by Jean and Peter Richards
Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, is the most beautiful place we have seen in China.
Guides often give the area a half day; we spent five and could have filled more enjoying its magnificent lake, tasty cuisine, abundant museums and friendly people.
West Lake defines the city and sets apart from it, a six and a half square kilometer site comfortably absorbing thousands of people strolling its willow-lined paths in a flow as continuous as water. No photograph, poem or drawing can do justice to its gently interwoven shores, causeways, walkways, islands, pagodas, pavilions and gardens formed over 2,000 years.
When UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) selected the “Ancient Chinese cultural landscape” of the lake and three surrounding hills for Heritage status in 2011, it said it “bears an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of vistas reflecting an idealised fusion between humans and nature.”
That fusion is evident everywhere. Visitors transition from water to land aboard traditional wooden boats. Water lilies drift against sloping shores graced by weeping willows. Autumn is golden with soap berry and red with maple leaves. Peaceful little gardens with classical stone sculpture are secreted off main walking paths. Pretty pavilions lie ahead of stepping stone crossings with beautiful bridges linking the lake’s many parts. Tourist tat and refreshment is confined inoffensively to compact areas.
Even in December’s chill, the human flow was continuous. We’ve been the only Caucasians in sight many times in China and are accustomed to being a curiosity, but never have we had so many people stare at us, motion to us or photograph us as in Hangzhou. Once, as we sat down for a rest at the end of a walk by the lake, two middle-aged women asked to take a photo then very politely approached, took our hands and kissed each of us on the forehead. We’re so old, we’ve become talismans.
Old age has its advantages in a country which honors it and where people believe that tea drinking helps to ensure it. The National Museum of Tea at Longjing (Dragon) Village is a temple to the leaf. We spent a half day in the complex set amidst a plantation not far out of town. Not a word of English was spoken, but the explanatory signs were good and the exhibitions on the history, production, preparation and ritual were informative. One hall displays 100 examples of leaf tea, including the green for which Longjing is most famous. When it came to choosing gifts at the shop, we were lost and picked by package appeal. It was unlikely that anything in the national museum would be a poor choice and we were pleased when a knowledgeable recipient approved the selection.
Hangzhou is the terminus of the ancient 1,100 mile Grand Canal which was hand dug and has been critical to trade and contact with Beijing for 1,500 years. We rode this historic waterway one morning from Wulinmen Dock to Gong Chen Qiao Bridge for 45 cents each traveling alongside barges still plying their trade as they did in Marco Polo’s day. The museum in the nearby plaza celebrates the history.
We didn’t expect to be spoilt for choice with other museums. After all, how interesting could fans, umbrellas or scissors be? Very, it turned out. Each has its own building in an old industrial complex on the west bank of the Grand Canal re-developed as the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum.
Hangzhou also hosts the National Silk Museum near the southern bank of West Lake. It offers a comprehensive view from worm to wardrobe with stunning examples of weaving and needlework going back 5,000 years.
The focus is on food at the Museum of Hangzhou Cuisine. We spent the better part of a Sunday on the bucolic hillside site in the suburbs where historian Zhao Rongguang has turned his passion into an informative feast. The museum exhibit of a legendary Qing banquet meticulously recreated has become famous. The dishes were faithfully prepared then replicated in plastic by
Japanese experts in that particular craft. At the adjacent restaurant capable of hosting a thousand people we lunched very well as guests of a young Chinese couple we met on the queue. They ordered steamed chicken, West Lake vinegar fish marked on menu as having been served at a recent G20 summit banquet, steamed chicken, Dungpo pork with eggs, stir-fried cabbage with pork and tofu with chicken and pork. That fine lunch came to 256RMB or US $38.40.
Fuchsia Dunlop, an English woman who has become an authority on food in China, actually lured us to Hangzhou with her descriptions of meals at the Dragon Well Manor where Dai Jianjun religiously records the origin of every morsel and where the diner may never know what is on the menu. In the end, we decided not to go to the restaurant because it all seemed a bit much and an expensive experience best had with a group of people fluent in the language and history who could identify the more exotic ingredients.
We were more than satisfied to experience the lovely, comfortable and very good Lou Wai Lou, a 150-year-old restaurant on the banks of West Lake to have some of the most traditional local dishes – Dongpo pork, West Lake style vinegar glazed fish, shrimp with Longjing tea leaves and the famous Longjing tea. We were reassured that one of our favorite places in Hong Kong, Zhejiang Heen, is even more authentic than we thought.
The Hangzhou specialty of lotus leaf wrapped Beggars Chicken from Shang Palace Restaurant was beautifully prepared but more interesting to try than to savor.
Some of the best dim sum we had were breakfast specialties in the Horizon Lounge of the sprawling Shangri-la Hotel by the Lake. The East Wing, where the Russian delegation stayed for the G20, is traditionally and appealingly styled. The rooms are large, the location is superb and Mr. Jan Fan, a floor manager, was extremely helpful in the planning of our days.
We hardly saw the sprawling city on the other side of the lake. It, like so many in Asia, is a mass of grey metal and glass. The new buildings are not as towering as those in some other cities in China, the streets are wider and construction continues as Hangzhou prepares for its next big event, hosting the 2022 Asian games.
Marco Polo’s enthusiasm for this ancient Song Dynasty capital is well-remembered in China as is the traveler himself whose statue near West Lake appears to be surveying the “paradise” of his 13th century journey; a “heaven on earth” he might still recognize at least at the lake today.
© 2018 by Jean & Peter Richards