Each year, the city of Hangzhou puts on an extravaganza to showcase itself to the rest of China and the world. And why not? Hangzhou has a lot to be proud of. So during the gala week in the middle of October last year, I joined a group of journalists on a one-week visit to Hangzhou, where we relaxed around the city's famed West Lake and toured a handful of the many sites the city and surrounding areas have to offer.
Hangzhou captures the spirit of Old China, a land of silk and tea and inspiration. The capital city of coastal Zhejiang province, Hangzhou has been a favorite destination for Chinese travelers for hundreds of years-for good reason. The air is moist and sweet, and West Lake, the crown jewel of the city's sites, provides innumerable opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment.
Perhaps the most famous foreign tourist to China, Marco Polo, praised West Lake for "all its grandeur and loveliness, its temples, monasteries, and gardens with their towering trees, running down to the water's edge."
"On the lake itself," he wrote, "is the endless procession of barges thronged with pleasure-seekers... their minds and thoughts are intent upon nothing but bodily pleasures and the delights of society."
Much of what Marco Polo wrote still rings true today. West Lake is still dotted with many pagodas and gardens. And though many places around the lake are inundated with tourists, secret, quiet places still hide along the shore. Surprises remain for any visitor who takes a few minutes to shirk the crowds and find a place to sit in the company of centuries-old bridges and groves of bamboo and pine.
Poets like Bai Juyi, who wrote during the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), would come to West Lake for inspiration. He was famous for his short, accessible poems, like "The Bloom Is Not a Bloom":
"The bloom is not a bloom, the mist not mist,At midnight she comes, and goes again at dawn.
She comes like a spring dream-how long will she stay?
She goes like morning clouds, without a trace."
Even in the less-secluded places along West Lake's shore waits a certain enjoyment in just sitting and watching the people pass. Old couples share apples on a bench as children drink orange soda and fly kites along the shore. Students lay out in the grass to take in the sun. The woods around the lake are full of chattering birds, and in the water, schools of silver fish crowd the shore. Families take picnic baskets on boats for lunch on the water.
This is the West Lake described by Marco Polo when Chinese from all walks of life strolled along the lake in their silk gowns and robes-locally made-taking in the clean air and the quiet that West Lake still offers today.
Away from the lake, visitors can pass about half a day at the China Silk Museum, located at the base of Jade Emperor Hill. Opened in 1992, the silk museum offers a complete history of Chinese silk. Up until about 1,000 years ago, China's silk production took place in the north. But when the Han people of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were pushed south by the Jin around 1127-establishing their southern capital at Hangzhou (then called Lin'an)-the silk experts came with them.
Inside the museum, visitors will find 2,000-year-old fragments of silk, a history of the Silk Road, and many costumes from different periods, all with distinctive styles, designs and weaves. There are demonstrations of silk weaving, and, for lucky visitors, a fashion show put on by local students from nearby universities.
For tea lovers or the simply curious, the China Tea Museum in Hangzhou is also a must-see. If you don't know the difference between making tea and making tea properly, you will by the time you leave.
"I think after you visit the museum, you will have an idea of the history of Chinese tea," museum curator Wu Shengtian told our group. "Tea is deeply rooted in Chinese culture."
Tea started in China, and in Hangzhou, Dragon Well tea, handpicked and hand-cured, is still made here. Tea export in China began during the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) and continues today, bringing foreigners closer to Chinese culture, Wu said.
They take tea very seriously here.
"The entire ceremony, with the tea leaves and the water, is all very strict," Wu said. "I think in China, tea is one of the few products that can combine commercial and cultural value."
You'll find the museum in Shuangfeng village, set against sprawling tea plantations west of the lake. The museum features proper tea ceremonies put on by the students trained by the museum's abutting school. Even a few hours spent at the tea museum yields a greater appreciation for the beverage itself and the work that can go into drinking it-from the curing of the tea to the craftsmanship of tea sets and the precision demanded by a tea ceremony.
Outside of Hangzhou, there is more to be explored, including the famous Lake of 1,000 Islands, which counts among its many attractions (according to local officials) the world's largest functioning lock.
Shaped like a golden dragon and towering over the tourists that come to gape at it, the lock looks like it could secure a giant's treasure chest. Also to be found on the lake is an island full of birds and an island that is called, quizzically, The Island to Remind You of Your Childhood, roughly translated.
Near the Lake of 1,000 Islands, on a reservoir of the Fuchun River, the Fishing Platform of Yan Ziling has been an attraction for nearly 2,000 years. Accessible now only by boat, the current site is just a head-nod to the real fishing platform, which lies somewhere well below the current water level. Yan Ziling was a writer and intellectual of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). He refused to become a member of the emperor's royal court, it is said, and chose instead to spend his days fishing in the shade of the steep mountains that plunge into the Fuchun River. His Fishing Platform became a rallying point for other writers and intellectuals of subsequent eras, and many of them wound up spending a lot of time in contemplation here. Today, lovers of Chinese literature will find a wealth of inspiration. The path that climbs above an old statue of Yan Ziling weaves through bamboo groves, where statues of great writers and thinkers hide, as though they are still shunning the eyes of past emperors. Along the path stand many stone tablets bearing the writings of these men and women (such as writers Bai Juyi, Su Shi, Fan Ahonyan, Tan Yin, and the calligrapher Zhao Mengfu). At the end of the steep path, the traveler is rewarded with a panoramic, cliff-top view of the Fuchun River.
If a tour of the writings of historical poets isn't ancient enough for you, you will soon be able to witness one of the oldest archeological findings in the history of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River Delta. Just southeast of Hangzhou proper, in Xiaoshan district, researchers have discovered a canoe carved out of a single tree 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. No museum has been approved for the old canoe or the hundreds of artifacts found alongside it, but a plan is in the works, according to Shi Jianong, the director of the archeological dig.
"It has to be planned together with other scenic spots around here," Shi said.
The peak season for visiting Hangzhou and its outlying areas is spring, but the local government holds a huge gala each year in the fall to bring in more people during the off season. The Hangzhou West Lake Expo features a week of festivities including a gala show replete with hundreds of dancers and many stars from China and beyond and a bewildering fireworks show over West Lake. Either time is a good time to go. Tea, silk, an island that will bring you back to your childhood, and glimpses of Old China: All of these and more await visitors to Hangzhou, where the past comes alive, and the future looks bright indeed.