There is an old Chinese saying: 上有天堂,下有蘇杭. Loosely translated, it means to say that there is paradise in the heavens and there is Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth. Effectively this suggests that both cities are so beautiful that it would be comparable to being in heaven.
Well, we decided to take a look at what heaven looks like on earth.
And it was a train journey of slightly over an hour of 225km (yeah we know it’s a little faster now with the bullet train) from Shanghai’s main railway station. This was way back when Mel first moved to Shanghai (read here) and we had decided to stay in China for the first lunar new year we were there. Now we were headed to the renown West Lake (西湖), one that is divided into five sections by three causeways with numerous temples, pagodas, gardens plus artificial islands within the lake itself.
The lake formed as a result of sedimentation effects from the nearby mountains and due to its geographic location, and attracted a lot of poets and painters over two millennia.
Now there weren’t any of these luxury hotels along the lake at the time of our visit, being that early in the dramatic change of the country. So we had booked a two nights’ stay at a hotel by the lake through friends. This Xizi guesthouse (西子宾馆) overlooked the entire lake from the southern shore. Of particular note was the view of the island in the lake with a really long translated name “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” (三潭印月)*.
The guesthouse has its own exclusive facilities and area that was closed to the public at that time. We were told most other times it was used by visiting dignitaries. Hey in those days, this was considered “luxurious”. You just need to read the horror stories of other ‘guesthouses’…Through our friends ‘connections’ in the CCP, we managed to get us a really good discount and rooms in what would have been a very busy time of the year!
Got time for poetry and heroes?
For one thing to note, February is the tail end of winter and in this part of China, it normally rains instead of snow. Hence it should not be a surprise that the weather was not particularly good (if one considers only sunny days to define such) and it was drizzling a lot of the time. But that, is exactly what excites some of the poets and painters, for all that surreal looking vista inspired many a masterpiece!
For us the reason we chose to stay in the southern edges of the lake was the direct view of the lake with the Wu mountains over it.
And in the evenings, the lawns of the guesthouse grounds afforded a wondrous location to capture these views. Some are said to come here to view the full moon. Can you imagine the reflection of the moon on the waters of the lake? Let’s hope it would not be that hazy on those nights! LOL
To explore the lake one needs to walk. And nowhere is this better than along the causeway called Sudi (苏堤). It runs roughly north to south along the lake, segregating it from the smaller Yue and Xili lakes (more like pond sized). This approximate 2.6km walk is well worth the time. We highly recommend it.
And along the northern shores of the lake is where the tomb of the famous general Yue Fei (岳飛) is located. A folk hero (or some say national hero), the general’s life was the case of a successful patriot maligned by his enemies and sacrificed at the altar of dynastic politics. Though today he is venerated. Although not hailing from this part of the country, a temple in his name was built in 1221 along with his mausoleum here. Come pay your respects to a very patriotic man who tattoed “尽忠报国” on his back.
Cruise the lake
No visit to west lake can be without visiting the islands in the middle of the lake, especially the one with a very long translated name*. By boat (it cost 15 RMB at that time), it takes just 10 minutes to reach and it was interesting to note it has 6 “lamps” in the water of which were lit at night. And the island itself has 4 small pools with walkways crisscrossing them lined by trees, though the name suggests three! Till this day it still baffles us…perhaps the moon is best viewed from these pools!
From the western side of the island, one can look across (barely 200m) to the causeway (Sudi). The causeway is lined with trees and connected by little stone bridges. With all these hazy misty conditions, it made for fantastic photography if not for our point and shoot film camera! Of course, if one wishes just look east and one will see the backdrop of the modern city with all the skyscrapers. This island being so small would be easily covered within a space of just half an hour.
However, take your time. Take a seat by the water or the many pavilions and gaze out. Enjoy as much of the calmness of the lake before it is punctuated by the rambunctiousness of other tourists (hey this is China). One should be coming to west lake for a tranquil time. No rushing, no constantly taking photos at the expense of taking in the views mentally. It’s a relaxing time. Finally, have some fine tea while you are in Hangzhou. Famed for its “long jing” (龙井) tea, have a cuppa while you recite poetry and revel in the wisdom of the sages.
So next time when you are in Hangzhou, tell yourself to spend some time at west lake not just as a camera toting tourist in the city. Get to know the islands, watch the mountainscape change as the sun rises or sets. Understand why this lake has for many centuries inspired the numerous poets and painters to come here and produce their iconic works.
We were in Hangzhou for the lunar new year of 1999
PS: as it was the lunar new year, when we went downtown we bought some fireworks and lit them. FYI it is legal to light fireworks are and these were widely available at shops. We fired a lot of small pieces of fireworks in the city on New year’s eve. Woohoo! One more bucket list item completed. Actually the guy who sold us the stuff got us out further from his shop before we could fire them…heheh…