Several ancient Chinese texts refer to Hangzhou as paradise on earth.
West Lake – the original one – and there are several around the world, is the soul of Hangzhou and truly beautiful. We could understand why so many poets and artists had drawn inspiration from it for centuries!
But the city seemed a bit contrived and the hordes of tourists (we were adding to the numbers 🙂 ) detracted from the ambience somewhat! To add to our disappointment, tickets to the Impressions West Lake show that we had set our hearts on watching that evening were all block sold to some company! Took us a while to get over that!
A tout outside the ticket office offered to get us seats for a hefty fee and I got this close to accepting! But R’s sketch of the two of us languishing in a Chinese prison convinced me to back off 🙂 ) We decided to shake off our disappointment and enjoy the rest of our day!
We took a leisurely stroll to Gushan Dao (Solitary Island) and the Seal Engravers Society. Loved the building and the perfectly landscaped grounds.
We saw a splendid display of ancient seals that we would have appreciated even more if had we been able to read the inscriptions.
Next we took a ferry across to the even more crowded island – “Three Pools Mirroring The Moon” (!) – and then, another ferry to the Huagang Gong garden, from where we walked to the Lei Feng Pagoda. The Pagoda that collapsed completely in 1924 has been rather over zealously restored with escalators up to the main entrance and elevators to the top!! An underground palace was reportedly discovered beneath the foundation with several relics including a gold covered hair of the Buddha! These relics are displayed in the basement
The elevators were closed that evening. Too tired to walk up to the top or back, we hopped on to one of the electric sightseeing carts near the gate, which did a full circuit of the lake and dropped us off near the old town with directions to Zhi Wei Guan for dinner. Their famous ‘shrimp with longjing tea’ was bland and tasteless and another huge disappointment! We wished we were back in Chongqing eating those amazing Dan Dan Noodles and fiery Hotpot!
We had a much better time the next day! We requested our concierge to write down everything on our list in Chinese and also got them to recommend a tea house.
The Ling Yin Temple or the “Temple of the Souls Retreat” originally built by a Buddhist monk from India called Hui Li, was crowded and a bit underwhelming after all the temples we had seen so far. But some of the pictures I shot here were my favourites of the entire trip.
The rock carvings and grottoes in Feilai Feng, in front of the temple are impressive though not on the same scale as in Dazu.
Feilai Feng or “the Peak that Flew Hither”, is according to legend a peak that flew to Hangzhou from India when Hui Li expressed nostalgia for his home town.
The National Tea Museum, on our way back to town was really interesting (especially for R who is an ex tea planter)
Displays consisted of antique tea processing machinery, tea pots and an amazing variety of teas. Had never seen tea leaves pressed into so many different shapes before.
The Hu Qingyu Tang Museum of Chinese medicine back in the old town was equally interesting.
Hidden behind an unprepossessing sign (in Chinese, so our concierge’s notes came in handy) this is a gem of a museum.
Set in a beautiful Qing dynasty building this is one of two important traditional medicine centers in China with a dispensing pharmacy up front. For some – exhaustive – info on TCM check out these posts by a blogger friend – Shards of China!
Lunch was in a very authentic tea house tucked behind a modern shopfront (cannot remember the name unfortunately) The place was full of locals – we did not see any tourists other than us – playing cards and generally chilling out and not one of the waiters knew a word of English!
You order a pot of tea from a menu ranging from about 10Yuan to a few hundred Yuan (our two pots of tea totalled 30 yuan!) and you can then partake of an ‘all you can eat’ buffet that is constantly replenished. We still haven’t figured out the economics of this system, but the buffet was an extensive spread of lip-smacking treats from soft shell crabs to shrimp, pork, and every kind of Chinese delicacy you could think of. A truly ‘local’ experience, not to be missed.
The rest of the old town was the sanitized spectacle that is typical of any major tourist destination in China. After a point the fake “old towns” and the luxury boutiques around a pedestrian ‘square’ become a drag. You have seen one you have seen them all.
Is Hangzhou worth a visit? Yes…the lake is beautiful enough, the tea houses were wonderful and a couple of days here could be a relaxing break from an otherwise hectic China schedule.
But paradise, it is not.