Longjing tea farmers start picking tea leaves in mid-March.
Since I was a baby I must have been to Hangzhou at least 50 times but this last visit is the first time I understood why this city is my dad's favorite and why he thinks that planting tea will be his dream job in the next life.
The answer came to me almost as soon as my colleague dropped me off at the Meijiawu Tea Village, one of the largest tea plantations in Hangzhou and noted for the world-famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.
I was welcomed by hills of tea bushes, shining with soft green in the soft rain of a Saturday morning. Occasionally, cars passed by to remind me I was only minutes away from modern, downtown Hangzhou.
Yet the gentle scent from the tea bushes and the quiet village in the mist made me wonder whether I had stumbled into a lost heaven by accident. Taking a deep breath I could almost visualize my stress flying away down the village streets.
This is the one place near Shanghai where I can enjoy a moment of solitude - no mom nagging about my relations and no dad worrying about my health.
Unlike the Longjing Tea Village, after which the tea is named, Meijiawu is not as well known to outsiders. Though I have been a frequent visitor to Hangzhou, this is my first time in the village. It is called Meijiawu because most villagers have the same family name - Mei, which means plum blossom in Chinese.
Hangzhou residents love to spend weekends here with family or friends. But the villagers have only been seeing visitors from Shanghai and other places in Zhejiang Province since the Meiling Tunnel was finished in 2000. The tunnel makes it possible to get to the village from downtown Hangzhou in less than 30 minutes.
More than half of the villagers were moved to the new area in the late 1990s to make room for the construction of the tunnel. The village is divided into the new and old districts now, about 15 minutes apart.
The new area looks no different to residential districts in suburban Shanghai and villagers in the old part still live in old homes with traditional Chinese architecture. In both areas, most farmers have turned their homes into tea houses, providing Longjing tea and local cuisine.
Both the old and new areas are surrounded by hills of tea bushes, gorgeous but simple. In Meijiawu, the magnificence of nature is reduced to pure green. Like Longjing tea, it takes a while to appreciate the scene.
And my appreciation started as I followed a deep meandering path all the way up to the hills. I encountered nobody during the climb - no ticket collectors or welcoming tea house owners. My only companions were the tea bushes and two dogs running ahead of me.
I have climbed a lot of mountains, higher and steeper. But when I looked down from the top of the hill in Meijiawu, this was different and I found it difficult to explain how I felt. It was a strange feeling seeing the quiet village and the empty path surrounded by the purest green.
For a second, nothing else in the world was important. But soon, I was back in the world, running down to the village, dying to see people again.
It was already lunch. Nobody welcomed me or blocked me at the entrance. I saw a few villagers preparing food in their yards, but most doors were closed. Sadly this was the low season for tea plantations with most customers waiting to taste their first Longjing in mid-March.
The average price for a meal in a tea farmer's tea house is about 30 yuan (US$4) a person. Most farmers also sell Longjing tea. The old area is more intriguing for first-time visitors with tea performances, large tea pans and traditional architecture. The new area is quieter, a nice chilling-out place for visitors.
Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea
Longjing tea is one of the most famous and expensive of all Chinese teas, with a history going back 1,200 years. It is planted in Hangzhou and two other cities in Zhejiang province, but Longjing tea from the West Lake area is recognized as the best.
Every year, Longjing tea farmers start picking tea leaves in mid-March, the so-called Ming Qian Cha, tea before the traditional Qingming Festival (around April 5). Also known as "soft gold," Ming Qian Cha is the best of all Longjing tea, with a market price around 2,000-3,000 yuan for 500 grams.
But very few tea leaves are mature by the Qingming Festival, and the next tea picking season is around April 20, when it starts to rain more frequently. This produces the second best Longjing tea and is called Yu Qian Cha, literally meaning tea before the rain. It costs about 1,000 yuan for good-quality Yu Qian Cha.
Tea leaves picked after that are priced at around 80 to 500 yuan.
In the old days, people graded Longjing tea leaves according to the plantation. The top five plantations in Hangzhou are: Lion (Lion Hill/ Shifeng); Dragon (Dragon Well/Longjing); Cloud (Cloud Rest/Yunxi); Tiger (Tiger Running/Hupao); and Peach Blossom (Meijiawu). Mejiawu village is much younger than the other four, but has made a lot of progress since the early 20th century.
Now the quality of tea leaves from the five plantations is very close and they are all categorized as WestLake Longjing.
Early tale about tea picking
In ancient China, Ming Qian Cha (Dragon Well tea before the Qingming Festival) is also called Nu Er Hong, which literally means girl's red. This top-grade tea had to be picked by unmarried girls using their lips instead of hands to prevent marking the leaves with their fingernails.
And the tea leaves had to be placed in a special basket immediately because the body temperature could turn the green leaves red.
How to get there
You can take a bullet train from Shanghai South Railway Station to Hangzhou - it only takes 78 minutes. Or drive yourself via the A8 Expressway which takes about two hours.
After arriving in Hangzhou, you can take the transit buses K837, Y4, K658 or K324 to the Meijiawu Tea Village.