The May 1 holiday found us with a long break, so we seized the opportunity and headed for Hangzhou (杭州). The city is most renowned for its West Lake (西湖), one of the most famous sights in China.
Since our passports had been taken for visa processing we were forced to ride the bus rather than the more convenient high-speed train. It was a painless journey of around 2.5 hours, through semi-urban sprawl encroaching on local farmland. Everywhere was construction: new apartment blocks, new highways and overpasses, new shopping centers popping up at every juncture. Agriculture, on the other hand, was relegated to small squares of land next to the road, or even islands in the middle of the freeway.
We arrived and took a taxi to the drum tower, where our hostel was located in the pedestrian-friendly old city. It was a really fun area: lots of shops selling regional tea and tourist brick-a-brack. There were discount stores stuffed to the brim with scarves and sunhats, slippers, Mao watches, jade bracelets, cartoon cadres, cheap wallets, porcelain mugs, and fans. Outside, peddlers sold lasers and glow-in-the dark boomerangs, a band played the melancholy pi pa, artists painted caricatures, and
crowds gathered to have their pictures taken in Tang dynasty robes. The vast majority of the tourists were Chinese, out to revel in visions of their own ancient heritage.
The main square was especially festive, illuminated by a giant TV screen and above, the shadow of Mt. Wu with the neon outline of its temple floating on the hillside. Around 9 pm every night people congregated to dance; as if the city had coordinated a giant musical flash mob. The songs ranged from Chinese ballads to Adele. In a way to seemed casual; people came and went, stepped in and out, always dressed in their street clothes. Some visitors came, gaped, and took photos in front of the twirling dancers. How did they all know the moves? Who agreed to show up? Was there a secret code? My favorite was the middle-aged businessman in slacks and ties, who flung off his jacket and began to gyrate with the rest of the dancers…not remotely self-conscious or embarrassed.
The traditional snacks were also a fun part of the Hangzhou nightlife: ice cream wrapped in crepes, chunks of peanut brittle, crispy sesame bread, and fried whole crabs on a stick. One
Tang Dynasty delicacy was pounded flat by wooden mallets as its creators sang heartily.
I’d been a little under the weather when we first arrived in Hangzhou and spent a fair amount of time resting at the hostel, staggering out for a while, and again returning to the room. By the second day, I was much better, so we set off to explore. We started out at West Lake. It was indeed beautiful, especially the careful landscaping of trees, bamboo, and lily-filled ponds. The lake itself was, sadly, hazed in by a low hanging cloud of smog. Really, my only complaint about Hangzhou, like many places in China, was the poor quality of its air. But even the pollution couldn’t eclipse the beauty of the park, surrounded on three sides by wooded mountains and crisscrossed by wooden boats chugging between the islands.
Unable to flag a taxi, we hopped on one of the tourist busses that circle the lake, hoping to hop off at the Lei Feng Pagoda. My Chinese teacher told me an interesting legend about the place. There once was a sorcerer who turned himself into a snake. One day his life was spared by a
kindly young man. As a reward for his kindness, the sorcerer became a beautiful woman and pursued her rescuer. The man agreed to marry the sorcerer, but when a monk learned of their story he intervened, turning the woman back into a snake and banishing her to a cavern beneath the pagoda. Unable to deny his love for the sorcerer, the young man opted to become a monk himself and live at the temple, so every day he could speak to his betrothed.
Regardless, we missed the stop and got off the bus at the terminus, a place called “Eight Diagrams Field”. It was quite lovely, consisting of a meadow, wildflowers, a canal, wooden bridges, an old waterwheel, and an outdoor café.
After strolling and sketching, we cut back to the main road, crossed, and wandered up a series of stone steps on the other side to Jade Emperor Mountain. It was incredible: stone steps, fallen leaves, purple flowers, and stillness. We were completely alone except for birdsong and a few hapless centipedes. The mountain is home to carvings and temples. Buddha figures were cut into the rocks in secluded clearings. Some had been clumsily patched back together
after damage sustained during the Cultural Revolution. Others were mere imprints of their formal selves, slowly crumbling to dust. At the Taoist temple incense burned, the caretaker watched TV amongst a pile of dusty scrolls, and a fresh draft issued from a cool mountain cave.
We continued up Pheonix Hill, encased by greenery, and exited down a dirt path. We ended up in a village suburb and kept walking, lost in a district of dead-end roads and factories until we were finally able to cut under the train tracks and find a taxi to take us back to the lake.
The next day we again made a bus blunder, intending to get off at a particular park we instead ended up at yet another terminus. We walked for a kilometer, alternating between paved road and dirt path. We weren’t alone; day tripping couples and families with picnic baskets chattered and paused for photos amongst the verdant greenery. A stream ran along one side, nourishing the plantations that supplied some of the most famous green tea in Eastern China: LongJin (龙井).
The trail eventually led to us to a crystal clear pool of blue water that vibrantly reflected
the spring flowers. A footpath around the lake led to a waterfall where a queue formed to take photos. There were at least five couples – brides and grooms – posing against the elegant backdrop as photographers scurried back and forth, barking orders. We continued on a path to LongJin village where eager restaurant owners vied for our business. We settled on one with a terrace where we had a feast of fava beans, fish, local vegetables, tea, and beer.
Our final day in Hangzhou was dedicated to walking on Wu Shan, the mountain closest to our hostel. The hillside is dotted with Taoist and Buddhist temples, benches, hammocks, and cobblestone trails. Several of the buildings housed displays depicting Wu Shan’s colorful past. In the glory days of the Tang Dynasty, the mountain had been a legendary place. Plastic figures illustrated scenes from ancient life: boys flying kites, fortune tellers, card games, fire crackers, scribes, hawkers, pilgrims, shopkeepers, scholars, sweet sellers, and artists.
Peering at the replicas, it occurred to me that Wu Shan hadn’t changed all that much. It was still a central gathering point, where people came for both spiritual enlightenment and entertainment. Sure, they have
cell phones now, but the spirit endures. We visited on a Sunday. Every courtyard was crowded with tables, overflowing plates of food, festivity, families shouting good-naturedly at one another, mugs of tea, games of card and mahjong. I wondered if the Chinese saw it that way, or if it was just another celebratory weekend.
Our trip to Hangzhou was absolutely fantastic; I can’t wait to go back. My travel advice is to throw the guidebook out the window and embrace the spontaneity. There are so many great places to explore that you are unlikely to go wrong. We stayed at the Wushanyi Hostel, which was great. It’s an excellent location and the staff is enthusiastic and helpful. Finally, we took a bus from Shanghai. It worked out alright, but if you have your passport in hand, it’s best to take one of the fast trains!
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