The far-travelling and eternally famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo declared the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou to be the ‘City of Heaven’. Since Marco’s visit, Hangzhou and China have undergone tumultuous change, and travellers visiting this very modern city today may be brought back down to earth by the high-rises and traffic. That said, around the famed West Lake, vestiges of the city’s imperial past as capital of the Southern Song Dynasty can still be found.
Hangzhou is a short (fast) train ride away from bustling Shanghai, so the city can be visited relatively easily by UAE-based Sinophiles who are hoping to catch a glimpse of the China of yore – the China so lovingly recreated in the dreamy, epic films of Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee. Time Out explores the most cultural sights the city has to offer, as well as a few choice hotel stays, restaurants and watering holes.
What to see
With its surrounding willows and backdrop of gentle hills in the distance, the 6.5 sq km West Lake (Xihai), at the heart of the city, seems straight out of a Chinese watercolour; indeed, it has inspired many. Stroll or bike along the causeways that jut through the lake or, for maximum scenic impact, hire one of the canopied six-person wooden boats that line the shore (around Dhs26 per person). Be warned: on weekends, the crowds can be overwhelming.
If it gets too much, head to Gu Hill, on an island in the middle of the lake. Most don’t make it to the top, which means you can enjoy its charming open-air tea house and lush surrounds in peace. Alternatively, witness the night-time, open-air musical extravaganza Impression West Lake (82 Beishan Lu; tickets from Dhs151). The more kitsch moments of director Zhang Yimou’s spectacle are compensated by breathtaking choreography and the dramatic backdrop of the lake.
Hangzhou’s temples are among its crowning glories. Seven of the most famed are found in the Lingyin Feilai Feng Scenic Area. Among the finest is Lingyin Si (Lingyin Lu; Dhs38), or Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, founded in 326AD. During centuries of upheaval, it has been rebuilt 16 times. The latest incarnation is a restoration of the Qing-era building. Don’t miss the Buddhist carvings in the grottoes lining the walk up to the temple – these date from between the 10th and 14th centuries. For a quieter temple, visit Yongfu Si (Dhs26), set amid lush greenery and up a mountain path west of Lingyin Si.
What to do
From Lingyin Si, you can hike up to Hangzhou’s highest summit, the North Peak Mountain, or take the cable car (tickets cost around Dhs18). A breathtaking view of the West Lake below and a look around the 1,600-year-old Lingshun Si (Temple of Wealth) is an enticing reward.
Shoppers and idlers should head to the pedestrianised Qinghefang Street, a revamped part of the old town that combines gaudy architecture and shops with some historical gems. Dip away from the main tourist artery and down the side streets to discover some impressive buildings and quaint shops. Don’t miss the two-storey courtyard Ye Zhong De Tang. This TCM store, founded in 1808, is packed with staff in white overalls bustling around wooden drawers of medicine.
What to drink
Take a trip out to the Longjing Tea Fields for cleansing country air and a cup of Dragon Well cha. March to May is picking season, a perfect time to witness the harvest of the emerald tea terraces. Many factories run tours that explain production and offer tastings, as well as fresh tea to buy.
For a sophisticated bar with nightly jazz, try the JZ Club (6 Liuying Lu, near Nanshan Lu), the Hangzhou branch of the Shanghai jazz-bar institution. Expect soulful music, a good selection of grape, hop-based beverages and mixed drinks, and tasteful décor.
Where to eat
Inside Lingyin Feilai Feng Scenic Area, you will find Fayun Village. A one-time hamlet of local tea-pickers, this collection of stone buildings has since been restored and taken over by Aman Resorts to become the Amanfayun (see ‘Where to stay’). Here, the village’s cobblestone main street and a number of restaurants are open to the public. Among them is The Steam House, so-called because of the open kitchen, which bellows out steam and allows you to watch the chefs at work. Meals cost around Dhs235 for two, and include delicacies such as sweet pumpkin baozi and chicken in lotus leaves.
Elsewhere in the city, the ramshackle Green Tea restaurant serves traditional snacks and local dishes, including steamed fish and home-made tofu. Green Tea’s chief draw is the old pine building that accommodates it amid the tea fields, opposite the China Tea Museum (73-1 Yuhuangshan Lu; free).
For a Western hit, pop into French restaurant L’Amour (87 Shuguang Lu), which provides reasonably priced set menus.
Where to stay
The Amanfayun resort is heavenly, encircled by forests and tea fields, and adjacent to the seven famous temples. Guests sleep in restored village houses (doubles from Dhs2,386) and, for the ultimate indulgence, can sample Chinese tea in Fayan Place, the resort’s hub that consists of two linked grand courtyard houses.
For budget accommodation, try the West Lake Youth Hostel (62-63 Nanshan Lu; doubles from Dhs115), just east of Jingci Temple, a clean and friendly option surrounded by trees. And if you’re looking for a special package, Tui Travel offers a four-night Hangzhou trip (from around Dhs5,363 per person, including accommodation, transport, entrance fees and an English-speaking guide; see www.tui. cn/en).
The package includes hikes, cycle tours, visits to the tea fields, as well as wildlife spotting at the nearby Xixi National Wetland Park, plus both TCM and tai chi experts lending some of their ancient knowledge.
Meanwhile, the Shangri-La Hotel in Yangzhou is based on a lush, 40-acre property in close proximity to the West Lake, the graceful Xiling Bridge and National Silk Museum (the world’s largest silk museum, no less).
The interior is reminiscent of a Mandarin-style mansion and is fitted with all the mod-cons and facilities, including Italian restaurant Peppino (for those who have tired of local cuisine); rooms start at around
Dhs650 per night. Likewise, Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake, located on the banks of the famous lake, offers another luxury option, with an indoor swimming pool, spa and fitness centre. Rooms start at around Dhs600 per night.
Etihad flies direct to Shanghai; return tickets start at around Dhs3,400 (www.etihadairways.com). Regular trains run between Shanghai and Hangzhou, with tickets costing the equivalent of Dhs60.