Hanging Out in Hangzhou


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Asia » China » Zhejiang » Hangzhou
December 7th 2013
Published: December 7th 2013
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The Venetian merchant Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the late 13th century. He referred to the city as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world" - and this first-ever travel blogger knew his stuff!

Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below." This is the Chinese equivalent of “Heaven on earth.”

I went to Hangzhou for a three-day weekend at the end of November and it was very nice. Not exciting, but nice. I'm glad I went.

First, where is it? Hangzhou is located in north western Zhejiang province, at the southern end of the Grand Canal of China which runs to Beijing, in the south-central portion of the Yangtze River Delta. In short, it is one hour by speed train southwest of Shanghai. The city centre is built around the eastern and northern sides of the West Lake, just north of the Qiantang River. Hangzhou is the fourth largest metropolitan area in China with a population of perhaps 21 million. It is difficult to estimate any Chinese city’s population because the official figure only counts people who are officially registered in the city. The numbers of migrant workers on construction sites can double that figure.

Hangzhou is a tourist venue and is renowned for its historic relics and natural beauty; fortunately (unlike many “modernized” Chinese cities) it still retains its historical and cultural heritage. One of Hangzhou's most popular sights is the West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which takes four hours (plus!) to circle on foot. Surrounding the lake is a scenic area which includes historical pagodas, cultural sites, as well as the natural beauty of the lake and hills. There are also two causeways across the lake. Cycling is the ideal way to see all of the lakeside attractions and there are many places to rent bikes cheaply. But I would have wanted to stop every two minutes to take photos. I knew that it wouldn’t suit me to whiz past local Chinese who were entertaining the crowds, street dancing, etc. Also, I would have had to mind the bike while I took photos and that would have just been too much hassle. I preferred to stroll the serene West Lake paths and pause at will.

Hangzhou's climate is humid subtropical with four distinctive seasons, characterised by long, very hot, humid summers and chilly, cloudy and drier winters (with occasional snow). In the summertime it suffers the effects of nearby monsoon-like rains and typhoons. I was told that the best time to visit is in November when the heat cools or in March/April before the heat returns. I think I went at a perfect time when it was about 18°C during the day and I could walk around in my shirt sleeves. It became much cooler once the sun set at 5:00pm but that was OK. These hot days and cold nights are ideal conditions for the lush tea fields in the surrounding hills.

I had heard so much about the natural beauty of West Lake and I knew that the weather would be nice and sunny, so I naïvely expected to see picture postcard views. Woops. I forgot that, since Hangzhou is a large city in China, of course there is a pollution haze and it persisted throughout my stay. Perhaps if one visited after a heavy rain or on a windy day the pollution would have temporarily washed down or blown away. It was still very nice and quite interesting.

A bite of history

I think it really adds to my appreciation of a new place when I know some of the history, so here is a synopsis. The Hangzhou area was known to have been inhabited seven thousand years ago when rice was first cultivated in south eastern China. The area immediately surrounding the modern city of Hangzhou was inhabited five thousand years ago, particularly the nearby small town on Liangzhu where the ancient jade carving civilization was first discovered. In AD 589, the city was renamed "Hangzhou" and a city wall was constructed two years later. It is listed as one of the Seven Great Capitals of China. Hangzhou is at the southern end of China's Grand Canal which extends to Beijing. The canal evolved over centuries but reached its full length by 609. I’ll tell you more about it later. Hangzhou became a cosmopolitan centre, drawing scholars from throughout China and conducting diplomacy not only with neighbouring Chinese states but also Japan and Korea.

In 821 Bai Juyi was appointed governor of Hangzhou. Already an accomplished and famous poet, his deeds at Hangzhou have led to him being praised as a great governor. (see photo) He ordered the construction of dykes and a dam to control the flow of water, thus providing water for irrigation and so mitigating the drought problem. Bai Juyi used his leisure time to enjoy the beauty of West Lake, visiting it almost daily. He also ordered the construction of a causeway connecting Broken Bridge with Solitary Hill to allow walking on foot, and had willows and other trees along planted along the dyke, making it a beautiful landmark. Afterwards, this causeway was later named "Bai Causeway", in his honour.

In 1089, while another renowned poet Su Shi was the city's governor, he used 200,000 workers to construct a 2.8 km (1.7 mi) long causeway across the West Lake. The Qing Emperor Qianlong considered it to be particularly attractive in the early morning of the spring time and named it the Su Causeway.

It is believed that Hangzhou was the largest city in the world from 1180 to 1360. In the 14th Cen. visitors wrote that they were impressed by the large number of well-crafted and well-painted Chinese wooden ships with coloured sails and silk awnings assembling in the canals. Many Arab merchants lived in Hangzhou during the 15th Cen, due to the fact that the ocean going trade passages took precedence over land trade during this time. As late as the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the city was an important centre of Chinese Jewry, but no traces of them are now discoverable,

In 1848 Hangzhou was described as the "stronghold" of Islam in China, the city containing several mosques with Arabic inscriptions. Today the most notable within the city are the Great Mosque of Hangzhou and the Phoenix Mosque.

Where I stayed

I am living and working in Zhengzhou these days so I flew to Hangzhou. The fast train would have taken 7 or 8 hours and most train journeys are about 23 hours from Zhengzhou (a central hub for train lines). That wasn’t practical for a weekend visit. The flight was only 1.5 hours and the return tickets cost 1100RMB/€130 /$190 . As with many Chinese airports, Zhengzhou’s and Hangzhou’s are distant from the city centres. I had to get on the Zhengzhou airport bus two hours before my flight so the city-centre-to-city-centre trip took almost five hours. Nowadays many flights in China are delayed due to fog/smog or over-scheduling of flights so I wouldn’t recommend taking a flight for any journey that is less than four hours. I have read reports in the Chinese newspapers that airport staff have been attacked by disgruntled passengers who are frustrated with long delays and a lack of explanations. You may have better luck taking a flight from a city that is smaller than Beijing or Shanghai.

In Hangzhou the airport bus only travels to the city when a flight arrives so you sort of have to scoot to grab your baggage and queue to buy a ticket before the bus leaves. I nearly missed it as I was asking for a city map in English from the tourism desk.

I had booked to stay at the WuShanYi Youth Hostel at 22 Midzhongshan Street in the central Shangcheng District, the old part of the city. Luckily I had written down the hostel phone number because I needed to get the hostel staff to explain the directions to the taxi driver. He couldn’t understand the address written by a friend in Chinese characters. Once the taxi dropped me I had to make three more calls to the staff before I found the hostel. It’s in a pedestrian zone of the city which has been renovated and is very nice. Tip: the hostel is midway between MacDonald’s and the Home Inn, about 100 metres either way.

I wanted a private room with a bathroom ensuite but Booking.com didn’t offer that so I took one without a bathroom. It meant that my first night wasn’t so comfortable and I had to change the next day to one I wanted. It cost 150RMB/€18/$26/night with kettle and cups, flat screen TV (with Chinese TV only) and AC/heater that I didn’t need. The hassle of changing rooms was annoying so next time I will go directly to a hostel’s website. I stayed in the attic which was very quiet and comfortable (see photo).

The staff were very friendly and spoke English well so it was a nice stay. But the WiFi and Internet were very weak so I couldn’t access my gmail. As an indicator, the exchange library had only Chinese and German books. Later I discovered that they have a “sister hostel” three minutes’ walk away that is “more European”, the HoFang IYH. I went over and it was much nicer with about the same prices. It had a good Internet connection, lots of English books to swap, a small pool table and a nice restaurant.

When I was booking a hostel I didn’t know whether to take one beside the lake or the WuShanYi Hostel 15 minutes’ walk from the lake. I’m glad I opted for the latter. It really is 15 minutes’ walk from the lake (or more) but it is “where the action is”, especially after dark. Evenings on Hubin Road lakeside are not as lively because all the expensive brands like Prada have storefronts there. Closer to the hostel there are all kinds of shops selling local sweets, teas, scarves, souvenirs, etc. and quite a busy market area, day and night. You walk through these on the way to West Lake. There is also an amazing food street where every kind of food is cooked on the spot and sold to the crowds. It’s a block from MacDonald’s, along the busy market street and the narrow laneway is really crowded at night. (A pickpocket’s paradise?) Food is cheap and there’s huge variety. I opted for three barbequed crabs on a stick and mushrooms rolled in ham and grilled.



The West Lake/Xi Hu

I arrived on Thursday evening and on Friday morning I began to walk northward around the lake. As I said, the view across the lake was a bit hazy but it was OK. I had a great time strolling, taking photos of fishing boats, pavilions and pagodas. I enjoyed reading any signs that were in English. I can imagine that it must be even more beautiful when the huge lotus gardens are in bloom. I am constantly amazed at the way Chinese people provide their own public entertainment. Crowds gather to hear people singing or performing Peking Opera. If Chinese people see an open space they colonize it for "street dancing." I will let my photos speak for themselves. By 4:30pm I was out on the Su Causeway, at the Zhejiang Art Gallery where I really enjoyed the portrait exhibition (see photos). The Art Gallery is beside the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, which I didn’t go into. I was getting rather tired by then, especially when I thought of the long walk back to my starting point. There are shuttle buses that go along the lakeside every 3 minutes if you don’t care to walk. Luckily I was able to persuade a driver to take me on board and for 20RMB/€2.50 and I rode almost all the way back. Whew!



Longjing Tea Museum

On Saturday I walked southward to the LeiFeng Pagoda on NanShan Road where I could take the local Y3 bus to the tea plantations in Longjing Shan Yuan. Obviously I didn’t pronounce it correctly because I was dropped off after 20 minutes when I had been told it was a one-hour ride to Longjing. I never solved that mystery. I walked up a hill road and through a village and back down again.

Finally I took a bus that brought me to the Tea Museum. I had thought I would skip that because it sounded rather dull. In fact it turned out to be a highlight of the trip. It isn’t just a museum building but has extensive tea fields glistening in the sun and beautiful gardens with ponds. The entire area is being renovated but the museum itself has very interesting displays, in English too, all about the history and culture of tea. Tea is an important part of Hangzhou's economy and culture and it is best known for originating Longjing tea, a notable variety of green tea. They say that Chinese tea culture began when the scholar and ascetic Lu Tong (795 – 835) wrote the first book about tea. He wrote:

“One bowl of tea soothes the burning throat, two bowls dispel loneliness and worries, etc….. Seven bowls are more than enough, feeling only a fresh breeze rising under the armpits.”

Whatever turns you on.

A local bus brought me back to the western shore of West Lake and enjoyed more walking. When it got dark I realised I was too late for the shuttle bus so I kept heading homeward around the lake. I came across an area where many seats had been set out for a colourful fountain display “just like in that fancy hotel in Las Vegas.” Apparently it is performed a few times every day and evening. I met a Chinese man who has lived in New York for many years. He said that he had spent the day climbing the surrounding hills to the pagodas and temples. He said that it was so cloudy he couldn’t see much of the view. I’m glad that wasn’t on my agenda.

Further along I saw a floating restaurant whose roof seemed pearlized by the flood lights - a beautiful sight. As I watched the boat dropped anchor and sailed out onto the dark lake, glowing. It was magic!



Then a disastrous day

Sunday morning it was raining but I was determined to try and get to Wuzhen “Water Town” where the streets are canals. “Water Town displays its two-thousand-year history in its ancient stone bridges floating on mild water, its stone pathways between the mottled walls and its delicate wood carvings.” It sounded lovely. The hostel staff had said that it wasn’t worth taking the expensive tour¸ which was just in Chinese, because it was easy enough to get to the village by myself. Wrong. It took an hour to get from the hostel to the bus station via 12 stops on the new, modern subway. The bus to Wuzhen (Xiang Shui) left every hour and took over an hour to get there. It was raining all the time. I then discovered that I would have to take another short bus ride and pay 150RMB/€18 to enter the village! I didn’t have enough for all that and get back to Hangzhou for my flight home.

I got a ticket on the next available bus, an hour later, and finally made it back to the hostel by 4:15. Rush, rush, stuck in the taxi in the rain and traffic jam, then along wait for the next bus to the airport. I then realised that I would have to take a taxi but I didn’t have enough cash left. With the help of a really nice Chinese couple who shared the taxi with me I made it onto the flight. Whew!

I hope to get back to Hangzhou sometime to see all that I missed, including Wuzhen village. Hangzhou is only a one-hour ride on the speed train from Shanghai. The railway authorities have been talking about building a line for the 430km/hr Maglev train but that is unlikely.

I’d also like to see the Grand Canal. 1,764 km (about 1200 miles) in length, is the longest man-made waterway as well as being the greatest in ancient China, far surpassing the next two of the world: the Suez and Panama Canals. Running from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in the south to Beijing in the north and connecting different river systems, it contributed greatly to ensure that the Chinese primary economy thrived in past dynasties. Now more than 2000 years old, some parts of the canal are still in use. I recently heard that they have completed renovating the Hangzhou end of the canal and re-opened it to traffic.

Boating on the old Canal is one of the best ways to get a panoramic view of the landscape of typical river towns in southern China, which include ancient dwellings, stone bridges of traditional designs and historical relics. There are regular cruises from Hangzhou to Suzhou, leaving at 5:30pm and arriving at 8:00am. Keep in mind that in China darkness falls at 8:00pm in the summer. You get a berth on the ship and the prices range from 88 – 208RMB.

Many guide books recommend travellers to visit the mountain village resort of Moganshan which today is making a comeback as a place for city slickers from Shangahi to escape the heat. I really enjoyed reading a book by Englishman Mark Kitto, China Cuckoo – How I lost a Fortune and found a life.(2009) He renovated a couple of old houses in Moganshan and had an interesting few years dealing with the frustrations and foibles of village life. When the area became trendy he abandoned it and moved to Britain with his young family. Check it out.

Overall it was a nice weekend in Hangzhou. Sunday was dull, rainy and frustrating but the taxi ride to the airport with the young Chinese couple speaking some English, and the taxi driver making jokes, was so much fun it dispelled the stress that had arisen in me during the day.

That’s why I love living in China – the people are incredibly warm-hearted and can be great fun.


Additional photos below
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8th December 2013

Photos
I love your pictures, you must be quite a professional, beautiful!
12th March 2014

wannabe photographer!
Hi, Thanks for your kind words. I haven't the patience to be a very good photographer. I just point and shoot - and "zoom" on a good day. I'm glad you enjoy simplicity, Sheila
30th December 2013

This was sure worth the long read!
Hey Sheena or "the Great Walsh": Really enjoyed your travel blog for the photos and detailed account of your travels. You really get so much out of your experiences and soak up all that you see, taste, hear, and feel. Keep on trekkin' my friend.Lou
12th March 2014

Thanks, keep following!
Hi Lou, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm back in China now so I've just blogged about my flight here. I'll be off to the south of China and Burma soon. Watch this space, Sheila

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