By Roger Allnut, Special to the Van Nuys News Press
HANGZHOU, CHINA — Situated at the southern end of the Grand Canal that stretches over 1100 miles from Beijing, the thriving city of Hangzhou with about six million inhabitants is capital of Zhejiang province, renowned for its serene and elegant landscapes including many mountains and rivers such as the Qiantang. It has a history of more than 2000 years and was one of China’s ancient capital cities (the capital of southern China from 1127 until the Mongol conquest in 1276).
The Grand Canal at Hangzhou snakes its way through the city, many bridges cross the canal and its sides are flanked by residential and business buildings. One of the loveliest bridges is the stone Gongchen Bridge from which splendid views of the canal and canal-side activity are obtained.
Close to Gongchen Bridge are a number of museums which are worth visiting. These include the China Jing-Hang Grand Canal Museum showcasing the city’s Grand Canal culture and the wonderful Knives, Scissors and Swords Museum and the Umbrella and Fan Museum. It is fascinating to watch artisans deftly constructing colorful umbrellas, intricate fans and the age old craft of making scissors and knives. Amazingly inexpensive for the workmanship involved you can purchase items for your own use or as perfect gifts and souvenirs.
However the main drawcard to Hangzhou for both local and international tourists is the huge West Lake area (named for its location in the western part of the city) with its juxtaposition of water surrounding low mountains. West Lake Scenic Area, an area of beautiful gardens and parks, temples and pagodas is divided into five different water zones by Solitary Hill and two man-made causeways called Su and Bai. It is possible to cycle or walk around the lake edge and a stroll on one or both of the causeways should be included.
Lake cruises are also popular with the city skyline on the eastern side of the lake forming a dramatic backdrop; small traditional fishing craft dot the water with the fishermen unfazed by the passing pleasure boats. West Lake is famous for its blossoms – peach in spring, lotus in summer, sweet osmanthus in autumn and plum flower in winter.
There are numerous temples and pagodas and other pavilions scattered around the edge of the lake and views around the lake and on the causeways have wonderfully evocative names such as Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard. Melting Snow on Broken Bridge, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon and Orioles Singling in the Willows.
Hangzhou is noted for two particular temples. The Lingyin (Soul’s Retreat) Temple is an ancient Buddhist sanctuary (construction began in AD326) containing many cultural treasures including over 400 stone Buddhas, many with ‘laughing’ faces.
The Six Harmony Pagoda is a 200 foot high brick and wood construction on Moon Mountain on the banks of the Qiantang River, a masterpiece of classical Chinese architecture dating from AD970. From the outside the pagoda appears to have 13 levels but inside there are only seven. From the top it offers views of the Qiantang River that is famous for its tidal bore; in the 8th lunar month (around mid September) there is a spectacular occurrence when the river ‘reverses’ creating a huge wave (like a huge surf wave) the crest rising over two metres and dropping over six metres. Huge crowds come to witness the tidal bore of the Qiantang River.
The hills around Hangzhou are famous for the production of tea and a tour of the plantations is a great way to see the countryside. Longjinghua Township is the centre of production and the China Tea Museum there details the history of tea production in China. As well as tea, Hangzhou is noted for its silk, porcelain and herbal medicines. Allow time for a visit to the China Silk Museum, the Southern Song Dynasty Place Porcelain Museum and especially the Huqingyu Medicine Museum, the only one of its kind in China.
Food is an important element of any visit to China and Hangzhou is known for its cuisine, a mix of Shanghai and Cantonese food. Try the “Beggar’s” Chicken, West Lake carp in Sweet Sour Sauce, ‘Dong Po” Pork and Shelled Shrimps with Longjing Tea. South Zhongshan Food Street is regarded as one of China’s best. Three restaurants in Hangzhou famous for their Hangzhou cuisine are Lou Wai Lou Restaurant, Shan Wai Shan and Zhi Wei Guan.
In the evening don’t miss the excellent Impression West Lake show set on the waters of West Lake with the mountains as backdrop. The show based on an old romantic tale is choreographed by the same people who did the opening for the Beijing Olympics.
You can end the evening with a stroll through the hectic Night Market picking up a few souvenirs of Hangzhou; ties, scarves and other silk goods are good value. Hangzhou is also known for its nightlife and bars.
As a popular resort city Hangzhou is well catered for for all levels of accommodation. At the top of the range are ’international’ hotels like the Sheraton Hangzhou Wetland Park Resort, Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake Hotel, Four Points by Sheraton, Hyatt Regency and the Shangri-La Hotel. Local hotels worth noting include the Dragon Hotel and the Xianheng Hotel. Hangzhou is easily reached from other major cities in China by air, rail and bus. From Shanghai the fast train only takes 40 minutes.