This three part series details my time in the beautiful city of Hangzhou.
National day celebrates the creation of a Communist government after the end of the civil war between the KMT nationalists and the Communist Party of China. This public holiday, from October 1st to 3rd, turns into a week long celebration, allowing time for those with the means to travel around the country.
In an effort to include traditional holidays, the CCP has now recognized the Mid-Autumn Festival as part of this ‘Golden Week’ for travel. Mid-Autumn Festival or Harvest Moon Festival includes moon-gazing on the night of the full moon, eating moon-cakes, flying paper lanterns, and is seen as a fortunate time for marriage. According to China Tourism last year 589 million people traveled around the country to either see the sights or visit family. My girlfriend Cassidy and I had Sunday through Thursday off work, so we bought train tickets to Hangzhou and Nanjing to see what the deal is with one of world’s largest human migrations.
We started on Sunday morning, taking an early train out of Fuzhou. The crush of taxis arriving at the train station was so heavy that nearly half of our time spent in the cab was finding an appropriate spot to drop us off. Once in the station everything went smoothly. Earlier in the week we had picked up all of our tickets so that we wouldn’t need to get them printed during the holiday traffic.
I had assumed that high speed rail was a luxury only extended to the coastal elites and city dwellers in China but it’s service reminded me of a sleeker Greyhound with better legroom. Arriving in Hangzhou, we took the subway to XiHu park after checking into our hotel.
Xihu (West lake) park is staggeringly huge and is a symbol of Hangzhou. The lake is so large that when we first arrived there, through the fog, we couldn’t see the far shore. That isn’t to mention the massive parks adjacent to Xihu which house Buddhist temples in the surrounding hills, pagodas overlooking the lake, temples to the City God, museums and even tea plantations.
After a quick look at the lake we opted for late lunch at the popular Hangzhou chain ‘Grandma’s House’, specializing in Hangzhou cuisine. We had tea, green tea cakes, a strange fish soup, fish preserved with wine, some spicy eggplant and what was either called beggar’s chicken or drunken chicken. It was all excellent except for the soup. Often we’ll just try something based on the name or picture here but this was one of the times when expectation and reality don’t meet. The chicken and eggplant were highlights, as both of these were these were skinnier and more flavorful than their North American counterparts. We lingered over tea, and eventually we ventured into Xihu park.
We walked along the banks of the lake for hours. There were extravagant boats that cruise around the lake; bows covered in ornate gold plating and multiple gabled roofs with dragons carved into them. There were man made islands with coffee shops and souvenir salesmen, tombs of poets, war memorials, stone bridges, and even a square filled with columns and archways imitating classic Roman design. We walked down the bank until we spotted a particularly large pagoda on a hill overlooking the lake. When we finally arrived it was nearly dusk but there was still enough time to take a walk up it before the grounds closed (at the pagoda, not Xihu).
The Lifeng pagoda was originally built on sunset hill overlooking west lake in 975 to celebrate the birth of a prince. The views of the city from the top of the tower were great, and gave perspective to how enormous the city is, but what I thought was most interesting was the combination of old and new. A tourist attraction built into an archaeological site. Dusk fell as we left the pagoda.
We found bicycles and we biked up a road lined on either side by trees which overhang to create a natural canopy. There were strings of lights through the branches with lanterns for Mid-Autumn Festival hung from them and even a banner made of lights which read ‘Welcome to Hangzhou’.
We found our way back to the little island in Xihu which had the tea and coffee shops and stopped for cake, tea, and to get an idea of what to do with our evening. Eventually we decided to continue up the well lit road, away from the park, towards the new city center which contains a section of the Grand Canal.
The Grand Canal is the longest man made waterway in the world and predates the Panama and Suez canals by over 2000 years with sections dating back to 486 BCE in the Spring and Autumn Period. The canal was completed and fully functional in the 10th century with the invention of the lock, economically linking the north to the south, Beijing to Hangzhou along over 1700 km of canals.
We got new bike rentals and rode north to see the southern end of this canal. We rode through the downtown over to a recreation area on the edge of the canal and took a walk. We watched boats with low roofs pass under bridges perhaps just as they had for thousands of years.
We took the subway back from the north end of the city over to our hotel and formed a plan for the next day. We figured crowds had been low as it was Saturday and most tourists were probably still travelling so we wanted to get up early to find food and make our way to the Lingyin Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in the city, in a park on the other side of Xihu.
Part 2 to come soon.
Noah is a Canadian teacher with us at York English. You can see his other blog post here – Navigating Chinese Food