Hongzhou and West Lake

Tuesday 9 – Thursday 11 September

One highlight of our time in China has to be our guide David in Hangzhou. Think of him as the un-holy of China. Not only did he provide a wonderful narration of life and history in China, he frequently expressed his own opinion on life in China. He told us how difficult it is to save, he talked about poor product control and corrupt generals – he didn’t shy away from anything.

Hangshou is a prosperous town just an hour by bullet train to Shanghi. It was the capital of the Southern Song 1127-1279. Marco Polo considered it as finest and noblest in the world.

We visited the Lingyin Temple, where relatively ancient Buddha statues had survived the numerous uprisings. One set of carvings had been preserved during the cultural revolution when local scholars placed a banner in front praising Mao. Otherwise we saw disfigured faces rather like we had seen in Egypt as the Romans moved in.

There was a Buddhist conference while we visited the main temples. But there is not the crowds, nor the reverence we saw in South Korea and Japan.

We visited a tea plantation for green tea, and David explained the art of tea growing. The spring tips are preferred and most expensive, but tips are also picked in Summer and Autumn. The shrubs will be pruned back for winter.

Even drying tea leaves is an art, a special cylindrical drum has two sets if elements, both are turned on to dry the leaves quickly for about 3 minutes, then one element is used to complete the process slowly for about 15 minutes.

Of course there was the tasting and the offer of souvenirs. We were curious to see some ham hanging to dry, not prosiutta and not jamon but Chinese ham.

Next we climbed the Six Harmonies Pagoda. It is set beside the Chien Tang River. There was excitement in the city as a wave surge was expected the next day from a particularly big tide following the mid autumn moon. The tide travels inland as far as Hanzhou and this one was to be the highest in about 5 years. Past daredevils tried to swim the river on the tide, holding a red ribbon above their head. And the. There was the frantic story of the government lined its citizens in the water, arm in arm to protect the river wall. Of course they didn’t succeed and hundreds, perhaps thousand of souls were lost.

We climbed the steps inside the pagoda to view the hazy city and examine the magnificent internal structures. They still had rich decorations of geometric patterns you’d expect to see further west, mingled with traditional Chinese paintings. The arches, too, were Islamic in style.

We finished the day with a walk around West Lake, a delightful promenade that is also lit up at night. David told us the mornings are for the elders to exercise, the days are for the children to play and the evenings are for the lovers.

We started our second day with a boat ride on West Lake in a glitzy little boat which had supposedly taken Nixon & Kissinger for a ride. West Lake is represented on the 1 yuan note by the three pagodas that sit in the water.

Hangzhou was popular with the emperors and they particularly enjoyed the cool waters around the lake in summer. Another story described a particular emperor who visited Hangzhou incognito with his favourite concubine. As they became amorous on West Lake he noticed the boatman watching him. He therefore decreed that all boatman on West Lake should face backwards. And today the still do.

Afterwards we visited a Chinese medicine store and were amazed by what was on offer. We watched the pharmacy measuring various medicines of herbs, flowers and minerals for patients, although David explained that the preparation can be quite tedious so many people prefer to purchase prepared medicines in liquid or tablet form.

Some of the more expensive items such as a particular worm were elaborately packaged. These make a good gift for an administrator at the mid-autumn festival, who probably receives so many of the same gifts that they are thrown away. As David explained, the giving is most important.

At our next stop David was in his element, describing the absurd extravagances of the rich merchant Hu Xueyan’s Former Residence as he led us through the garden he had built for his parents. The obligatory receiving room for his visitors, the concubine’s quarters, the temple to pray at and even the servants quarters were all overshadowed by the garden with the largest man-made limestone cave, gazebos and zig-zag bridges, a stage and a tea room all overlooking a miniature lake. Clearly David saw this as extravagance that separated the rich from the peasants as contributing the China’s demise.