Hangzhou China: Heaven on Earth
Most visitors to China are excited to see the fabled Shanghai, and the capital Beijing, but China has one jewel that should not be missed. Hangzhou is a provincial capital and a city known for its natural beauty Ė it is a garden city, with a wide swatch of parkland around West Lake - historic temples, vibrant restored neighborhoods, and Dragon Well green tea.
The rolling countryside surrounding the city is famous for its tea plantations of Longjing - Dragon Well - Chinaís most famous green tea. It was a thriving spiritual center of Buddhism and Taoism in the 13th century, the city still has some of Chinaís oldest surviving temples, which draw pilgrims and tourists every year. Visit a local plantation, wander along the Hefang (Qinghefang) Historic Street, and explore some of the cityís museums.
West LakeHangzhouís stellar attraction is West Lake. It has been the scene for tales of love won and lost, for myths and folk stories. It has been painted and photographed by countless artists. Make sure you have your camera with you, youíll want to capture the shifting light, the elegant and delicate structures, and the water reflections. Mantled in mists the buildings are softened and the colors subdued. Islands dot the water. Stroll along the water on paths. Itís a mild subtropic climate and plants thrive in the often misty weather.
The best way to see the lake is either to circle it by bicycle or rent a boat. The boat rides are either battery powered, or human-powered. Gas powered boats are not permitted. Sightseeing tours are also available. Plan to spend the day discovering its natural beauty.
Evening on West Lake Gorgeous during the day, at night the lake become magical as transforms into a stage for the beautiful theatrical production Impression West Lake, A Scene in Heaven, and a Dream on Earth. The sometimes stirring, sometimes sad but always lyrical music is by Kitaro. The huge cast seems to float on the water as they sway, dance, and captivate the audience.
Lingyin TempleAlthough the government provides for religious freedom, itís not encouraged. But China is a land of contrasts and Hangzhou has an ancient legacy of Buddhist temples and a still vibrant Chan (Zen) Buddhist culture. One of the most spectacular (and largest) is the Lingyin Monastery
Also known as the Monastery of the Soulís Retreat, at it zenith the temple complex contained 9 buildings, 18 pavilions, 72 halls, and housing for 3,000 monks. It was spared destruction during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and today is one of the highlights of a visit to Hangzhou.
But thereís more to see on the grounds. The steep slopes of Peak Flying from Afar shelters caves and stone carvings said to number over 300. Some are easily reached from the grounds of the temple, others require more climbing. Allow at least half a day to walk the paths for carvings and a visit the temple for a powerful moving experience. Some of the signs are in English so you will at least be pointed in the right direction.
Hefang (or Qinghefang) StreetThis is one of the restored historic areas of the city. Complete with a city gate, shopping from tiny shops, individual vendors and contemporary stores, museums, and street artisans. Maps in English are available at the gate. The pedestrian-friendly area is a fascinating exploration of traditional and modern China. Red lanterns create a canopy, a tiny canal flows through the area. At one end of the district is an art installation with large bas relief panels incorporating objects to capture the historical feeling and life of the area.
Shops sell everything from inexpensive colorful prints, to Chinese herbal medicine. Thereís plenty of traditional Chinese foods, but if you need a western food fix, you can find several chains. This is also a neighborhood with families living in small houses off the shopping streets, making this a true neighborhood and not simply a tourist attraction.
Tea TerritoryHangzhou is also one of the hearts of tea territory and visitors can learn more about its famous beverage at the National Tea Museum, experience tea house culture, and explore a tea plantation. Meijiawu Tea Village is nestled in the hinterland of West Lake District, and it is locally famous as one of the most important tea production bases.
If You GoHangzhou is easily reached via train from Shanghai. The best time to visit in autumn. Summers can be hot and sticky, winters see damp cold weather (with a chance of snow), and spring combines the beauty of the blooming flowers with the drizzle and rain that helps them thrive.
Visited by Marco Polo, who was also awed by its beauty, the Chinese saying stayed with him and even entered into his famous diary - In heaven there is paradise, on earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou
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All photos (c) Neala Schwartzberg