Guest Post By: Sarah Zhou
Marco Polo had depicted Hangzhou city as the finest and most beautiful place in the world, and likewise, Hangzhou is popularly known as Heaven-on-earth by Chinese people. Prior to my visit to Hangzhou, the city was nailed on my list of must-see places of China by my travel advisor. Hangzhou surprised me a lot. Benefited from the location as the backyard of big brother Shanghai, Hangzhou is a very clean, modern and safe city with much lower travel expense than that in Shanghai.
Hangzhou is regarded as one of the most romantic cities in China because it has the dreamy West Lake, a lovely scenic stunner for thousands of years. When you amble by the West Lake and its surrounding serene views, you’ll see why it’s been an enduring inspiration for ancient painters, artists, scholars, poets, and philosophers throughout Chinese history.
Hangzhou holds West Lake in store as its biggest charm and treasure. The lake is blessed with postcard-esque vistas with lush hills, willow trees, flowers, pagodas, gardens, pavilions and old fishing boats. Chinese people have a tradition to create poetic and beautiful names for natural attractions, and West Lake is no exception. There are 10 best-known scenic spots of West Lake named with four Chinese characters for each, depicting the breathtaking sceneries of the lake in four seasons and different times of a day. Many spots of West Lake are closely related to Chinese history and folk tales, so traveling with a local guide would be more of fun.
The West Lake is free of entry, but some scenic spots do require admission tickets such as the Mid-lake Island and Leifeng Pagoda. Pressed for time, I skipped climbing the hill and pagoda. Several ways are offered to tour the West Lake. Based on my experience, cycling is cheap and quite popular to get around the park particularly among Chinese young people. Bike-sharing culture is upbeat in Hangzhou, as you could find a bike stop nearly every five hundred meters.
I had planned to bike a bit but soon I gave up until I found hiring bikes a bit troublesome for foreigners. Neither I had transportation card nor did I want to pay the deposit fee. The biking routes are linked with the main roads of the city, which are kind of busy and dangerous for foreign expats who are unaware of how horribly China traffic works. Besides, cycling is more of a way to explore the cityscape of the city, and some parts are a bit far away from the embankment. Considering these reasons, I just gave up on a biking tour to avoid the hassle.
Another alternative is to hop on a small sightseeing shuttle bus that costs RMB 40 for a full lap. It seemed popular and busy as most buses I saw were fully packed (most were parents with kids and senior travelers). I didn’t try the bus either, but I do think it is a perfect method for visitors with long-hour walking issues.
With reference to a slow-paced trip, finally, I grabbed a map and embarked on a walking tour plus a boat ride to explore some essence spots of West Lake. It is a great delight to have an excursion along the waterfront causeways by the tree-shaded avenue. The walkways are wide and flat, with road signs to navigate around. The most pleasant part about my walk tour came from the spectacular views of the lotus flower gardens! All the lotus were in blossom slightly swaying in the breeze. A lot of shutterbugs occupied the waterside spots, so what I could do was to take a lovely stroll around the garden.
Personal point of view, boating on West Lake is a must for a Hangzhou tour. I decided to use the boat service after walking over 5km when I was tired of moving two legs to cover the best part. Different kinds of adorable boats are available for passengers to start a laid-back ride to the mid-lake islands. The only flaw of boating might be the heat if you visit West Lake in summer. Hats and sunglasses would come in handy for one-hour long exposure on the lake. By the way, maybe because West Lake is an outstanding UNESCO world heritage site, the park is always well cleaned and cared. From my experience, I could hardly find such clean public toilets in some other attractions in China.
Honestly, to say, I missed many highlights of the West Lake, at least failed to cover the 10 most scenic spots. It is fairly impossible to see everything in just one single day, so I just took my time to discover some places that really appealed to me. Surely, it is always wise to head out earlier to avoid the crowds of tourists if dreaming of a better experience and much more to see.
Hangzhou is one of China’s most elegant cities and definitely worth visiting for a couple of days. I only had two days to visit Hangzhou, and sadly it was a bit short for me. During my Hangzhou Tour, I was truly overwhelmed by a number of extra bonuses like Lingyin Temple, Qinghefang Food Street, and Meijiawu Tea Village. After sipping the famous Longjing Tea and Hangbang cuisine, it is easy to see why I soon fell in love with this city. For travelers with enough time, it is really easy to make an escape from Shanghai or the sister city Suzhou. Both bullet trains and intercity buses are served at a high frequency of departure. It is also possible for a day to return if you want to sight-see West Lake only.