Thursday, May 6, 2010
Hangzhou: Heaven on earth
"There is Heaven in the sky and there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth." -- famous Chinese saying
Allen and I have returned from a week in Hangzhou and Shanghai. I have been itching to go to Hangzhou for some time now. Often Chinese people ask about my laojia -- literally my 'old home.' When I tell them my mother's side of the family is originally from Zhejiang Province, they immediately ask, "Have you been to Hangzhou? ... No? Then you must go. The West Lake is beautiful."
After two full days of walking and biking in Hangzhou, I must say the West Lake met my very high expectations. Trees lined the wide walkway, with pruned bushes and colorful flowers at every turn. On the lake itself, people rented small rowboats with cushioned seats inside. In the distance was downtown Hangzhou, a faint gray outline. It seemed that only around the lake was the city lively and bursting with color.
On the first day we circled the 15 kilometers around the lake by foot, which took most of the day. To me, what made this place so great wasn't the setting but the people there. Along the lake, couples walked holding hands, young parents pushed noisy strollers and every few steps people took photos of the view. One of the best things about traveling in China is watching Chinese people pose for photos. They must take no less than five shots of the same pose before repeating with another pose. I imagine many of these people did not even make it halfway around the lake.
After lunch, we returned to the lakeside where crowds huddled around singers, erhu players and drummers. The music was traditional Chinese folk, a singing style that sounds high-pitched and nasal-y. I'll call it an acquired taste. I'm not a fan of the music but I loved watching the crowd form during the impromptu concerts. It seemed at any moment a curiosity of some sort could draw a crowd. A couple with two miniature bunnies sat down across from us. Allen went over to pet one of the bunnies and I took a picture. Within seconds, a few people stopped to watch. Before I had a chance to take another photo, the young woman with the bunny was surrounded by people.
Our second day in Hangzhou coincided with May 1, a Saturday and also a national holiday for Labor Day. The lake was transformed. The streets encircling the lake were jammed with buses, cars, motorcycles and bicycles, including the two we rented. The bridges over the lakes and the pavilions perfect for photos ops were packed end-to-end. It looked like people were waiting in a mass line, but for what? They were already at the destination.
Weaving through traffic, we eventually made our way west, away from the dangerously close bumpers. The traffic, on both the roads and sidewalks, thinned. Very soon I spotted rows of short, dark green bushes. Straw hats poked above the bushes as women picked the tea leaves. Hangzhou is famous for its dragon well tea, and by chance we stumbled upon a park where there is an actual Dragon Well where the ancients prayed for rain.
Hangzhou is ranked the "happiest city" in China and I definitely see why. There's the perfect balance of nature's beauty and a big city's conveniences. (Just don't try to get a cab late at night downtown. It's near impossible to get a driver to take you to the West Lake. Trust me.) I wouldn't make a special trip to Hangzhou, but if you are going to Shanghai and have a day or two to spare, it's definitely worth the two-hour train ride.
Despite the pleasantness, I think it was just enough time. Any longer I might be bored from over-relaxation, if that's such a thing. So we headed to Shanghai when we did.