China City Guides: Hangzhou
Heavenly Hangzhou: Sample life round the lake in Zhejiang's capital of culture
"Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below", goes the old Chinese saying, and while this may be a slight exaggeration, Hangzhou's beautiful scenery and plentiful attractions will keep visitors occupied for at least a long weekend. The capital of eastern China's bustling Zhejiang Province, and located close to Shanghai on the East China Sea, Hangzhou is centered around the famous West Lake (Xi Hu), which has been immortalized by countless Chinese poets and artists.
Hangzhou is still one of the most important cultural centers of China - it was capital of the Southern Song Dynasty from 1127 until the Mongol invasion of 1276. During this time the city's population is estimated to have been as high as one million, making it the largest city in the world. Even the great Marco Polo claimed to have passed through, describing Hangzhou as "beyond dispute the finest and noblest city in the world".
With the gradual silting up of its harbor much of Hangzhou's former trade and industry passed to nearby Shanghai, but the city still has a bustling population of 1.7 million and ranks as one of China's most popular tourist attractions. There are regular trains and flights from Beijing to Hangzhou - the quickest train (overnight) takes a shade under 13 hours and flights are just over 2 hours. A wide range of hotels and restaurants caters to all tastes and budgets. Hangzhou has a subtropical monsoon-type climate with four distinct seasons, although it's possible to visit all year round.
West Lake is undoubtedly Hangzhou's most famous feature, noted for its scenic beauty that blends naturally with many famous historical and cultural sites. Bordering West Lake are a variety of gardens and cultural sites - Solitary Hill, the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei, the Six Harmonies Pagoda and the Ling Yin Temple are probably the most frequently visited attractions. The "Ten West Lake Prospects" have been specially selected to give the visitor outstanding views of the lake, mountains and monuments.
If the weather is good an early morning bike ride around West Lake is particularly recommended, with mist rising from the water and locals taking their early morning exercise. Bikes can be hired from many hotels and shops around the lake's edge. For those who prefer to walk a circuit of West Lake takes about 5 hours - the lake is not that big and there are two causeways across it if you get tired. It's also possible to hire small boats (RMB 80 per hour with driver) or use a communal ferry to tour the lake and visit two interesting islands in the center.
A number of excellent national museums can be found in Hangzhou, and are representative of Chinese culture - examples are the National Silk Museum and Tea Museum. Along with the other museums in Hangzhou, they provide a fascinating insight into the history of traditional Chinese products.
Hangzhou's cuisine is noted for its intricate preparation and refreshing blend of flavors. The city is one of the best places to sample local specialities in China, with dishes containing a lot of pork and seafood - highlights include dongpo rou, an extremely fatty chunk of pork in a syrupy sauce, and cuyu, which is fish from West Lake in a sweet and sour sauce, and fried shrimp with Longjing tea. There are plenty of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang restaurants dotted throughout the city to keep mealtimes interesting.
Another Hangzhou highlight is a relaxed afternoon at a tea house - visit Manjuelong, Longjin or Meijiawu Villages closer to Hangzhou for the most authentic tea-drinking experience. These villages have had a recent make-over and are great places to while away an afternoon watching tea actually being picked. The tea houses all serve very local food such as pickled vegetables and chicken soup. Often there is no menu and the owner will make recommendations make sure you ask the price before you order!
Hangzhou has plenty to offer in the way of shops - Qing He Fang Street is particularly popular with tourists. It is one of the most historic streets in the city, and the well-preserved antique buildings reflect many of the features of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Good souvenirs are silks, tea, brocade or a Hangzhou fan. Hangzhou is not renowned for its buzzing nightlife, although there are a couple of clubs which sometimes feature international DJs. Check out Nanshan and Shuguang Roads for some lively bars (some with live music). Outside the Huanglong soccer stadium there are also some nice bars and live music venues.
- Check elong.com for cheap flights between Beijing and Hangzhou - Hangzhou airport is about 30 km from the city center and the trip takes 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on traffic (the fare should be around RMB 90 only take a metered taxi).
- Regular trains to Hangzhou from Beijing (soft sleeper around RMB 500) and Shanghai (there is a "bullet train" from Shanghai that takes 90 minutes and costs around RMB 50.
- More Hangzhou info at Morehangzhou.com