Sometimes, in the middle of a trip, you make a sudden decision of leaving a place to spend more time somewhere else and upon arriving at your next destination, you suddenly smile, nod, and congratulate yourself for making the right decision. Hangzhou is one of those places. I cut short my stay at Suzhou and decided to spend the extra day at this lovely city. When I stepped off the cab I had taken from the bus station and caught a glimpse of West Lake, I knew I was going to like it here.
The driver had to backtrack a bit and ask for directions before we found Mingtown International Youth Hostel as it was in a side road on the south side of the lake. The hostel was swarming with people so fat chance that I would have a dorm room at least half-empty so I optedto upgrade to a double room. From my experience at Biktime at Shanghai, I realized I’m not really comfortable sharing a room with strangers. After a day spent walking under the sun, it’s a pleasure to simply enter your room , throw your stuff around, and just plop into bed without having to mind other people.
I boooked one of their promo rooms described in the counter-top flier as having a “wood ceiling “for RM145/night. It was in another building reached by a flight of steps and across a laundry area. The room was big and had a large comfortable double bed and a small desk. A window opened to the courtyard below which was a little problematic when evening came as I could hear people talking outside. One particularly annoying sound was that of a Chinese girl who was speaking English with a really bad accent and she just kept yakking and yakking and yakking. I have nothing against non-native English speakers speaking the language but she really had an awful voice and accent. I guess somebody must have told her to shut-up because at around past 11 pm (and there was a sign that reminded people to be quiet by 11) she shut-up. Above the bed was also a skylight which was covered by a curtain you could roll back. I really liked the room. The common shower and toilet were okay and at least there was a place where you could do your laundry and hang them out to dry which Itook full advantage of.
China has many West Lakes but the one in Hanzghou is THE West Lake and the scenery around it is officially referred to as the West Lake Cultural Landscape. Most famous in the landscape is the Ten Poetically Named Scenic Places of West Lake which were identified by the dynasty kings. Strolling around West Lake, it is not difficult to understand how these places were designated what with the Chinese propensity for beautiful scenery and poetry. The place is absolutely beautiful and is meant for leisurely strolls and contemplation.
Armed with a map, I walked to Leifeng Pagoda from the hostel, a distance I had greatly underestimated. I was all sweaty and my feet killing me by the time I got there. I caught an electric trolley to Yue Fei on the other side of the lake. I had hoped to have a late late lunch at Louwaliou Restaurant but when I got there around 3:30 they were closed and would re-open at 4pm. To kill time, I went to the Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society compound which had nice resting pavilions and small gardens and shops selling seals. I checked out one shop that had intricately carved seals. They looked expensive so I didn’t dare ask.
Nearby is the Site of the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty. There wasn’t much to see as the entire site is gone except for a few glassed-in covers of the archaeological diggings of the original site.
Just as I was about ready to faint from hunger or start fishing at the lake, it was 4pm! I rushed to the cool confines of Louwaliou and ordered a plate of fried rice and the famous Beggar’s Chicken so-called because a poor man once caught a chicken and since he had nothing to cook it with, he wrapped it in some leaves and clay and baked it on the ground. A waiter motioned me to a trolley where the chicken was. He cracked the clay in which the chicken was cooked (supposedly for hours) then unfolded the plastic then finally the lotus leaves which wrapped the entire chicken. Secretly, I was afraid that the head or even just the neck would be intact. I would have had to look away and ask the waiter to remove it. Thank god, it wasn’t there. The chicken was really really tasty with a salty-sweet tang and a melt-in-your-mouth softness. The lotus leaf and plastic, the juices were all sealed in.
The unveiling of the Beggar's Chicken
Louwaliou has a 150 year old history at West Lake so it’s very famous and food is supposed to be very delicious. The prices are also befitting that of an emperor— RM 168 compared to RM 55 at another hundred-year old restaurant I would later visit at Qinghefang in Hangzhou. With my stomach all puffed out, I had to burn-off all those calories and what better way than to walk the entire circumference of the lake back to my hostel crossing the Bai Di causeway. It was very very very long walk which took me almost 2 hours. About a hundred meters from the restaurant, was Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake Pavilion which was surprisingly quiet given the number of people at the lake. As its name suggests, this was supposed to be prime spot for some moon viewing in Autumn
At the far eastern shore of the lake is the stone bridge referred to as Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge. Near the end of winter, the snow melts on the bridge thus breaking the what would have otherwise been a straight line of snow. Viewed atop one of the temples or mountains, it gives the visual illusion of a broken bridge.
By the time I made it back to the hostel and have burned not only my lunch but a few fats as well. I again underestimated the distance. Dusk had fallen, lunch was just a wisp of memory and my feet were killing me. I could have been the 11th Scenic Spot and called Backpacker With Aching Feet. The view around the lake was magical, though.
I was at the lake early the next day and the park was brimming with people doing tai-chi and dancing using fans. I took one of the tour boats (RM 40) thinking they were hop on-off boats. Turns out, you could only do the route once. You could stay as long as you want on Santanyinyue though and just take any of the boats to the final stop. There was a commentator inside the boat but it was in Chinese so I just stayed at the deck to enjoy the sights and the sun.
Santanyinyue is an island in the middle of the lake and is one of the Ten Scenic Spots and lays claim to “The Flags Mirroring in the Water” which refers to three small stone pagodas on the water which is lit with lanterns at certain times of the year. The island itself has 4 pools with a central pavilion that has been turned into a souvenir shop and teahouse and is linked to the rest of the island by bridges. With so many tour groups, it was hard to appreciate the tranquility of the island, let alone, get a nice shot. The pavilion fronting the stone pagodas in the water was just thronged with people. Judging from my entire West Lake experience, the place seems to be overrun by local Chines tourists. It is interesting though how they dressed as the most of the ladies are dressed-up with make-up and some in heels and dresses in spite of the heat and humidity.
I took the boat back to Gu Shan island and went to Yue Fei’s Temple on the other side of the road away from the lake.
Heading back to West Lake, I crossed the road to a pretty park which lead me to the start of the much longer Su Di causeway.
Lunch was at Louwaliou again where I had a bowl of rice, a plate of fried beancurd skins, and Dong Po pork which shocked me with it’s size. It was just a small chunk of pork served in a small cup. For RM28, it was expensive! It was very good though and is supposed to be one of Hangzhou’s signature dishes.
At the Zheijang Museum I went through the galleries that had exhibits of ceramics, jade, and celadon but I couldn’t understand anything as there were no English captions. The complex was nice though. On the main road ringing the lake I headed to the Shangri-la to look for the staircase to the Baochu Pagoda on top of the hill overlooking the lake but couldn’t find it. I just walked along the road and whenever I point to the map showing Mountain Where Rosy Clouds Linger to anyone they smile and just point to where I’m going. I had already passed the entire complex of Shangri-la but there was no path to be seen. I figured I might as well try to climb from the Baopu Taoist Monastery. I just kept walking along the street until I saw a small pathway on the other side of the road that led to what seemed to be a temple. I walked in and found myself in a small complex housing different galleries showing pre-historic times. It looked to be an ethnology museum. There were no English captions so I couldn’t make anything out of it. I again pointed to the map and the guard just pointed to the right and signaled me to just keep going. It took me past 2 temples one of which I suspected was the Baopu Taoist Temple with its yellow walls and Yin Yang sign on its entrance arch before I finally saw the market that pointed to the pathway. By this time, I had walked the entire length of the road from Yue Fei’s Temple to near the Bao Di causeway! I had yet to ascend the hill and my feet were already killing me.
It was about a hundred steps under a canopy of trees to the top of the hill where the a reconstructed Baochu Pagoda was perched. It was fenced in and it was just a stone replica and not a real pagoda you could go into. It was quiet on top and there weren’t many people. There wasn’t much of a view from the top as the lake was quite hidden by the trees and shrubs. I followed the sign that led to the Sunrise Trail.
It was a pretty walk and the trail was shaded by trees.
About 15 minutes later, I came upon a small pagoda where a middle-aged man was resting. I climbed the steps and took a break. A few minutes later, some Germans came up from another path which they said originated from Yue Fei Temple. The name didn’t ring a bell (hello! it was the path I was looking for). I stuck a conversation with them as the guy who was with his girlfriend, his mom, and his sister, said they were planning to visit the Philippines when they learned I was Filipino. They then continued on their way while I continued with mine.
I finally reached the Baopu Taoist Pagoda with its yellow walls. I went inside but there didn’t seem to be anything going on. I saw a white guy ascending some steps and decided to follow him. On top, I realized I was back on the trail! Rather than backtracking and then going all the way down to the main road, I took the trail again. I came upon some signs and decided to take the one that pointed to Yue Fei. Steep steps led down until I reached a junction where some a sign pointed to the intriguingly named Yellow Dragon Cave. There were lots of time to spare and I wanted to see a cave so I followed the sign. The steps led all the way down past some pretty scenery such as a bamboo forest until I reached what seemed to be a theme park for folk art. Yup. Yellow Dragon Cave was the Folk Art Park or something like that.
Oh well, at least I get to see some Hangzhou art. I paid the RM30 fee and followed the singing which led me to a courtyard where there was an opera going on. People were laughing so it must be some sort of a comedy. The opera ended and I wandered around the park. Pools displayed sculptures of scenes from Chinese folk tales. I entered an air-conditioned gallery which was supposed to feature Chinese classical music but it was empty except for a guy who was reading a book. There were instruments on stage, though. I took a seat and let the cool air wash over me.
Leaving the park, I realized I had to backtrack all the way up! Going up the steep steps, I silently berated myself for being too adventurous. Back on the main trail, I followed the sign that pointed to Yue Fei and promised myself to ignore all detours. I finally reached what seemed to be the end of the trail. Steep steps led down on a forested area. A middle-aged man running down the steps past me by. When I reached halfway down, he was on his way up. I think he was doing his exercise routine. I finally reached the bottom of the steps. On the other side was another set of steps leading up with a sign that pointed to some peak. I was a bit tempted to ascend but my aching feet told me otherwise. I followed a long street lined with small houses on the right and a red wall housing a complex on the left. When I reached the main road only then did I recognize Yue Fei’s Temple! That was the path I was looking for. I started out on the other end and returned by backtracking.
I crossed the road to the Su Di causeway and should have stopped and waited for the trolley to bring me back to the hostel. Maybe the heat had gotten into me and I had forgotten how tiring walking the shorter Bai Di causeway was the previous day. I decided to walk the Su Di causeway. I remembered how pretty it was when I passed by it on the trolley. Indeed it was pretty with willows and trees lining the road. I kept telling myself that I’m gonna find a nice spot to just sit and watch the lake and rest my feet. I was already 3/4 on the causeway and saw the entrance to a park or rather saw a throng of people entering a park. I bought a mango sherbet, found a nice bench overlooking the inner lake and cooled myself with the sherbet.
The park was also home to Gu Villa which was the getaway of a rich Chinese merchant. It had a nice garden and a long bridge along a lotus pond. Exiting the villa, I decided to just walk all the way back to the hostel again. Night had fallen by the time I reached the exit of the lake leading to the hostel.
Walking along Xixu Street, I stumbled on a Chinese-Muslim eatery which I suspected to be Uighur. The tell-tale sign was the women who wore head scarves the stack of flat bread. The picture menu also featured food that didn’t look Chinese at all. I ordered a bowl of noodles which was steaming hot and had a hot and sour taste similar to Thai soups. It seemed to be a family-run eatery. The teenage-boy who was serving was talking to me but we both couldn’t understand each other. His language also didn’t sound typically Chinese. On the way back, I passed by a French bakery for some pastries.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast of the flat bread I bought at the eatery last night, I was ready to go further afield. I was through with walking my feet off so I decided to finally ask the front desk about the bus route. The girl handed me a stack of papers compiled in a plastic folder and in it were all the destinations with the bus stops and bus numbers listed! Aaaarrggghh! I wanted to bump my head. I could have saved all that time if I had asked the first day I arrived. Taking the bus to Leifeng Pagoda, I realized how far I had walked the previous days.
It was kinda surreal riding an escalator to the steps of the pagoda and then an elevator up and then a few flight of stairs to get all the way up. Well, at least, the old people won’t have too much trouble with this pagoda.
The pagoda is actually a replica as the original had already fallen down centuries ago. You can view the excavated foundations of the pagoda in one of the lower floors. On the upper floors are galleries that tell the history of the pagoda and the legend that surrounds its. One of the floors has large intricately carved 3-dimensional wooden murals depicting the legend of a woman who was kidnapped and later saved.
The top of the pagoda has killer views and looking down at West Lake and the surrounding area you begin to wonder why you climbed all the way up to Baochu when taking a really great photo could be had with nary a drop of perspiration on your brow.
At the bus stop outside the pagoda, I took the bus to the Lingyin Temple which was some distance away. The terminus of the bus was a few meters from the pagoda so we walked the rest of the way. I would have wanted to take the cable car ride up to the North Peak but the girl at the information counter outside the temple couldn’t point me to the right direction. The temple complex is huge and if it weren’t because “I’m already here so might as well go the next mile,” I would have just stayed put in one of the temples. One interesting temple was filled with statues of different muscular and warrior-looking deities. Another had a maze-like display of different figures which seemed to be the entire pantheon of Chinese gods. Being one of the most important Buddhist temples in China, it was expectedly filled with people lighting joss sticks and praying.
Near the temple was a monastery that didn’t have a lot of people. But just like any other temple complex, it requires stairs, and there were lots of them, to get to the different temples. The path was very shady and pretty though and there was even a small waterfall running down in one portion. It was very quiet especially on the temples at the top. With the surrounding hills and forest, it was very peaceful you almost felt like a monk. There was also a traditionally preserved village outside the entrance to the monastery but I didn’t want to pay another RM40 just to enter it.
More interesting than the pagodas were the carvings and statues on the cliffs around Feilang Peak. That they were first carved in 951AD make it even more awesome and astounding. They reminded me of the river carvings on Kabal Spean at Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I especially like the carvings that were inside the caves and on the side of the cliff 0verlooking the river.
Steps all the way up led to the top which featured a—–souvenir stall selling incense and Buddha figures! Ahead of me was a Chinese guy who kept on muttering to himself. He took the trail on the other side then turned back. Branches with thorns partially blocked the trail. Not wanting to backtrack, I saw that I could squeeze out on one side. I looked back and there he was following me together with the the couple who were also with me on the way up. I skirted around the blocked trails and soon was back on the main trail.
I had a lunch at the resto inside the park which had good food at reasonable prices. I took the bus back to town and slept the afternoon off at the hostel after doing my laundry.
In the evening, before heading to Qinhefang for some souvenir shopping, I dropped by the Orioles Singing in the Willows park. The pathway lined with willows leading to the lake was really beautiful. This area is really one of the most scenic.
Crossing the road and the square, I headed to Qinhefang, a pedestrian-only street lined with Song Dynasty architecture that have been converted into shops.
One of the rally interesting ones was a colorful shop that was stocked full of all kinds of souvenirs, curious, and knick-knacks. I bought a patch and a pin. The more interesting finds were the stuff that was hanging from the ceiling. They had some Tibetan drums and lutes but the prices were prohibitve (RM 2800 for one lute I asked).
Stalls selling Chinese snacks were everywhere and I was surprised to see the original versions of some of the stuff being peddled back home such as belekoy.
What made some of the food shops specializing in certain products unique was that they were making the snacks fresh. One shop which was selling something that looked and tasted like peanut squares had 2 men pounding a sheet of the snack and rolling it. Really fun to watch.
But my best food experience was dropping by a tea house with the waiters in traditional clothes. I had a bowl of some kind of a sweet greenish thick soup made of sesame seeds. The server merely poured some hot water on a bowl which held some dried stuff. It was good but really sweet.
I took a short detour from the main road and found myself in a nice quiet street with hardly anyone there. That’s what I like about Qinhefang. All it takes is a few steps and you’re away from the crowd.
Rounding out a corner, I found myself on the other end of the main road and stumbled on two “heritage” brands, Honeymoon Dessert which serves Chinese dessert soups such as Waterchestnut Soup and a restaurant that was about a hundred years old.
Strangely, I ditched the dessert but headed for the restaurant where I had dumplings and a dish of fish that was really good. The fish was strange though as the meat looked like strips. They had a picture menu and the woman suggested the fish which she said was very good.
Even if you’re not buying anything, Qinhefang is a nice place to just meander along and peep into some of the shops and cafes. Some of them, such as the medicine shops and restaurants have been around for ages and carry the distinction of being some sort of a heritage brand (they have plaques on their walls announcing this). I especially like the medicine shops with their white-uniformed attendants and rows of cabinets from which come out exotic ingredients. Unfortunately, the museum of the Hu Qing Yu Tang medicine shop was closed already. Only the shop with its beautiful ceiling of delicately carved wood was open.
Hu Qing Yu Tang medicine shop
Corridor leading to the museum
Another medicine shop
As a cultural street, lots of shops were those of master craftsmen such as this one who does whole buildings and pagodas made out of bronze! In fact, the entire store, from the entrance all the way inside were made of bronze. There were replicas inside and they were amazing. The prices for the sculptures were of course expensive.
An entire ceiling made of bronze
My most treasured moment was stumbling on a Pintang performance. The traditional story-telling performance featured a middle-aged woman with a zither and clappers. She was mesmerizing to watch as she was full of energy and even if I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying, her actions, delivery, and facial expression were enough to keep me entertained.
My best souvenir from Hangzhou was my own seal with both my name in English and Chinese carved on it. It cost RMB 60 plus RMB10 for a small can of red ink. It took about 5 minutes to carve. There was an English-Chinese dictionary of names. Mine had two scripts but and the girl read my Chinese name aloud. I chose the second one because it sounded closer to my English name.
Heading back to the hostel, I decided to walk through the lake side from the Orioles park though it was past 10pm already. The pathways were well-lighted and there were still a lot of people in the park. The lake was beautiful as light shimmered on the tranquil water. I sat quietly on the boat dock and just let the scenery take over me. It was perfect.