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The Eternal Appeal of Hangzhou

Perhaps no Chinese metropolis entwines its past into modern life quite as magically as Hangzhou, an ancient lakeside city with style and serenity to burn.

Photographs by Jasper James

Taking in the scenery on the willow-lined shores of West Lake.
Taking in the scenery on the willow-lined shores of West Lake.

When Chinese film director Zhang Yimou transformed the placid surface of Hangzhou’s West Lake into a cascading pyramid of watery light as a symphony orchestra played Ode to Joy and fireworks exploded overhead, even world leaders excitedly whipped out their smartphones to record the spectacle.

Hosting last year’s G20 Summit was a defining 21st-century moment for Hangzhou. But it wasn’t the first time that the fabled Chinese lake city has made international headlines. Seven hundred years ago, Marco Polo described Hangzhou as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” Throughout Chinese 
history, emperors and scholars, painters and writers have espoused the serene charms of a place known in poems as “Heaven on Earth.”

On my first trip to Hangzhou, more than a decade ago, I remember wandering along willow-fringed West Lake, hiking through neatly groomed tea terraces, and listening to chanting monks in their mountaintop temples. Like many visitors, I felt like I’d been transported into a Chinese fairytale illustrated with watercolor brushstrokes. If only that fairytale had involved a magic carpet and a martini, as Hangzhou’s transport infrastructure and lifestyle offerings didn’t quite match the fables of its past.

Fast-forward to September 2016, when, as cameras panned across the city skyline during the G20 broadcasts, it wasn’t just pagodas and lotus-dappled lakes that Hangzhou was showing off to the world. Across town from the picturesque islands and stone causeways of West Lake, city planners have been erecting a new central business district beside the Qiantang River. Like many modern Chinese cities, the area is hallmarked by soaring skyscrapers and interpretive architecture. Here, the centerpieces are the neighboring International Conference Center (where the G20 delegates convened) and Grand Theatre, shaped like the sun and moon respectively. Both were designed to reference traditional Chinese symbolism, though the conference center’s giant reflective gold ball has perhaps been received with something less than awe: locals have dubbed it the Ferrero Rocher.

Tour guides heavily promote the G20 venues to Chinese package tourists seeking a reassuring vision of newness. But the benefits of this modern makeover reside beyond simplistic symbolism. A streamlined transport system, gorgeous new hotels, and sophisticated lifestyle and entertainment enclaves have added renewed luster to touring Hangzhou’s historic sites, which remain gloriously untouched by city planners.

An umbrella maker shows off her work at the Hangzhou Arts & Crafts Museum; a rain-slick courtyard next to the Dragon Well at Longjing village.
Left to right: An umbrella maker shows off her work at the Hangzhou Arts & Crafts Museum; a rain-slick courtyard next to the Dragon Well at Longjing village.

Most travelers arrive in Hangzhou via China’s high-speed rail network. The journey from Shanghai takes just an hour aboard one of dozens of daily bullet trains that make the 350-kph dash between the two cities. (Most of the high-speed trains utilize the massive new Hangzhou East Railway Station near the new CBD, but if you’re headed to West Lake, buy a ticket to the more central Hangzhou Railway Station instead. Both stations are connected to the metro network, which is a faster alternative than getting stuck in Hangzhou’s notorious traffic jams.)

On my most recent visit, I zipped into Hangzhou East Station and jumped onto a shiny new subway train. A few stops later I was in an express lift to the Sky Lobby of the city’s newest (and highest) hotel, Park Hyatt Hangzhou. Ensconced in beautiful gray marble far above the city streets, it makes for a graceful and impressive arrival experience. Higher still, the 48th-floor rooftop terrace is one of Hangzhou’s hottest nightlife destinations, serving up craft cocktails and live music to the city’s smart set. During the daytime, however, it provided a fine vantage point for me to plot out my trip.

Several bodies of water have defined Hangzhou’s urban landscape for centuries. The wide Qiantang River, unmissable from my perch atop the Park Hyatt, wends a thick curve through the east of the city. As the southern terminus of the Grand Canal linking Hangzhou and Beijing, the river has contributed to the city’s wealth and importance since the sixth century. It is also famous for the world’s largest reverse tidal bore, which surges upstream from Hangzhou Bay at up to 40 kph and a height of nine meters. Locals call this hydrological phenomenon the Silver Dragon. It occurs daily, but reaches its dramatic peak on the 18th day of the eighth lunar month.

Then there is West Lake, Hangzhou’s most beloved attraction. A stroll or paddle along at least part of its 15-kilometer shoreline is de rigueur, with scenic spots bearing such beguiling names as Lotus on the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, and Orioles Singing in the Willows. The steep wooded hillsides that cradle the lake and appear to dissolve into the sky in infinite shades of blue are also ripe for exploration. One holy mountain is home to the 1,700-year-old Lingyin Buddhist temple complex, and its surrounding grottoes are embedded with hundreds of centuries-old carved stone Buddhas.

On another hillside not far away, touristy Longjing (Dragon Well) is one of Hangzhou’s nine classic tea villages. To get there I hiked though undulating terrain past dark-green tea bushes and the large villas of prosperous tea farmers. The latter are generally happy to demonstrate the roasting of fresh leaves in a hot wok and may  even invite you inside for a refreshing cuppa.

Revered across China, Longjing green tea is grown, roasted, and enjoyed here much as it has been for centuries, but I was interested in a contemporary tea initiative that’s brewing deep in the forest. Shanghai-based French expat Marie Amiand, a former cosmetics consultant, was encountering health issues caused by Shanghai’s pollution when her research into natural detoxification led her to Hangzhou and its terraced tea plantations. “The EGCG polyphenol extracted from Longjing tea is the most powerful antioxidant found in nature; it’s 10,000 times more active than vitamin E,” she explained to me before my visit.

After several years of research and 
development with biotech laboratories in Japan, France, and China, Amiand launched her own skincare brand, Lu Ming Tang. Headquarted in Hangzhou, its range of fresh-scented creams, serums, and mists in chic vintage French packaging is infused with the healing and oxygenating powers of green tea and chlorophyll, which help to neutralize toxins and free radicals. Other products, like the Miraculous Detox Paste, are enriched with superfoods found in traditional Chinese medicine— things like jujube, sesame, and black rice.

Buddhist rock carvings at the ancient Lingyin temple complex; the upper-story tearoom at La Maison Lu Ming Tang in Longjing.
Left to right: Buddhist rock carvings at the ancient Lingyin temple complex; the upper-story tearoom at La Maison Lu Ming Tang in Longjing.

But Lu Ming Tang’s most precious gem can be found tucked away in the wooded hills above Longjing village. In an impressive coup, Amiand managed to convince government authorities to lease her the rebuilt Song-era temple house where the long-reigning Qing Emperor Qianlong is said to have scribed the Eight Scenes of Dragon Well. She then spent four years meticulously transforming the pavilion into today’s La Maison Lu Ming Tang.

On a rustic path just before the entrance to the village, I followed signposted forest trails past ornamental rockeries and gaggles of 
elderly residents chatting as they chewed sunflower seeds and sweet mandarins in the shade of pagodas. En route, I chanced upon the actual moss-cloaked Dragon Well that gave the village its name (the well’s clear, sweet water is said to make the best tea in the land) 
before scaling an ancient stone staircase to La Maison.

Fronted by a peaceful terrace with wooden tables and vases of pink and white hydrangeas, the pavilion makes a delightful spot for high tea. Its second-floor salon is decorated in elegant mint green with hardwood floors, carved lattice windows, and marble-top tables; framed mirrors lining the walls are etched with poetry about Longjing copied from Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy.

“Sometimes, it takes an outsider’s vision to showcase the gifts of our culture in a fresh new way,” I’m told by Lu Ming Tang’s retail manager John Wang. Local officials concur, and have recently granted Lu Ming Tang the official Longjing seal, a highly prized recognition of authenticity reserved for tea products exclusively from this hallowed village.

Hangzhou’s wealthy past has gifted it many refined artisan traditions, and my next stop was a quadrangle of modern museums built from the reconstructed remains of factories and warehouses along the Grand Canal in the city’s north.

My guide explained that 33 traditional folk-art skills from Hangzhou are inscribed for protection as intangible cultural heritage, and the Hangzhou Arts & Crafts Museum showcases more than half of them. Built on the site of a former silk-weaving factory, its upper floors host a permanent exhibition, but the second floor is the most fun: it’s home to 19 masters’ studios where you can watch Chinese artisans and their apprentices dexterously crafting silk umbrellas and fans, weaving delicate Xiaoshan lace, and carving miniature stones. Many of the studios are interactive and visitors can learn basic techniques, from paper cutting to having your own Ghost moment at the pottery wheel.

A carving of a mythical qilin at Lingyin Temple; the lobby lounge at the Midtown Shangri-La.
Left to right: A carving of a mythical qilin at Lingyin Temple; the lobby lounge at the Midtown Shangri-La.

If you wish to delve deeper into specific crafts, you can skip across the courtyard to the China Umbrella Museum, China Fan Museum, or the dramatically titled China Knives, Scissors, and Swords Museum—chop chop! I, however, chose a different type of artistic endeavor. “I like to think of Loopy not just as a club but as a mini arts center fostering new trends,” young Hangzhounese music promoter Yifei Shu told me as we nibbled on tapas in the restaurant at his year-old party space Loopy. Overhead, a hot-pink neon sign reads: TIME YOU ENJOY WASTING IS NOT WASTED.

Born in Hangzhou, Yifei studied fashion design at nearby Zhejiang University and fashion photography in London. After four years abroad, he returned to his hometown to open a photo studio where he also hosted occasional music gigs. “I realized that Hangzhou needed more live music venues to gather with friends and create and enjoy good music and modern culture,” he said. With his shoulder-length hair and thin gold-rimmed glasses, the soft-spoken photographer has since become an unlikely pioneer of Hangzhou’s electronic music scene.

Late last year, Yifei opened Loopy in a shopping mall not far from West Lake. Fronted by a restaurant serving Spanish-style bites, the club is accessed via a padded corridor that leads into a double-height concrete bunker, where a small stage hosts a regular roster of hip-hop, trap, and techno DJs and live bands. Moritz von Oswald and HVOB are among the recent gigs.

Yifei studied classical piano as a child and plays keyboard for a local band called Junks. He developed a passion for techno music when he lived in London and is eager to educate Hangzhou music mavens. “Locals are used to going out to commercial clubs to dance and drink. We are trying to introduce a new club culture by bringing great underground musicians to Hangzhou,” he explained. “I’m proud when a big-name DJ comes to China and their tour posters list Hangzhou alongside Beijing and Shanghai.”

As part of his mission to spark new ideas, Loopy also hosts a series of TED-style talks by entrepreneurs and innovators in different fields, showcases rotating art exhibitions, and screens cult movies and documentaries in the cozy bunker. “Hangzhou is well known for being a relaxed tourist city,” Yifei added. “People here tend to be easily satisfied and there isn’t much motivation to explore the world or new habits. It’s not like Shanghai, which has always had a lot of foreign influences. But this is changing.”

A barman at the Midtown Brewery; public art at the Kerry Centre.
Left to right: A barman at the Midtown Brewery; public art at the Kerry Centre.

Leaving Loopy, I crossed a sleepy ribbon of the old Grand Canal—another reminder of how Hangzhou magically weaves its past into modern life. I’m just in time to catch sunset on West Lake; it’s the best time of day, when the pastel blues and greens are offset by golden rays reflecting from the water and pagoda roof tiles.

Flanked by pavilion-studded mountains and often draped in mist, it is easy to see how this landscape entranced generations of poets and artists. Around me, groups of dancers practiced Latin steps (including one lady in full Flamenco attire!), seniors performed their evening tai chi exercises, and office workers pedaled home on app-sharing bicycles, all seemingly basking in that sense of easy satisfaction that Yifei described.

A few minutes’ stroll from the water’s edge, another large new development has greatly improved the dining and entertainment options near West Lake. Located on the old Zhejiang University campus, Kerry Center comprises the Midtown Shangri-La hotel, a trendy shopping mall, plus loads of cafés and bars set in pleasant alfresco courtyards.

Shangri-La opened its first mainland China hotel in Hangzhou back in 1984 and its new flagship has already become a hip local hangout. Guests can open their French doors to reveal glimpses of the lake, while a relaxed central courtyard with gurgling water features and weekend pop-up markets exemplifies quintessential Hangzhou living. The adjacent shopping mall offers luxury and high-street brands plus some standout local labels. HGHI’s smart cheongsams and embroidered silk shirts are worth checking out, as is the Lu Ming Tang boutique.

For a taste of Hangzhou cuisine, join the line at Cheng Zhong in the Kerry Centre mall for creative local favorites like Dongpo pork, sautéed river shrimp with Longjing tea leaves, and West Lake vinegar fish, along with Cantonese and local
dim sum. On the ground floor and extending out into the courtyard, Midtown Brewery attracts a fun crowd with craft beers brewed in-house and named after Hangzhou metro stops, like the Pengbu Porter and Linping Pale Ale. In the evening, there’s a lively band from Colombia.

Back on the lake, Impression West Lake: Enduring Memories of Hangzhou is a new version of the long-running music-and-laser pageant produced by Zhang Yimou that so beguiled G20 leaders last year. Involving hundreds of performers, a floating stage, and dazzling high-tech effects, the show depicts classic Hangzhou legends and Chinese folk songs with a sprinkling of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But more than anything else, it serves as a fitting tribute to a city that’s enjoying a new chapter in its eloquent history.

A view across tea plantations toward West Lake; the Sky Lounge at Park Hyatt Hangzhou.
Left to right: A view across tea plantations toward West Lake; the Sky Lounge at Park Hyatt Hangzhou.
The Details
Getting There

While most travelers arrive in Hangzhou by rail—it’s just 45 minutes from Shanghai on a high-speed train—flying is another option. Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan Airport is serviced by budget airlines from across Asia and a few European destinations; a handy 72-hour visa-free policy extends to transiting air passengers from more than 50 countries.

Where to Stay

Park Hyatt Hangzhou
1366 Qianjiang Rd.; 86-571/8696-1234; doubles from US$212.

Midtown Shangri-La, Hangzhou
6 Changshou Rd., Kerry Centre; 86-571/8733-8888; doubles from US$165.

What to See and Do

Hangzhou Arts & Crafts Museum
334 Xiaohe Rd.; 86-571/8819-7511.

La Maison Lu Ming Tang
Longjing; 86-571/8101-1368.

Impression West Lake

Lingyin Temple
Fei Lai Feng Scenic Area.

313, 77 South Zhongshan Rd.; 86/186-5718-8959.


This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Hangzhou’s Enduring Allure”).

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