I don’t think my words or pictures will do justice to describe Hangzhou but I will try…
Our drive from the airport to the hotel captivated me immediately. I did not know what to expect from Hangzhou as I had not researched it before our departure. The western style houses caught my eye straight away, all in different shapes and colours but most with the most peculiar glass rectangular conservatory on the roof level, perhaps to let in light, heat or just for decoration. As we passed these beautiful homes we hit the city where buildings came in view. I was taken aback at the architecture. Nothing was out of place. Each block of buildings was well thought of and looked like they belonged. I braced myself for traffic, pollution, noise, chaos but none of it came.
There were many people walking along the lake, families strolling at a leisurely pace. Everything had slowed down ten fold in the city of Hangzhou.
The beauty of the lake and the giant lilies bordering it was breathtaking. The next morning we met our guide who told us that his name was Forest Gump. Had I heard him right? Before I could ask him he began telling us the story behind his name. His teacher had named him Forest Gump because he would run around and play table tennis in the mornings like in the movie. And coincidently, the meaning of his new name was the same as his Chinese name. When he started to quote ‘life was like a box of chocolates’ I knew we were in for an interesting day.
Most of what I will tell you is what we heard from Forest, so if I get anything wrong forgive me. There are 9 zhous in China and this is how the saying goes:
You would be lucky to be born in Xuzhou as it is a city that has never had a natural disaster. They make good food and good candy in this city and it is wealthy.
You would be lucky to live in Hangzhou because of its natural beauty and wealth.
You would be lucky to eat in Guangzhou as being by the South China Sea which is more productive they eat all sorts of things like snakes frogs and worms. They do not mask the taste of the food with flavouring to maintain the original flavours and food there is good.
You would be lucky to die in Liuzhou as it is near Vietnam in the tropics where they grow a lot of wood – so you would get a good coffin.
And lastly you would be lucky to be buried in Huizhou as the yellow mountains are in an area of good Feng Shui, with the water and the wind. It is along the river and picturesque.
Now if you could manage all five you would be very lucky indeed!
Hangzhou is one of China’s seven ancient capitals and can be traced back over 2200 years to the Qin dynasty. It flourished after being linked to the Grand Canal which starts in Beijing and ends in Hangzhou.
This temple hold the ashes of an Indian monk who went to India for 14 years, translated books and bought them back. They say that the hill with all the carved statues flew from afar and planted itself where it is and this is apparent as it is made of limestone, the only material of its kind to be found in the area. The temple represents Buddhist culture.
This is the pagoda where the remains of the Indian Monk Huili were buried
Buddha is depicted in many forms. The laughing Buddha is not supposed to be fat but has a big belly as he is holding intolerance.
The area is of outstanding beauty and is enjoyed by families, artists and monks alike.
The temple has halls with many Gods, their roles decided by what they are holding. The one with a sword to fight evil, with an umbrella to take away sins, the one with a snake can make it rain and the one playing music to bring happiness.
Three incense sticks are burnt at this temple to show respect and then you make a wish. They say that if your wish comes true you have to go back to Hangzhou. I am a great believer and I know I will visit this magnificent city again.
The big Buddha is 800 years old and made out of one piece of camphor wood. It faces the main hall and the Buddha’s face is guilded in gold.
This is the Guan Buddha with his feet on the head of the fish, keeping it under control – preventing tsunamis.
Longjing Tea Plantation
Longjing tea is the famous green tea of the area and know around the world. It is hand picked only in April to get the best tender leaves. As we were driving towards the tea gardens we saw many tea houses where people congregate to drink tea and play cards or mah-jong.
Walking through this bamboo forest in silence, listening to the sound of our feet on the timber bridges and the chirping of birds was the most beautiful soul searching experience I have had in a long time. There are 100 different species of bamboo and they grow rampantly. It takes only 40 days for it to grow full size from the shoot.
This Pagoda was constructed in AD975 but it collapsed in 1924 and was rebuilt in 2002.
The original bricks were stolen as they had inscriptions in gold and the remaining ones are kept safe in the centre for tourists to look at from a distance. The views of the city and the lake from the top were worth the visit and it gave us an idea of how big the lake really is.
There are many love stories set in Hangzhou which give rise to the long bridge, solitary hill and the broken bridge and one of them is depicted in this pagoda, carved in wood.
The tale is of a white snake that turned into a lady after hours of meditation and became immortal but as she missed life she decided to come down to earth. The snake had been saved by a boy and it came to the mortal world to reward him. They fell in love and met on the broken bridge. They stayed together until unfortunately a bad monk who knew the lady was actually a snake tried to break them apart. He made the lady drink yellow wine which turned her back into a snake. The boy fainted with shock. After the wine wore off the snake became a lady again. She went to the mountain to get herbs for her lover who had fainted but was imprisoned in the pagoda when she tried to fight the monks. She came back to the bridge to find the boy and was heart broken when he was not there. Hence the name ‘broken bridge’ which is in account of the broken heart not a broken bridge.
Another story is of the Butterfly lovers where a girl had to disguise herself as a boy to be able to pursue her studies. She falls in love with her classmate and tries to hint to him several times about her love. But her marriage is already arranged to someone else. Her lover, once he finds out about her love and that she cannot be his as she is to marry another, becomes ill and dies. On the day of her marriage strong winds from the boy’s grave prevent the wedding procession and when she goes to pay her respects to the tomb thunder and lightening split open the grave. She jumps in without hesitation. A pair of beautiful butterflies come out of the grave and fly away together.
HE FANG STREET
This rustic street is a must if you visit Hangzhou. It has the most traditional architecture and you feel as though you could be in Europe. It is not very long but certainly lively.
We visited a traditional Chinese medicine shop on He Fang Street which was incredible. There were all sorts of ingredients and prescriptions given by Chinese doctors and the ladies in their lab coats were busy putting them together. Some of the ingredients are extremely rare and expensive but effective and well sought after.
ENDURING MEMORIES OF HANGZHOU – THE WEST LAKE SHOW
I must take a moment to tell you about this show. It was outdoors and pretty chilly so we spent our time wisely in He Fang Street and bought some scarves. We were seated, exposed to the elements, on seats with no cover (so what happens if it rains was a thought that crossed our minds) facing this vast lake. I had seen a show in Macau which is performed on water indoors and the stage appears and disappears during the performance but this was at a different level all together. How would they do that on a natural lake? To our surprise the artists were gliding on the water and all kinds of props appeared from nowhere. It was incredible. The music was enchanting. We walked back from the show on a high.
OUR BOAT RIDE
Our boat ride was magical. With a slight drizzle and mistiness in the air the atmosphere was perfect to explore the lake. With blankets on our laps and sipping hot tea we made our way around the lake, with a lone boatman, pulling on the oars. When we were watching the show part of me felt sad for the flora and fauna in the water being trampled by the false stages and props, but as we travelled across the water we realised how small the area was where the show took place, perhaps one tenth of the lake and I thoroughly investigated the area in question and found plenty of wildlife and plants growing in and around the lake. We saw cranes and giant lilly pads. Time after time we came across yet another bridge and plenty of weeping willows brushing against the surface of the water. There were pagodas dotted around as well and passing one we heard lovely music and the laughter of some elderly people who had gathered to socialise.
ROOM WITH A VIEW
Finally I must end with this picture. This was the view from our room. There was a veranda with comfortable chairs and I spent plenty of time there listening to the silence. Apart from the sound of the water and the birds there was nothing. It gave me time to reflect upon life and the beauty of Hangzhou. I was pleasantly surprised by this city in China. Nothing was out of place. It is heaven for anyone seeking solitude or time out to reflect and reconnect with their inner soul. A perfect getaway from the life in a hectic city.