Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Tea lover's guide to traveling in China

By FIona Reilly, for CNN
updated 9:44 PM EDT, Sun June 22, 2014
Just south of Hangzhou's West Lake, Longjing is home to China's most celebrated green tea. Just south of Hangzhou's West Lake, Longjing is home to China's most celebrated green tea.
HIDE CAPTION
China's best green tea
Longjing, China
Tea tours galore
Oolong tea
Wuyi Mountain
Pinnacle of all Chinese teas
Pu'er tea cakes
Southern Yunnan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tea tourism in China is relatively new, but growing in popularity among foreign and domestic travelers
  • Like wine, tea's final flavor is influenced heavily by terroir -- the microclimate in which it's grown
  • Three top areas for tea lovers are Longjing, Wuyi Mountain and Yunnan

(CNN) -- Tea, that most ordinary of beverages, was once so highly prized that traders, travelers and seafarers risked their lives to bring the precious cargo from China to the rest of the world.

Now, a small but growing band of tea aficionados is traveling across the country in pursuit of tea at its source, fueled by an appreciation of China's ancient tea culture and traditions and a more modern interest in green methods of cultivation and artisanal production.

Tea tourism within China is still a relatively new phenomenon, gaining traction in the last few years and generally associated with an educated and upwardly mobile Chinese middle class.

For Chinese people, traveling for tea brings with it a certain cachet.

"In most public schools, there is no formal education about tea, so one's knowledge of the subject proves you have traveled, and studied about tea on your own," says tea guide Michael Wang. "In others' eyes, you are not only educated but cultivated."

MORE: One drink, 1,000 tastes: How tea has conquered the world

'Understanding begins with a single cup'

Tea expert and guide Tracy Lesh specializes in bringing Chinese tea culture to foreign travelers and expats within China -- a small portion of her clientele are Chinese people who appreciate her depth of knowledge.

Lesh began arranging tea tours more than five years ago when she realized there was a growing interest in learning not just about the tea itself, but the culture surrounding it.

"Americans are overwhelmed and undereducated about Chinese tea culture," she says.

"Many aren't aware of the benefits of loose-leaf teas and are mainly drinking teas blended with fruits and flowers. It takes a lifetime to appreciate tea, but understanding begins with just a single cup."

Chinese tea tourists tend to have a different focus than Westerners when it comes to visiting a tea area.

Wang says non-Chinese look for a sense of adventure and don't mind hiking into the tea terraces. They have a strong interest in seeing production methods firsthand and picking tea for themselves, but don't yet understand the culture of tea.

"Foreigners have difficulty understanding the delicate taste of xian (savory) and huigan (sweetness) in tea," Wang says.

Chinese visitors, on the other hand, place an emphasis on relaxing and drinking tea without the need to hike into the tea plantation or pick leaves.

They often use artisanal teas as gifts for building good business relationships and are interested in learning gongfu tea -- a refined way of serving tea involving proper vessels, brewing techniques and atmosphere that takes patience and skill to master.

Like good wine, tea's final flavor is influenced heavily by terroir -- the microclimate in which it's grown.

For those interested in taking a tea tour, below are three starting points, corresponding to three of China's most well known teas, each different in climate, geography and taste.

MORE: How to drink Chinese tea

Longjing is filled with small tea houses and is home to the China National Tea Museum.
Longjing is filled with small tea houses and is home to the China National Tea Museum.

Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea

Located just south of Hangzhou province's beautiful West Lake, Longjing is home to China's most celebrated green tea, which is the color of jade and has the fresh aroma of chestnuts and cut grass.

The best time to visit the area is during China's Qing Ming Festival (usually April) when most picking and roasting take place.

Longjing's tea villages and plantations -- many are open to the public -- are connected by a cycle pathway and bus route.

Longjing is home to the China National Tea Museum.

Among the temples, pagodas and gardens lining the shores of nearby West Lake sit many small tea houses where longjing tea can be enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere.

Hangzhou is reached by high-speed train from Shanghai's Hongqiao Railway Station. Trains run every 30 minutes and take one hour.

Tracy Lesh and Michael Wang arrange small group tea tours to the Longjing tea terraces year round (shanghaiandbeyond.com; +86 159 009 03998).

China National Tea Museum, 88 Longjing Road, West Lake, Hangzhou; +86 571 8796 4221; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., May-October 7; 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., October 8-April 30;

closed Mondays; free admission

MORE: Longjing Village: Hangzhou's ultimate green tea experience

Oolong tea originally comes from southern China\'s Fujian Province.
Oolong tea originally comes from southern China's Fujian Province.

Wuyi Mountain oolong tea

Oolong tea, a fragrant partially oxidized tea midway between green teas like longjing and black teas like pu'er, has its origins in southern China's Fujian province.

The most famous of Fujian's oolongs, da hong pao or "big red robe" tea comes from Wuyi Mountain, a UNESCO-protected natural heritage site rich with rare and animal life, centered around the pristine Nine Twists River.

Genuine da hong pao is picked from just a few ancient tea trees high on Wuyi Mountain and is unobtainable to all but the wealthiest and most influential, but oolong plantations in the surrounding hills produce wonderful teas too.

Like wine, the terroir of these teas is demonstrated by oolong's floral notes, which are subtly different according to the orientation, altitude and soil mineral content of the hillside on which the tea is grown.

Nearby is the well preserved medieval tea-trading town of Xiamei and further afield are Fujian's famed tulou -- ancient rammed earth roundhouses that hold up to 400 families inside.

Wuyi Shan has its own airport with daily flights to and from major Chinese cities.

China Base Travel runs three-day Wuyi Mountain and oolong tea tours year round.

Wuyi Shan UNESCO World Heritage Site; daily from 7:30 a.m.; admission RMB 235 ($38) for a two-day pass

MORE: Sri Lanka's top tea experiences: Sips of history

Pu\'er is considered the pinnacle of Chinese teas.
Pu'er is considered the pinnacle of Chinese teas.

Southern Yunnan's pu'er tea

Pu'er, a fermented and aged black tea with a complex, earthy taste, is considered the pinnacle of all Chinese teas.

Usually pressed into cakes, it's allowed to age so that its complexity and depth of flavor increase over time (as does the price), again drawing comparisons to wine.

Pu'er has a fascinating trade history.

Tea was carried, often on foot, overland on the ancient Tea Horse Road linking Yunnan and Tibet in exchange for the Tibetan mountain ponies sought by the Chinese for their hardiness.

The area of southern Yunnan where pu'er is produced lies adjacent to Myanmar, Laos and the Mekong River.

The region features an enormous protected native jungle and wild elephant reserve, a tropical and medicinal botanic garden, hills terraced with tea plantations and areas filled with wild tea trees that are hundreds of years old.

There are daily flights to the regional capital, Jinghong, from all major Chinese cities, or you can fly directly into the smaller Pu'er airport (known as Pu'er Simao).

Pu'er tea tours can be arranged through Jinghong's Mekong Café.

Sanchahe Nature Reserve and Banna Wild Elephant Valley is 48 kilometers north of Jinghong; daily, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Menglun Botanical Garden in Menglun is located 70 kilometers east of Jinghong; daily, 7 a.m.-midnight

MORE: Best London tea experiences

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Luxury Action will turn your travel scripts into reality and film them. As long as you're willing to travel to this country ...
updated 5:13 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
As entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles draws some of the best comic talent on the planet. Here's where to see it live.
updated 11:42 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Not many people choose flights based on the quality of an airline's catering -- but those who do should check out Saveur's Culinary Travel Awards.
updated 10:51 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
On the island of rice, curry, tropical fruit and fresh seafood, eating is an honor to the taste buds.
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Sparsely populated (by humans at least), this East Africa country offers so much more than just Mt. Kilimanjaro.
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Berlin's Tegel airport
It's crowded and outdated, but Berlin's hexagon-shaped Tegel air hub has won a place in the city's heart.
updated 4:47 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses
Shrine to a dead cat and a homage to fromage among Dutch capital's eccentric exhibitions.
updated 2:03 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
The OLAF scooter/luggage
Slovenian Kickstarter project encourages travelers to hop on their suitcase and cruise through terminals to connecting gates.
updated 2:08 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The guidebook asked staff, contributors and authors for well-known and lesser-known recommendations.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
An airport in Asia has stolen the crown from Manila's Ninoy Aquino, voted 'world's worst' three years in a row.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT