Heading to the neighbouring Zhejiang province for the Labour Day weekend, we discovered the beauty that is Hangzhou. In the heart of this city lies the West Lake – a vast yet serene lake acting as a focal point for both locals and tourists.
Getting to & around Hangzhou
As with many of the Eastern cities of China, Hangzhou is connected to the rapidly developing high-speed rail network offering easy access even from hundreds of miles away. We arrived by G-train direct from Jiangsu province (passing via Shanghai en route) in a little over two hours, allowing us to take advantage of a full first day in the city rather than one spent endlessly travelling. The G-trains tend to arrive at the brand new Hangzhou East station, a vast transit hub which connects the city to the rest of China’s network (on this Labour Day weekend, this station was especially busy, easily the busiest place we had ever been).
Hangzhou, like so many cities, has an ever developing MTR network which is reaching out under the city. We opted to use this on arrival to get to the area of our hotel, although the network is still in its early stages and so the nearest station was a little under a kilometre from where we wanted to be. Furthermore, despite the efforts to make the network as future proof as possible and with a large capacity, the sheer number of commuters that day was overwhelming: we were literally pushed onto the MTR train at the station into a crowd with few airspaces let alone space for luggage! Getting off was a challenge too, with strategic movements toward the door needed to not miss your stop! Needless to say, given our initial experience, we avoided using the MTR that weekend opting for buses or foot instead. We did return on the MTR back to the station on our departure and this was busy but not overly so: clearly, our first day experience was due to the Labour Day.
Top Tip: As with much of the Chinese railway network, trains are very popular and tickets can sell out fast, especially on a holiday. We recommend that you try to book both your journey out and back so that you don’t end up getting stranded. Sorting your accommodation in advance is also advisable as we found that this sold out fast too!
One of the largest lakes in China, West Lake is the primary tourist draw within Hangzhou and the focal point for many of its visitors. Wandering around its extensive banks gives you brilliant views of the lake offset against a mixture of greenery and city. With the brilliant weather on Labour Day, the banks of the lake were very crowded but there was still space to get away and enjoy the views.
Some highlights of the lake that you could take advantage of include:
- The musical water fountains on the Eastern banks close to the city centre
- Mini lake cruises exploring the centre of the lake area
- The causeway at the Southern end of the lake allowing you to walk out across a narrow part with water on both sides
- Row boat rides on the lake
Top Tips: During public holidays and weekends, the lake can get very busy so some degree of patience will be needed to explore, especially around certain pinch points. That said, if you walk North or South you will find parts where you have some peace and quiet. Additionally, there a number of cafes, shops & concessions from which to purchase anything from a snack to a full meal.
Any student of Hangzhou’s history will be able to tell you that whilst there is a rich history linked to this city from its Imperial past, there is little to no evidence of this as much was destroyed by war or neglect over the years. The Leifeng Pagoda is no exception and, whilst it may look traditionally Chinese, is actually a modern reconstruction of the original built in AD 977 which collapsed in 1924. That said, the interior and exterior design not to mention the unparalleled views of the West Lake make this a good place to visit despite the artificial nature of the location.
Located in the South East region of the lake, the pagoda is easily accessible by bus or foot but can get very busy at the weekends in all weathers. On arrival, you will be greeted by a large square which, if it’s anything like what we found, will be swarming with people enjoying the area and the lake. Proceed across the square to the ticket office from which you can buy to go up to the Pagoda – tickets cost about 40 RMB each which appears to be an average for paid attractions in Hangzhou. When you pass through the ticket check, you get your first unobstructed view of the pagoda on the top of the hill. There is a long staircase that leads up to it but don’t worry: there’s escalators running to get you up to the top if you’d rather forego the walk. Once you get to the top, you enter the foundations of the pagoda which are actually the only original part. Inside here, you’ll see lots of Chinese visitors throwing money for good luck as this was where some original Buddhist scriptures were recovered from during the 2001 renovations.
The age of the pagoda is fully revealed when you get to its base ready to enter: there are a bank of elevators at the core ready to whisk the less mobile (and lazy!) up to the top of the pagoda. For those not afraid of a little stair climbing and wanting to get up quicker, the staircases are accessed by a different queue system. Each floor of the pagoda opens up to provide you with information on the stories of the West Lake (shown interactively on the first floor) or to show the recreation of the pagoda itself. Additionally, each of the four floors includes an outside balcony offering ever improving views of the West Lake spread out before you.
As well as the lake, Hangzhou is also home to a number of significant Buddhist temples and other places of interest. Continue to read our blog to find out more about these other amazing locations.