Last spring my husband Matt asked me to get more involved with his work as a manufacturers representative. As part of my new duties we traveled to China and Taiwan for two weeks last fall to meet with customers and the factory. I had been to China three years prior. For fun. This trip would be work.
I asked if we could squeeze in a visit to Hangzhou for a weekend. I had read an article about it that evoked a vision of an idyllic calm escape. Pronounced Hahng-joh, it is famous for its beautiful West Lake. Attracting poets and painters since the tenth century, its popularity remains unabated for Chinese visitors. With high speed rail it is less than an hour from Shanghai. Hangzhou sounded quiet, lovely, and romantic. It had a Four Seasons, and it was our anniversary. I hoped it would be the perfect antithesis to the cacophony that is urban China.
Marco Polo deemed Hangzhou the most beautiful city in the world. He was from Venice so that’s saying a lot. Arriving in heavy rain, the drive to West Lake was anything but. The ubiquitous construction projects present in the rest of China were here as well, work on a subway system to ease congestion. As we sat in traffic, my hopes dimmed.
Eventually nearing our hotel and getting my first glimpse of the water, I started to believe Marco Polo. The Four Seasons is brilliantly located on West Lake, negating traffic hassles on the two lane road that surrounds it. Thanks to a sweet package deal we were able to get their least-expensive room, which was gorgeous and overlooked a tree-filled courtyard. We heard birdsong from our patio in lieu of car horns and jackhammers. With 10 acres of gardens, streams, and pavilions, our planned walk around the lake became a stroll around the grounds under umbrellas.
Colder, windier, and rainier the next day, we headed into the city to find the very well hidden Hu Qing Yu Tang Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum. Near the popular pedestrian-only shopping area and night Market of Hefang St. we were drenched upon our eventual arrival. A believer in Chinese Herbal medicine, I was fascinated by the exhibits and happily surprised that they included English translations. Exiting through the working pharmacy we left without looking too closely at some of the remedies available.
Hangzhou is renowned for its longjing tea from the Dragon Well village. Our concierge arranged a driver to take us to see the tea farms and have a tea tasting. Matt knows some Mandarin which helped, but it would not be necessary to understand the experience. Longjing tea is always picked by hand and dried in large mats from which we sampled three grades of freshly brewed tea. A calculator is always nearby to negotiate a good price. We left happily with three tins of loose tea leaves.
The rain subsided and we finally walked the lake. Having over nine miles of paths and bridges, it’s not possible to walk around all of it in one day. It’s not just a lake either. Along its shores we found gardens, art, pagodas, pavilions, and temples bearing names like Lotus Swaying in the Breeze at Quyuan, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, and Orioles Singing in the Ripples of Willows. The poets’ influence evident. We never knew what we would find around the next bend, but it was certain to be beautiful. It’s easy to see why artists have long been drawn to this place and we saw several there sketching and painting. The vistas were so picturesque it was almost unbelievable.
Crossing a famous bridge, I was asked to pose with a young Chinese woman for some photos. As a blonde American I was an oddity in Hangzhou. It happened often enough that when a day passed I was not asked for a picture I felt somewhat jilted. We played a game and counted the other Westerners we saw each day. I don’t think it got above 4.
We took a ride in a sampan, a traditional wooden boat steered by one pole, similar to a gondola. We wondered if it was coincidental that Marco Polo is from Venice, with its gondolas, and visited Hangzhou, with its sampans. Which came first, we wondered? The pace was slow and rhythmically meditative. All we could hear was the occasional paddling, and birds singing in the trees. It was peaceful and serene.
Our concierge strongly recommended the Impressions of West Lake show. “Oh it’s really something you must see” we were told. Not knowing anything about it, we were curious and wanted to take advantage of local knowledge. They sent us on a short walk with blankets as the evening was cold and rainy. Produced by Zhang Yimou, who also did the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, the show was a highlight of our trip! The talented cast of over 250 seem to dance and jump on the water thanks to a platform just 3 cm beneath the surface. With lights, music, acrobatics, and dancing, it was a spectacle everyone enjoyed despite the rain.
Hangzhou’s treasures don’t stop at the Lake or the tea. The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat (Lingyin) was founded in 328 AD. It is a massive area containing one of the largest and oldest Buddhist Temples in China, and the Stone Carvings at Peak Flying From Afar. The 700 foot tall limestone peak looks distinctive from the sandstone ones near it, so legend says it flew here from India. Over 300 statues dating from the 10th to the 14th century are carved on the face of the mountain and in nearby caves. We spent hours exploring the rocky paths, pavilions, bridges, statues, and of course the many Temple buildings. The bustle of the working Temple was not quiet but the singing, chanting, and worship was harmonious.
The morning of our departure we strolled the nearby Botanical Gardens, which was very busy, but gorgeous nonetheless. We stopped to admire and take pictures of a particular water feature and I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me” a woman said. I turned around, smiled and motioned for her to come stand next to me for a picture. “No” she shook her head and motioned with her hand for me to get out of the way. She did not want a picture with me. She wanted a picture of the water feature. It was time for us to return to the reality of business travel in China.