Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 2: Dragon Well Tea and the Lingyin Temple

One of the troubles about traveling to China is that it isn't always easy to just Google location names and come up with an exact answer. For that reason, I'm a bit fuzzy on what the name of our next stop was.

We were taken to a tea shop at one of the tea plantations. I snapped a photo of the sign at the door which said "Welcome to Meijiawu." The problem is, when I later Googled "Meijiawu," the search results either suggested it was the name of the shop we visited, the name of the plantation, or the name of the village.

I suppose it's possible that it's all three, and that we visited the tourist shop at the plantation, which shares the name of the village around it. The itinerary from the Asia Institute was surprisingly useless on this front, as it merely says "Dragon-Well Tea Culture Visit."

Tea set out to dry
We first had lunch on the ground floor of the tea shop, then we were led upstairs to the tea room. We were seated around tables, each with a Lazy Susan in the center, which had bowls of sunflower seeds resting on them.

Our guide for the day explained how they had various grades Dragon Well tea, the finest being Emperor grade, which we were going to try that afternoon. He then described the proper way of preparing it, which was to first let the water sit for about five minutes after boiling it, so it cools back down to the ideal temperature. (This being a much easier method than trying to turn off the heat just before the water boils.) Then, you take two pinches of tea leaves and drop them directly into the cup before pouring the water over it. They didn't use strainers or tea bags.

As he spoke, somebody from the tea shop started placing glasses of tea in front of us already prepared. Yes, glasses, not ceramic cups. Our guide told us that when tea is brought to you, the proper way of saying thank you is to tap the table three times, instead of saying "thank you" out loud. He also pointed out, the tapping three times only applies to tea. If you're drinking beer, apparently that means, "I want more beer."

While we waited for the tea to steep, the guide told us that people commonly refresh themselves by holding their eyes open above the steam from the cup. I assume that's more of a formal tea ceremony thing, and not an everyday tea drinking thing, because of the numerous times we were offered tea on the rest of the trip, I didn't see any of the locals do that. Nevertheless, we all held our eyes over our glasses of tea.

The tea was indeed quite good, although it did take some getting used to the fact that the tea leaves were freely floating about the cup, and it was inevitable that I would drink some down on the first few sips. After we finished our first glass, the tea shop hostess poured more hot water into everybody's glass. As we waited for it to steep, our guide told us that many people find the second cup tastes better than the first because some of the bitterness has already been diluted out.

Downstairs, they of course had tea for sale. We could pick between regular and emperor grade, and if you bought the larger size they threw in a metal tin for free. I hesitated on buying, as I was increasingly becoming concerned about how much space I had in my luggage, especially since there was still plenty of the trip left to do. I did end up buying a larger bag of regular tea, as I knew I would later regret it if I didn't bring back tea from China right from the source. Also, I liked the tin.

I sat in the bus, while I waited on some of my fellow classmates to finish their purchases. I noticed that a strange sense of calm and revitalization began to wash over me. I felt focused, and awake, but not jittery. I looked to my classmates who had joined me back on the bus, and they agreed that they too felt the same sensation of being relaxed, yet energized. That tea was definitely something unique, and I felt confident that buying the bag was a good choice.

Fields of the tea plantation
Our next stop was the Lingyin Temple, which is one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. When I heard we were going to a temple, I was picturing a single building. In actuality, the temple was more of a complex of buildings surrounded by a park.

As we walked through the park, we were led to a hillside where scores of statues of Buddha and his disciples were carved into the rock. I admit, I'm not familiar enough with Buddhism to understand the meanings of the various depictions of him, but there was a wide variety of statues. Some showed the seated Buddha, while others showed the laughing Buddha. There were so many carved into rock surfaces that we even saw Buddhas where nothing had been carved out of the rock at all. The guide pointed to something in a cave we had walked through, which I thought was a Buddha high up and tucked away, but was in fact just a natural rock formation.

Not actually a Buddha carving. I just looked like one from the ground.
We left the park and went into the temple itself. At the gate we were given three sticks of incense, and were told to light them, bow once facing each of the cardinal directions, then place them in a massive censer that stood in the main courtyard.

The temple itself was a magnificent collection of brightly colored buildings, each at the center of a winding path of stairs, terraces, and gardens. Throughout the various buildings were scores of statues, either cast in metal or carved from wood. In some rooms there were several individual statues grouped together. However, at the back of the main hall was an enormous sculpture depicting a scene that may have actually had hundreds of carved statues as part of it.

I honestly have no idea where I got the umbrella from...

While we were exploring, the monks were at their late afternoon prayers. The harmonious sound of their chanting and ringing of chimes permeated throughout the temple, drawing you in towards the main hall. Yes, I did take plenty of pictures as I walked about the temple, but I also took the time to put away my camera, and just take in the moment.

It really is hard to convey just how tranquil an environment the temple was, as the monks chanted. Just being immersed in the sound of their harmony washed a sense of peace and relaxation over me. You can feel the sound of their chant deep within you, physically echoing through your body.

When they finished with their prayers, the absence of their chanting left a void in the air.

There were a surprisingly high amount of dogs wandering about the temple. I'm not sure if they were pets (either belonging to visitors or the monks,) or just an abundance of well trained stray dogs.

We still had some extra time to spare once we left the temple, so we were given a half hour to wander about. TJ, Nate, and I decided to explore the hills in the park, with the Buddha carvings. There were signs indicating the various routes we could take, but the paths turned out to not be as well laid out as we expected. Some of the paths turned out to be blocked off in parts, either because work was being done on the path, or trees had fallen down in the way. Other times, the path just seemed to disappear into rocks and vegetation.

We worked our way towards the top of the hill, expecting that we might find some sort of shrine or pagoda, but instead came across some sort of encampment. Nobody was there at the moment, but it was clear that somebody was, or at least had been, using this part of the hill as a home. It was starting to get dark anyway, so we decided it was a good time to head back and rejoin the group.

Next: Dinner and nightlife.

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