China: the tea fields of Longjing- the source of the best tea in China

What?
The tea fields growing the most prestigious tea in China.

Why visit?
You don’t have to be a tea lover to enjoy visiting Longjing. Although it does help if you have at least a modest interest in the beverage (and hey, 1.2 billion Chinese can’t be wrong, can they?)

But if even if your interest in tea is low, it’s not hard to appreciate the greenery and quiet beauty of this lovely area. It’s possible to walk in complete solitude among the tea bushes and enjoy clean air- all this within day trip distance from smog-filled Shanghai.

And if you do like tea, be prepared to sup multiple cups, straight from the farm, as enthusiastic farmers will tempt you in with massive sacks of leaves and steaming cuppas.

Where?
Longjing is located just outside Hangzhou and its fabled West Lake, which is connected by high speed train to Shanghai. Map.


VISITING LONGJING (龙井) IS the equivalent of a tour through some fancy Bordeaux Premier Cru vineyard in France: the source of what’s generally considered to be the most prized expression of the national tipple. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say Longjing tea is the Dom Perignon of teas: light but fragrant, refreshing but full-bodied and, above all, bloody expensive.
It all starts with a leaf. 
What’s in a name? Longjing means ‘Dragon Well’ and you will find the eponymous spring at the entrance to the village that carries the same name, which in turn was also given to the tea that originates here.

Like with French wine, it’s all about the terroir: the natural irrigation from the dragon well and other springs, great Feng Shui, the placement of the slopes, and the quality of the soil are what gives the tea grown here its unique flavour- or so the story goes. 
This being China, there is ‘longjing’ grown in other parts of the country too, much like they produce ‘champagne’ in California and ‘mozzarella’ in Wisconsin. But this is the real deal, and the real Longjing grown here commands prices that will make you blush if you’re used to paying a few bucks for a box of Lipton tea bags.
As you arrive in Longjing village, you will pass the spring, and you will be set upon by Chinese farmer’s wives, trying to entice you to come in and taste their tea. Of course, it would be a shame not to, and tasting the tea grown here is all part of the experience. You may be offered different grades, at different prices, a bewildering variety, especially if your Chinese is less than fluent.
Hey you! Come buy my tea!
The village actually sees a fair amount of Chinese visitors- which is not surprising given how close it is to Hangzhou and Shanghai. There are lots of tea shops, but most of these are very low-key, ‘granny selling tea from her kitchen’ type operations.
Meet the farmers. 
Time to wake up and smell the tea!
Sometimes tasting is free (as long as you’re willing to endure the sales pitch.) Sometimes you’re asked to pay as much as 20 quai for a glass of pale green liquor and floating leaves- with unlimited refills of scalding water. Know what you are getting yourself into before you sit down. But keep a sense of humour and a willingness to communicate, even if it’s just pidgin Chinese and it’s all good fun.
As you come to the end of the village you’ll find signs for ‘Ten-Li Beautiful Scenery’ and green hills of tea bushes stretching ahead of you. This is where you go up and leave whatever crowds there may have been behind. It’s a fairly steep climb up the hill, on well-maintained stone paths, all the way to the crest of the valley.
Stairway to Tea Heaven
The Chinese penchant for infrastructural projects extends to the stone paths and staircases you find on mountain sides all over the country. Longjing is no exception: there are lots of pathways up here, and when Minor Sights visited on a weekday, we had most of them to ourselves. The views are great, the birds a-twitter: a great place for a picnic. You’ve arrived in tea heaven, inhaling the smell of tea bushes (pleasant and herby) and some of the cleanest air in Eastern China (OK maybe that’s putting the bar pretty low, but still.)
















During our visit, in December, the weather was nice but the tea bushes were dormant- basically, they hibernate till April, when the leaves start sprouting. The first leaves of the season command the highest prices- Longjing First Flush, so to speak. There will be more activity in summer- but winter is a perfectly great time to visit.


Getting there:
It’s easiest if you’re based in Hangzhou, which is worth a few days of sightseeing. Most of the city’s attractions are scattered around West Lake (Xi Hu), and the Longjing tea fields start just a few kilometres from the lake shore. If you’re the sporty type, you could cycle up- but be prepared from some serious slopes and be aware that there are no stations for Hangzhou’s pubic bike system up here.
Up in the clouds- smoky Hangzhou looms in the distance.
There’s bus 27 which runs to Longjing every 20min or so from the north side of the Lake. And if you’re flush with cash, a taxi will cost 20-30 yuan.

It’s possible to visit Hangzhou and Longjing as a day trip from Shanghai, which is what Minor Sights did. Keep in mind this doesn’t leave you with any real time to explore any of the other attractions around West Lake. Should you want to do the same thing, here’s what you do:

Count on at least 3 hours door-to-door from your base in Shanghai. Take metro line 2 to Hongqiao Railway Station. Trains run several times an hour, so you could just show up and buy a ticket for the next train. Ticket machines are in Chinese only, and only accept special stored value cards, so as a foreign devil your best bet is probably one of the manned ticket booths. Buy a ticket for the next train- and while you’re at it, buy a return ticket too, with a reserved seat. The train takes 60-75 minutes.

Most trains go to Hangzhou East station- which is further out but, like Hangzhou’s main station, connected by Metro line to the rest of the city. From either station, take the metro to West Lake. If this is a day trip, get a cab to Longjing, which will take around 20 mins and 25 RMB from the north-east side of the lake.

Going back, the bus is your best option, unless you’re lucky enough to catch a cab dropping somebody off (which is unlikely towards the end of the day). Allow plenty of time, like at least two hours before your return train departs- if things move smoothly you can always stop at the lake side to enjoy the views, but you want to be back in in the city an hour before your train departs. Keep in mind that simply navigating through China’s humongous train and metro stations, with their security checks and long lines, can take more time than you wished.

Can't make it to Longjing? Read our piece on where to shop for tea in Shanghai. And if you're a tea buff, you may enjoy reading about some of the world's largest tea gardens in Kericho, Kenya. 

Useful links:
Classification of Longjing teas


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