“Where exactly are we going?” I asked my friend in Chinese. “我们去哪里?”
“It’s like a type of park,” she replied back.
“What’s it called?”
“Long Jing (龙井)Village.”
Minutes later, we stepped off the bus, having arrived at the edge of a small village at the top of a mountain.
Down the path, we walked past teahouses and residential homes. People sat on their porches, eating, playing games, or just reclining. Some called out to us to try a cup of their “famous tea, the best in China!”
What’s up with Chinese people and their tea? I thought to myself. No seriously, tea is the most popular drink in the country, consumed for all sorts of occasions. China’s got loads of tea houses, like America’s got a bunch of cafés. People go there to read, catch up with one another, or just grab a cuppa.
I noted that we weren’t the only ones going to this mysterious park. We were among a thin but steady stream of families, couples, foreigners and elderly people heading in the same direction.
We encountered a stream running with clear, cool water, complete with stepping stones. On the other side, a man was selling waterproof shoes to those who ended up fighting the current and losing a flip flop.
As we continued down the path, we happened upon vendors selling fruits and lotus roots. I stopped to snap some pictures next to some bushes, and saw that we were surrounded by upward sloping fields of thick rows of the same bushes. I leaned in to get a better look.
“Tea?” I cried incredulously.
We were in a tea plantation, and not just any old tea plantation, but one growing what’s widely considered to be the national drink of China.
Long jing tea, or Dragon Well tea, is considered one of the best teas in China.
This green tea is pan-roasted and steamed to stop the natural oxidation or “fermentation” process, which is used to create black and oolong teas.
Many lower quality, inauthentic versions are sold around China, but reveal themselves through a less complex and intense flavor. The best version, deemed a “Chinese special tea” (pun intended?) grows in Long Jing Village in southwest Hangzhou’s Xihu area. It’s so subtly sweet that you can even consume the leaves after infusing them in tea.
Long jing is also widely consumed for its health benefits, as it’s loaded with vitamin C, amino acids and fat-blasting, antioxidant-rich catechins.
These leaves also play a large role in Chinese history. An ancient legend says that 18 long jing tea bushes grew in front of a temple that a Qing dynasty emperor visited. He loved the tea so much that he granted them imperial status, declaring longjing Gong Cha, or an imperial tea mix. These 18 bushes are still growing today, and their leaves are auctioned off every year, worth more than gold.
And I had no clue! We had stumbled upon the home of the country’s best tea leaves, an area where everyone from Bill Clinton to Queen Elizabeth has visited. Believe me, I didn’t realize that I could have picked a few leaves to take home with me, even though it’s not really picking season, because I would never knowingly pass up FREE SAMPLES.