Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Hangzhou -- A Visit to the "City of Heaven"
Beijing and Shanghai are must-see stops for visitors to China, but another city should be added to the mandatory itinerary. In contrast to those capitals of modern urbanity, Hangzhou (say Han-Zo), the country's garden city situated just southwest of Shanghi, offers breathtaking vistas and a medley of cultural options.
Seven centuries ago, medieval Italian visitor Marco Polo declared it the "City of Heaven the most beautiful and magnificent in the world." With much of its locale preserved by foresighted contemporary officials who opted to outlaw heavy industry and focus on tech and tourism, Hangzhou remains a city of unsurpassed beauty.
Hangzhou's heart is West Lake, a poetically beautiful body of water located right in the center of town. Crossed with picturesque paths, bridges, and causeways, it offers dazzling perspectives at every angle. Boats lazily float across to picturesque islands for picnics. "Impressions of West Lake," a sound and light show created by the director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony is presented nightly on a submerged stage so that the actors appear to be walking on water. On another side of the lake, crowds gather on shore every night edge to see a show of dancing fountains.
Water is also an urban focus at the Grand Canal. Hangzhou is terminus of the world's longest artificial river which since the 5th century has been an artery linking Beijing and the sea. To this day freight-bearing barges and ferries transverse the canal passing historic buildings and warehouses lining its banks. Near its highly arched stone Gonchen Bridge, the informative Grand Canal Museum describes the important role the waterway has played in unifying China. Across that bridge, strollers find waterside cafes. museums devoted to fans, umbrellas, knives, and a handicraft workshop where skilled craftspeople demonstrate traditional crafts from bamboo weaving to shaping purple sand teapots.
To the west of the city, XiXi Wetland Park acknowledges another vital role water has played in the city's past. Incorporating the charming wooden structures of converted fishing villages, the park is essentially an four-mile square "pool" of water crisscrossed by meandering footpaths, causeways, and islands. Local fishermen demonstrate how fish are caught by tossing out nets or by retrieving fish from the mouths of cormorant birds trained to dart into the water for prey and to bring them back. Visitors can glide through astoundingly beautiful vistas on quiet rented boats for picnics or stop at restaurants ranging from the funky Shenma Commune Mash teahouse to the elegant open air restaurant at Misty Water Fish Village.
Tea and silk are important products of the region. The pale yellow Dragon Well variety grown in outlying Longjing is said to be the finest green tea in China. Displays in the excellent Tea Museum illustrate the six types of tea, it's role in history, and the proper ways to brew it. Nearby the Silk Museum is devoted to what was once a principle product of the city. The Zhejiang Provincial Museum chronicles the important role of ceramics and porcelain. One of the country's most important religious sites, the Lingyin Temple attracts visitors to its grand halls and peripheral limestone carvings of gods and deities. An extensive Zoological Garden and the woodsy Hangzhou Zoo -- featuring two popular accessible pandas -- are among other attractions.
For shoppers, the town is scattered with upscale malls offering goods from Gucci, Armani, Hermes or Chanel. Perhaps a little "touristy” the Qinghefang Historic and Cultural district is a 2-3 block stretch of classic buildings which have been restored and converted to shops selling "silk" scarves, "jade" statues, and other take-home items, but it does give an impression of the bygone city. Another option is a pleasant stroll down Middle Zhongshan Road lined with shops selling tea, silk, scarves, garments, snacks.
And then there's the matter of food -- so delicious that I never once had to call for soy sauce. For breakfast, locals stop in the casual Ji Wei Guan for dim sum, congee or noodles.
A fish feast at the Misty Water Fish Village starts, of course, with fish soup but proceeds to beautiful delicacies such as a little bamboo basket of fried sardines. At the Sunny Hotel, chef Jack Son has created a multicourse Tea Banquet with all dishes based on varieties of the beverage.
The former communist guest house, the Shangri-la Hotel is set within a 40-acre garden set back from West Lake. In contrast, the ultra modern Hyatt with its bulging facade and efficient concierge is located right beside the shore.
Currently a "Modern Marco Polo" has been appointed to highlight the city's attractions. People who plan now can get a jump on the overseas travelers his film and stories are bound to bring to the city of "Living Poetry."
While there are direct connecting flights from Beijing to Hangzhou, the hour drive from the airport into town is almost equal to the travel time from Shanghai. Chinese visas are required.
In town, taxis are very inexpensive -- few trips cost over $5, but be sure to bring along the name of your destination written out in Chinese script. The favorable exchange rate carries over to food and accommodations with luxury hotels available from $100-$300.
© July 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.