ZHEJIANG, one of China’s smallest provinces but also one of the wealthiest, is made up of two quite different areas. The northern part shares its climate, geography, history and the Grand Canal with Jiangsu – the land here is highly cultivated, fertile and netted with waterways, hot in summer and cold in winter. The south, however, has much more in common with Fujian province, being mountainous and sparsely populated in the interior, thriving and semitropical on the coast.
Cities throughout the province tend to have an attractive, prosperous air. Hangzhou, the terminus of the Grand Canal, is one of the greenest and most visually appealing cities in China, with its famous lake a former resort of emperors; it’s still a centre for silk, tea and paper-making. Nearby Shaoxing, a charming small town threaded by canals, offers the chance to tour its beautiful surroundings by boat. Off the coast, and accessible from Shanghai, Putuo Shan is a Buddhist island with more temples than cars; as fresh, green and tranquil as eastern China gets.
Few cities are as associated with a tourist draw as the Zhejiang capital of HANGZHOU, 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 air increasingly hard to find in modern China, and is a must-see if you’re in this part of the land.
Hangzhou 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 temples and gardens on the lakeside are in superb condition. 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 – this is a city of almost nine million people, and the lake makes for something of a traffic obstacle.
Hangzhou’s authorities have provided an astonishing 50,000 bicycles for the city’s Freedom Bike Rental Network which, costing just ¥10 a day, is one of the best ways to get around Hangzhou’s sights. You pay ¥300 for an electronic card which covers a ¥200 deposit, and they subtract the rental fee from the remaining ¥100. In fact the first hour is free, and young Chinese travellers have cottoned onto the fact that they don’t have to pay at all if they simply change bikes every 55 minutes or so. You can change bikes at marked booths all over the city, but only a few of these issue cards and return deposits – there’s one at the Hangzhou train station.
A voyage on this lake offers more refreshment and pleasure than any other experience on earth…
Xi Hu, the West Lake, forms a series of landscapes with rock, trees, grass and lakeside buildings all reflected in the water and backed by luxuriant wooded hills. The 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.
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.
One of the loveliest things to do in Hangzhou is take a boat trip on the lake. Tourist boats (¥45, including entrance fees for Santan Yinyue) launch from the two lake tour jetties and head directly for the islands. Then there are the freelance boatmen in small canopied boats with four comfortable seats, who fish for tourists along major lakeside gathering points, especially the causeways, and charge around ¥100 per person for 40 minutes. You can also take out a boat of your own – either electric putt-putters for four people (¥80/40min; ¥200 deposit), or paddle boats (¥40/30min).
The hill station of MOGANSHAN, 60km north of Hangzhou, was popular before World War II with the fast foreign set, and is currently reprising its former role as a resort to escape the stifling summer heat. The old European-style villas and po-faced communist-style sanatoriums here 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 forest with its many pagodas to rest in, and enjoy the views. The centre of the village is already starting to get pretty spoiled and overly-busy at weekends and in the summer, but a thirty-minute walk in any direction will take you into peace and quiet.
The Buddhist island of Putuo Shan (普陀山, pŭtuó shān) is undoubtedly one of the most charming places in eastern China. A combination of religious reverence and relative inaccessibility means that it has no honking cars or department stores, only endless vistas of blue sea, sandy beaches and lush green hills dotted with ancient monasteries. As such, it’s an ideal place to escape the noise, traffic and dirt of the big cities, but only midweek – Putuo Shan is just twelve square kilometres in area, and can get swamped with tourists on weekends. Indeed, the best times to come are April, May, September and October, when the weather is warm and the island not especially busy. Bring walking shoes, too; you’ll get much more out of the place if you walk between the attractions rather than taking the bus. If it’s crowded, remember that there are over eighty temples here, and the vast majority of tourists will only be at the big ones – grab a map and just walk off, and you’ll soon be on your own. Be warned, thanks to the “Buddhist Buck” and the fact everything has to be shipped in, prices are relatively high here for both food and accommodation.
Over the years more than a hundred monasteries and shrines were built at Putuo Shan, with magnificent halls and gardens to match. At one time there were four thousand monks squeezed onto the island, and even as late as 1949 the religous community numbered around two thousand. Indeed, until that date secular structures were not permitted on the island, and nobody lived here who was not a monk. Although there was a great deal of destruction on Putuo Shan during the Cultural Revolution, many treasures survived, some of which are in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou. Restoration continues steadily, and the number of monks has grown from only 29 in the late 1960s to several hundred. Three principal monasteries survive – Puji, the oldest and most central; Fayu, on the southern slopes; and Huiji, at the summit.
The three main monasteries on the island are in extremely good condition, recently renovated, with yellow-ochre walls offsetting the deep green of the mature trees in their forecourts. This is particularly true of Puji Temple (普济寺, pŭjì sì), right in the centre of the island, built in 1080 and enlarged by successive dynasties. Standing among magnificent camphor trees, it boasts a bridge lined with statues and an elegantly tall pagoda with an enormous iron bell.
South of the temple and just to the east of the square ponds is the five-storey Duobao Pagoda (多宝塔, duōbăo tă). Built in 1334 using stones brought over from Tai Hu in Jiangsu province, it has Buddhist inscriptions on all four sides.
Down on the southeastern corner of the island, Zizhu Temple (紫竹寺, zĭzhú sì) is slightly less touristed than most and, for that reason alone, is a good spot to observe the monks’ daily rituals. Just down from the temple is a cave, Chaoyin Dong (潮音洞, cháoyīn dòng); the din of crashing waves here is remarkable, and thought to resemble the call of Buddha (and hence this was a popular spot for monks to commit suicide in earlier days).
On the island’s southern tip is Putuo’s most prominent sight, the Guanyin Leap (观音跳, guānyīn tiào), a headland from which rises a spectacular 33m-high bronze-plated statue of the Boddhisatva, visible from much of the island. In her left hand, Guanyin holds a steering wheel, symbolically protecting fishermen from violent sea storms. The pavilion at the base of the statue holds a small exhibit of wooden murals recounting how Guanyin aided Putuo villagers and fishermen over the years, while in a small room directly underneath the statue sit four hundred statues representing the various spiritual incarnations of Guanyin. The view from the statue’s base over the surrounding islands and fishing boats is sublime, especially on a clear day.
The two temples in the northern half of the island, Huiji and Fayu, make for a pleasant day-trip from town and tend to be less busy than those in the south. A paved marked path, called the Xiangyun Road, connects them, the whole walk taking under an hour. About halfway along is the Xiangyun Pavilion, where you can rest and drink tea with the friendly monks, who have sofas outside.
Huiji Temple (慧济寺, huìjì sì) stands near the top of Foding Shan (佛顶山, fódĭng shān), whose summit provides spectacular views of the sea and the surrounding islands. You can hike up or use the cable car from the minibus stand. The temple itself, built mainly between 1793 and 1851, occupies a beautiful site just to the northwest of the summit, surrounded by green tea plantations. The halls stand in a flattened area between hoary trees and bamboo groves, the greens, reds, blues and gold of their enamelled tiles gleaming magnificently in the sunshine. There’s also a vegetarian restaurant here.
Approaching Fayu Temple (法雨寺, făyŭ sì), listen out for cheesy Buddhist muzak wafting in from the forest – see if you can spot the speakers disguised as rocks. The temple itself forms a superb collection of more than two hundred halls amid huge green trees, built up in levels against the slope. With the mountain behind and the sea just in front, it’s a delightful place to sit in peaceful contemplation. The Daxiong Hall has been brilliantly restored, and the Dayuan Hall has a unique beamless arched roof and a dome, around the inside of which squirm nine carved wooden dragons. This hall is said to have been moved here from Nanjing by Emperor Kangxi in 1689. Its statue of Guanyin, flanked by monks and nuns, is the focal point of the goddess’s birthday celebrations in early April, when thousands of pilgrims and sightseers crowd onto the island for chanting and ceremonies that last all evening.
Occasional minibuses head out along the promontory immediately east of Fayu Temple to Fanyin Dong (梵音洞, fányīn dòng), a cave whose name derives from the resemblance of the sound of crashing waves to Buddhist chants. The cave is set in the rocky cliff, with a small shrine actually straddling a ravine. Walking around on the promontory is a pleasure given the absence of crowds and the difficulty of getting lost.
Putuo Shan has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims from all over northeast Asia for at least a thousand years, and there are many tales accounting for the island’s status as the centre of the cult of Guanyin (观音; guānyīn), the Boddhisatva of Compassion. According to one, the goddess attained enlightenment here; another tells how a Japanese monk named Hui’e, travelling home with an image of the goddess, took shelter here from a storm and was so enchanted by the island’s beauty that he stayed, building a shrine on the spot. With the old beliefs on the rise again, many people come specifically to ask Guanyin for favours, often to do with producing children or grandchildren. The crowds of Chinese tourists carry identical yellow cotton bags which are stamped with symbols of the goddess at each temple, sometimes in exchange for donations.
You’ll appreciate Putuo’s beauty much more by making the trip to Huiji Temple and Fayu Temple on foot via the two excellent beaches that line the eastern shore: the windswept and empty Qianbu Sha (Thousand Step Beach) and more civilized Baibu Sha (Hundred Step Beach). Swimming is only permitted on Hundred Step Beach where there are overly-keen lifeguards with whistles, and also showers (¥10). Be careful where you swim and when, though, as the waters can be extremely dangerous. In summer, it’s possible to bring a sleeping bag and camp out on either beach; both are in easy reach of the restaurants along the road. The beaches are separated by a small headland hiding the cave of Chaoyang Dong. One kilometre south of Fayu Temple, the Dacheng Nunnery (大乘庵, dà chéng’ ān; daily 6am–6pm; ¥5) is notable for the reclining Buddha downstairs in the main hall, and the thousands of tiny seated Buddhas upstairs.
Located south of Hangzhou Bay in the midst of a flat plain crisscrossed by waterways and surrounded by low hills, SHAOXING is one of the oldest cities in Zhejiang, having established itself as a regional centre in the fifth century BC. During the intervening centuries – especially while the Song court was based in neighbouring Hangzhou – Shaoxing remained a flourishing city, though the lack of direct access to the sea has always kept it out of the front line of events. Even so, some of the nation’s more colourful characters came from here, including the mythical tamer of floods Yu the Great, the wife-murdering Ming painter Xu Wei, the female revolutionary hero Qiu Jin and the great twentieth-century writer Lu Xun, all of whom have left their mark on the city.
For the visitor, Shaoxing is a quieter and more intimate version of Suzhou, combining attractive little sights with great opportunities for boating around classic Chinese countryside. Although the immediate centre comprises a standard shopping street, elsewhere there are running streams, black-tiled whitewashed houses, narrow lanes divided by water, alleys paved with stone slabs and back porches housing tiny kitchens that hang precariously over canals.
Near Shaoxing is Jian Hu, a lake whose unusual clarity has made the city known throughout China for its alcohol. Most famous are the city’s sweet yellow rice wine, made from locally grown glutinous rice and available in Chinese supermarkets around the globe; and ruby-coloured nu’er hong wine, traditionally the tipple brides sipped to toast their new husbands – it was bought when the bride was born, and buried in the back yard to age.