The umbrella painting, for me, was, well, a disaster.
The idea was to paint something pretty on a paper parasol. One guy in our group painted delicate branches and blossoms. One woman had a totally red umbrella laced with flowers.
Mine, sadly, looked like Godzilla meets the butterflies.
But no matter. The point was we were learning how local art is made. Over the course of our week in Hangzhou, China, between visiting pagodas, temples, the famous West Lake, a wetland park and eating more Chinese food than I’ve encountered in a while, we learned a bit about life there and got to try more than a little of it.
Back in 1983 when I first visited China, it truly was a trip to another planet.
In the early years, the emphasis was on showing us daily life ... visits to pre-schools with four-year-olds trying to sing a welcome song in English, visits to factories, to Chinese medicine hospitals, demonstrations of that then exotic treatment, acupuncture. And even a visit to a prison.
Since then, I’ve made some half dozen more trips. And EVERY single time, China has reinvented itself.
Now it’s been 15 years since the last trip and yes, the place is once again, a whole different world.
If you come, you probably won’t be visiting pre-schools or prisons. But you can get a lot of hands on activities to learn about culture and history.
Hangzhou in southeast China, only 45 minutes from Shanghai on the Bullet Train, is a natural beauty. Its shining glory is West Lake, whose beauty really does live up to the reputation.
Water lilies line the shore. Soft far off mountains frame it like, yes, a Chinese painting. And should you venture out in early morning, you will find the locals doing graceful tai chi and sometimes, painting calligraphy on the sidewalks with giant brushes dipped in water. Yes, you are welcome to join in the tai chi.
What else? The Grand Canal, the world’s oldest canal, begins at Hangzhou and ends 1,200 miles later in Beijing. Silk, tea and porcelain go back thousands of years here. And there are workshops, which, along with painting parasols, include visiting tea plantations, learning how to carve a chop, silk weaving and more.
So, of course, my friends and I went to pick tea. And more importantly, learned how to brew it properly.
Meijiawu Tea Village sits at the west end of West Lake. Once poor, it now is famous for its Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea. Famous enough that these days, it gets a million visitors a year. Each family gets to work a portion of the hillside, which is covered in a waist high carpet of tea plants so thick, it looks like you could walk on top of the green blanket.
“We pick only the very young leaves,” said Yuan Le Ha, standing there holding a delicate yellow tea blossom. She pointed to the tiny, light green, brand new leaves. These would be cooked ... yes, cooked ... in an electric wok while someone with a truly hardy hand stirred with this hand constantly for three hours. Then up to the roof for sun drying, another session with the wok, more sun and, voila, green tea.
You do NOT steep green tea in boiling water, we were informed. Wait a few minutes. The best temperature is around 180 degrees. The first cup is for sniffing, not drinking. Wait for the second. And you do NOT steep green tea covered. “That will destroy the nutrients,” Le Ha added.
From a local website comes a couple of added intriguing bits:
* Best time to drink tea is between meals. Otherwise, it could spoil your appetite (diet anyone?).
* And my favorite ... green tea is best for office workers because it contains substances that “help prevent computer radiation and supplement moisture content of the human body.”
Le Ha followed with a graceful tea ceremony where she warmed the glasses, prepared and poured us tea. Well, sigh, the stuff looks like cooked spinach and, honestly, to me, tastes like cooked spinach. But everyone else in the group loved it. And the beautiful tins filled with tiny green leaves make great gifts.
The session I loved most was learning how to make a chop, also called a seal. Chops have been around in china since 1600 BC, eventually spreading to other Asian countries. Initially used only by emperors, lords, and samurai warriors, over time they made their way down the social ladder to everyone.
They can be made of anything from metal to wood but mostly stone. Soapstone is especially popular since it’s easy to carve.
And so, we climbed well worn, rough stones to a top floor at Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society, which looked more like a temple (complete with pagoda) than a school.
Teacher Wang Zhen has probably carved 1,000 chops over the past 13 years and while in his hands, it looks swift, graceful and easy, be assured that for the rest of us, it really was not.
We sat at a long table where each person had a slender block of stone, pen, ink, tissue thin paper, small chisel and a white glove to hold our stone.
We drew (with Zhen’s help) the character on the paper with ink, transferred it to the stone and then chiseled the pattern into the stone. Hey, it’s not easy. Mine looked like so many messy scratches instead of solid, bold lines.
The one I made says cat. Or maybe meow. My husband, who reads Chinese says he sees a bit of both in the characters. Zhen inked it and then transferred the marking to a beautiful piece of paper inscribed with his name, the name of the school and the date.
Zhen declared mine the second best, to my utter surprise. He also carved each of our names into another chop. Turns out Yvette becomes three extremely complicated words in Chinese.
No trip to China is complete without temples and we got our fix gloriously at the Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist complex. It’s some 400 carvings cut into limestone dating back nearly 2,000 years. The place is huge, with grottos, temples, pagodas, libraries, museums, caves and so very much more.
The star of Hangzhou, though, is West Lake, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. It has three causeways, numerous islands, plus pagodas, tea houses, temples and gardens.
Tour boats nicely keep to an ancient style ... dragon boats, rowing boats, painted boats ... each looking like it stepped from the pages of history.
Meanwhile, if the lake’s water and light show, “Impression West Lake” is performing (mid-March to January), do NOT miss it. The director is the same guy who put together the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It’s a love story ... love found, love lost, war, sorrow, people transforming into swans. Someone said it’s a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet. More than 300 performers gracefully glide through ankle deep water on a submerged stage against colored lights, flying feathers and beautiful Chinese houseboats. At one point, an army beats soaked drums with each strike splashing water a foot high.
We also rode down the Grand Canal, built by hand 1,500 years ago and stretching 1,200 miles between Hangzhou and Beijing. Cargo boats drag long loads. Ancient bridges gracefully span the water. New and old homes line the banks. And yes, there are shops and more than one coffee house.
Our other boat ride involved XiXi National Wetland Park. This once was home to 20,000 people in a dozen villages. They were moved out when the park was created, leaving behind 23 sq. miles of protected wetland, six rivers, assorted ponds, swamps and preserved homes that now house silk weaving demonstrations, sample kitchens and bedrooms.
A word, here, about shopping. It turned out that one of my best buys in silk (which seems to be THE thing in these parts) was at XiXi Park. I got a gossamer light scarf the size of a tablecloth for about $6.
One night we also wandered from our hotel down to a silk shop (there are MANY) and found a selection that included all silk, silk with cashmere on one side (keeps the shawl from slipping off your shoulders) and all cashmere. Prices ranged from $4 to about $30.
And, of course, there was the Wensli Silk Museum, where you can buy a silk embroidered “painting” for a mere $250,000, a Marc Rosier scarf for $450 or, closer to reality, a signature Wensli scarf for $150. That’s in addition to the blouses, shirts, nighties, robes, pillows, ties and, yes, a silk iPad case.
Each silk cocoon, by the way has nearly 5,000 feet of silk thread and it takes 300 cocoons to make a single yard-square scarf.
Our last day, we hit Qinghefang Ancient Shopping Street. It recreates a bit of old China, with a football field-long street of shops, stands and just about any trinket for sale from tea to scarves, tiny cloth animal key chains, spices, toys, bone combs, fancy fake designer sunglasses, snacks and my favorite, the guys pounding sesame seed paste into sheets of candy.
There’s little left of the China I saw in 1983. But today’s China is still absolutely fascinating.
My experiences and workshops were held at: tea plantation - Meijiawu Tea Village, seal engraving - Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society, parasol painting - Workmanship Demonstration Pavilion.
Best time to visit Hangzhou is spring or fall. Summer temperatures can hit well over 100 degrees. Winter is cold and can be rainy. Peak time is spring (mid-March to early June).
Several airlines fly nonstop (though not daily) flights from select major US gateways to Shanghai, the nearest major airport to Hangzhou. These include Delta, United, American, China Eastern and Hainan.
From Shanghai, it’s 45 minutes by Bullet Train (at speeds up to 155 mph) to Hangzhou.
Delta, meanwhile, has a neat bag tracking program through its Delta app (available on iPhones and android). You enter your flight information and you can see if your luggage is on the plane, avoiding the usual end of trip suitcase arrival anxiety.
The food, by the way, will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in a good Chinese restaurant in the US.
China blocks virtually all social media. You will not be able to access Facebook, Instagram, other social media programs or anything connected to Google. Success with other sites can be spotty. For instance, Time Magazine’s daily digest comes up and its links to stories work. The NY Times daily diary comes up but links to stories do NOT work.
Some travelers (and most people in China) get around all this by using WeChat, a free messaging and calling app. Other people use VPN, which creates a virtual private network.
Oddly, my own cell company, Sprint, which allows wi-fi calling in 200 countries, blocks it in China (along with Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and, oddly, Australia and Singapore). If you have a smart phone, check with your cell company about wifi calling, which if offered, will be free.
There are banks and ATMs for changing money. For the ATMs, though, you need a credit card with not only a chip but a pin number. For the banks and at hotels, you will need to present your passport. And if you are exchanging US bills, they must be crisp and new ... no folds, wrinkles, markings, tears. Get brand new bills at a bank.
For information on Hangzhou: Http://en.gotohz.com/
For information on tours: Asia Luxe Holidays: http://www.asialuxeholidays.com/
* Meijiawu Tea Village - http://www.visitourchina.com/hangzhou/attraction/meijiawu-tea-village.html
* Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society - http://www.china-tour.cn/Hangzhou/The-Xiling-Seal-Engraver-Society.htm
* Workmanship Demonstration Pavilion (parasol painting, embroidery, paper cutting, wood carving and more) - http://e.gotohz.com/wheretogo/attraction1/201408/t20140813_127664.html
* China Photo Diary: https://goo.gl/photos/iZ6vJ9Jz84dfUifT6
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