April 2 – 3, 2010
“Just as there is paradise in heaven, on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou.”
While this legendary quotation is no doubt a hyperbole, Hangzhou’s West Lake (西湖) does bear the distinction of being the definitive classic Jiangnan (the area south of the Yangtze River) landscape. To give a notable example; the Qing Emperor Qiaolong (乾隆) missed West Lake’s landscape so much that he commissioned a replica near Beijing – the Summer Palace (頤和園).
For logistic reason, we flew into Hangzhou from Shenzhen. On the next day, we would board the 17:00 bus ride to Tunxi (屯溪), the transport hub of Huangshan (黃山). Being the stopgap on our itinerary that it was, we didn’t have any plan or expectation for Hangzhou. With our limited time in town, we figured we would take a walk along West Lake and then go from there.
Like almost everywhere else in China, Hangzhou is undergoing a construction boom that has turned the provincial town of my past visit in the 1990s into a modern stereotypical Chinese city of high-rises and shopping malls. The walk from our hotel to West Lake took only 45 minutes, but it felt much longer as each breath we took was a choking mixture of dust and car fumes.
Once again I was at the shore of West Lake and I found it both familiar and different. The lake, ordinary it might seem at first sight, is the glue that holds this landscape together. While the surrounding hills or the willow trees along the lake shore are indistinguishable on their own, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the scenery is as pleasant as what my memory recalled.
The atmosphere, however, had been completely altered. Even back in the 1990s it didn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that the West Lake was an inspiration to countless poets and writers over its long existence. Yet such serenity was nowhere to be found on this Friday in this year of 2010. Massive crowds of package tour groups and crass commercialism were just as evident in Hangzhou as across most of coastal China.
That said, not all development is bad. Hangzhou has good tourism infrastructure and is as beautiful a city as China has to offer. Heaven it is not, but if I am forced to spend a weekend in a Chinese city, I could do much worse than choosing Hangzhou (but probably will stay away from the popular spots at West Lake and the tour groups).
PS: A quick note on Lingyin Temple (靈隐寺), the only other attraction we went to. The Feilai Feng (飛來峰) rock cravings next to the temple is worth a look, but the temple itself is a newly refurbished tourist magnet/trap that is best avoided.