Hangzhou, China: Beautiful West Lake

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January 17th 2010
Published: January 17th 2010
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The New ChinaThe New ChinaThe New China

This cute and perky young woman and her clueless friend capture well the new China. See below.
Hangzhou, China
By May

Hangzhou is a city that every Chinese person knows. It’s the honeymoon capital of the country and has been made famous by poets, artists and folktales - stories that have been told and retold in China since Hangzhou’s heyday in the 900s. It’s like if the place where Cinderella lived was in your country and you could go visit and see its sites.

Hangzhou is most famous for beautiful West Lake. It is indeed beautiful even in January. West Lake is surrounded on three sides by mountains with many pagodas, temples and other famous, old sites sprinkled around it.

Paul and I spent a month in Hangzhou, 22 years ago, and it was great to have the chance to go back. My, it has changed.

Hangzhou 22 years ago
Twenty two years ago, we flew from Hong Kong to Hangzhou. We landed on a runway and climbed down the stairs from the plane onto the tarmac. There was a single runway, with a small concrete building, in the middle of rice fields. Customs was one desk, and our luggage was unloaded out on the tarmac for us to sort through and find. There were five of us (including my sister Kiran) from NC on the flight, coming to help out some English teachers.

We were picked up in a van and driven into town past gray concrete building after gray concrete building. We were split up and taken to different universities around the city. To visit each other we rode bikes down tree lined streets. Paul’s technology university was about a 20 minute bike ride from my agricultural university. The roads were full of bicycles and busses. I remember learning that there were no privately owned cars. No taxis, no motorbikes. Bikes and busses were your choices for transportation around the city.

The stores were also mostly government owned. The workers just leaned over the counter and stared at us blankly and sipped their tea. It was hard to get help. In fact, we were stared at very intently wherever we went, because in 1987, not many white people had been to Hangzhou.

All the people lived in apartments in rows or high rises that all looked the same. Older people wore dark colors and Mao jackets. Young fashionable men wore shorts with knee-high polyester black socks and high-heeled sandals.
Couple by the LakeCouple by the LakeCouple by the Lake

Hangzhou is China's honeymoon capital. Even in January, lovers were everywhere. Hangzhou is for lovers.
Fashionable young women wore frilly, flowery polyester dresses, like 1970s versions of some Anne of Green Gables dress.

When we wanted a coke, we either went to a Friendship Store (a government store set up for tourists), where they sat dusty on a shelf behind a counter, or to a tourist hotel on beautiful West Lake where we could spend our tourist money (it was different than the money the Chinese people had) and buy a coke, poured in a glass but still room temperature. That warm coke was as close to home as we got in Hangzhou.

Hangzhou now
Ella, Paul and I flew to Hangzhou from Beijing. (For those of you who don’t know, Jordan stayed in Hong Kong by herself for a month.) We landed at a huge, ultra modern airport. Customs was a breeze, many counters were open and it was easy. We took a taxi to our hostel.

On the way into town we passed “villas”. These were multi story houses, that resembled beach houses in the US. They were mostly pastel colored, tall, skinny and seemed to have viewing porches on top. We couldn’t figure out what the view was to but on the 4th floor of the villas, they could see whatever it was they wanted to see.

As we drove over the river into downtown, we passed the central business district. This consisted of huge building projects including maybe 30 skyscrapers (going up all at once) and a riverside promenade with two ultra modern architectural gems, a spherical building and a pavilion-looking place with a wavy roof.

West Lake
That first afternoon we walked to beautiful West Lake. Our hostel was a 10 minute walk from the lake to a side of it that neither Paul nor I remember visiting before. It turns out that this whole side used to be residential and around 2000, the houses were torn down, families relocated and a beautiful lake-side walkway and park was built. The walkway now goes all the way around the lake and is lovely.

We found the part of the lake we could remember and we walked along it, but it wasn’t exactly like walking down memory lane. The causeways had been repaved and spruced up; all the people were incredibly more stylish and relaxed seeming than before; and not only were there cokes everywhere, but we sat in two beautiful Starbucks drinking our coffee overlooking the lake, surrounded by Chinese tourists and locals relaxing with their beverages of choice.

So West Lake was definitely worth the trip. It has been beautifully redone in the last 10 years and is really nice to walk around. Nice pathways, benches, little zig zaggy bridges cutting corners of the lake and tea and coffee shops all the way around.

History in Hangzhou
We also discovered that there is a ton of history around Hangzhou that we were not aware of 22 years ago. In 1987, China was looking forward, not backward, and historical sights were not given much money or attention. We saw plenty of Mao statues, but not many pagodas or houses from the Qing Dynasty. Turns out they were in Hangzhou all along, just hidden by trees and gray concrete.

Well, in the last 10 years, it’s become OK in China to remember the imperial past. The regional government in Hangzhou has spent a ton of money and done a great job rebuilding and opening up their historical sights. We saw only a few, but enjoyed them and realized that we could have stayed
Su Causeway, May and EllaSu Causeway, May and EllaSu Causeway, May and Ella

There are these two causeways, long juts of land running out through the lake with bridges and a path to walk or bike along. This one is the most famous for the Chinese.
another week in Hangzhou and still not seen them all.

Friendly People
Twice the first couple of days we got confused taking busses to one place or another. We would stand at the bus stop, peering at the Chinese characters on the bus posters and pointing to our map. Both times, we were rescued by friendly Chinese people.

Once the woman spoke no English, but understood where we wanted to go and pointed and prodded us in the right direction, onto a bus, and then got off with us and got us going back to our hostel.

The next day, a young woman spoke to us in English and offered help. She actually walked a couple of blocks with us to the mini bus we wanted and got on it with us and rode. She chatted some while we rode and told us where to get off. I was never clear whether she wanted that bus anyways or was just helping us out. It was very nice.

Lastly, I went out by myself one day to explore in the cold rain. I rode a bus across town, got off, walked around and then on my way
Beautiful JaoziBeautiful JaoziBeautiful Jaozi

This is May and Ella eating beautiful and delicious jaozi (Chinese dumplings), which we describe below.
back to the bus stop, an older woman began talking to me in Chinese. I wished I could understand her, she seemed to be talking in simple sentences, but I was at a loss. She walked with me to the bus stop and when I told her where I wanted to go, she pointed across the street. I pointed to a bus on our side of the street that went to Qingbomen (my stop), but she pointed to another bus across the street again.

By then a small crowd had gathered around and they all discussed the best way for me to get to Qingbomen. They decided that indeed I should cross the street and catch a different bus, going the other way. I really had no choice but to trust them, they almost pushed me across and waved me on my way. Turns out they were right. No where else have local folks taken such an active interest in what we are doing as tourists and how we do it. It felt friendly.

So, I really enjoyed revisiting Hangzhou. It is a beautiful city, with friendly people, a lovely lake and a ton to do. Out of
West Lake BoatWest Lake BoatWest Lake Boat

It's a big deal for Chinese tourists to take a boat out on West Lake. In fact, a picture of boating on West Lake is on their One Yuan bill.
all the places we’ve been, I could most imagine myself living in Hangzhou.

A few more Hangzhou thoughts, by Paul

May’s descriptions capture Hangzhou well. We loved it. Ella loved it too - it wasn’t just me and May being nostalgic for when we were here before.

History. I learned a lot this time about Hangzhou’s history, things that we either didn’t learn when we were here before (because it was politically incorrect at the time to view the imperial past positively in China) or things that I forgot (more likely, knowing me).

Hangzhou has an incredible history, for a place that most of us in the US have never heard of. From around 900 to 1400 (those dates are rough estimates, and I probably have them wrong), Hangzhou was China’s main city, and China at the time was flourishing and extremely sophisticated (much like today).

Indeed, from around 1150 to 1350, Hangzhou was the largest city in the world. (It’s not small now either - six and a half million, about the size of New York City.)

It was also a center of Chinese culture, and people came from all over China and
West Lake Shoreline, May and EllaWest Lake Shoreline, May and EllaWest Lake Shoreline, May and Ella

You can see how nicely the parkland around the lake has been redone and fixed up. It's really pleasant.
all over the world to see it. Marco Polo said Hangzhou was easily the largest and greatest, most-modern and sophisticated city he saw on his travels. Ibn Battuta, Muslim traveler who traveled all over the world like Marco Polo, said the same thing.

As May said, it was China’s center for painting and poetry. The paintings and poetry from that period are still revered and recited in China now.

It was also a religious center. At the time, it was East Asia’s center for Zen Buddhism. Monks came from Japan and Korea to visit Hangzhou, and took Zen Buddhism back - and they still thrive there today (even as Buddhism was largely eradicated from China during the Communist period).

All of this history was everywhere evident in Hangzhou. This was not the case in 1987. Since then, I guess they have begun to play up their history. Temples, pagodas, and imperial-era residences have all been redone, and redone incredibly well, since we were here before. There are a ton of things to do and see in Hangzhou. We spent 6 days here; we could have easily spent a month. There were probably 40 different historical sights that
Hafeng LuHafeng LuHafeng Lu

Our guidebook says: "Only in China would they tear down a Qing era (1800s) street and rebuild it totally as a Qing era street. However, it works." This was right near our hostel - very very charming and fun.
appeared to be worth doing.

Food. The food in Hangzhou was also delicious. We ate Chinese food, of course, which is better than the Chinese food at home but similar. We also ate often at a Muslim Restaurant. There are lots of Muslims in the west of China, and there are many Muslim restaurants in Chinese cities (sort of like Chinese restaurants in US cities). The food was delicious, both Arabic food (hummus, pitas, various Arabic rice dishes) and Chinese Muslim food (similar to Chinese food, yet different too, and a nice change).

Jaozi. Finally, we ate delicious jaozi (jow-zzuh), or Chinese dumplings. You’ve probably had these, and yet you haven’t. They’re in most Chinese restaurants at home, often called gyoza (the Japanese attempt to say / spell jaozi). They’re basically Chinese dumplings, a piece of bready-dumpling folded over some ground pork (like sausage) and spring onions.

In Hangzhou, jaozi are supreme. May and Kiran and I ate tons in 1987. I was afraid I had remembered them being better than they were, because any jaozi I had eaten since then just weren’t as good.

We found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant (open-air, even in the 40
Chinese Wedding PicturesChinese Wedding PicturesChinese Wedding Pictures

West Lake is a famous place for wedding pictures. Handsome couple, aren't they?
degree weather) serving fresh jaozi. It was mobbed, every time we walked by. The jaozi were soooo good. We ate them fried rather than boiled or steamed. They taste a bit like sausage pizza (without the cheese, and with more succulent flavor), also a bit like a sausage biscuit (but again, much better). Ella has eaten jaozi all during our trip (because she loves them), but she said these were easily the best. She said they are the best food she’s ever eaten.

A picture of the new China. Finally, the first picture in this blog, one of my favorite pictures from our trip, captures very well how China has changed since 1987 and why we are having so much fun here.

First, there is a cute, stylishly-dressed, perky, fun-looking young woman. Everywhere you look in Beijing and Hangzhou are cute, perky young women. The guy too is cute, but of course not as cute. He’s pretty clueless too (as are guys everywhere). He’s got his expensive electronic gadgetry (here a camera, but it may as well be a new-fangled cellphone or laptop). He’s looking at his electronic gadgetry, pretty heedless of the charms of his friend. The
Tree by West LakeTree by West LakeTree by West Lake

This was everywhere - winter trees leaning out beautifully over the lake, as we walked right along it. Really gorgeous.
park is lovely too. Everywhere in Beijing and Hangzhou were newly-created, well-kept green spaces full of people strolling around and having fun.

Hangzhou was one of our favorite places so far. It’s hard to say why - it’s just a big city with a nice lake.

It had a very holiday-ish feel, I guess since it’s one of China’s premier tourist destinations (for Chinese tourists, at least). Everybody seemed to be happy, and having fun, and everything seemed brand-spanking new and elegant and pleasant.

Hangzhou was superb.

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 31


Boy with AppleBoy with Apple
Boy with Apple

Cute children, literally everywhere you looked.
Happy Mom and DaughterHappy Mom and Daughter
Happy Mom and Daughter

Hangzhou felt like this - happy and carefree and fun.
Boys PlayingBoys Playing
Boys Playing

These boys were playing some mysterious game, as boys this age often do.
Grandfather and GranddaughterGrandfather and Granddaughter
Grandfather and Granddaughter

We saw lots of grandparents caring for kids. We assume the parents were at work. In-family childcare.

17th January 2010

impressions of Hangzhou
Your blog today made me want to visit Hangzhou! Somehow I didn't know it had been the most important city in China--thought Beijing was always the imperial capitol. The pictures are great! Gran
18th January 2010

Thanks for refreshing the memories
Dear May and Paul: It was great to share your visit to Hangzhou with us. I had been back in 94 and everything between Zhejiagn Medical University and West Lake had been destroyed, replaced by a highway directly connecting the city with the Lake. My present primary care physician, Dr. Bo Wu, was taught english by Betty in 86-7. He has been in the US since 96 and has become fully certified for practice in the US. He told us that the whole university has now been torn down and moved elsewhere, including the 18 story building being built while we were there! When I was there in 94 chinese folks were doing ballroom dancing along the lakeside instead of Tai Chi. I am sorry we have not been able to visit you and your families in the mountains of western NC. I hope you have a safe and rewarding journey for the rest of you "sabbatical./" It is a wonderful idea.
19th January 2010

Beautiful! I loved reading about Hangzhou and your pictures really capture it. Thanks again for taking me along on your trip...Jeanine
23rd January 2010

This makes us want go back
Dear May and Paul; What a remarkable account of your visit! It's almost like being there. It makes us want to go back. John's Cardiologist says Dr. Wu's English sounds just like John. love, Betty dear
31st January 2010

Can't believe it
Wow, wow and wow! What an amazing thing to read this and see the photos! I loved your descriptions of the city back in the day (high heeled men, so true! and remember the bean curd ice pop things? self-serve peanut butter that was the BEST? taking your pot down the street to the dumpling place? the HEAT? and yes, the concrete buildings everywhere. Gosh, it all just floods back! We were pretty studly to live there then.) And thanks so much for sharing the city of today with pictures of your adorable daughters! Too much. Of course May you look just the same. Thanks by the way for the updates you sent, esp. regarding the Hong Kong Chungking mansions!!! Can you believe we did all that? So young. OK, I'll stop rambling, but really so wonderful for you to share this. I want to go back! Take care and keep the news flowing! Love, MK

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