If you haven’t heard of Hangzhou in China, you’re not alone. But with a population of about 7.5 million it ranks alongside Bangkok, Kolkata or Tehran and bigger than Cairo or Rio. Hangzhou is the provincial capital of Zhejiang Province in the south-east of China, about 170km (just an hour by bullet train) from Shanghai.
In the long and (very!) complex history of China, Hangzhou reached its peak importance in the 12th century as the southern capital of the Song dynasty, but gradually declined in significance with the ascent of Ningbo city and latterly Shanghai. It remains an important economic centre today. The UNESCO World Heritage Grand Canal connects Hangzhou with Beijing; it’s 1776km long and is the oldest and longest canal in the world.
So why would you go?
As you’d expect from a large city, Hangzhou has areas of dire apartment blocks, particularly on the way from the Xiaoshan airport. However even with the decades-long disruption of the 1949 revolution, the city’s heritage has been well preserved. Its main attractions; the beautiful scenery centred on the West Lake and the many sites of historical, cultural and religious interest are absolutely worth the effort of the trip.
Here’s just a few of the best; Leifeng Pagoda originally constructed in 975 and rebuilt in 2002. Built by the King of Wuyue to celebrate the birth of a son. There’s an entrance fee and it’s popular with tourists. Superb views across the West Lake.
Leifeng Pagoda on West Lake
Lingyin Temple (‘The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat’) dates from 326 BCE. The temple is one of the ten most famous temples in China. It’s located in a narrow valley winding up between Fei Lai Feng and North Peak. There’s a series of related Buddhist sites in the much quieter upper sections of the valley with beautiful courtyards and meditation halls.
Meditation Courtyard at Lingyin
The area north of the West Lake is well known for tea cultivation and culture. (‘all the tea in China’?) Although largely intended for domestic tourists, and hence with little signage catering for foreign visitors, the China Tea Museum has exquisitely landscaped gardens and tea plantations offering a haven of peace and tranquillity. The shop offers many varieties of the famous ‘Hangchow’ product and tea ceremonies are available for a fee, but there’s no charge to visit.
China Tea Museuem, Hangzhou City in distance
There are dozens of other sites, sounds and flavours in and around Hangzhou and it’s easy to spend three or four days in the area. The subway system is cheap, efficient and as easy to navigate as Paris, London or New York. Taxis are inexpensive, but beware, drivers don’t usually speak any western languages. Walk or hire a bike if you choose, but the summers and autumn are hot and sticky!
There are easy connections to Hangzhou through Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore and KLM flies direct from Amsterdam.