Hangzhou’s proximity to Shanghai makes it an excellent choice for a weekend trip. High speed trains connect Shanghai to Hangzhou and the total journey is under an hour. We had made online reservations (trip.com) before arriving in China. The great internet wall can be quite challenging without a VPN and it’s wiser to make your reservations prior to your trip date. I collected the printed train tickets at Hongqiao Station on the day before our train journey. The staff at the ticket counter will require passports for verification of passenger names.
Hongqiao Station can be pretty confusing and it’s better to arrive well before your departure time. Passports are checked at the security area along with the printed train ticket. The waiting lounge is quite comfortable and relatively easy to navigate.
Honestly, we hadn’t done our research before visiting Hangzhou. It was an unexpected trip (last December) and we thought of trying slow-travel for a change. But, there’s so much to explore and absorb in this stunning city, and it will be hard: to not want to do it all. The local subway is very convenient to travel around the city. Rental bikes are available at designated spots, especially at Hanzhou’s top tourist destination: the West Lake. Boat rides are available at the West Lake and we also spotted a mini tram/van that stopped at the key spots along the lake. If you opt for a taxi, always have a printed name of your destination in Chinese.
Day 1 : Getting Orientated
Our hotel, Wyndham Grand Plaza Royale Hangzhou (not in picture), was tucked in the north-east corner of the West Lake. We didn’t have a view of the lake, instead, our window offered a bird’s-eye view of this impressive sports training facility — that dwarfed the city’s tallest buildings.
Hangzhou is a heady mix of the old and the new. Back in the day, Marco Polo thought it was the most beautiful city that he’d seen on any of his travels. More recently, Hangzhou was brought into global spotlight when it hosted the 2016 G20 Summit.
Alleyways and Night Markets
Walking along Hangzhou’s quaint alleys can be a rewarding experience. It’s a great way to beat the whir of the traffic on the main street and discover hidden gems in quiet nooks. Longjing Tea (green tea) shops dot the streets and it’s one souvenir you must buy from Hangzhou. The city is also famous for silk and is known as the Home of Silk.
The West Lake
The West Lake, a dazzling pearlsource:en.gotohz.com
Falling from the sky,
The Flying Dragon and Dancing Phoenix
Forever standing by.
The origin of Hangzhou’s West Lake is soaked in myth and legend. Take one look at this gorgeous lake and you wouldn’t blame the famous Chinese poets, artists, and even mighty emperors who were captivated by its enchanting scenery. Even on a dark, gloomy day — with the bitter cold wave nearly freezing my face; I was quite taken by the natural beauty of the lake. For a moment, I forgot the biting cold, and got transported into a magical painting. Not surprisingly, the West Lake has found a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2011.
Pleasure Boat Ride to Xiaoyingzhou Isle
It isn’t difficult to spot the boats that take you to Xiaoyingzhou Isle — on the far corner of the West Lake. We picked up an English map of the West Lake at the counter along with our tickets. In these parts, it’s hard to find English guides, and we had made our peace with it. It would have been nice to know what the guide was pointing to or the topic of his jokes. Thankfully, the views more than made up for the communication gap.
We also spotted boats next to Long Bridge. However, due to the weather the boats were stalled and boating was suspended.
The scenery outside the window changed from a grey cityscape to red pagodas. Old houses were tucked between pockets of weeping willow trees and thick vegetation.
The curved rooftops were more visible as our boat docked at Xiaoyingzhou Isle. Visitors can stay for as long as they want on this isle and take the next boat (remember your tour company) back to the banks of the West Lake.
This isle is a hidden architectural gem. There are multiple trails to walk along on the isle. The outer garden trail offers stunning views of the lake, cityscape, and distant mountains. The inner bridges connect picturesque pavilions to temples and memorials.
This quaint pavilion dates back to the rule of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty. The triangular shaped pavilion has two sides facing the tranquil waters of the lake and the third — a boardwalk. The pavilion gets its name, Kaiwang or Net-Opening Pavilion, from Buddhist scriptures, in which, the characters symbolise: a one-sided net for freeing captive animals.
We walked through a wooden maze of pavilions and temples — losing track of the names and their significance. Occasionally, we’d touch the outer edge of the isle and get a stunning view of the city in the distance. It felt as if we were looking at the future through a time warp.
China has four distinct seasons and the month of December clearly falls in winter. However, we spotted some trees that were bright green, some in the cusp of change, and some that had shed their leaves on the grass. Yellow flowers filled the air with a sweet perfume.
Most tourists follow maps and try to cover the main highlights of this magical isle. However, the best parts are tucked under tree cover or in nondescript houses. It’s also possible to take a boat ride to the neighbouring islands from Xiaoyingzhou Isle.
Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
Three gourd-shaped pagodas, arranged at an equal distance (62m) from each other, form a stunning symmetry with the background of the lake and mountains. The surface of the water reflects moonlight making this isle one of the best spots, in Hangzhou, to enjoy the beauty of a full moon night.
We walked back to the alley behind our hotel and found an interesting local restaurant. I was wary and wondered if there would be anything that I could eat. I decided to try steamed dumplings and Basil went for a meat soup.
In the evening, we went back to the lake and walked upto Bai Causeway. The air was chilly and I wished I hadn’t underestimated the cold wave that seemed to intensify after dark. Strangely, the cold didn’t stop visitors from walking on the man-made causeway — that splits the lake into the Outer West Lake (South) and Back Lake (north). As we walked deeper into the narrow path, the city transformed into a series of glittering dots.
Bai Causeway gets its name from the famous Tang Dynasty poet, Bai Jayu. At night, weeping willow trees glowed under lanterns. We walked over the curved Brocade Ribbon Bridge. A local played Chinese folk songs on his portable radio and transported us into another world.
The causeway ends at Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake Park. We reached a well lit souvenir/tea house. It was hard to read the name at night. We found a quiet spot, away from the evening breeze, and took a moment to soak in the tranquility of the location.
Hangzhou City at Night
Later, we walked back to the main street and took a turn at one of the back alleys. There were many interesting places to eat dinner and most of the restaurants advertised local delicacies. We continued to explore and walk towards the empty, neon lit streets.
Pinghai Road took us by surprise. Giant buildings advertising global designer brands lined the street on either side. We had entered another world in a matter of minutes.
We were famished after the long walk. Once again, there were so many interesting options to choose from. Stir fried noodles were hard to resist. Too tired to walk back, we hopped on the subway, and went back to the hotel.
Day 2: Walking Along the West Lake
The next morning, we took a cab to Leifeng Pagoda and it barely took 15 minutes from our hotel. There are few steps to climb and an escalator for those who’d prefer the easy way up. Thereon, elevators take you to the top floors. We decided to walk on our way down.
The history of Leifeng Pagoda is quite intriguing. There’s equal parts of myth and tragic history associated with it. The original pagoda was built in 975 AD to mark the birth of the king’s son. It was set on fire by Japanese pirates in the Ming Dynasty, destroying its wooden framework and exposing its inner brick walls. The pagoda finally collapsed in 1924 and was reconstructed in its original architectural style in 2002.
According to the Legend of the White Snake, a local boy, Xuxian, rescues a white snake from a snake catcher. The snake turns into a young maiden, Bai Suzhen, and gets married to the boy. Their love is forbidden by the gods, the maiden is captured by a monk and held captive in the pagoda. She’s separated from her son and husband for twenty long years before the gods take pity on her. With the collapse of the pagoda, she’s vindicated, and finally free to meet her family. There are many versions of this tale and this tale has also inspired a recent Chinese drama:The Legend of White Snake.
The architecture and intricate detailing inside the pagoda is spectacular. The golden rooftop and carved woodwork patterns — depicting scenes from the Legend of the White Snake — are highly impressive.
The topmost floor gives a panoramic view of the lake and its key attractions. We tried spotting the places we’d visited on the earlier day and tried comparing them with the names on the map. I’m not sure if we got either right.
The lawns of Leifeng Pagoda are equally interesting. There are picture galleries, a cafeteria, garden trails, and beautiful statues. We picked up a freshly baked flat bread to go.
Jingci Temple is bang opposite the main gates of Leifeng Pagoda. Also known as Monastery of Pure Benevolence, this quaint temple has a calming influence on a visitor. Most tourists had skipped this buddhist temple and that made it all the more alluring for us to visit it. Incense filled the air and birds chirped background music into the tranquil environs of the front courtyard. There are multiple halls to explore, but the one with the larger-than-life statue of Buddha is the most captivating.
We were happy to discover this fascinating temple and kept exploring. We didn’t know the significance of pouring water on buddha’s head, and yet, didn’t see any harm in doing it. Honestly, it’s harder than it looks and I kept spilling the water all over. We climbed the staircase that lead to the rooftop and were rewarded with a stellar view of golden rooftops and the pagoda.
I didn’t want to leave the temple and nearly forgot how cold it was. We tried to take in the last views of the soothing temple before having lunch at the Leifeng Pagoda’s cafeteria.
After lunch, we attempted to walk back to our hotel. It was ambitious given how cold it was getting and how tired I was.
Like most key attractions of the West Lake, Long Bridge has its fair share of fantasy associated with it. It’s quite remarkable how natural beauty can be the perfect brew for concocting a local legend. For starters, Long Bridge isn’t long. There are multiple stories that inspire the name of this 3 m long bridge. From suicidal couples to a lovelorn couple who kept walking back and forth on the bridge; it’s hard to decide which one may have influenced the name of this bridge. Clearly, the soon-to-wed couples didn’t care for its dark, dichotomous history and used it as a backdrop for their pre-wedding shoot.
Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
It’s hard finding a restroom when you really need one. We took a detour and found an amphitheatre. We walked further and came across this stunning natural gem. Honestly, we were a little lost and couldn’t have been happier.
Orioles Singing in the Willows
This 1 km stretch of weeping willow trees is absolutely spectacular. A harbinger for spring, this attraction looked stunning even at the end of December. We would have loved to continue, but the wind got the better of us, and we decided to call it a day.