There's more than picture-postcard views here - delve into Chinese culture and history in this ancient city famous for its tea, silk and traditional Chinese medicine. -SPU
By Lynn Seah
WHILE Hangzhou's biggest tourist attraction is the scenic West Lake, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China has much more to offer than just picture-postcard views.
The city was, after all, once the capital of China in the 12th and 13th centuries.
And it played important roles in the development of iconic Chinese things such as tea, silk and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Hangzhou is famous for its tea.
The best grades of tea leaves, such as Hangzhou's famed Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, are picked and roasted in April.
The premium grades can cost more than $100 for just a handful of the leaves. Most of the time, a lower grade can do just as well.
For the past few months, I have been enjoying fresh pale yellow brews from the 50g of leaves I paid less than $20 for.
If you are not knowledgeable about tea, shop with someone who is. Hangzhou is chock-full of shops that retail tea leaves, and it can be daunting to make sense of all the varieties and their prices.
There is a huge body of knowledge on tea in this city.
One way to get a quick introduction is to visit the National Tea Museum in Hangzhou.
There, you can find out about Chinese scholar Lu Yu, whose treatise Cha Jing elevated teadrinking to an art form.
You can also learn the distinctions between different types of tea and the finer points of brewing it, as well as view exhibits of tea utensils and tea bricks - tea leaves which have been compressed into blocks of all shapes and sizes for easy transportation in the old days.
And, of course, you can buy tea leaves.
Hangzhou has been producing silk for centuries, and it remains one of the nation's bigger manufacturers of the fabric today.
The National Silk Museum of China is in Hangzhou.
Before the mammoth museum was opened in 1992, the Du Jinsheng Silk Brocade Museum was already enlightening visitors to the city about the intricacies of silk production.
You can view portrait and landscape tapestries that have been painstakingly built up, thread by thread, on a weaving loom.
Observe the staff working out the complicated patterns to create works of art, and watch the click-clacking mechanical looms make the cloth.
In the garden are the mulberry bushes whose leaves silkworms love to chomp on. The museum usually keeps a few bamboo trays of live silkworms and cocoons to show visitors.
If you want to shop for silk products, try China Silk Town.
This is an entire street of silk stores that serves as a wholesale and retail market.
You can pick up anything from scarves, dresses and ties to pyjamas, boxer shorts and dudou - a traditional female undergarment that is now often worn as a halter-top.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Hangzhou boasts one of the country's most venerated TCM establishments - Huqingyu Tang, which used to serve the emperor.
Today, the Huqingyu Tang TCM Museum off Hangzhou's historic Hefang Street is a good place to get acquainted with the Chinese traditional art of healing.
Housed in a beautiful Qing Dynasty-era building, you can see samples of plants, animals and minerals that have restorative properties, old manuscripts detailing the cures, as well as pots of live medicinal plants.
You may also buy TCM products at its store and have your ills diagnosed at its clinic.
When you are done at the museum, amble along Hefang Street and admire its centuriesold buildings.
Now a shopping street that is closed to traffic, it is a tad touristy but still good for a few hours of browsing for the sheer variety of merchandise on sale.
You have silk, tea, TCM and kitschy souvenir stores, but you also get shops selling traditional crafts, umbrellas, scissors, fans, ivory combs and even swords.
Photos: Lynn Seah
This trip was sponsored by AirAsia. For details, visit www.airasia.com
This article first appeared in The Straits Times 'Holiday Escapades' special on Oct 21, 2008. It is published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.
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