Green Tea: Hangzhou style.
Already I'd seen an ancient temple (and wandered off the prescribed route long enough to take pictures of the back of the temple for the couple of feet where there were no visitors) and a silk mill (and persuaded Iris to let me see the 'Chinese-only' part - which turned out to be much like the Western part except leading on to a shop selling less expensive clothing) as well as visiting an academic specialising in silkworm genetics at the university.
Their silkworm breeding room had harboured mosquitoes as well as silkworms. I know because two had immediately bitten me (despite Iris's conviction that there were no mosquitoes this time of year) and I was now beginning to wonder if I had now been injected malaria (I hadn't - no malaria has been reported in Hangzhou according to the CDC). It had all been spectacular, interesting and exciting but I was tired.
'The driver* has an idea." Iris said. "She wonders if you would like to come and have tea at her house. Her family farms tea and you can see a Chinese village and Chinese life and we can go to a restaurant there."
The Driver's village was a little way out of the city of Hangzhou, at the bottom of a mountain. On certain days cars are banned, but not today - it was Sunday and there was a gridlock of cars impatiently hooting at the entrance of the village - although the village itself was quiet.
The Chinese system of driving is like no other. Extra lanes appear wherever there is room. When these become blocked the horn is sounded loudly and insistently until someone yields. The horn is also sounded as a warning to anyone the driver happens to overtake - in case the driver in front is about to drift to one side or the other which is quite likely. Seat-belts are only obligatory when passing a police car (this law also applies in Argentina), although I kept myself fastened in at all times, and hoped the driver didn't take this as an affront.
The traffic was why I had had so little sleep; the horns didn't stop at midnight, two in the morning or three. There had been a brief respite between four and five, but after that they had resumed with a new-morning gusto.
The Driver's house was new, three-story, red-bricked with bars over the windows of the first two storeys, and the kitchen in a basement which became the ground floor at the back of the house. From this there were views of the tea bushes and the adjacent, family-owned tea house.
At the kitchen table an old man noisily supped noodles - the Driver's grandfather. Upstairs, large airtight metal canisters held this year's tea - and the fresh crop is like Beaujolais, and much valued because it is high in antioxidants. The Driver lifted a lid to show me: inside the canisters were sacks and a small label with tiny Chinese characters. "For my son, in case I'm out when there's customers." Iris translated for me.
The son appeared. He was aged around twelve, about my height, and said Hello to me in English with a good accent - but added very little else. English lessons start in kindergarten now, but the Driver's son was more interested in computer games than learning languages. 'What does he want to do when he's older, I asked. "The boss." came the reply. It was said without irony. Since the advent of the one child only policy in China I expect many of his generation have a similar ambition. He disappeared again shortly.
A balcony encompassed the shared terrace outside the kitchen, and a chicken pecked on the ground for crumbs while a small mongrel dog with an injured ear snuffled around after her for what was left. When she saw it Iris yelped, and ran behind us all. "I don't like dogs!"
The dog was obligingly dragged away by the Driver's father - a man with polished brown skin and smile.
The tea in Hangzhou is green, big-leaved and unfermented. A spoonful is placed in each glass and then the hot water added from a flask.
"This is how we drink it," Iris told me. " We make it in the morning and add hot water to the leaves all day."
The leaves float and then sink. It is all right to eat them, Iris assured me, and in fact it is hard to avoid eating them, since they tend to drift into the mouth with the liquid. They have a slightly bitter not unpleasant taste. Iris told me that about its rejuvenating properties, and I remembered reading a couple of years ago about various studies that correlated frequent green tea drinking with all sorts of beneficial effects including guarding against heart disease and cancer. It is also a cure for tired eyes, said the Driver (through Iris), and so for a while the three of us sat in a companionable silence, our faces resting on the rim of the glass staring at the tea, letting the steam moisten our eyes. It was surprisingly refreshing.
In the plantation the tea plant was still flowering, but the tea-leaves themselves had been long-ago picked.
The crickets started their evening chorus. The Driver produced a bowl of sunflower seeds and I was shown how to crack open the end and eat the kernel inside. The spent shells piled up in a glass dish and the three of us chatted together. After the day's frantic activities it felt good to let the world move a little more slowly for a while.
Hangzhou tea is famous. In Beijing it is sold at high price, and I am not sure the Driver's price was all that much cheaper: £20 for a quarter pound. Since I had made such appreciative sounds I felt obliged to buy some, and since by now the Driver now seemed more like a friend than a tea-seller I was too embarrassed to haggle. And anyway, I thought to myself as I handed over my Yuen, that peaceful couple of hours on the Driver's terrace had been worth it. She packed up my tea in a small tin and we took an evening walk past other tea houses,
then more tea plantations in the hills
to the regional tea centre
with its tranquil gardens, and ponds of golden carp.
It was oddly rejuvenating. So today, my second day back in England, I drank green tea in the Hangzhou way - in mugs I bought at the British Museum (after I'd seen the exhibition of The First Emperor there).
But just as Pernot tastes good on a sunny village square in France, and not so good on a rainy day in England, so this green tea seems to have lost a little of its appeal in the grey light of a British November morning. Here I want my tea black, with milk, but shall keep drinking the green variety for a while in case I can eventually acquire a taste for it here too.
*I didn't ever grasp her name.