worked its magic.

I had arrived a skeptic but left with a Song in my heart.

Now for a cup of tea.