Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mists, Romance and Folklore in Hangzhou, China

About 2 hours (by bus) south of cosmopolitan Shanghai in China lies the serenely beautiful Hangzhou (pronounced “hang joe”). It is Shanghai's favorite getaway. This is Shanghai’s “Baguio City” where people save their hard-earned yuans (RMB) for weddings or anniversaries. Hangzhou has a small population of local residents and real estate is on the upscale market. Presently, this city has a population of roughly 2 million, and is regularly visited by tourists for its natural beauty and the West Lakes.

Hangzhou's most famous sight is the West Lake. Technically, there are about 10 scenic areas, all accessible by ferry. In the early morning, these places are fog-bound, rendering a dreamlike state when touring the place. You can visit the islands, their temples and pagodas, or listen to the hundred-and-one legends being floated around by the guides.

It won't take you more than 5 hours of a leisurely stroll. The lake is medium sized and there are two shortcuts (causeways) through it. You can also hire small non-motor powered boats (¥80/hour for a personal boat with a driver, or use the ferry services – 1RMB=PhP7) to take you around the lake and to the two islands.

The most popular temple/pagoda is the Baochu pagoda, which is the tower on a hill, located north of the lake. This hill is a great hike, with excellent views of the lake and city, several smaller temples of a variety of religions, and Huanglong Cave on the northern slope of the hill.

The tour bus will drop you off in an area where, from there, you take a leisurely hike to go up the temples. Having seen so many temples already, I didn't find any one particularly interesting, but take note of the several bas reliefs on your way up - structures carved on the stony hills and around a cave.

There are several other pagodas to visit; some equipped with escalators, others cable cars. The lakeside benches and gazebos make great spots to enjoy the mild breeze. A couple of wedding ceremonies were being held as I moved around.

A highlight of visiting Hangzhou is getting out to Longjin Village which is a tea-planting community. We were brought inside a tea house. Inside, there was a guide who showed us how tea is prepared straight from the plant, down to the tea box.

I am not so fond of teas. Tea-dunking, anyone? Way back when I lived with the Darbies (they were all blond-and-blue) in North London for a year, they would always invite me for afternoon teas. I didn’t like teas then coz I wasn't schooled with the subtle art of xanthine appreciation, until my visit in Hangzhou. All the tourists, were invited in a room with a long table. Then there was a short Tea 101 tutorial, including the sniffing, swigging to the drinking: “gently stir your cup, smell… then sip a bit, stir again, with the gentlest of shakes, etc. etc.”

I found myself buying several “kinds”. Before I boarded my bus, I looked around the hilly surroundings and saw a beautiful field of tea plants rolling all over the village. How quaint!

China seems to have a multitude of spectacular places to visit. The huge problem is the language barrier. It was never easy navigating around cosmopolitan Shanghai, but going out of the city is almost an impossible endeavor. Even if you know the chinese word, you should have the proper
"tone" or accent. Mandarin is tonal, and one word may have 8 different meanings depending on the tone used.

Travelling alone around China can be very difficult. You have to have your map on hand with you, or a written chinese character of your destination. If you have a Chinese friend, ring him and let him speak on the phone for you.

A tea house in Hangzhou.

One of the only 2 Catholic Churches in Shanghai.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

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