Sunrise to sunset around West Lake
Revered by emperors and inspiring poets for centuries, Hangzhou has long been considered one of the most beautiful destinations in all of China. “Above there is heaven,” the Chinese say. “Below there is Hangzhou”. Marco Polo even went so far as to describe the city as “the most beautiful and magnificent in the world” when he visited at the end of the 13th century, and if the number of visitors that still flock here to witness this magnificence are anything to go by, its reputation has not waned one bit in the intervening years.
The capital of Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou is still amongst the top tourist destinations in China. Famed for its idyllic setting between lush green hills, rivers and canals, it has been one of the country’s most prosperous cities for much of the last 1000 years. But there is really only one thing that gets talked about when you talk about Hangzhou. It is West Lake that the guidebooks swoon over. It is West Lake that brings the rest of China to the city to see those famed waters for themselves, its centuries-old renown drawing visitors from far and wide to see what all the fuss is about.
The area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and comprises not only the lake itself but the hills around it. There are also temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, causeways and islands to visit, with ten sights in particular traditionally cited as the Ten Scenes of West Lake. Among these are such evocatively named attractions as Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring, Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter, Orioles Singing in the Willows and Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Hill. But since it wasn’t spring and there was neither snow nor singing orioles when I visited, or even evening bells to hear, my West Lake wandering had to make its own entertainment.
What follows is thus an alternative Ten Scenes of West Lake compiled during my first full day’s trek clockwise around the lake, having set out at sunrise and only returning after the sun had set more than 14 hours later. Enjoy!
1. Exercising under the pavilion at dawn
It comes as no surprise when you see the dedication with which they go about their morning routines that the Chinese are renowned for their longevity. No matter how early you think you’ve got yourself up and out to greet the day, in China, you’ll always be beaten to the door by that hardcore of veterans for whom getting up at 4am is a way of life, not just a well-thought out exception. Every morning in cities across the country, parks and riversides, lakesides and squares, begin to fill well before dawn with sprightly over-60s getting ready to get breathless before most people have even considered dragging themselves out of bed. In Hangzhou, West Lake is the perfect setting for walkers, joggers, tai chi’ers and the like, to keep themselves in shape and put the younger generations to shame as the sun rises over the water and the birds start chatting in the trees.
2. Admiring Leifeng Pagoda through the trees
Leifeng Pagoda is located at the southern end of West Lake on Sunset Hill. It was originally constructed in the year 975, collapsed in 1924, and was rebuilt as recently as 2002. As well as being one of the ten traditional sights of West Lake, the pagoda is also the subject of one of the most well-known Chinese legends.
In short, The Legend of the White Snake is a love story which tells of a young man who marries a beautiful woman. Nothing controversial about that, except the woman is in fact a snake that has taken on human form, and as a result, is imprisoned under the pagoda by a Buddhist monk who opposed such a union. Years later, the couple’s son offered a sacrifice to his banished mother in front of Leifeng Pagoda, an action which moved God so much that he caused the pagoda to collapse, thus enabling the family to reunite.
There are no snake women to be seen these days, but the pagoda is a lakeside landmark which gives excellent views of the lake and its surroundings from the top of its five stories.
3. Boating beneath the summer sun
From evening cruises to solo pedallos, a trip to West Lake is the perfect opportunity to get out on the water and reacquaint yourself with the gods of oars and caulking.
A boat is essential if you are visiting Xiaoying Island and the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, though many more West Lake sailors are content just to while their time away close to the shore or be rowed gently to sleep as the bridges and causeways drift by.
The three pools themselves refer to the three pear-shaped pagodas arranged in a triangle within Xiaoying Island. Originally erected by the poet and public official Su Shi, they are said to be the best place around West Lake for viewing the moon and have been featured on the reverse side of the 1 Yuan note.
4. Appreciating lotus flowers in the lakeside gardens
Summer is the season that sees West Lake turn green with blooming lotus flowers. Traditionally, Quyuan Garden at the north-eastern corner of the lake is the place to witness one of the most famous of West Lake’s ten scenes, namely, Lotus in the Breeze in Quyuan Garden. However, during the summer months, lotuses can be seen all around the lake and in its neighbouring gardens, creating a bright green canopy over the water almost wherever you happen to look.
5. Viewing the lake through the willow branches
But lotuses are not the only flora that West Lake is famous for, there are also the familiar weeping willow trees that line the path along much of the water’s edge. Lazily draping their branches into the ripples, they are another of West Lake’s iconic features that draw thousands to its banks during the summer months. The trees also feature in the traditional ten scenes as the Orioles Singing in the Willows. Once an imperial park in the Southern Song Dynasty, the Orioles Singing in the Willows can be found on the southeastern shore of the lake covering 21 hectares of landscaped loveliness. The park is an ambling area of lawns, paths and pavilions for which the willow trees provide the backdrop and some much-sought shade from the afternoon sun.
6. Circumnavigating the lake by bike
Visitors to Hangzhou will find on their arrival the most developed public cycle system in China. It is said that there are over 1000 bicycle rental stations within the city, each allowing the public to rent one of the distinctive red bicycles for only a couple of RMB per hour.
Since the 12km circumference would take a good few hours to walk, once rented, the bike becomes the best way to see West Lake and its environs, with many well-travelled routes to choose from. Many of routes around the lake are relatively traffic-free, while the causeways and lakeside paths are ideal for tootling away the day – if you can avoid the pedestrians.
7. Contemplating the lake from Baochu Pagoda
Like Leifeng Pagoda at the southern end the lake, Baochu Pagoda, located at the top of Precious Stone Hill in the north, is another West Lake landmark.
It is said that after founding the Northern Song Dynasty, the new emperor summoned Qian Chu, the king of Wuyue, to the capital at Kaifeng, prompting Qian Chu’s uncle to construct the pagoda in order that prayers could be said for his nephew’s safe return. The pagoda was constructed between 968 and 975 but has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt since. The present reconstruction, carried out in 1933, is a seven storey structure roughly thirty meters high, while the rocks and hills that comprise the Baochu area, give excellent views of the lake and the city.
8. Looking for love at Broken Bridge
Located at the eastern end of Bai Causeway, Broken Bridge is perhaps the most famous bridge on West Lake. It measures 8.8 metres in length and is almost the same wide, with its stone arch spanning just over six metres. The original Broken Bridge was said to have been constructed in Tang Dynasty, though today’s bridge was reconstructed in the early twentieth century.
The bridge is also another West Lake landmark featured in the Legend of the White Snake. It is here that the young man, Xu Xian, first met the snake woman he would later marry. As such, the Broken Bridge has become a place of pilgrimage for couples and people wishing for love and marriage.
9. Gathering with the gear guys towards evening
But after all that, it’s really always the sunset that everybody wants to see, and as the sun begins sink behind the northern hills, the tripods and fancy gear-wielders gather at the southern edges to try and get that perfect shot. Like so …