The most Googled city in China, with over 70 million domestic tourists per year, home of UNESCO World Heritage Site's West Lake, subject of Marco Polo's 13th century lyrical waxing (calling it "the city of heaven" and "the finest and most splendid city in the world"), Hangzhou is China's official capital of tea, silk, knives, umbrellas, fans, scissors, silk and porcelain.
And I had never heard of it.
Travelling in China can be impressive, awe-inspiring, amazing and all sorts of adjectives which do not normally include the word sabai. As 1.4 billion people push and shove their way to the future, visitors can feel at times stressed, if not overwhelmed. Not so in Hangzhou, a city of seven million, a mere three and a half hour's direct flight from Chiang Mai on AirAsia. Here, people seem to come to – emporarily – unshackle themselves from the burden of drive and ambition, and the city authorities have done a remarkable job at fending off the warped pace of development, instead honouring its splendid past; millennia-old, shophouse-lined streets renovated or reimagined; cosy tea houses where regulars sit, sip and play mah-jong; gently weeping willows skimming the surface of the famed West Lake, believed to be the source of inspiration for centuries of Japanese and Chinese landscape design.
Seven million, I can hear you thinking, how on earth is that relaxing? Well, city planners have clumped most of them in the new city to the northeast of the lake where condominiums line up like Lego bricks and the half a million foreign tourists a year never venture. Instead, the Hangzhou we are introduced to is that which is wrapped around the other three fourths of the vast lake, its large gardens connected by ancient stone causeways.
Everywhere you look it is green: gardens, trees, and lawns are impeccably maintained while modern blemishes such as electricity cables and spotlights are buried or cleverly camouflaged (wires encased in faux vines, lights hidden in fake birds' nest). Whereas bicycles have been superseded by modern forms of transportation in most other Chinese cities, here in Hangzhou, China's first bike-share programme, established in 2008, boasts 65,500 bikes throughout the city (by 2020 there will be 175,000) operating from 2,700 stations. Bikes are dirt cheap to rent and visitors can spend days riding through picturesque gardens, traversing the lake, visiting Buddhist pagodas, sipping tea (or beer) at lakeside cafes or popping into a traditional restaurant for a bite. A popular stretch is the Su Causeway, where many trendy locals and visitors come to show off their latest Pradas and take selfies. I felt very at home.
You can easily spend the entire holiday taking in the lake and its surroundings, as do the millions (70 million!) of Chinese tourists who come here each year. One of the nightly highlights of the area is the Impression West Lake show, directed by the man behind the 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening and acclaimed director of Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou. This kaleidoscopic show, which lights up the lake and blows the mind with hundreds of actors seemingly walking on water (the entire stage is built three centimetres below the surface), also has the cache of a soundtrack written by Grammy winning New Age musician Kitaro. The show is well worth the thousand baht ticket, and if you have too much money to burn, you can rent a private room and enjoy a banquet while watching the hour-long show for 250,000 baht. Nope, I didn't add a zero; you don't have to in this country where all numbers seem to boggle the mind.
If you can pull yourself away from the charms of the lake, there is much more to see in Hangzhou. Another lovely bicycle ride is along the Grand Canal. I had never heard of it either, but was stunned to find out that the canal runs 1,776 kilometres from Beijing to Hangzhou, is man-made, and in parts dates to the fifth century. In terms of engineering, it is no less impressive than the Great Wall.
Hangzhou is surprising like that.
Another claim to fame is yet another whopper. Tea, the world's most popular drink, was first cultivated in China in the second millennia BC, and it is here in Hangzhou that Chinese tea is most famed, notably the Longjing, or green tea in us-speak. You may have noticed that many Chinese tourists to Chiang Mai walk around with a thermos. In Hangzhou everyone carries a thermos of tea, and free hot water refills are available everywhere. In fact, in many restaurants, staff look confused when asked for water.
The Chinese talk about vintages of tea like wine lovers discussing grapes. Prices range from the reasonable to the outrageous and it is believed that local tea heals an assortment of ails and adds years to life. A short drive around the lake will take you to beautiful tea plantations where casual tea sipping, tea classes, outdoor banquets and charming walks can be enjoyed.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, apart from tea, Hangzhou also boasts being China's silk, knives, umbrellas, fans, scissors, silk and porcelain capital. And according to proud locals, Hangzhou's food is the best in China. To that end, some incredibly impressive museums have been dedicated to these items. Unfortunately, I went to all of them. Don't do that. Pick and choose your poison, though if you have a sense of humour you may enjoy the magnificent mountain-side Hangzhou Cuisine Museum where, at a cost to the government of 150 million baht, you can peruse hundreds of local dishes displayed by life-sized models, for free and enjoy yet another 20 dish banquet at their adjacent restaurant. The irony for we Thai visitors is that we did not enjoy the food at all. In our shared opinion, it lacked just one basic component: taste. Hangzhou cuisine is famed for its freshness and sweetness, enhancing natural flavours of local produce. Thai palates are probably too overburdened with life-long spices to appreciate such subtlety, but the museum was very impressive nonetheless, and more nuanced palates, I am told, find great joy in the local cuisine.
Another must-visit is Lingyin Temple, a working monastery founded in 328 AD which features stunning Buddhist carvings in the limestone caves and crags dating 1600 years. Though the sabai factor is scarce here, for a change, as throngs of people surge into pay their respects, it is worth the discomfort to wander around the temple's vast grounds and admire the carvings on the imaginatively named Peak Flown from Afar.
The nightlife in Hangzhou is nothing to write home about, though another, and for me even more impressive, nightly show is the Romance of the Song Dynasty, which advertises as one of the best shows in the world. I haven't seen many, but I wouldn't argue with them. Moulin Rougesque compilations, Olympian acrobatic feats, Las Vegas special effects and Chinese slapstick humour come together to tell the story of Hangzhou that will, and did, leave visitors slack-jawed. A ye olde Potemkin village of old China, complete with food stalls and souvenir shops, lines the walkway to and from the show.
Of course, no visit is complete without buying things for friends back home. And to that end, I found myself in touristy (Chinese that is; it was a rare sighting to see any other nationality) Qinghe Square. The old city is impeccably preserved here and shows off the best of China: charming crystal clear waterways, modern conveniences respectfully camouflaged to fit in with its ancient surroundings and hundreds of souvenir shops of all ilk selling replicas of the famous tea, silk, knives, umbrellas, fans, scissors, silk, porcelain and more. Food stalls here are a great place to sample local snacks in the hopes of sourcing some flavours.
Though hardly anyone I met in Hangzhou spoke English, people were very friendly and welcoming, and it is amazing how far you can get with sign language.
All in all, I would highly recommend any visitor to Hangzhou. China virgins will find this a gentler introduction to the oft-frenetic nation. Active types will have endless outdoors things to do. Culture vultures won't be disappointed with this ancient city, one of seven Chinese capitals through time. Even families can enjoy a leisurely long weekend with many kid-friendly activities. Hangzhou is also one of the safest cities in China and I felt perfectly comfortable walking home alone after midnight (shamefully, from a McDonald's).
A final piece of advice: if you are Thai, don't forget your chilli.
AirAsia has recently opened a new route to Hangzhou and they kindly invited the Chiang Mai press for a fam trip to promote the destination. Thank you very much,AirAsia, it was wonderful!
Daily flights from Chiang Mai to Hangzhou range between 6,000 and 10,000 baht, depending on promotions.