Well, Hangzhou was the perfect side trip from Shanghai. In 2016 Hangzhou self-described itself for the G20 summit as “Paradise on Earth” and having visited the city I don’t think that is such a bold claim after all. Hangzhou is situated on an enormous lake aptly called West Lake. Seriously, this UNESCO world heritage site is enormous so don’t be naïve (like me) and assume you can comfortably walk around it in a few hours in time for lunch. We were there from sunrise to sunset, and we certainly made ample use of taxis, boats and a funny little shuttle service to get around. If all you did was walk around the lake then it probably wouldn’t take too long but there are so many things to do and see you find yourself stopping every hundred metres.
Now, I must confess I didn’t spend a great deal of time exploring the city of Hangzhou itself. I arrived in Hangzhou in the late afternoon on the first day and then had two full days there before heading back to Shanghai. Those two days were spent almost entirely venturing around West Lake. So while I’m sure the city itself has a great deal to offer I’m sorry to say I didn’t stay long enough to see most of it. But to be fair, West Lake is almost certainly what draws people to the city and I’m happy to say that I did the lake justice.
DAY 1: Getting from Shanghai to Hangzhou
Getting to Hangzhou from Shanghai was super easy and we allowed ourselves way more time than we actually needed. We caught the metro to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, made our way to the ticket desk and simply said ‘Hangzhou’ (because let’s face it our Chinese wasn’t good enough to be any more specific) We were then given our tickets and pointed in the general direction of the departures. By the way this station is impressive and it looks more like an airport than any station I’ve seen before (and the security is more like an airport too.)
Next we got on a bullet train to Hangzhou and were there in around an hour and a half. We arrived late in the afternoon so our plans involved settling into our hotel, finding some dinner and resting.
DAY 2: West Lake
We made our way along Fengqi Road towards West Lake. On our way we passed a bread shop with an enormous queue of locals so we decided to check it out. The bread was addictive. It tasted milky but was filled with sweet cream and reminded me of something I’d eaten in Japan almost a decade ago. We didn’t catch the name of the place I’m afraid but just trust me there’s delicious bread to be had on Fengqi Road.
So we arrived at the edge of West Lake at sunrise and made our way through Lakeside Park. Seeing the sun rise over the lake was something I’ll never forget. The water was just so still and tranquil in the early hours of the morning. We headed in a clockwise direction around the lake.
Our first stop was the Jixianting Pavilion. Being there so early in the morning meant we could photograph the pavilion before the crowds of people had arrived. We pretty much had this side of the lake to ourselves.
Next up was the Qianwang Temple. The temple was originally built in the Song Dynasty, although not much of the original structure remains it has been rebuilt in sections over the years.
GETTING AROUND WEST LAKE:
There are various ways to get around West Lake. You can walk, catch a taxi, ride a bike or get on one of the golf cart things that regularly zip past. The great thing about the golf carts (and I’m sure they have a more technical name but I don’t know what that is) is that they can go on the pedestrian paths so the view of the lake isn’t obscured as it would be in a taxi. We were keen to get on one but we had no idea how to do so. We weren’t sure if you had to go to a particular place like a bus stop or where you bought tickets. It turned out you could just flag them down and pay them the fare which was set according to the attraction you were going to. Generally it was around 10-20 元 ($2-4 AUD) to get to the next attraction. After discovering this system, this was pretty much what we used to get around for the rest of the day.
The next stop was at Leifeng Pagoda. This is probably the main tourist attraction of West Lake and it was packed. The pagoda is a monumental structure in its own right. It is a five-storey tower perched on a hill. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to the base of the pagoda but from there, there is an elevator up. The pagoda looks like it’s old but what you see now was actually built in 2002. Originally Leifeng Pagoda was built over a thousand years ago but the whole thing collapsed in 1924 before being only recently rebuilt. Nevertheless in the reconstruction they have preserved the magnificence of the structure and its historical integrity. The views are excellent and you have eight different sides of the tower to view Hangzhou and West Lake from.
Next we caught the cart across the Sudi – a long stretch of land with water either side – to Yuewang Temple.
So far the food had been disappointing around West Lake. There are kiosks every so often but they all stock the same food, it’s just a selection of corns and a few buns in a bain-marie. We were happy to arrive at the Yuewang Temple area where there was a small community and a few different restaurants to choose from. We had a very late lunch at Yang’s Dumpling, a chain that pops up everywhere in Hangzhou and Shanghai but they actually do pretty delicious dumplings.
Next we continued our scenic journey around the remaining section of the lake, stopping occasionally (okay frequently) for a photo opportunity.
It was getting close to sunset and we still wanted to take a boat out to the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon (real place name). So we returned to the nearest pier. These piers are dotted all around the lake and my impression was that there are a few different operators as well as different boats. Just check out the prices they’re advertising as they do vary. We opted for one of the larger boats, but still very traditional looking.
We picked the perfect time of day to head out onto the lake. The sky was just turning a beautiful orange colour as we were on the boat and when we arrived at Three Pools Mirroring the Moon we watched the sun disappear beyond the horizon.
DAY 3: Tea, Gardens and a little more West Lake
We are tea drinkers and we’re the proud owners of a rather impressive tea collection if i do say so myself. In fact the one souvenir we purchased during our trip to China was a beautiful little celadon glazed tea set. So when we heard the Hangzhou was home to the China National Tea Museum, we knew we had to pay a visit.
The museum is situated in the hills west of Hangzhou and beyond the immediate vicinity of West Lake. We’d researched it and we weren’t confident with the bus situation so we settled on taking a taxi. It was only the second taxi we had taken in China since our more than eventful ride on our first night. It turns out that the taxis in Hangzhou far surpassed our experience in Shanghai. The drivers were all lovely to us, we just had to show them where we wanted to go on our phones and they took us without hassle. They also drove safely and there were seat belts. It was quite a distance to the museum but it only cost us 12 元 ($2.30 AUD) from the city centre.
Once at the tea museum we wandered through the tea fields and learnt all about the history of tea making in China and all about the different types of tea that China produces.
After a morning of learning all about tea and it’s production, we were in need of a cup ourselves. Wandering through the gardens at the museum, we made our way to the tea house to try their chrysanthemum and jasmine teas.
Next on our itinerary was a quick taxi ride from the tea museum to the Hangzhou Botanical Garden. The gardens were landscaped at first but the further you walk the more wild it gets. At some point we must have left the garden because we found ourselves lost in a quaint little town. I’m still not sure where we ended up. From there we found a bamboo forest before determining we were thoroughly lost and getting in a taxi again.