I’m faced with an age-old dilemma: Tibetan worms or seagull saliva?
Hu Qing Yu Tang looks like something out of the fantasy novels of my childhood. With its tiny old-fashioned drawers and potions, Hangzhou’s famed pharmacy of traditional Chinese remedies feels like the kind of place where you’d find a salve to rub on the bottom of your feet to help you to walk on water. I’m enchanted, but I’m also running out of time. So I chuck the saliva, push the worms aside and reach for the antler essence. It’s supposed to “regulate the vital channel,” and whose vital channel can’t use a little regulating? Plus, it might even help with my jet lag.
I wasn’t always this way – the kind of guy who flies to China for the long weekend when he’s craving congee. (Not so long ago, a trip from Montreal to Plattsburgh would require days of deliberating over appropriate footwear.) But one of my resolutions this year was to take risks. With a gazillion flight points to burn and three precious days off work, what else was I to do but jet off to discover the magical West Lake, at the heart of Hangzhou? Revered by many as the number-one picturesque landscape in China (handy since I have no time for runners-up), it’s only 40 minutes away from Shanghai by speed train. A spot of top-notch Chinese beauty – temples, tea ceremonies, splendiferous views – and back to work on Monday morning, spiritually renewed. Done and done.
Penjing is the ancient art of creating landscapes, which involves the pruning of trees and the arranging of rocks to create a miniaturized, potted version of a grand natural scene. I’ve enlisted Peter Zhang from Abercrombie & Kent travel tours to be the penjing artist of my trip, if you will – to make sure my time here is gnawed and savoured right down to the marrow. Peter is a fit man in his mid-50s who tells me that when he was a boy growing up before the Cultural Revolution, all he wanted were three things: “A bicycle, a wrist watch and a sewing machine. And now I have all three,” he says. “I was rewarded.”
It’s Peter’s fault that I’m shuffling through the dark at 4:30 a.m. (4:30 p.m. my time) to one of the five Buddhist temples near the Amanfayun hotel behind my guide, June, who’s yawning. She lights the way with a flashlight, and when we arrive at the top of the mountain, we peer into the temple’s illuminated entranceway where about two dozen monks in yellow robes and dark brown sashes are praying. I enter and stand off to the side, my hands behind my back. Without a thing to do, I inevitably end up feeling like the temple foreman: “Peterson, chant like you mean it! Rosenberg, get your back into that bell-ringing!”
There is a collection of 10 scenic spots around West Lake, conceived of during the Southern Song Dynasty, and after this spiritual interlude, I intend to tick them off like a grocery list. The views were curated to best represent the wonder and charm of the lake during different seasons, locations and times of day, and I’ve rented a bicycle to ride along the lake paths. I go through the list: Breeze-ruffled Lotus and Quyuan Garden in summer – too early in the season for that. Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge in winter – too late in the season. Three Pools Mirroring the Moon – too early in the day. Eventually, I settle on riding around and breathing in the mountain air. I also take great delight in scaring off schoolchildren with my bicycle bell.
At Huang Fan Er at lunch, aka the Empress’ Kitchen, Peter and I eat beggar’s chicken: a hen wrapped in lotus leaves and cooked in a bag for four hours. Traditionally, the chicken is wrapped in mud and cracked open with a hammer, but, fortunately, we are not being that traditional. The meat is so tender, we’re able to rip it apart with our chopsticks.
Peter asks if I’d like a beer, and I say, “Sure.”
“Tsingtao?” he asks.
“Sounds good,” I say.
“Cold or warm?”
I’m pretty sure I’m misunderstanding the question, but when he sees my look of confusion, he laughingly explains that he can’t understand why Westerners would drink a cold beverage on a cold day.
“So let’s have it warm,” I say. Lord knows I don’t want to look like a tourist.
A beer mixed with jet lag can turn listening to a foreign language into a kind of ink blot test. Though Peter is probably chatting with the waiter about the food, to my ears the phonemes string together to form phrases like “hardy party rabbit stew,” “peanut wonder wheel,” and, curiously, “Goldstein stinks.”
Hidden away in a secluded valley, Mei Jia Wu tea farm has a 600-year history of producing some of China’s most famous green tea. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t had a single coffee but rather sweet longan tea, “good for restoring vigour.” (What is coffee good at restoring, I wonder. Anxiety?) I ask Peter whether the leaves are plucked off the branches and dumped directly into the teapot, and oh, how he laughs and laughs. And so I laugh too, though I’m not exactly sure why – mostly, I guess, to be convivial.
It turns out that West Lake Dragon Well Tea is sorted and heated by hand and that the tea I’ve been drinking back home is, essentially, garbage water and an international laughing stock.
“Each leaf must be as flat as a sparrow’s tongue,” Peter says. I’ve never seen a sparrow’s tongue, but I take his word that sparrows do have tongues and that they are, indeed, flat.
In a private drinking room, we’re poured three glasses of tea. With each one, the taste changes along with the colour of the water and the shape of the leaves, which can actually be eaten, and the taste is sweet, slightly nutty – not unlike spinach. I prefer the first of the glasses because it’s the strongest. Peter, though, prefers the last. Quoting Emperor Qianlong after tasting the tea for the first time, he says, “The best taste is no taste.” There is something optimistic about that – that the tea doesn’t lose flavour but rather gains purity.
I’m building up to a big night out after this: a performance of the aptly named Impressions of the West Lake, a modern-day opera by House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou, based on the ancient legend of the scholar who falls in love with a white snake. (Who can’t relate to that old chestnut?) But before the show, I need a traditional Chinese massage. When I step into the Amanfayun spa, I’m presented with an array of treatments and told that the foot massage is the most popular.
“I’ll take the body massage,” I say.
“Foot massage?” the woman behind the spa desk asks.
“Yes,” I say, “but a foot massage for all over my body.”
To my thinking, more flesh equals more experience, and that, after all, is what I’m here for. After a soak in a small round traditional bathing tub and a relaxing steam, I receive a massage that is thorough, intense and extremely painful. Like, pummelled-with-brass-knuckles-on-the-back painful. But it’s invigorating too – nearly as much as longan tea – and I get dressed for the show feeling like a new man.
At the open-air theatre, watching Impressions by the lake, it’s so cold that I’m glad I wore almost every article of clothing in my suitcase. As it turns out, the play is not performed by the lake but rather on the lake. A stage has been inserted just below the surface of the water, giving the actors the illusion of dancing upon it as though all of West Lake were their playground. The sight of humans zipping across the water – like miracle workers or skimming stones – is so surreal and exhilarating that I only succumb to one minute-long jet lag nap.
The waitress at Hangzhou House doesn’t speak English, but by pointing to the menu and then to my maw, I attempt to sign the words “feed me whatever.” At home, I spend most of my time feeling like a fool, but in China, the feeling is justified. It’s been a relief to admit I don’t understand anything – the language, the customs, how to operate a toilet. (Evidently it’s accomplished with the pulling of a chain. Imagine!) And if it means having had to journey halfway around the world to experience this kind of liberation, so be it.
I slurp my congee, bitterly aware with every spoonful that this is my last chance to taste it in its motherland, and wonder if there could ever be a more comforting dish. Eating congee is like sinking your face into the perfumed cushion of someone you love.
The bullet train back to Shanghai hits speeds of up to 437 kilometres an hour, and as we jet along, I try hard to take in the last bits of China through the train’s window. Trees and roads whiz by so quickly, I can’t take in very much at all. Everything is a blur of colour. My gaze turns toward a couple in their 70s sitting opposite me. The woman pulls out a Thermos of tea, and as she pours, steam rises from small plastic cups. After waiting for it to cool, the man takes a small sip. Then, slowly, he sits back, like he’s got all the time in the world.
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Where to Stay
Before catching the speed train to Hangzhou, spend a night at the Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai. From the top floors, you’ll see Shanghai light up like a firecracker at night. Get the party going with drinks and free hot dumplings in the lounge at happy hour.
500 Weihai Rd., Shanghai, 86-21-6256-8888, fourseasons.com
Our suite at Amanfayun in Hangzhou was huge enough to stage a Chinese opera, with furniture tailor-made from elm wood and ceilings made of Chinese fir that gives the room an herbaceous aroma. It all combined to make us feel that if we ever wanted to chuck our TV and spend the rest of our days meditating, we’d do it in a room just like this. With heated stone floors. And room service.
22 Fayun Nong, Xihujiedao, Xihufengjingmingsheng District, Hangzhou, 86-571-8732-9999, amanresorts.com
Where to Eat
Indulge in the pleasure of barbecued pork buns for breakfast at Steam House, on the Amanfayun grounds, alongside warm soy milk, fried dough sticks and a pot of green tea so good, you won’t even miss coffee.
Don’t let the fact you have to pay for your paper napkins (typical of Chinese restaurants) fool you. The modest Huang Fan Er – or Empress’ Kitchen – on busy Gaoyin Street serves up a beggar’s chicken you’ll dream of later. Ask for a seat by the large windows so you can watch the hustle and bustle of Hangzhou street life.
53-57 Gaoyin St., Hangzhou, hzhfe.com
What to Do
For an intimate custom tour of China’s most breathtaking locales, call upon Peter Zhang and his colleagues at Abercrombie & Kent. They’ll do everything from ordering you a beer in Mandarin (warning – it might come warm) to organizing a caravan to tour West Lake by bike. (We were accompanied by one rider behind, one rider in front and a van pulling up the rear to shine extra light on our path. Just in case.)
Head just northeast of West Lake in the lower reaches of the Grand Canal, south of the Yangtze, to visit the Wuzhen water town. It’s been around for over a thousand years and has been turned into a kind of theme park of 19th-century town life. You can watch old-fashioned spinning wheels making silk thread, buy vases hand-carved out of wood, wander over dozens of bridges and waterways or sail along the water. It’s Venice with dumplings.
Wandering around the Former Residence of Hu Xueyan, one of the richest businessmen of 19th-century China, felt like watching an episode of Chinese Cribs from the Qing dynasty. Before he lost it all on bad silkworm investments, Hu lived large: gardens, streams, verandas, towers – not to mention separate dwellings for each of his dozen or so concubines and their offspring.
18 Yuanbao St., Shangcheng District, Hangzhou