Apr 19, 2012|
"Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou underneath”—a well-known ancient Chinese saying sums up the beauty of Hangzhou by comparing it to a paradise on Earth. Renowned for its rich history and a long tradition in the arts, this capital of Zhejiang—a southeastern province located right next to Shanghai—has been the muse for countless painters, poets and writers. The city’s blend of modernity and natural scenery has also made it a hot travel destination and the most desirable city to live domestically; while its proximity to Shanghai—only 40 minutes by high-speed train or a 1.5-hour drive—doesn’t hurt either. Recently, Hangzhou starts to capture the attention of more international travelers, and is ranked No. 33 on New York Times’ list of “41 Places to Go in 2011.”
Hangzhou was the capital of China during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279); at the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo traveled here. The explorer was stunned by the city’s wealth, culture and its denizens’ laid-back, playful attitude, and described the then-party town as “the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world.”
No tourist leaves Hangzhou without seeing the famous West Lake, and the fact is, you can’t even hide from it. Located in the west side of the town, the 6.5-square-meter lake is directly linked to downtown area on its east banks, and connects to the hills and forest glades on its north and west. Willow trees covering the shore and lotus ponds in the water create a picturesque setting. Walking around the lake, you’ll pass through more than a dozen parks (all free and open to the public) and stumble across many must-see attractions. Hangzhou has been governed by two of the most influential poets in Chinese history—Su Dongpo and Bai Juyi. Apart from the numerous poems and prose they wrote about the city, their biggest legacies are two causeways—the wavy Su Di and the flatter Bai Di, which remain the only two walking paths to cross the lake. Broken Bridge (it’s not really broken), an extension of Bai Di that connects it to the bank, is prominently featured in “The White Snake,” a classic romantic tale from ancient China. Another famous ancient love story set in Hangzhou is “The Butterfly Lovers.” No surprise, then, that Hangzhou is widely regarded the most romantic city in China.
“Spring Dawn at Su Di” and “Malting Snow on Broken Bridge” are joined by “Fish Viewing at Flower Harbor," “Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow,” “Breeze-ruffled Lotus at Quyuan Garden” and five others to complete the list of the classic “Ten Views of West Lake." All the titles of the views are inscribed in the calligraphy of one of the nation’s most beloved and talked-about emperors, Qianlong (reigned Qing China from 1735 to 1796), a playboy and art/literature buff who once kept a holiday palace here.
Art lovers can check out the Xiling Society of Seal Arts, the first and largest academic society of seal arts in China, and the China Academy of Art, where young aspiring artists from all over the country polish their skills. Chinese film auteur Zhang Yimou’s multimedia show, “Impression West Lake” (82 Beishan Rd., regular performances at 19:45, occasional additional performances 21:15-22:25), is the perfect choice for nighttime entertainment. With a massive invisible stage built on the surface of the lake and high-tech sound and lighting systems, the live dance performance is a creative reinterpretation of Hangzhou’s local folklore.
But don’t think the fun stops with the lake. Lingyin Temple is one of the world’s most important Buddhist temples, and definitely worth a visit. If you fancy a little nostalgia, take a stroll around Hefang Street. The 1,800-meter-long street went through a revamp in 2002, which restored its late Qing Dynasty style. Nowadays, set against well-preserved old architecture, various handicraft workshops, snack shops, souvenir stores, herbal medicine clinics and restaurants serving local cuisine make the street a favorite spot among both locals and tourists. A prominent example of the city’s nature conservation efforts, Xixi Wetland National Park is 60 square kilometers of swamps, ponds and villages, around 20 percent of which is open for visitors. Embark on a relaxing boat ride to take in the wild animals and vegetation.
Using fresh, healthy local ingredients, Hangzhou cuisine is known for its refreshing lightness. Must-try dishes include Dongpo pork, shrimp with Longjing tea and West Lake sour fish. After dinner, experience the nightlife on Nanshan Road, where a hip crowd and high-quality live music await.
If you want to take a piece of Hangzhou home with you, Longjing (“dragon well”) tea is your top choice. Acclaimed for its color, aroma, taste and shape, Longjing tea is one of the most celebrated green tea varieties; it is also called the “imperial tea” because it was Emperor Qianlong’s favorite. Try not to purchase it at touristy spots to avoid being ripped off. If possible, take the bus or rent a car and visit the tea fields of the Longjing villages in the suburbs, where you can get better deals. Meanwhile, ladies looking for the city’s famous silk products should head to the Silk Market (217 Xinhua Rd. www.sinosilktown.com.cn).
Newly opened in the summer of 2010, Four Seasons Hangzhou is a small and tranquil luxury hotel that features a traditional Chinese design highlighting the Song Dynasty-style architecture, but not without adding a contemporary twist. The hotel looks like a lakeside village with merely 78 guest rooms, but they are the most spacious in the city. Many accommodations open to a terrace conservatory. Combining the artificial arbors, terraces and wooden-structure corridors with the natural bushes and lagoons, its subtle yet refined charm will be appreciated by guests seeking serenity.
5 Lingyin Rd., Hangzhou, (86) 571 8829 8888, www.fourseasons.com/hangzhou.