Human beings walk on water in parables; you don’t see it too often in everyday life. Yet there they were, elaborately costumed men and women, illuminated by spotlights in the warm, humid night air, gliding across the mirror-still lake while celestial music by the Japanese composer Kitaro played on hidden speakers. Back on solid ground, enthralled spectators in bleacher seats recorded the scene with softly glowing smartphones. It was a sight to behold: delicate, beautiful, spectral.
This scene is set at West Lake, the liquid heart of Hangzhou, China, long regarded as the garden city of the Middle Kingdom. The spectacle — performed nightly year-round by actors on barely submerged barges and platforms — is called “Impression West Lake.’’ A dramatic re-enactment of a legendary Chinese tale of love and loss, the popular hour-long show was created by Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous movie director. These days, Zhang is better known as the director of the stunning opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
The show says a lot about Hangzhou (pronounced hung-joe), an ancient city that stitches old and new together in entertaining fashion. A city of 6.8 million people in eastern China, Hangzhou is about 110 miles from Shanghai. In recent years, Hangzhou — celebrated by Chinese poets and painters for centuries — has acquired a dreary ring of modern suburbs stocked with faux-French chateaus, neo-Tuscan villas and quasi-Manhattan apartment towers. But in the time-out-of-mind city center, arrayed around West Lake (Xi Hu in Chinese), Hangzhou still looks and feels like a precious garden.
From my lake-view room in the Shangri-La Hotel, the daytime vistas, too, are lovely — save on days when haze shrouds the city. Couples stroll hand in hand beneath weeping willows as pleasure craft cross tranquil lake waters. Just past West Lake, a green patchwork of tea plantations blankets rolling hills. Farther off, misty mountains frame a scene out of a classic Chinese landscape painting.
The Shangri-La, opened in 1956 and often expanded and renovated, was a favorite of the late, much-loved Premier Zhou Enlai. It is still popular with government officials. On the first of my two visits to Hangzhou, I was booked into the modern wing but was put up instead in the heritage wing; Chinese and French officials had commandeered the modern wing for hush-hush meetings to resolve a diplomatic dust-up. Instead of sipping jasmine tea at my leisure, I made way for large, serious men with earpieces who stood on guard in the lobby. No matter; that’s when I got my first lakeside view from a guestroom overlooking the hotel’s 40-acre gardens with their handsome, 300-year-old camphor trees.
Hangzhou is thick in spring and summer with Chinese tourists who are drawn to its historic sites and its lush, subtropical climate. Foreign tourists are mostly Japanese. Few Western visitors are in evidence, making for a delicious sense of discovery.
West Lake is crossed by causeways and pedestrian bridges, the oldest built 800 years ago when Hangzhou was the imperial capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279); the longest causeway stretches more than a mile into the lake. Among locals, West Lake is favored by recreational boaters, school groups on outings, lovers intent on finding some quiet time, older people setting off on walkabouts or doing tai chi in the morning, and connoisseurs of gardens and parks. Virtually all the land that rings the lake is a public park. Traditional Chinese landscaping — pruned trees and shrubs, quiet pools of water, stone statuary, pagodas with curved rooftops — predominates. The park encompasses the picturesque Peony Pavilion as well as the restored house of Ma Yi Fu, a revered scholar. Ma, who perished in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, lived at the water’s edge. His home, now a small museum, is festooned with his belongings — books, clothes, furniture — with explanatory texts in Chinese and English. Also located lakeside is the restored villa (Villa No. 1, naturally) where Mao Zedong took his ease during his 43 recorded visits to Hangzhou.
The refreshing breezes of West Lake are best enjoyed out on the water. Boats are everywhere, ranging from two-person rowboats for hire to fancifully decorated (think dragons) ferries that putter past islets and circumnavigate the lake with its poetically named scenic spots: Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, Breeze-ruffled Lotus at Quyuan Garden. A slow turn around the lake takes about an hour. There’s no rush and no glitz.
Indeed, 2,200-year-old Hangzhou has very little dazzle compared to the imperial splendor of Beijing, the stylish shock-of-the-new of Shanghai or the glittery, shop-‘til-you-drop energy of Hong Kong. Its charms are slower, more traditional, more considered.
International chains bring a taste of coffee capitalism to a culture steeped in tea, but traditional Chinese green tea is still most local people’s drink of choice. For years, Hangzhou has been famous for producing the finest green tea in China. Its specialty, Dragon Well green tea (Longjing in Chinese), is grown on small, family-run plots just west of the city around the villages of Mei Jia Wu and Longjing; the latter village hosts the China National Tea Museum. It is low-key and informative, surrounded by pretty terraced plantations. Visitors can see tea ceremonies there and, of course, drink tea.
Additionally, Hangzhou is renowned throughout China as a center of silk production. Local shops often have silk purses, scarves and neckties on offer. The aptly named Hangzhou Silk City boasts 600 shops specializing in silk fabrics, clothing and more. The China National Silk Museum, which opened in 1992, showcases the country’s silk industry, with galleries devoted to the history of silk-making, the ancient Silk Road trade network and even living silkworms munching on mulberry leaves.
One of the pleasures of hanging out in Hangzhou is eating. Light nibbles are available in villas-turned-teahouses that hem West Lake. Some teahouses use tea leaves in cooking and feature local specialties: beggar’s chicken baked in clay; West Lake fish coated in vinegar; and fried shrimp cooked with tea leaves, which are believed to absorb cooking oil and make meals easy to digest.
Hangzhou is also rich in snack streets, where local merchants hawk food from outdoor stalls shaded by umbrellas. One of the best known is He Fang Jie, located near Wu Shan Square, where Hangzhou specialties and other morsels are sold for little more than a dollar. The street also includes teahouses, antique shops and traditional Chinese medicines. (Note: Street sanitation in China is not the best, so while locals are usually fine snacking on the street, Western travelers bear a higher risk of food-borne illness. Fine dining is found in high-end hotels and full-service restaurants.)
It’s not necessary to eat street food to get a taste of lively local culture. If it’s apparel you seek, Wulin Road is the place. For a walk back in time, take a stroll along the preserved Qing He Fang Old Street.
Info to Go
Hangzhou is easily reached from major Chinese cities and from Japan. The most enjoyable journey is by the non-stop bullet train which zips between Shanghai’s South Station and Hangzhou Station in 78 minutes (about $10 each way). Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport (HGH ) is 17 miles from the city center; taxis cost about $12 one way. A second runway and new domestic terminal are scheduled to be completed this year; a new international terminal is due in 2015.
Dragon Well tea is harvested several times a year, but the finest tea comes along in the spring. Handpicked and handroasted, unfermented Dragon Well spring tea is made from long, delicate green leaves and has a fresh, slightly grassy quality.
Artisan tea processing is on display in the lobbies of leading hotels, where tea-makers demonstrate their craft. I liked the displays, but I also wanted to see tea in context, so I decided to head for the countryside just outside town. By happenstance, the English-speaking driver who was showing me around came from a family that grows and sells tea. She offered to take me to her family’s farm. (Hotel concierges and tour guides can also book plantation visits.) I was surprised by the size of farmers’ homes — three-story, three-generation dwellings that appeared to be built in the past decade or so — no humble dwellings, these. About 10 families shared the hilly, terraced, kelly-green farm. I saw tea farmers in traditional conical hats working their plots, bending to tend the short (2 to 3 feet high), pruned tea trees among bobbing, clucking, ground-pecking chickens.
“What are the chickens there for?” I asked the family matriarch. As her daughter translated, she explained, “The chickens eat worms and insects that would harm the tea trees.” American “locavores” and lovers of free-range chickens, take note.
As I looked on, another family member hand-dried the farm’s handpicked tea harvest by gingerly moving the leaves in a circular motion with a gloved hand around a heated metal container resembling an oversized wok. Drinking fresh tea down on the farm, right on the spot where it was grown, is an unrivaled experience, and happily, that was next on the agenda.
My driver used a bamboo scoop to lift dried green leaves from a flat basket where they sat in an aromatic heap. Then she sprinkled leaves into a teapot with steaming hot water heated on a small stove fueled by burning tea twigs and leaves. After a few minutes, she filled our small porcelain cups one-third of the way up, then tossed out the liquid; this was, I was told, to “decant” the teapot. A second pour filled the cup but was also tossed out; this was to warm the cup. Finally, with the third, full cup, it was time to drink. The tea was delicious, its freshness nicely balanced by earthiness. Of course, I bought some tea leaves then and there. Back home, it provided a flavorful memory of my time in Hangzhou.
Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake
The gorgeous, lakeside 5-star opened in late 2010 with 78 plush guestrooms and suites. 5 Lingyin Road, tel 86 571 8829 8888, $$$$
JW Marriott Hangzhou
This high-rise tower and business hotel, opened in late 2010 in the downtown business district, has an indoor pool and 24-hour fitness center. 28 Hushu South Road, Gongshu District, tel 86 571 8578 8888, $$$
Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou
This lushly landscaped West Lake retreat features an indoor pool, fitness center and recently updated and expanded executive Horizon Club lounge. 78 Beishan Road, tel 86 571 8797 7951, $$$
Lou Wai Lou Restaurant
This busy, 163-year-old favorite serving Hangzhou and West Lake fish and chicken dishes is located at Solitary Hill, West Lake. 30 Gu Shan Lu, tel 86 571 8799 7416 $$
Traditional and toothsome Cantonese cuisine is rounded out by Hangzhou specialties that go down easily with rice wine. Shangri-La Hotel, 78 Beishan Road, tel 86 571 8797 7951 ext 21, $$$
Zhi Wei Guan
This bustling, modern, four-story behemoth has culinary bargains on the ground floor; quality and prices climb as you do. 83 Ren He Lu, tel 86 571 8797 0568, $$
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