My Chinese friend pointed at the sky. “They have heaven,” she said, “but we have Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I politely nodded. I wouldn’t exactly call Hangzhou heaven on Earth, as I don’t associate heaven with sweltering heat, but it’s a nice enough place. The most divine settings can be found around the city’s main attraction: West Lake.
The city of Hangzhou is built up on the Western shore of the 10 mile (circumference) lake, although there is a lot to do no matter where around or in the lake you happen to be. I would suggest the following itinerary for a day at West Lake.
Begin at the Lakeshore Promenade, between the city and the lake shore. Don’t spend too much time here yet, as it gets better at nighttime. All around the promenade are booths ready to sell you tickets for boat tours. The Hangzhou West Lake Pleasure Boat Company charges 45 yuan (about $7) for a tour around the lake. These boats are like hop-on-hop-off city tour buses, and I highly recommend hopping on. Once you buy your initial ticket you can catch boats to many places around the lake.
The boat will first take you to Three Pools Mirroring the Moon. A stroll around this tiny touristy island features numerous pagodas, walkways, and scenic viewpoints. The main attractions here are the three water pagodas near the island acting like Chinese buoys. There were put there in 1621 to mark where no plants should be grown. On full moon nights, candles are places inside the pagodas, creating the effect of multiple moons shimmering on the lake.
After taking in your fill of Three Pools Mirroring the Moon island, catch a boat to the Mid Lake Pavilion and then on to the Pier at Sun Yat-Sen Park. Warning: bird whistles are for sale and Chinese parents, for some reason, indulge their children in these portable noise makers. To escape the fake bird calls, I climbed every set of stairs I could find. I’d soon climbed over the top and down the other side of the park. This worked out great, as it was then a short walk to the Bai causeway, otherwise known as Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge. The bridge was neither broken nor snowy, so I’m guess the name has to do with some event in the past. The non-snowy, non-broken causeway takes you back to the western shore of the lake.
Here, on Beishan road, catch bus K7 heading west towards the Linyin Temple and the Peak Flying from Afar (don’t ya love these cheesy Chinese names?). If you aren’t one for walking, you could skip the Bai causeway and just catch the same bus from Yat-Sen Park instead. The K7 bus (“K” means air-conditioned. Very important!) follows a tree lined road up past the Shangri-La hotel to the temple. Admission to the scenic areas surrounding the temple is 45 yuan, with another 30 yuan to actually get inside the temple. I peaked through the gates at the temple and skipped buying the extra ticket. The area around the temple is really the main attraction. Over 340 stone statues are carved in the limestone cliffs and caves around the temple, with a river flowing through the whole area. The most famous carving is that of Laughing Buddha, clutching his satchel. I spent just under two hours exploring the area before catching the bus back down to the lakeshore.
It was a little after six when I got back to West Lake and the Lakeshore Promenade and noticed lines of chairs being set up. Not sure what to expect, I took a seat facing the lake and pulled out a book. (There’s a book store in town on the corner of Qingchun and Yan’an roads. English language books are on the third floor.) The seats around me quickly filled up, especially when a Chinese police officer kicked the people off the roped-off decks in front of us. At seven a water show began, with choreographed fountains dancing to music. If you’ve ever seen Bellagio’s fountains in Las Vegas – it was the same thing. They even played Sarah Brighman and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” It was a little longer then the Bellagio show though, with four or five songs. The fountains go off every half hour from seven until nine (ten thirty on Saturday and Sunday), and it was fun to watch them both up close and from a distance as I walked around the lake. If you want a seat up close, I’d recommend claiming it a good half hour before the show starts.
After the show is an excellent time to explore the busiest side of the lake, which is along Hubin road. Once the sun goes down, wooden pavilions fill with Chinese line dancing, portable karaoke machines come up, and neon lights fill the air. If I was with someone else, I would have settled down at a bar or restaurant along the lake, but since I was on my own I settled for eating ice cream bars while meandering along the shores. It wasn’t heavenly, but it was a good day nonetheless.