For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. The third leg of this journey takes us in a wooden room in Hangzhou, with the spicy smell of a precious pomander.
In France, during the Renaissance, it was called a pomandre. In the 21st century, I had to travel thousands of miles – all the way to China – to find this precious version of the pomander – the pomme d’ambre, an “amber apple” containing the heady smells of ambergris, musk or civet and worn by courtiers like a talisman, hanging from the belt. It is perched on my pillow. I have just arrived at Seven Villas in Hangzhou and, here in the long, Japanese-style guest room with wood at every turn, it is the only object boasting silky, sensuous swirls. Tonight, I will fall asleep in the raised bed sheltered by white veiling. I take the pomander in my hands: It is said that this precious silk encloses herbs and spices that soothe nerves and encourage sleep. I lift it to my nose and can smell lavender, clove and the unobtrusive scent of Solomon’s seal root. Outside, the West Lake Park exudes the calm stillness of the night. I am in the wildest section of these grounds, with flower-filled ponds and small, interlacing canals, where the lake abandons civility and returns to its native state. Tomorrow, I will walk along the little path that leads to the shore and a boatman will take me to tea on the lake. The boat will glide over the lotus, between the small islands, the herons will take wing as we pass. I can already sense the regular pulsing as the scull pushes against the water, see the blossoming trees reflected in the rippling surface, the moorhens fleeing before us like a herd of small, startled sheep, the rounded bridges we pass beneath as we enter each new landscape, the squirrels playing overhead in the branches of the trees, the pointed roofs of the pagodas, the smell of mud mingling with that of violets.
Tomorrow, Cindy will guide me to the nearby valley of Longjing. She will take me by the arm and we will stroll the little street of the village where the first picked tea leaves are roasted before the eyes of passers-by. The lane will be redolent with this slightly nutty, tender green scent, recognized here as the precious smell of spring. We will climb up through the tea gardens to take in the sweeping view of the valley. It will be hot. We will see Emperor Qianlong’s eighteen imperial tea trees in their enclosure. That will be the moment when I come to understand how tea became an art; here, in this same place, at the bottom of this small, enclosed valley, home to the spring that feeds the Dragon Well used in 1762 by the emperor to prepare this subtle, delicately scented tea that lingers on the lips like a bashful kiss. As we return, a young woman garbed in long, pink veils will furtively slip away into the shadows of the grounds. Tomorrow, I may eat fried shrimp tucked inside a cozy nest of glass noodles. Tomorrow –yes, tomorrow. For now, I hold the precious talisman close to me. The goddess in the long veils sweeps me away with her. Please do not disturb me now: I am dreaming, at Seven Villas.