Few cities are as associated with a tourist draw as the Zhejiang capital of HANGZHOU (杭州, hángzhōu), which has found fame for one simple reason – Xi Hu, a large lake right in the centre of the action. Encircled by gardens and a wreath of willow trees, crisscrossed with ancient walkways and bridges and punctuated by the odd temple or pagoda, the lake exudes an old-style Oriental air increasingly hard to find in modern China, and is a must-see if you’re in this part of the land.
However, this beauty has come at a price. The city is particularly busy at weekends, when it’s packed with trippers escaping from the concrete jungle of Shanghai, and in summer, when the whole country seems to be jostling for space around the lakeshore. This popularity has pushed up hotel prices, but it also brings advantages: there are plenty of restaurants, the natural environment is being protected and the bulk of the Taiping destruction to the temples and gardens on the lakeside has been repaired. Most of the places to see can be visited on foot or by bicycle, though those following the latter course of action should avoid evening rush hour like the plague – this is a city of around four million people, and the lake makes for something of a traffic obstacle.
Xi Hu is, of course, Hangzhou’s focal point. Within the lake area itself are various islands and causeways, while the shores are home to endless parks holding Hangzhou’s most famous individual sights, ranging from the extravagant and historic Yuefei Mu (Tomb of Yuefei) to the ancient hillside Buddhist carvings of Feilai Feng and its associated temple, the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, one of China’s largest and most renowned. Farther afield the terrain becomes semi-countryside, where beautiful tea plantations nestle around the village of Longjing, while there are excellent walking opportunities south down to the Qiantang River. Finally, much further afield, the old colonial hill resort of Moganshan is today making a comeback as a place for city slickers to escape the heat, which reaches oppressive levels in summer months.
Hangzhou has little in the way of a legendary past or ancient history, for the simple reason that the present site, on the east shore of Xi Hu, was originally under water. Xi Hu itself started life as a wide shallow inlet off the bay, and it is said that Emperor Qin Shihuang sailed in from the sea and moored his boats on what is now the northwestern shore of the lake. Only around the fourth century AD did river currents and tides begin to throw up a barrier of silt, which eventually resulted in the formation of the lake.
However, Hangzhou rapidly made up for its slow start. The first great impetus came from the building of the Grand Canal at the end of the sixth century, and Hangzhou developed with spectacular speed as the centre for trade between north and south, the Yellow and Yangzi river basins. Under the Tang dynasty it was a rich and thriving city, but its location between lake and river made it vulnerable to the fierce equinox tides in Hangzhou Bay; the problem of floods – and the search for remedies – was to recur down the centuries.
During the Song dynasty, Hangzhou received its second great impetus when the encroachment of the Tartars from the north destroyed the northern capital of Kaifeng and sent remnants of the imperial family fleeing south in search of a new base. The result of this upheaval was that from 1138 until 1279 Hangzhou became the imperial capital. There was an explosion in the silk and brocade industry, and indeed in all the trades that waited upon the court and their wealthy friends. Marco Polo, writing of Hangzhou towards the end of the thirteenth century, spoke of “the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world”. So glorious was the reputation of the city that it rapidly grew overcrowded. On to its sandbank Hangzhou was soon cramming more than a million people, a population as large as that of Chang’an (Xi’an) under the Tang, but in a quarter of the space – tall wooden buildings up to five storeys high were crowded into narrow streets, creating a ghastly fire hazard.
Hangzhou ceased to be a capital city after the Southern Song dynasty was finally overthrown by the Mongols in 1279, but it remained an important centre of commerce and a place of luxury, with parks and gardens outside the ramparts and hundreds of boats on the lake. Although the city was largely destroyed by the Taiping Uprising, it recovered surprisingly quickly, and the foreign concessions established towards the end of the century stimulated the growth of new industries alongside traditional silk.
A voyage on this lake offers more refreshment and pleasure than any other experience on earth…
- Marco Polo
Xi Hu (西湖, xīhú) forms a series of landscapes with rock, trees, grass and lakeside buildings all reflected in the water and backed by luxuriant wooded hills. The “West Lake” itself stretches just over 3km from north to south and just under 3km from east to west, though the surrounding parks and associated sights spread far beyond this. On a sunny day the colours are brilliant, but even with grey skies and choppy waters, the lake views are soothing and tranquil; for the Chinese they are also laden with literary and historic associations. Although the crowds and hawkers are sometimes distracting, the area is so large that you can find places to escape the hubbub. A good time to enjoy the lake is sunrise, when mellow tai ji practitioners hone their craft against a backdrop of early-morning mists.
As early as the Tang dynasty, work was taking place to control the waters of the lake with dykes and locks, and the two causeways that now cross sections of the lake, Bai Di across the north and Su Di across the west, originated in these ancient embankments. Mainly used by pedestrians and cyclists, the causeways offer instant escape from the noise and smog of the built-up area to the east. Strolling the causeways at any time, surrounded by clean, fresh water and flowering lilies, is a pleasure and a favourite pursuit of Chinese couples. The western end of Bai Di supposedly offers the best vantage point over the lake.
The hill station of MOGANSHAN (莫干山, mògān shān), 60km north of Hangzhou, was popular before World War II with the fast foreign set and has recently reprised its former role as a resort to escape the stifling summer heat. The old European-style villas and po-faced communist-style sanatoriums are being restored and turned into guesthouses, bars and cafés. There’s little to do here but wander the incongruously European-looking village, hike in the bamboo woods and enjoy the views. It’s lovely, but get here sooner rather than later, before it all gets overdeveloped.