“Above there is heaven; below there is Hangzhou.”
My students and fellow teachers in Tianjin were very familiar with this characterisation of the capital of China’s Zhejiang province. Even those who had never been waxed lyrical about the loveliness of the West Lake; given some of my students mistakenly thought London was still a dark Dickensian-era city of smog, I didn’t take them too seriously.
Another reason was that many of China’s tourist attractions are not always as advertised. Tongli was a prime example. This small town near Suzhou became shorthand for ‘terrible’ among my friends.
Lonely Planet told us Tongli was “rich in historic canal-side atmosphere and weather-beaten charm” but we certainly struggled to see it. Barred by the 80 RMB barrier to the Old Town (we were teachers on a tight budget) we were left to linger around the slush-covered main road for our bus back to Suzhou, getting only strained glimpses of any grandeur Tongli had to offer.
Hangzhou was different.
Marco Polo wasn’t messing around when he likened Hangzhou to a heaven on earth. The West Lake is like a classic Chinese painting come to life: temple eaves peek between the trees that line the lake’s edge, while wooden boats (or sampans) sail lazily through waters that seem to stretch as far the misty mountains in the distance.
For centuries Hangzhou has been the inspiration for poets and painters, and with the arrival in recent years of the high-speed train from Shanghai, it is now more accessible than ever to the outside tourist. Travelling at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour, you can be lounging by Xi Hu in a mere forty minutes. The city even entered the New York Times travel list of the “41 Places to Go in 2011.”
“It was the perfect place to recharge.”
We visited Hangzhou during Spring Festival, as we made our way down China’s east coast in our six-week school holiday. It was the perfect place to recharge our batteries after city-sightseeing in Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai.
Our first day saw us on a wild goose chase around half of West Lake, searching for the public bikes that we had heard were for hire. Unsuccessful but not upset, we lazed at the side of the lake instead, reading and watching the sampans as the sun set over the hills.
We did eventually locate the bikes, and our ensuing circle of the lake – past snow-topped pagodas, classical arched bridges and curious Chinese tourists – was a Hangzhou highlight. Another highlight happened in the candy aisle at the local supermarket, where I met a monk in orange robes deliberating over his chocolate choice, much like myself. Some things stay the same no matter where in the world you are!
We stayed by the lake for two days, before we left the snow and set off for sunny Xiamen. If we hadn’t been hurrying to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, Hangzhou would have probably held onto us for longer – I’ve certainly held on to its heavenly memory.