Hangzhou, China's tea-shaped capital where Longjing is king

Map showing Hangzhou, China
By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 20, 2010

There is a button you must push to enter China. The guard at Hangzhou passport control is pointing. I am in a fog from jet lag after flights from Boston, Vancouver, and Hong Kong, but I must press.

"You are very happy with this desk?" he asks. "Not too long checking?"

Uh, just about right, I say.

He points to a tiny customer-service circle with a smile. I choose it over not-so-happy buttons, over one that frowns. And once my selection is made, the guard smiles, too. He beams. He is blushing beneath his cap as he motions me through.

Here in the city of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, I will be seeing lakes and bamboo forests. I'll climb to a temple that I hope will house monks. About 120 miles from Shanghai, the city is famous for its tea gardens and is counted as one of the seven ancient capitals of China. Kevin, the tour guide who picks me up, is anxious to explain.

"You see this highway, the modern buildings?" he asks. We roar past glassy structures with Disney-castle tops. If elves had headquarters they might look like this.

"No one work there," says Kevin, one of many locals who seem to have Western names. "Notice. Each one have a garden for family growing. These are not for factory. They homes."

I soon find out that Hangzhou is jumping and wiggling with new wealth. Full of former tea farmers used to green space, the area is sprouting apartments built for Beverly Hillbillies, with bok choy fields right in back.

On an introductory tour, Kevin pilots me around in a car with other tourists. Along a busy boulevard, we pass a flickering sign: "CITY," it blinks. "CITY . . . OF CARTOON." When I ask about it, Kevin shrugs. "New," he says. He doesn't know what it means.

Same goes for a glittery, floodlit store called Trendy Way. A mystery, as is the multi-story I Feel hotel. Kevin smacks his forehead apologetically. He could be a tourist just like us.

"Last year," he notes, "Hangzhou already have the Burger King, the Pizza Heart." But when we're thinking about lunch, he suggests the nearby First Grade Restaurant instead. We approach a building sheathed in mirrored panels. "Sounds like a school cafeteria," someone gripes. "Looks like a casino," adds someone else. Kevin He slaps his forehead. We settle for takeout and drive on.

For a later meal, we park near Hangzhou's West Lake, a turquoise basin reflecting the lampposts and trees around its shore. "Louwailou Restaurant," says our guide with a squint of satisfaction. "It has a history of 100 years."

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