A luxury resort and Hangzhou authorities are safeguarding the cultural heritage of the city, one of seven ancient Chinese capitals.
Pang Ying is like a female Indiana Jones amid the Terraces of Dragon Well Tea, protecting the integrity of one of China’s most cherished and costly green tea brands by roaming the verdant hillsides of Zhejiang’s Hangzhou in her spare time.
The temples of doom would be anything but – seven ancient Buddhist temples scattered around a traditional Chinese village that has been remodeled as Amanfayun, one of three luxury Aman properties in China that blend harmoniously with their surroundings.
“In Hangzhou we have the best soil for tea trees,” said Ms Pang, the founder of He Chaguan tea house chain. “Smokers seem to prefer the Meijiawu brand, but a lot of my customers like Shifen, which smells like chestnuts and fried rice.”
She was referring to strains of the tea known in Chinese as Longjing. Most of the middle-aged lady’s hillside stops are aimed at quality control in a bid to fend off competition from lower-quality brands that try to pass themselves as West Lake Longjing tea.
But, as with sparkling wines from Champagne in France, only local variants qualify for this honor. She posts instructive video diaries of her tours of duty on Youku.com.
Ms Pang hails from Hangzhou, a leafy paradise famous for its West Lake, beautiful women and tea, all of which linger in the memory and taste buds, respectively, long after they have been seen or experienced.
Its allure is such that House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou even conjured up a nocturnal light and dancing show on the lake called Impressions of West Lake.
A walking tour from the area’s Nine Creeks to Longjing Village, or ground zero of the local green tea-growing industry, is highly recommended – if only to hear the talking birds at a local farmer’s house comment on your figure in pitch perfect English.
Hangzhou, an affluent city in East China, used to stand as a bottleneck for trade along the old silk and tea trading routes. Marco Polo allegedly once described it as “the noblest (city) in the world”.
President Xi Jinping is now in the process of resurrecting these ancient routes from South China to Europe via Southeast Asia and East Africa as part of his twin “Belt and Road” initiatives.
When China Daily met Ms Pang, the second cut of the season had just gone to market. Suppliers can sell the first grade for 3,000 yuan (485) per kilogram. That was harvested in March, before China celebrated qingmingjie, its Tomb-Sweeping Festival, on April 5.
The latest batch is worth between half and two-thirds as much, she said after hanging up on Singapore Airlines. Asia’s top carrier apparently wanted to sign her up as a supplier but couldn’t agree on a price. Ms Pang wouldn’t budge. Maybe the discussion left a sour taste in her mouth. Maybe it just wasn’t her cup of tea.
The biggest surprise was how well Longjing tea pairs with local dishes.
Don’t leave without trying West Lake fish in sweet black sauce, mud-baked Beggar’s Chicken, or West Lake shrimp cooked in Longjing tea leaves. A combination of the last two at Meijiawu Tea Village was the most satisfying: a whole chicken roasted in the faintly aromatic, bittersweet tea.
Modern life is fast-infringing on the heart of China’s green tea industry, as the women belly dancers on the steppes of Meijiawu, and the Buddhist monks carrying takeaway Starbucks cups near Yongfu Temple, which is famous nationwide, attested.
But a two-night stay at Amanfayun during tea-harvesting season proved a refreshing reminder of how the authorities, and Ms Pang, are safeguarding their cultural heritage in this osmanthus-scented city of 8 million, one of seven ancient Chinese capitals.
The resort is modeled on the grounds of Fayun Nong, a 200-year-old village where residents once used the indigenous plants as medicine, or smashed the leaves to make shampoo. The best of the neighboring temples are separated by only a wooden gate and sentry post.
One groundskeeper pointed to a “seven-leaved” tree that only grows in the best of climates. “The plants here also relate to Buddhism, especially the theme of purification,” he said. Fittingly, Aman is the Sanskrit word for “peace”.
Laundry was done in the stream that runs through the resort as rock-carved Buddhist statues gazed penitently on from the far bank. Nowadays, the whole vibe is one of a Buddhist fairy tale. The days start with birds’ chirping and end with temple gongs.
It took nine years for the government to relocate the 600 villagers from Fayun Nong, some of whom still pick and roast Longjing tea from the neighboring hills.
“Once their green tea became famous and expensive, the villagers started renovating their houses, which meant they were losing their original character,” said Thailand’s Vaipanya Kongkwanyuen, the resort’s general manager.
“Some scrapped the whole house. Some changed the wood to cement, or added tiles and mosaics. So the Hangzhou government cleverly decided to keep the scenic area as it used to be. They began restoring the whole village and moved the people out.”
Now Vaipanya’s biggest problem is the yellow bees that bore holes in the elm-wood exteriors of the 47 dwellings. Each was designed by Jaya Ibrahim and is uniquely laid out as it follows the original housing structure. The stone floors and four-poster bed.
The city keeps such strict watch on the village/resort that when a 200-year-old tree recently gave up the ghost, the Thai GM had to call the botanical authority to come and photograph it before he got the chainsaw out.
Spring is the perfect time to visit Hangzhou. Many nouveau riche motorists from Shanghai and cities in Zhejiang come to pray for prosperity at Lingyin Temple (Temple of Soul’s Retreat). Others prefer the three-hour hike up the north point behind the 14-hectare resort. Be warned that the crowds at the temples can get maddeningly thick.
Amanfayun, which opened in 2010, retains an olde-worlde flavor by having guards patrol at night with oil lamps amid the stone pathways, dense foliage and forests of camphor and bamboo. A bamboo massage is a must here: small stones inside the bamboo sound like waves crashing gently over you as you look out the second-storey windows at trees.
The spa also offers exfoliation using green tea and ginger tea, and a facial using green tea powder. Spa Manager Waruni from Thailand’s Hat Yai knows her stuff, so don’t freak out at her blue-colored Butterfly Pea Tea. It is good for tired eyes.
But the centerpiece of the resort is Fayun House, a charming two-storey lounge for guests that hosts calligraphy and other artisanal classes by master monks downstairs, and a new cigar bar upstairs. Exotic contemporary art collections of Hangzhou Surrealism add to the cultural mix of old and new.
During the day, monks and tourists freely use the resort’s central thoroughfare. The former use it to pass from Yongfu Temple to the Buddhist academy on the other side; tourists snap pics and wonder at this living tableau of a bygone era.
Source: China Daily