Beverage of choice

Tea — from growing it to picking it to writing poetry about it — is all consuming in Hangzhou. (AP)

When my husband, Michael, and I arrived in this southern town in the dog days of last summer, we did what most people do here when the weather is humid and the temperature climbs to more than 100 degrees.

We bought peaches from the fruit vendor on the street below our apartment and let the warm juice run down our forearms and drip off our elbows. We walked, panting, over the delicate stone bridges at West Lake, through the gardens along its shore, past the forest of lotuses and the red carp in its fishponds, catching any breeze we could.

Hangzhou, China — An article in the Sunday Travel section incorrectly reported that China Eastern flies nonstop to Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport. China Eastern flies nonstop from Los Angeles International Airport to Shanghai's Pudong International Airport.

Despite the heat, we couldn't find a cold drink. Instead, locals encouraged us to drink warm liquids to help our bodies adjust to the climate.

The beverage of choice?

At almost every restaurant or friend's home — whether in a water glass, elegant china or a thin, disposable plastic cup — we were served a steaming cup of "Xi Hu Longjing Cha" — West Lake Dragon Well tea.

In Hangzhou, tea plays a far more prominent role than simply accompanying little cakes and sandwiches without crusts. West Lake Dragon Well tea, grown in the hills surrounding the town and consumed in almost every establishment within it, is the region's specialty.

Hangzhou, tucked into a bay off the East China Sea about three hours southwest of Shanghai and at the southern end of the Grand Canal, is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese. Despite its popularity, it's a relatively quiet place. We came here to teach English for a year, figuring that we too could experience some of China's rich culture away from the largely Westernized metropolises, such as Shanghai.

As the capital of China during the Southern Sung Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, Hangzhou hosted many international traders and artists and became the country's principal economic and cultural city. Its central attraction, the mist-laden West Lake, enchanted Venetian explorer Marco Polo when he passed through in the 13th century. He called Hangzhou "a noble and magnificent city."

Although the country's political upheaval in the last century destroyed much of its historic architecture, the 2,200-year-old city has retained some of its most significant landmarks, such as Lingyin Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. During its golden age in the 10th century, the temple contained more than 1,300 rooms and was home to about 3,000 monks. Last year, as part of a massive 10-year-old restoration campaign, the city rebuilt the temple's Leifeng Pagoda.

Today in Hangzhou, you can shop for silk in the extensive street markets, explore the gardens and pagodas surrounding the lake, sample the thriving nightlife in the brightly lighted clubs along Nanshan Road or lounge the day away in the teahouses, sipping steaming cups of Dragon Well and other teas.

Tea is, of course, popular everywhere in China, but few places enjoy Hangzhou's reputation for tea culture — an undefined element that seems to encompass all things related to tea, including growing it, picking it, reading or writing poetry and songs about it and, of course, drinking it.

After winter began, I realized just how pervasive the tea culture in Hangzhou was. Dora Lei, a Chinese colleague from the boarding school where Michael and I are teaching, took us to Qing Teng Cha Jia, or Ivy Teahouse, to escape the chill in our apartments and relax. From the outside, the teahouse looked like any other beige concrete building common on most Chinese streets. But once I stepped through the doors, the atmosphere came alive.

Lilting traditional music crept around lacquered wood panels, and the sound of water drew my eyes down to the floor, where a stream carried red carp under a partly transparent bridge. Green plants hung everywhere. To my left, a group of children sat at a low square table, making figures in clay while a teacher-cum-baby-sitter oversaw their efforts. Through open doors of the private rooms, I spied families playing cards and couples laughing. One man lay across two chairs, snoozing.

As at many teahouses in Hangzhou, the price of a pot here buys hours of lazing around, snacking and drinking — a favorite activity for locals and visitors. I ordered a pot of oolong tea, served gongfu style, a method of presentation that goes back centuries. A slender young woman brought me a wooden box with slats, and on it sat a teapot made of purple sand clay — one of the most prized materials for Chinese teapots — a clay pitcher and two cups. The squat cup was about the size of half a tangerine; the taller, narrow one would have just fit over my index finger.

She poured piping water into the pot, already crammed with black leaves, and then emptied the liquid over the other vessels. "This is to wash the cups," she said.

Then with quick, graceful movements, she refilled the pot and drained its contents into the pitcher, then poured that into the narrow cup, turned the squat cup upside down over its narrow cousin, flipped them over and removed the narrow cup. She rolled it between her hands and inhaled. "This is for the fragrance," she said.

We passed it among us, and the smoky wooden scent emanating from the clay made my mouth water.