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On a smog free day, this breezy and immense natural lake could be one of the highlights of your trip to China.
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I’ve been to West Lake in Hangzhou a few times. On my first trip I went with my colleagues at the English-language training school where I worked in Fuzhou. Fuzhou has its own impressive West Lake, but I had heard from my Chinese and Western fellow-travelers that it was dwarfed in size and impressiveness by Hangzhou’s. Many Chinese cities have “West Lakes.” But really, Hangzhou’s is THE West Lake of China, the largest and most famous with the longest history.
Hangzhou was a thriving and cosmopolitan commercial city before it became the mighty capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. Although this dynasty succumbed to the Mongols in the 13th century, who moved the capital to Beijing, Hangzhou continued to prosper and when Marco Polo visited he described it as “the City of Heaven, the most magnificent in all the world.” Historical records from both the Chinese and from the thousands of foreign residents who called Hangzhou home in the medieval period tell of a decadent and glamorous mecca for reclusive scholars, Buddhist temples, colorful markets, pleasure boats and prostitutes.
The city’s West Lake was the center of Hangzhou’s allure, and it has long occupied a mythical place in the Chinese imagination. The lake is the central setting of the Legend of the White Snake, one of China’s greatest and most popular folktales. The story tells of a kindhearted boy named Xu Xian and a white snake spirit named Bai Suzhen who’s fates are intertwined by the magical powers of a Daoist immortal. They fall in love on West Lake’s Broken Bridge. The villain of the story is a terrapin spirit, also imbued with powers from the immortal and transformed into an evil Buddhist monk. At one point in the story, the monk imprisons Bai Suzhen, the white snake, in West Lake’s Leifeng Pagoda.
During the Qing Dynasty, the poet Huang Zunxian wrote of West Lake,
I’ve never traveled to Hangzhou’s West Lake
But seem to have met it in my dreams someplace:
A vague and indistinct expanse of water and clouds
Where lotus leaves merge with weeping willow branches.
This is likely the impression of West Lake in the minds of many Chinese, many of whom have only had the privilege in recent decades to travel freely to Hangzhou as tourists. You’ll likely see crowds of them whenever you go to Hangzhou, in color coordinated caps, and the excitement on their faces is palpable.
On my first trip with my school, we boarded a boat near the statue of Yue Fei and enjoyed a short ride around Xiaoying Island. From a boat you can catch a close-up view of one of the iconic sites of West Lake, “Three Pools Reflecting the Moon.” These are three small pagodas rising out of the water. On a full moon lanterns are lit inside which cast moon-like reflections on the water. The site is memorialized on the one-RMB bank note. Later that day we went to a restaurant and enjoyed some local Hangzhou specialties like West Lake sweet and sour carp and Dragon Well green tea.
That brief glimpse of West Lake by boat ignited my desire to explore the lake further. Later, when I moved to Ningbo, Zhejiang, only a 30 minute bullet train ride from Hangzhou, I went on several more trips to West Lake in order to satisfy my curiosity.
I first went to the temple of Yue Fei, overlooking the banks of the lake. Yue Fei was a prominent general of the 11th century who led the armies of the Southern Song against the invading forces of the most dangerous “northern barbarians” of that time, the Jurchen who founded the northern Jin Dynasty. Yue Fei’s superiors were threatened by his increasing influence and popularity and sentenced him to death after falsely accusing him of sedition. He later became a martyr, even after both the Jin and Southern Song were swept aside by the Mongols in the next century. His temple today is pleasant to walk through and you can see some old statues of his tormenters, the then prime-minister and his wife, kneeling in chains. It was once a tradition to spit on them, but this is discouraged today.
Later on that freezing December night I went to watch Impression West Lake, one of the extravaganzas directed by Zhang Yimou, famous for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing. Since I’m a foreigner and ignorant of much of Chinese mythology, history and symbolism, the significance of the costumes and sets went a little over my head. But the swirling and colorful fabrics, light-shows and troupes of actors choreographed in perfect unison was undeniably impressive.
On a separate trip I went to Huanglong Dong Park and scrambled up the hills to get a closer look at Baoshu Ta, one of the more distinctive structures near West Lake and easily visible from most vantage points around the lake. The tower dates to the Song dynasty but, like most historic structures in China, it has been rebuilt countless times, most recently in 1933. Near here I trekked to the Lingering Clouds Mountain and its Baopu Daoist Compound. Not many tourists seek this place out and if you go at the right time you can hear the silence broken by the sonorous chants of the monks.
On another day I went to the Hu Qingyu Tang Museum of Chinese Medicine, nestled down an alley in a reconstructed historic neighborhood near West Lake. A trip here is recommended if you want a complete look at the more bizarre side of TCM, including its fixation on exotic animal parts, like bear bile and tiger testicles. The impressive main hall houses a functioning medicine shop, where you can buy herbal teas and other Qi boosting concoctions. Near the museum in this neighborhood is the city’s Drum Tower, a local mosque and numerous preserved art-deco buildings from the early 20th century, an excellent area to get lost, people watch and shop for souvenirs.
Finally, I walked across the Bai Causeway to Gu Shan island. The causeway is named after Bai Juyi, the 9th century poet-governor, considered the grandfather of West Lake, the first to actively campaign for the lake’s preservation due to its importance both culturally and to the local fisherman and farmers who relied on the lake’s water for irrigation. Gu Shan island was first dredged in the Tang Dynasty and today houses the Zhejiang Provincial Museum where you can see the usual stuff found in such Chinese state museums.
After three visits to West Lake, I still haven’t scratched the service of this magnificent UNESCO site. I still haven’t traversed the Su Causeway or gotten a close look at the Leifeng Pagoda or the Huaguang Garden. Who knows if I’ll get the chance to complete my exploration? Perhaps I’ll have to rely on my dreams, imaginings and memories, like Huang Zunxian and the poets of old.
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