Travel guide to Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in east China, lies close to the mouth of the Qiantang River at the western end of the Gulf of Hangzhou.

Hangzhou was a small fishing village until late in the sixth century, when the extension of the Grand Canal southward from the Yangzi led to the development of a busy commercial center in the town. It prospered, especially during the peaceful early period of the Tang Dynasty. Its growth was assisted by the development of the lower Yangzi area into the nation’s most important agricultural region.

Hangzhou underwent dramatic development when the Song Dynasty, pushed south by the conquering Jin, established its capital there. In a short space of 100 years, the population grew to almost a million and the town flourished as a major trading center. Although the city was partly destroyed by the invading Mongols in the late 13th-century, it appeared impressive to Marco Polo when the famous Italian traveler visited the city shortly afterwards. According to Marco Polo, Hangzhou was “without doubt the finest and most splendid city the world… there are said to be 13,000 bridges, mostly of stone… vast are the numbers of those accustomed to dainty living, to the point of eating fish and meat at one meal.”

As for the West Lake, Marco Pole wrote: “On one side it skirts the city… and commands a distant view of all its grandeur and loveliness, its temples, monasteries, and gardens with their towering trees, running down to the water’s edge. On the lake itself is the endless procession of barges thronged with pleasure-seekers… their minds and thoughts are intent upon nothing but bodily pleasures and the delights of society.”

Today, the city remains renowned for its beauty, which some claim is unsurpassed in China; and although some of the historic buildings have been destroyed, the archaeological attractions that remain are still impressive. Many sections of the town have not changed for centuries, while the famous West Lake region retains its reputation as one of the most beautiful spots in China, with landscaped gardens on its banks, tree-shaded walks, and in the nearby hills, temples, pagodas, and monasteries.

Hangzhou’s fame rests mainly with the picturesque West Lake, so named because it is located in its western fringe. Covering about four square miles, West Lake is surrounded on three sides by rolling wood hills. At the center are three isles–Lesser Yingzhou, Mid-lake Pavilion and Ruangong Isle. Solitary Hill stands by itself on the northern lakeshore. It can be reached from the city by Bai Causeway, with Su Causeway bisects the lake from north to south. The blue, often rippling, water is dotted with elegant stone bridges and charming pavilions.

If you are visiting in September during the autumn equinox, you may be able to see one of the most unusual sights in the world. A tidal bore gathers momentum in the Gulf of Hangzhou, surges into the mouth of the Qiangtang River, and races up the river, at a height of up to 30 ft. and a speed of more than 15m.p.h. In ancient times, governors of Hangzhou used to have arrows fired at the waves in an attempt to quell their destructive forces. Nowadays more effective methods are used.

It is believed that the temple was first established in 336 A.D. by a monk known as Hui Li. It was destroyed on a number of occasions, the last time during the Taiping Rebellion, and the latest rebuilding was in the early part of the 20th century. It was then restored in 1956.

The temple sits at the foot of the Northern Peak in a wooded area, with a stream running in front of it. Some of the trees in front are believed to be more than 1,000 years old.

The foremost temple houses a laughing Buddha carved in camphor wood and covered in gold with a carved gilt figure standing behind as a guard. Both figures are set under a two-eaves wooden canopy decorated in red and gold. Ornate lamps hang on either side.

Hangzhou: Paradise on Earth
HANGZHOU, known as “paradise on earth,” has a humid climate, fresh air, a clean, well-ordered environment, and the West Lake as its back garden. The land around Hangzhou City is one of “fish and rice” as well as a production base for silk. Each person encountered on its streets radiates contentment. An increasing number of people are purchasing villas in the area, and real estate prices have consequently increased.

Hangzhou is a famous tourist city. Although not big, it has a concentration of more than 40 scenic spots, which would take at least a week to visit. The 6-square-kilometer West Lake is the pride of this provincial capital city, and most sites of interest are around it. Unlike the man-made lakes of other cities, where earth is dug and piled up to make hills, the West Lake is natural, and its sights are delightful, no matter what the season. Scholars and poets have left a legacy of rhapsodic poetry and prose after visits to the lake, and some settled, or stayed on to live a hermit’s life here. There are so many scenic spots around the West Lake that the view changes at every step. It was once said that its scenery is poetic, picturesque and ethereal. A picture taken from any angle resembles a beautiful landscape painting.

The people of Hangzhou regard the West Lake as an important facet of their daily life. It is a place where they eat their meals, drink tea, and generally enjoy leisure time, often taking a stroll along its shores each evening before going to bed. The hotels, restaurants and teahouses around the lake all do a brisk trade. Locals take great pleasure in going on rambles through the beautiful scenery, and can be seen in threes and fours taking a walk along the Bai and Su Causeways at all times. On a fine day, some might ask for time off from work in order to relax by the lakeshore, and at weekends whole families go on outings, so each scenic spot is thronged with visitors. People sit on carpet-like lawns, and enjoy the spring sunshine as they replenish their energy with the food and drink they have brought from home. They chat, laugh and frolic against a background of beautiful flowers, and when sleepy, take a nap.

Hangzhou is also famous for its beautiful women, who, in addition to being good looking, are also softly spoken. The women of Hangzhou are elegant and graceful. They like to have their picture taken, sitting or lying on a lawn, leaning against a tree trunk, or beside a branch full of peach blossoms. Beforehand, they have their hair dressed, and wear their holiday best, and sometimes borrow a parasol from a passer-by to make an even prettier picture.

Along with such beautiful scenery and places of interest, Hangzhou has many romantic tales. Classical stories include legends about Su Xiaoxiao, a well-known courtesan — a Chinese Dame au Camellias. Su Xiaoxiao was beautiful and versatile. Once while sightseeing, she met a young man from a noble family. They fell in love at first sight. A few days later, the young man went home and never returned. In the end, the 19-year-old Xiaoxiao died of a fatal disease. There are many poems dedicated to her, and there is a monument on the Bai Causeway commemorating her.

Another romantic tale is about the love between a young man named Xu Xian and the “white snake” (an immortal, whose earthly form was of a beautiful woman, but who also took the shape of a white snake if she drank wine). Their love was not tolerated by society, and finally the white snake was imprisoned under the Leifeng Tower, and Xu Xian’s family fragmented.

Modern Hangzhou inhabitants are very romantic, and the West Lake is now the place where young people go courting. At nightfall pairs of lovers can be seen all along the lakeshore, as on the Shanghai Bund.

The romantic nature of Hangzhou inhabitants has nurtured the quality of local artists. Hangzhou has produced numerous scholars and men of letters, and the city is permeated with an artistic atmosphere. Every building is exquisite, especially those around the West Lake, and the city brims with nostalgia. In parks such as Taiziwan and Gushan, international modern sculpture exhibitions are often held. The natural landscape makes a perfect background for sculpture, which, in turn, adds significance to the whole environment. On Nanshan Road, in the city proper, now lined with galleries, teahouses and bars, is a fine arts academy, whose origins go back to the 1930s, when a group of artists returned from Europe and founded China’s first fine arts school. These artists introduced Western painting techniques to China for the first time, and were the first in Chinese history to paint a nude model. They brought about a revolution in the history of fine arts. Many important figures in the history of Chinese painting graduated from this school.

During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) Hangzhou was the world’s most prosperous city, and the Hangzhou residents’ current tradition of leisure originates from that wealthy era. In ancient times, tea drinking was an elegant and refined pursuit, but one which called for certain prerequisites. First, there had to be fine weather and beautiful scenery. Second, the water, tea, and tea set had to be of the finest quality. Today, tea drinking is less formal than in former times, and normally accompanies a meal. There are many restaurants serving both meals and tea around the West Lake. Although their decor is still in the traditional style, and traditional music plays in the background, the noise of cutlery and clinking china in these restaurants destroys the tranquil mood essential for tea drinking in the original manner. In recent years, more and more cafes have opened, and seem likely to replace the old teahouses. These cafes, with their comfortable furniture, luxuriant plants, dim lights, and relaxing music daily attract more and more white-collar custom.

Hangzhou is also famous for its culinary arts. Dishes feature originally flavored sauces, that are not too oily, and presentation so beautiful as to equal the Hangzhou landscape. There are more than 40 famous Hangzhou dishes, including West Lake Sour Fish, Beggar’s Chicken, Fish head and Beancurd, Dongpo Pork, Shrimp Meat with Dragon Well Tea, West Lake Water Shield Soup, and Sister Song’s Fish Soup. Among them, there are five famous dishes that are a must for visitors: Dongpo Pork is named after Su Dongpo, a famous man of letters of the Song Dynasty, and is a little fatty, but not oily. West Lake Sour Fish features tender fish meat with sweet and sour sauce. Shrimp meat with Dragon Well Tea was created by chance. In ancient times, while cooking shrimp meat a chef made the mistake of adding dragon well tea to the dish as a condiment, but the emperor nonetheless enjoyed it, and the dish became famous. Beggar’s Chicken is tasty and tender, with a fragrance of lotus leaves. Sister Song’s Fish Soup is piquant and spicy. To try these famous dishes, tourists go to time-honored restaurants. Louwailou Restaurant is on the north bank of the West Lake, and famous for local dishes, but is relatively expensive. The Zhiweiguan Restaurant is well known for its exquisitely prepared snacks. Steamed dumplings, wonton soup, and fried sweetmeats are local specialties, and not expensive. At lunch and dinner, this spacious dining hall is packed to capacity.

Hangzhou inhabitants are not, however, completely poetic, being as smart and astute as the businesspeople of Shanghai. To cater to the demands of foreign tourists, Wushan Road is lined with vendor’s stalls, selling silk, paintings and calligraphy, antiques, and antique furniture. There are genuine and fake antiques, and only experts can tell the difference. Prices vary, and tourists need to bargain. A silk scarf on one stall may sell for ten yuan, but on another it may be bought for four yuan. It must be remembered that the seller is always smarter than the buyer. When bargaining with Hangzhou vendors, local buyers usually offer a price slightly higher than half that quoted. When buying silk, visitors are recommended to go to Silk City. This is where a concentration of sales outlets dealing in foreign trade for Hangzhou’s famous silk plants may be found. Although prices are slightly higher here, the goods are of a better and more consistent quality. (By ChinaToday Magazine staff reporter ZHANG XUEYING, June 2002)