Hangzhou, CHINA, October 11-13 – From its earliest times Hangzhou, which was founded approximately 8,000 years ago, has been known as a beautiful place. By the time Marco Polo sailed here in the 13th Century (during Yuan Dynasty) he described Hangzhou as ‘the world’s most enchanting city’. Early Emperors of the Song Dynasty made this their home and capital, long before the Ming Dynasty moved the capital to Beijing and built the Forbidden Palace. Hangzhou, as a longstanding renowned Imperial City, has kept its pride of place and so today we are here to enjoy its more serene and quiet environment (non industrial) alongside vast West Lake. In former times this was known as the “Venice” of the Orient. Through hundreds of years of trading Hangzhou became world renowned. Separated over time from the Qiantang River by a build-up of sediment, the West Lake became a vast lagoon and ultimately today’s West Lake, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills.
We felt like we stepped back in time while experiencing the beauty and poetry of Chinese tradition at the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou West Lake. Our rooms boasted stunning views of the forest glades, traditional gardens or alluring West Lake.
Our two days of exploring here included a first day in historical Hangzhou. On a crisp sunny autumn morning, we set off on a private boat cruise around the lake on a Chinese Pavilion boat (which carried Richard Nixon during his 1980s visit here). Our Chinese guides, Woody and Aaron (their English names) set scenes for us of ancient times here, pointing out historical sights … The Leifeng Pagoda, the ancient Imperial Palace (today’s provincial museum) built on an island, the brick “broken” bridge built 1,300 years ago, as well as telling us historic romantic fables of bygone days. West Lake’s enduring cultural legacy has been immortalized by poets, artists, and writers for many centuries. We see why this is so. During our boat cruise we enjoy melodies from traditional Classical Chinese musicians. In the distance we can see modern Hangzhou (rather shrouded in slight smog). We walked through Huagang Park, along the lakeshore, where we didn’t find throngs of tourists but rather Chinese locals who have enjoyed their morning walks and Tai Chi exercises and are now enjoying late morning tea and their lunch lakeside. At the Guo Villa, built over 140 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, we enjoyed a special garden lakeside late morning tea. We sampled green tea as well as chrysanthemums tea with local Goji (wolf) berries for sweetness. All too soon it was time to return to our own ‘palace’ for lunch.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby villa residence of Mr. Hu, Hangzhou’s richest merchant during the late 1800s (Qing Dynasty). This was the earliest ‘Donald Trump’ of the world at the time, coming from humble beginnings and becoming the richest man in China before losing his entire wealth. Mr. Hu chose Hangzhou as his favorite place in China and built a most magnificent exquisite large walled villa, rather a maze of beautifully carved buildings, palatial public meeting areas and serene private living pavilions (for himself, his wife, and his 7 concubines and many children). Terraces, towers, sculpture gardens, ponds, arched bridges. All of this “Shangri-la” is hidden entirely from Hangzhou. All the colored glass of this house was imported from France and all the fabulous carved buildings (using the finest precious woods) were hewn by the carpenters of the Forbidden Palace. A most stunning visit.
In the evening, Lakani hosted a cocktail reception at the hotel’s Willow Terrace… our own version of Mr. Hu’s villa. From here we returned again to nearby West Lake … this time for a most spectacular and incredible night performance of Impression West Lake, performed by over 300 actors on the lake. Think Cirque du Soleil on steroids! This stunning show was created by Zhang Yimou, the creator and director of the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The musical composer is Japanese Kitaro, with Chinese singer Zhang Liang Ying (or, “Jane”) who was the winner of the first “Chinese Idol”. This story follows the enchanting fables of Hangzhou – featuring the butterfly lovers and white-snake lady – with an incredible ‘under water’ stage. Our guests and flight crew enjoyed the most prestigious VIP seating aboard a moored Chinese Pavilion boat.
On our second day in Hangzhou, Lakani offered “choose your day” options.
Several of our group had not visited Shanghai before, while others had visited many years ago. The super high speed train connects Hangzhou with Shanghai in just over an hour of comfort and seat side service. We travelled at over 190mph. Arriving in Shanghai at 10am, we were met by our local Shanghai guides (John and Yong). We headed into the downtown city area developed along Huangpu River. Shanghai is a city less than 200 years old … and today a sprawling metropolis of 25 million people. Along the river is the former British concession, where international trade was established and soon joined by the French, the Dutch, and later during World War II by a large Jewish population fleeing the Nazis. Along one side of the river, large grand colonial buildings and along the other side the very new towering high rise of Shanghai. We took a short stroll along The Bund (the main promenade along the river) before heading into the beautiful Peninsula Hotel for lunch in Sir Elly’s top floor fine dining restaurant. After lunch our small group divided … some heading to the nearby fantastic Shanghai Museum (a world wonder amid museums), while others opted for silk shopping and strolling through some of the more historic picturesque neighborhoods of Old Shanghai. In the early evening our ‘bullet’ train whisked us back to Hangzhou.
Others in our group who had visited Shanghai previously opted to stay in Hangzhou and explore more of its incredible history. A visit to the Lingyin Temple, one of China’s largest and wealthiest temples, allowed for a personal witness of Buddhist ritual, a discussion with monks and the temple’s Emminent Master. From this exceptional place, we had a glimpse of the Six Harmonies Pagoda (Liuhe Pagoda), one of the finest and true masterpieces of ancient Chinese architecture. In the afternoon the group enjoyed a visit to a nearby Tea House for a unique private Chinese tea ceremony. Here we were shown three different teas and their presentations while a musician played the harp.
Unanimously we agree that Hangzhou – while renowned for hundreds of years – has been a best-kept-secret “gem” experience for us. A part of China revealed in a very different way to the sprawling hustle and bustle of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Hangzhou retains its more serene imperial ethos. It’s time for us to fly onward … to exotic Laos, a part of Indo-China, and especially to the country’s former royal capital Luang Prabang.
On to Laos, click here to see photos…