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A guide picked us up at our hotel around 8:30 for our two hour drive to Hangzhou, which is sometimes called "the most beautiful city in China," especially by the locals and the local tourism board. However, people do travel to Hangzhou from all over the world because of its beauty and history.

Hangzhou was founded about 2,200 years ago, but it is most famous historically as the capital of China during the Southern Song Dynasty. When Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the late 13th Century, it was the largest city in the world, and he described it as "the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world." Today, Hangzhou is no longer the largest city in the world, but it is still beautiful and magnificent.

West Lake, Hangzhou

Being less than an hour and a half away by high-speed train, Hangzhou is particularly popular with Shanghai residents seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of the big city. With a population of ONLY 8 million, Hangzhou is far less crowded and much more laid back than Shanghai. Recently, construction began on a Maglev line between the two cities that will reduce travel time to less than 30 minutes, promising to even further boost Hangzhou's tourism industry.

After checking in early to the Ramada Plaza Hangzhou, we drove to the Lily Hotel for a delicious lunch of egg and tomato soup, stir-fried noodles, some sort of chicken dish, an eggplant dish, beef with onions, and shrimp with peas and corn. Like many meals in China, watermelon was served for dessert. The eggplant dish was as good as any I've ever eaten.

Following lunch we visited West Lake. Famous throughout China for its beauty, West Lake is Hangzhou's top tourist destination. Like almost everyone else that visits West Lake, we decided to take a cruise. While many of the boats are small open-air models, considering the temperature was approaching 100 degrees, I was very happy that our cruise would be on a larger air conditioned boat.

While on the cruise, our guide informed us that all of the boats allowed on West Lake (except for security patrols) are now battery-powered to help protect West Lake's environment. The cruise lasted about an hour and was very nice. It was also nice to escape the heat for a while. Certainly anyone that visits Hangzhou will want to take a cruise on West Lake.

After our cruise, we drove to the Six Harmonies Pagoda. This pagoda was originally built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) to mystically control the tidal bore of the Qiantang river, which at 9 meters (30 feet), is the largest tidal bore in the world. Originally built entirely out of wood, it was destroyed in 1121 AD and was rebuilt in 1165 using wood and brick. Additional exterior eaves were added in the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644- 1911) Dynasties, making this seven-story structure appear as if it has thirteen stories. It is 60 meters (196 feet) high and has a spiral staircase leading to the top floor. Because of the extreme heat, the pagoda's lack of air conditioning, and my own laziness, I decided not to climb to the top on this trip. Maybe next time.

Next we visited the Hangzhou Tea Plantation, where they grow the famous Dragon Well Tea. Also known as Longjing Tea, this is widely considered to be one of the top green teas in the entire world. It is often called the national drink of China, and is frequently given as a gift to visiting heads of state.

Dragon Well Tea comes in several varieties and seven grades. Like other green teas, those picked early in the year are more highly prized than those picked later in the season. Unlike black tea, after picking, green tea is heated to stop the natural fermentation process. In the case of Dragon Well Tea, this heating is done by hand in a giant wok, and it takes 8 hours to dry just 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of tea.

The tea plantation itself is very beautiful, and their staff will eagerly tell you all about their tasty tea. Visitors also get a chance to sample, and of course buy, locally-produced Dragon Well Tea. The prices here are not cheap, but the quality is guaranteed. Because of the fame and high price of Dragon Well Tea, many people sell counterfeit versions to unsuspecting tourists. Most often, lower grade teas are sold as top grade, but some even sell regular green tea as Dragon Well Tea. However, Dragon Well Tea has a very unique flavor, so only those completely unfamiliar with this type of tea can be easily fooled.

Current prices for their Dragon Well Tea are 1,200 yuan ($175) per 500g (18 ounces) for their top grade, and 900 yuan ($132) per 500g for their second grade. However, 500g is a huge amount of tea, and they usually sell it in small 125g canisters. And if you buy two canisters, they will throw in a smaller 50g canister for free.

After drinking and buying some tea, we visited the gift shop where I bought a few VCDs (Video Compact Discs) and a bottle of Hangzhou Bamboo Leaf Green Liqueur. This liqueur is made by combining baijiu (the most popular hard liquor in the world) with bamboo leaves and dried Chrysanthemums. Despite being 76 proof, it tastes somewhat sweet and even a bit refreshing. It also came in a very nice ceramic bottle with a picture of a panda chomping on some bamboo. Their gift shop also sold snack items and a small selection of clothing made from Hangzhou silk, which is widely regarded as among the finest silk in the world.


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