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Travel Stories Blog

Reports from the Road: Hangzhou - The City by the Lake

- by Merritt Howerton

Posted August 28, 2014

Most of our China journeys include stops in Beijing or Shanghai to see the incredible sights of these world-class cities. For a wonderful addition to any China journey, consider Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province in Eastern China. This time last year, I was able to take a few days and discover this vibrant city for myself!

Hangzhou, a bustling city of nearly nine million people, is a hub for high-tech industrial development, biological medicine, manufacturing and food processing – but it’s also one of the most scenic cities in the entire Middle Kingdom. The charm of Hangzhou derives from the sparkling waters and scenic landscapes of West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although the story of its formation remains shrouded in legend, many believe that this beautiful spring- and river-fed lake was formed about 12,000 years ago. An inspiration for generations of poets and painters, the lake is also home to the social and cultural activities of the residents of Hangzhou. Its wonders are best appreciated on a daylong excursion on the water, including lovely vistas of the temples and traditional Chinese gardens that line the banks of the lake.

I was able to spend a good part of the day on a lovely little boat exploring the lake and the picturesque bridges that span it. Sitting in the middle of the lake looking over the city of Hangzhou, you can witness the stunning skyline where ancient meets modern with the tops of pagodas blending perfectly with skyscrapers. If you’re lucky enough to be there on certain special days, such as the Autumn Moon Festival, you can see the lake ringed by the fire of flickering candles, which is truly an unforgettable sight.

One of the highlights of my time in Hangzhou came on the evening I attended the Impression West Lake show, a production that takes place entirely upon the lake itself (the stage lies a couple of inches below the surface). Impression West Lake is a performance of light, music, dance and theater produced by film director Zhang Yimou, who created the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. The performance tells the story of a thousand-year dream, and it was one of the best productions I have seen anywhere in the world!

Not too far from West Lake is the Lingyin Temple or Temple of Soul’s Retreat, one of the largest and wealthiest Buddhist temples in China. Founded in 328 AD by a monk from India, the temple is set amid spectacular woodlands and should not be missed. After a day of walking all around, I wanted to give my feet a rest, and so I treated myself to a traditional Chinese foot massage. After a nice soak in tea (of course!), my feet were quickly rejuvenated by expert hands and acupressure – and I was ready for more sightseeing!

Speaking of tea… another famous product from this region is the Longjing or Dragon Well Tea. At the tea plantation, I watched as local tea growers harvested the plant, and I also visited the National Tea Museum for insight into the history of tea in the area. The tea was fabulous, served in a variety of ways, sometimes with tealeaves and sometimes without.

Another site to explore is the Grand Canal, which links Hangzhou with Beijing in the north. This canal is the longest manmade waterway in China, and is longer than both the Suez and Panama canals. The best way to appreciate it is by taking a casual boat ride on its calm waters.

Getting to and from Hangzhou is pretty easy until you reach the city limits where traffic picks up, especially around West Lake. From the Shanghai airport, you can fly directly into the international terminal in Hangzhou, which is 17 miles from the city center. I opted instead to take an enjoyable 40-minute high-speed train ride from Shanghai – a fun journey with great scenery (and the announcements were even in English).

If you’re looking for a relaxing end to an energetic trip through China, Hangzhou is a perfect spot. Take a few days to immerse yourself in the serene lake landscapes, get to know the local culture, sip a cup or two of tea, and enjoy a break from the frenetic energy of Shanghai and Beijing.


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