Monday, September 5, 2011


Welcome to Hangzhou!
Hangzhou is beyond description. I was there for the weekend; I’m not even sure where to start.

The West Lake
The capital of Zhejiang province, Hangzhou has been a major center since the Song Dynasty. Marco Polo visited and remarked on it in the 13th century. It is most known for its beauty, found in its beautiful West Lake and surrounding scenery and gardens. Most of the modern city is not quite as pretty, but the lake and areas nearby are a major tourist attraction; the city is also considered one of China’s most livable.  I decided to visit this historic, gorgeous city for one weekend.
The city over the lake, through smog and passing clouds.
 I went to Hong Kong for the day before my flight to see the doctor (don’t worry, I’m OK). I’m on three new medicines. I also had to buy some books for our English Language Center – we need books for the students to actually practice reading, and English-language books on the mainland are mad expensive. My flights also happened to leave from Hong Kong.

Anyway, I got in at around 10pm and went to where I was staying, and then bed. So when I got up in the morning, I began one and a half days of exploration in a fresh, new city. Hangzhou’s air quality is much better than Shenzhen’s; the somewhat blue sky (a dome above the smog was blue) when I got up in the morning was … almost novel!

The sky has a blue tinge! I'm going to be looking up on every sunny day in Chicago from here on out.
I spent the first bit of the morning, starting around 8am, walking around before and after breakfast. I was staying on a tourist-oriented pedestrian street with some interesting architecture, but I also veered off to see the surrounding residential and commercial areas and to explore the various shops offering traditional Hangzhou products and snacks. This area is famous for lotus-based food; I enjoyed some very sweet, but light, lotus snacks.

Then I went to the lake. Warning: this is where it becomes quite photo-heavy.

Willow, and a lake.

On the Bai Di (a causeway), mounting a bridge. Over the northern lagoon, Baochu  Pagoda.
Much of my day was spent walking around the famous West Lake. The lake, centerpiece of a namesake national park including it and nearby mountains, is Hangzhou’s star attraction. Famed for its beauty for centuries, West Lake’s shores are surrounded by historic buildings, old bridges, famous gardens, and modern developments. Two imperial-era causeways with bridges cross the lake, one on the northeast and another along the west. Some areas are pretty touristy, but many of the people around the lake, especially on the weekend, are Hangzhou natives enjoying their cities. The tour guides and tour golf carts can be a bit loud, but that doesn’t take away too much from the lake itself. One can tune them out.

The lake…is nothing short of majestic. In the distance, there are mountains rising slowly above the lake. The water is soft and rippling; the surrounding greenery contrasts with the lake’s dark hue. But it’s too much for me to just describe. I’ll say that I walked around 75% of the lake over the course of two days, taking in several historical and natural sights, and I’ll let the pictures talk.

From the top of the hill Baochu Pagoda is on

I also took some detours to see some historical sights. Baochu Pagoda is located on top of a hill to the north of the lake, and dates back several centuries. Rebuilt several times, it currently stands at 45 meters, and, given its hilltop position, can be seen from all over the lake. 

Wooded patch on the way up.

Baochu Pagoda.
 The Yue Fei temple and tomb is dedicated to one of China’s most famous generals, the Song-dynasty general Yue Fei. He is known as a paragon of patriotism, and is also known for inspiring the patriotic song Man Jiang Hong (which is one of the best patriotic songs ever). The tomb and temple complex – he later became deified – date from the Ming dynasty, and was rebuilt substantially in the Qing era.

The main building of the temple. It's still an active worship site.
The Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society was a club and training ground for Chinese seal-carvers for several centuries, and is home to a 2nd-century Han stele. It’s on an island in the lake, and the surrounding lake views are spectacular.
An outdoor gallery of seal stela
But the best bit of the West Lake is the scenery alone. It’s amazing to be on a lake with so many different views…a place where one can go into the hills or on the causeway, hear birds chirping, and look out over a city across a tranquil lake.
Lakeside lotus plants

The eleventh-century Su causeway

Hills on the left, city on the right

I spent a good bit of the second day walking around Hangzhou. The neighborhood I explored was a really mixed place. It was at once residential and commercial; one street strictly for Hangzhou people, one street filled with tourist shops. It was an interesting example of urban planning in a country where tourists are very much pushed into certain areas.

Hangzhou at night, looking down a main residential drag. Baochu  Pagoda in the distance.

The tourist side of a street - every single one of those establishments is in the business of noms. The other side is pretty standard city street.
One of the interesting areas consisted of two tourist-oriented “historic streets” – one of which I stayed on. These streets consist of either restored old buildings or mock historic buildings, and are filled with hotels, snack shops, and shops for traditional Hangzhou souvenirs. I found the layout and planning of these streets somewhat interesting; the two provide an interesting example of urban planning and urban “renewal.” They also were great places to buy good-quality traditional products as presents; I bought fancy tea and classy sweets for many people there. Hangzhou is famous for a really good tea known as Dragon’s Well tea (Longjingcha).

Fancy jewelry shops on the left. Further down, an old mosque! Chinese Islam is interesting...there's an Arabicization scheme for Chinese, complete with tones!

The street of tourist products and classy tea
Then I headed back to the airport. Unlike other Chinese cities of its size and stature, Hangzhou has a public transport system that’s quite difficult to navigate; the airport is also quite far from the city. Hailing a cab is also a bit more difficult, since cab drivers tend to skip passengers they don’t feel like taking (white people who speak Chinese don’t get cabs.). However, I managed to get a cab and went off to the airport. Hangzhou’s airport is big and shiny. Big enough to maybe be too big for the city, but they’re dreaming big. Hangzhou is trying very hard to attract investment, but it loses out to Shanghai, 200 kilometers away. It is still very wealthy as far as Chinese cities go.

I flew back to Hong Kong, grabbed the books I bought for the office, and crossed back to Shenzhen.

Hangzhou has a different energy than the other cities I’ve been in on this trip. Shenzhen is new; Shanghai is moneyed; Hong Kong is chic; Zhongshan is the graceful old lady. But Hangzhou has a sense of a pride and of place that other Chinese cities don’t have. There’s an energy even in the daily interactions that you can sense: this is a place to which people belong. There’s a certain confidence in the cyclist, in the pedestrians, and even in the tourists, There’s also a certain…feeling that I’d call by a Yiddish word (which I was pleased to find had made its way to the New York Times, albeit in a different context). That word is haimish – something that roughly translates to “like a home.” Hangzhou has a warm, welcoming feel to it, a feeling of an invisible roof and an enormous, comfy chair. It’s a place where one can melt in, or stand out, where one can relax or be energetic. It’s a place where one can be anything. And I can’t wait to go back. Maybe it’ll be as a tourist again, maybe as an intern, maybe for work, but I definitely hope to go and see more of Hangzhou.

Lotuses are awesome.

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