Xiehuangtangbao, or crab-roe soup dumpling, and Tanggansi, or shredded tofu in soup, are among the small treats at Ye Chun. [Photo by OWEN FISHWICK/CHINA DAILY]
As the soporific effects of the night before wear off, I descend a case of winding steps which take me to a sunken quadrangle, hemmed in by ornate Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) buildings. I am immediately struck by how many people are crammed into the space below - my interest is piqued. Over to the left a squadron of elderly men and women, probably fitter than me, perform tai chi in unison. To the right, another hefty group sit on benches chatting and listening to Yangzhou ditties. Straight ahead is what they are all here waiting for, the true purpose - the Ye Chun Teahouse.
Ye Chun was first established in 1877 as a place for Yangzhou locals to enjoy good tea and good food. Over the years the restaurant has become synonymous with zaocha, with people lining up in the early hours to get a table so they can enjoy the food, the hot tea and most importantly a good chat with friends.
Luckily for me, a Chinese colleague managed to wangle us a table and so we were able to go straight inside. Just as the decor of the restaurant carries a distinct and intricate woody theme, so does the aroma, the smell of earthy steeped tea filling the air.
At the table, a squat clay teapot, the size of a softball, sits upon a wooden board. Our waitress informs us of the many varieties of tea available, including unique blends served only in the restaurant. Not being a tea sommelier, I take a pot-luck pick and am pleasantly surprised by its strong but not bitter flavor.