Hangzhou Review – Mystical and Magical

A bridge on Sudi (Su causeway) that was built under the leadership of poet Dongpo Su


Hangzhou is one of two cities considered to be the most beautiful in China.  I accompanied my husband when he was invited to attend an international meeting there. Although Hangzhou offers a wide range of activities to tourist, being with people at the meeting who were very familiar with Hangzhou allowed us to  enjoy and understand this ancient, captivating city in a unique and personal way.

Zhe Jiang University, third ranked in the country and among the top ten largest universities, was our home for the duration of the meeting.   The campus has a huge statue of Mao Zedong on it lawn.  Its meeting rooms and food service was impressive and the library was lovely and reputedly, a great place to be on very warm days when it remains cool inside.

Vehicles colorful covers protect them from the rain


A short distance away, an easy walk, was the Ling Feng Hotel ("Ling Feng" also means Mountain Spirit) where most of those attending the conference were housed.  This hotel contrasts to many of the international chains such as Four Seasons, Shangri La, Marriott who have resorts near West Lake because it caters to Chinese visitors from other parts of China.  We enjoyed the hotel because it has a nice relationship with the university and we were especially impressed with the food.  We enjoyed the breakfasts and lunches and were surprised at the number of small private areas for dining. It was also a few blocks from the Botanic Garden and about a mile from West Lake.

Mystical West Lake


From our colleagues, many of whom grew up in Hangzhou, we heard stories about West Lake Park, a place valued and frequented by Chinese and Western visitors alike.  It covers 60 square kilometers and the lake in its center covers 6.5 square kilometers. With 20 museums and memorials, this is a famous cultural and historical tourist site.  Six separate parks entwine the lake to form the entire park.

Iris



Cleaning West Lake Park


I had the opportunity to leisurely explore the park with my guide, Iris.  We walked along viewing the broken bridge, the greenery and when we heard a beautiful woman’s voice, we followed it and discovered a retired couple practicing music, she was singing, he was playing the flute.  The park was filled with tourists and with “regulars”, playing cards, walking, playing music, and in an area where retired people generally gather, there was music and dancing.

West Lake Park emobile




The park is so large that we took an “emobile”, an electric powered vehicle and it took an hour to travel most of the park. We went by the "Broken" bridge, so named because the snow covers the top part of the arch, and from distance, it seems that the bridge is broken  At one point we noticed that we were very near a shopping street with all the designer shops anyone would want.  We passed some of the museums and monuments and after an hours' tour, stopped near a very old and famous restaurant, Wei-Zhuang Yulin Lake Restaurant, where I was to meet my group.

One of several museums in West Lake Park

, Wei-Zhuang Yulin Lake Restaurant


One morning, before the conference sessions began, I walked a few blocks to the Botanic Garden and found myself enchanted by the bamboo forest, the water lilies, and the people engaged in Tai Chi. Throughout the park people were walking, some for exercise, some going to work.  I thought it an enchanting place and that if one walked this way to work their day would be better for it.

Tai Chi in the Botanic Garden


Hangzhou boasts a long and proud history.  A few highlights follow:  During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), The Grand Canal, originating in Beijing, was extended to Hangzhou, linking the city to the most profitable trading route in China. Through the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Hangzhou's population and power increased. The Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) was Hangzhou's golden age of prosperity when it became the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty. Local industry flourished and worship of Taoism and Buddhism peaked. Many of the temples seen today were built during this period. When inYuan Dynasty (1206-1368) Mongols ruled China and Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in 1290. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Xi Hu, or West Lake, that he transcribed, and thus popularized, a famous Chinese saying Shang you tiantang, xia you Suhang, which means in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou]. Chinese now like to call Hangzhou "Paradise on Earth".  Another aspect of the city developed in the Ming-Qing Dynasties (1368-1644, 1616-1911) as Hangzhou continued to grow and prosper from its local industries, especially silk weaving, and became the silk center for all of China and tea production.

Inside the traditional medicine clinic



Hangzhou lost economic status to Shanghai with its foreign stakes in the 1920s after the empire crumbled. Since the opening of China in the 20th century, Hangzhou has benefited from foreign investment and a cluster of some of China's most successful private enterprises have made Hangzhou, once again, one of the most prosperous cities in China.

Temple


The Lingyin Temple predates this history, going back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty of (326).  It is one of the most famous in China.  Entering the grounds there are 340 fine and characteristic Buddhist statues in grottos from the Five dynasties to Song and Yuan Dynasties.  It is a beautiful and peaceful place and filled with tourists.  We found the English description in our audio guides very helpful.  One of the highlights of our visit was hearing the monks chanting.  We were also impressed seeing the largest woodcarving sitting Buddha in China.

We were interested in shopping but we wanted to find locally produced items.  We were told that silk and tea were the main specialties of this city.  Hefang Street was the place recommended for shopping and we just loved it.  There was a little “train”  that went back and forth along the street carrying shoppers and a huge golden Buddha in the center.  There was an abundance of tea shops, some silk shops, paper cutting and other unusual crafts but what was most fascinating to us was the traditional medicine clinic and the pharmacy across from it located in a building dating to 1649.  

Laughing Buddha in the market


We saw two shows that we will never forget.  Each depicts the history of Hangzhou beautifully and dramatically and differently from one another.  The first was “The Romance of the Song Dynasty” held in Songcheng Park where reputedly, there are three million visitors annually.  This was without doubt the most spectacular show I have ever seen in the largest theatre of its kind I have ever seen.  This is an experienced not to be missed.

Multi-media spectacular production (Romance of the Song Dynasty)



Down the aisle (Romance of the Song Dynasty)


There was one other show on West Lake, seemingly in the water, unlike anything else I have ever seen. Staged entirely upon the lake itself, Impression West Lake, directed by Zhang Yimou, is a grand open-air show of light, music, dance and theatrics. First initiated in 2007, Impression West Lake deploys the lake and its surroundings as props to create a life-like charming background.As the folklores and myths of Hangzhou unfolded, I was spellbound by the way Impression West Lake revealed the deep-rooted culture and natural beauty of Hangzhou. It should not be missed. For more information, check: Gotohangzhou.com

Too soon we left Hangzhou for the chaos of Shanghai.  But getting to Shanghai was a great experience.  We took the high-speed train and arrived in under an hour.  The ride was smooth and it was exciting to go more than 200 mph at times, seeing the world fly by.  We hope to return soon and if so, we will take that train both ways.


Photos:  B. and L. Keer

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