A Weekend in Hangzhou

Zhejiang Province, China 

Feb 28th - Mar 1st, 2015

Saturday, Feb 28th
Hangzhou is the capital of the Zhejiang Province. It is located near the coast about 150km southwest of Shanghai at the mouth of the Qiantang River. I flew direct from Hong Kong, which is about a two hour flight. Alternatively I could have flown to Shanghai and get to Hangzhou via high speed train, which takes less than an hour.

Hangzhou marks the southern end of the Grand Canal and it has been one of the most important cities in China over the last thousand years. It is one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China (actually in recent years archeologist have added an eighth capital). Hangzhou became the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty in 1132, which was during a period when China was split into two main empires. The Northern part was held by the Jurchen Jin dynasty, which defeated the Northern Song empire and captured the capital Kaifeng in 1127. Hangzhou remained the capital of the Southern Song until the Mongol invasion in 1276. It was during this period that the city grew into a major cultural and commercial center. It rose to become one of the greatest cities in the world at that time. In fact it is estimated that Hangzhou was the largest city in the world from the end of the 12th until the beginning of the 14th century, with a population of more than a million. Marco Polo claimed to have visited Hangzhou in the late 13th century (although that is somewhat disputed). He describes the city as "greater than any in the world".

Today, although no longer a first tier city in China, Hangzhou remains a major urban centre. The city itself has about 9 million inhabitants, while the Hangzhou metropolitan area has over 21 million. The city is a very popular tourist destination, largely because of its great natural beauty, with the famous West Lake being its best known attraction. The lake covers about 6.5 square kilometers, contains several islands and is surrounded by green hills. It is separated into several sections by two large causeways crossing it. These causeways were built between the eighth and eleventh century using mud dredged from the lake. The Su causeway is particularly impressive. It is 2.8 km long, includes six beautiful bridges and was constructed in 1089 by an estimated 200,000 workers.

After arriving in Hangzhou on a Saturday morning flight from Hong Kong and checking into the Sofitel hotel, which is right by the West Lake, I started my afternoon sightseeing by walking along the western shore of the lake towards its northern end. The lake is full of tourist boats of all sizes ranging from small paddle boats to larger tourist ferries, that look more like floating houses than boats. And there is even one rather ridiculous looking boat shaped like a very large dragon.

It is incredibly busy along the shore of the lake, with large crowds of people walking along the promenades. There are tea houses and food stands everywhere and there is lots public singing and dancing going on as well. I took a short video of some of the slightly strange public performances:

While I am not usually one to take photos of food (and I certainly do not want to endorse the practice of boring your friends with food picture postings on social media), I do however make an exception for really weird, disgusting looking and unusual foods. I think deep fried crabs on a stick fall into that category:

I continue my walk across the shorter of the two causeways, the Bai causeway, to Gu Shan island. The original causeway here was constructed at the end of the 8th century during the Tang dynasty.

The air is quite polluted here today. Not as bad as I have experienced it in Beijing or Xian before, but not really conducive to the taking of nice pictures. The whole city is covered in a blanket of grey haze, but it is good to see that this is sparking some local protests:

On the other side of Gu Shan island I reach the beautiful Quyuan Gardens. The whole area is full of small islands criss-crossed by walkways and numerous scenic bridges. It feels a bit like walking through a traditional Chinese painting here. That is if it wasn't for the crowds of people and the pollution haze. Many of the ponds are covered in Lotus flower plants. I really need to come back here some time when the Lotus flowers are in bloom. While beautiful now, I can see that this could be really spectacular at the right time of the year and on a lucky low pollution day.

The postcard view of the bridge to the Quyuan Gardens:

I also visited the tomb of Yue Fei, who was a famous general in the Southern Song empire. He successfully fought the Jurchen Jin in the North. However, his own overlords worried that his successes on the battlefield would make him too powerful, and they falsely accused and executed him. He subsequently became a martyr and patriotic hero. The shrine around the tomb was built in the late 19th century. It consists of several small buildings which contain exhibits that detail the stages of Yue Fei’s life and celebrate his military successes.

In front of the tomb itself are several sculptures, which are meant to represent his traitors and tormentors. It used to be customary to express your disdain by spitting on them, but apparently that is no longer encouraged, so I refrained from it.

I get a taxi back to the hotel, and find out that taxis in Hangzhou are apparently for sharing. On my short trip from the other side of the lake to the hotel, the taxi driver picked up and dropped off several other people while I was in the taxi, each pick up was preceded by lots of  yelling and price negotiation.

Sunday, March 1st
My hopes that it would clear up a bit today so I could get some pictures in clearer air and sunshine, were cruelly dashed when I looked out of the window in the morning. It was foggy and raining quite hard, and would remain so all day. I decided to venture outside anyway. I got on one of the funny looking house boats, which took me across the lake to Xiaoying Island and the so-called “Three Pools Reflecting the Moon”. The island is entirely man made (built in the early 17th century). It encircles four scenic pools and has several small pavilions in the middle.

Just off the island there are three small stone pagodas that rise from the water. At full moon candles are put inside them and they are covered in paper such that their reflections resemble the moon. 

After walking around the island, still in pouring rain, I switch to a different boat to take me to Huagang Gardens. (My 70 RMB ticket allows me to get on and off any boat all day long.) I walk around the beautifully manicured gardens, which were designed and built during the Song dynasty, and were mainly intended for viewing fish (which is apparently something they liked to do in the 11th century). From here I walk along the Su causeway to the southern end of the lake.

My next stop is the Leifeng Pagoda, which is a large and impressive structure on a hill, that can be seen from the other side of the lake even through the haze. The Leifeng Pagoda was originally built in 977. During the Ming dynasty it was badly damaged and burnt by Japanese pirates, who were roaming these shores around that time. Only the brick core remained until 1924, when the whole thing collapsed. The current pagoda is a very modern rebuilding from the year 2000 (with escalators and elevators and all). It was built over the old brick foundations which can still be seen in the lower two floors under the pagoda. I walked around it, but didn't bother taking the elevator up to the top, because the weather was so bad that you could barely see more than a few hundred meters. I hear on a clear day the view over the lake is quite spectacular from up there though.

      This is what the pagoda looked like in the 1920s shortly before it collapsed. And this is what’s left over of the original foundations, which are now underneath the modern construction.

I walked back towards the hotel along the western shore of the lake through well manicured parks. After a short rest in the hotel, I put on some dry clothes and ventured outside again. It started raining even harder in the afternoon, and I decided to skip my planned visits of two other major sights, the Lingyin Si Temple and the Six Harmonies Pagoda. I guess I just have to come back to Hangzhou soon preferably on a sunnier day. Even my plan to visit the West Lake Museum got foiled by the fact that they closed at 4:30pm, which was somewhat in contrast to the 6:30pm closing time printed in my guide book. Instead I visited the King Qian's Memorial, which is where 5 kings of the Wuyue Kingdom (907 – 978) are buried. The memorial buildings appear to be fairly modern reconstructions, but they have some interesting exhibits inside.

This mural is called “Shooting Tides and Building Dams” – I wonder which of the two approaches proved more successful.

I had a great couple of days around the stunning West Lake, even though the rather miserable weather prevented me from seeing some of the other main sights in Hangzhou. But I hope to come back to Hangzhou some time soon, so I can continue and amend this blog entry with descriptions of those other sites and with pictures of the West Lake in glorious sunshine and blue skies in the background. 

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