I was really looking forward to visiting Hangzhou as I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. My husband has also never been there before so it was exciting for both of us.
We arrived late in the afternoon and checked in to our hotel – the plush Ibis. I have never complained about Ibis hotels; you know what you’re getting: a clean room, comfortable bed and excellent shower. True that these are in much better condition in UK but the one in Hangzhou was ok. One things was different though but it didn’t apply only to Ibis – every night there would be a selection of business cards of a certain type (ehem) waiting for us at our room. Every night.
Hangzhou is not a city one can explore on foot. We had to take taxis practically everywhere and that accounted for most of our spending there. We started the visit by having dinner at, what turned out to be a fantastic restaurant, Grandma’s. The selection was huge, the meals excellent, the prices low and the service polite. An unheard of combination in China!After stuffing ourselves with noodles, green pea soup, baked chicken and other delicacies, we took a taxi to the shores of Xi Hu – West Lake. One of the most famous, if not THE most famous, lakes in China.
My OH was charmed by it, I can’t say the same about myself. Ok, it was nice, there were cafes and restaurants nicely lit up, one could see the pagodas in the distance but it looked pretty much like any other city/town lake. Just bigger. The weather wasn’t great but we persevered with a walk along a veeery long bridge – the Bai causeway. Now I did enjoy that. First of all, the bridge doesn’t feel like a bridge but more like a road as it is so long and wide. In a way it is almost like a park, with multiple benches on both sides and cafes to relax in. I noticed quite a few canoodling couples along the way, which didn’t surprise me at all as that seemed like a perfect place for a bit of romance.
My husband entertained me with the famous legend of the White and Jade snake sisters-a love story linked to the bridge and the nearby pagoda. After hearing it, I realized why all those ‘historical’ TV dramas in China have people flying around, disappearing, wearing weird outfits and make up.I often wondered why so many people over here are into those sci-fi series and I think it is because they are based on popular legends, which the folk here treasure.
We finished the walk pretty tired but pleased that we had a chance to take it as it was very pleasant, quiet and gave us a chance to chat about the Chinese myths and beliefs. It is worth mentioning that the area around Xihu is superb for cycling and there are many bike rental stalls around.
Day 2 in Hangzhou started with a local breakfast. Just around the corner from Ibis, there is a popular (judging by the crowds) breakfast spot, where one can indulge in various soups and deep fried goods. Unfortunately nothing on the menu suited my taste palette. A lot of the dishes contain seafood, great if you’re a fan, not so much if you can’t stand it. I found that anything fried was super oily and I mean dripping with the slimy stuff. Not my kind of breakfast as it will most likely contribute to an early heart-attack but the locals love it.
We started sightseeing from taking a boat ride to islands located on Xihu lake. These rides are very frequent but also very popular so I would recommend getting one early. They aren’t very expensive and the islands they go to are definitely worth a visit. On the islands, the signposts and information boards are in English – a huge help!If you aren’t going as part of a tour or aren’t accompanied by a Chinese speaker, the information you can find on the island does allow you to familiarize yourself with the various areas of the island, the famous scenic spots and their stories.
The weather during our stay was not the best, the mist and drizzle meant that we couldn’t admire the usual views of the lake and even had to make an emergency stop when the rain got harder but overall it was a pleasant morning and in a way the atmosphere was more romantic:) If you like the Chinese gardens with pagodas, ponds and temples, you will certainly enjoy the Xihu islands.
Once we returned to the shore, we made our way to Leifeng Pagoda, located south of the lake. It was erected in AD 975(!) and some parts of the original structure remain to this day and can be admired on the first two levels. I was totally taken aback with the huge construction, which survived so many centuries and had to be dragged away by my OH in order to see the higher levels of the pagoda. One can take the stairs or a lift. Me being me, I chose the latter:) It’s not that I have some fear of lifts, I just prefer to do a bit of exercise, see the separate levels and there is also the small thing about crowds.
Whoever has been to China, knows that the Chinese are not particularly patient or courteous when it comes to queuing. I try to avoid the queues as much as possible and as the one for the lift was very long, the choice was easy (my OH would have gladly waited 15min just to avoid climbing up the stairs, so lazy!).
As it turned out, it was a brilliant decision as we got to see and admire the artwork located on different levels. I was blown away by the wooden carvings depicting the love story of White Snake, they are simply superb.I imagine that on a clear day the views from the top floor of Leifeng Pagoda must be quite stunning and if you fancy a cup of tea or feel quite tired after climbing all those steps, you can rest at the tea shop located on one of the levels.
This is proving to be a very long post but I really want to describe our experience well to a) provide information for those planning a visit to Hangzhou, b) encourage foreign tourists to go there as it makes for a lovely weekend away.
Anyway, the next stop on our itinerary was Lingyin temple, about 30min bus ride from Leifeng Pagoda. Right outside the park surrounding the pagoda, there is a bus stop from which you can take buses to that temple, the cost is only 1 or 2 yuan per person and the buses are modern and clean. Don’t think you have to take a taxi there too.
Even though that tourist attraction goes by the temple’s name, it actually contains much more than the temple building and arguably it is the other attractions that evoke more emotions and admiration than the temple itself. Now, I must admit that by the time we got there, I was starving and despite the fact that whenever I travel I try to eat the local food, this time I gave in to my cravings and stopped for chips at KFC…Shameful, I know, especially that my OH and I arranged to have the vegetarian noodles served on the temple site later on. Sometimes you just can’t help it though…
What stroke us first, were the multiple Buddhist statues carved from the rocks overhanging small caves. An amazing spot! I can’t remember how many statues we saw but it must have been over 30. Further down the path we noticed the entrance to another site and decided to see that before we go to Lingyin temple. That was a good decision as the other site proved to be a series of terraces with temples and various buildings built on them, located higher and higher up a hill. I have no idea how we would have managed climbing all those steps if we’d visited the temple first. I will always remember that place as the unlikely spot where I was able to admire a wild deer up close! There they were in all their glory, blissfully unaware of being watched by tourists such as myself.
Last stop was of course the Lingyin temple. Knowing our luck-the main temple was under construction…I couldn’t quite understand why we had to pay another entrance fee to enter the temple when we’d already bought the tickets to enter the site. We weren’t that impressed with the temple’s site, neither were we satisfied with the famous vegetarian noodles supposedly served by monks (none to be seen in the cafeteria-style building, a few walking around or driving scooters!)so I would suggest to check if the main temple is open before you decide to visit that place. The trip didn’t go entirely to plan as to catch a bus back to city centre, we had to wait for almost an hour. Not what you want to be doing when you’re feeling shattered, can’t feel your legs, there is nowhere to sit down and the heat is making you feel dizzy.
Somehow, after all this (don’t ask me how or why), we still wanted to see what’s left of Hangzhou’s old town – Qinghefang ancient street, which is the most well preserved street in the city. In addition to all the usual tat sold at tourist attractions, the street gives the chance to see century-old buildings and try local snacks. Yes, it was crowded but not unbearably so and many of the old buildings were open to the public, which was great for a nerd like me. We strolled along the street watching the shop-sellers trying to flog their tea (Hangzhou is famous for Longjing tea picked from surrounding hills), halva-like snacks and qipaos (if you ever need one, that’s where you ought to get it). It was on Qinghefang road that I tried my first lotus dessert and a slightly sweet and really oily snack shaped like a cone (look out for men dressed in old-fashioned clothes, serving customers sat at small wooden tables). Hangzhou is also known for fried baozi, one of my favourite snacks, so naturally I couldn’t leave without sampling some:)
That’s all we had the time for during out stay in Hangzhou. The next day we rushed to the coach station only to discover that there was no more tickets left (foreigners cannot book coach tickets ahead). Pouring rain, thousands of people desperately trying to get into the station, scooters pushing people aside, horrible traffic,rude locals – we couldn’t wait to leave. The journey that followed this awful morning proved even worse but I’ll write about that in my next post.