The natural beauty and history of Hangzhou, China
Hangzhou is the capitol of Zhejiang Province in China and lies about 118 miles southwest of Shanghai. The city is known for its hillside tea plantations, history, leisure activities and natural beauty that has appealed to painters, writers and poets for over 1500 years. In fact, one of the most enchanting features of Hangzhou is West Lake, a fresh water lagoon that ranges about 3 square miles (nine miles in circumference). The entire lake area is comprised of three man-made islands and a causeway that divides the waterway into five lakes.
West Lake is one of China’s most cherished scenic resort areas, as well as international tourist destination. Visitors enjoy peaceful boat rides with views of the surrounding Chinese landscaped gardens, mountains, stone bridges and three stone pagodas named, Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon, that emerge from the lake. These pagodas are filled with lighted candles during the full moon and residents bring picnic baskets to the adjacent island to celebrate holidays and marvel over the reflecting candles on the water that mirror the moon. The Three pools is also printed on the back of the Chinese one-Yuan note, indicating its importance in Chinese culture. In addition, there are numerous legends and stories associated with the lovely lake, including its creation; the tale says the lake was created from a pearl dropped by a phoenix and a dragon. The traditional landscaped Chinese gardens surrounding West Lake are captivating to walk through. Swaying willow and sycamore trees accent small stone bridges that lead the visitor over ponds filled with Koi. Their still waters reflect the beautiful gardens and hillsides; it seems as if you’re gazing at an exquisite painting. Pagoda-covered benches and flowers of artistic design dot the gardens as you meander your way through this paradise with free-roaming peacocks echoing their haunting cry. In the evening, West Lake takes on a magical appearance with the production of Impressions, by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang YiMou, of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. This fantastic multi-million dollar production runs 364 days a year and takes place on and in West Lake. The audience is seated in a semi-circle at the edge of the lake with a panoramic view of the performance. In a dream-like setting, actors present the 1000 year-old myths that are associated with the lake. Colorful and ornate sets cast against multi-hued lighting of the surrounding park, tell a tale of impossible love with a passion that is profound. Fluid music accompanies enormous water features that cascade with changing form and color to highlight the show’s dramatic scenes. And, lighted boats carry the actors through scenes of intense drama. The September 2016 Impressions is a magnificent and unique production that astonishes all who experience it; there is nothing else like it in the world.
One of the most popular and busiest market streets in Hangzhou is Qinghefang. The historical street is over a thousand years old and features ancient shops, residences and traditional Chinese medicine. It is a perfect place to experience Chinese culture and shop for gorgeous fans, folk items, music and chopsticks. For a tasty treat, find a shop where they sell warm, sweet sticky rice that is a pinkish hue color. It is delicious and very different from western snacks. The market is a good place to pick up unusual and beautiful souvenirs as well, such as large and ornately designed paper sun umbrellas that are perfect for a home accent piece; they fold up well and are easy to take home on a plane. Located further down Qinghefang, visit the famous Medical Museum. The museum is also a working traditional Chinese medicine dispensary where residents and visitors obtain their herbs and medicinal remedies. The museum takes visitors through the history of Chinese medicine and how it is combined for various ailments. The old building is an incredible work of art and walking through the museum, displays of different herbs and photographs is engaging and fascinating. The herbs are inexpensive and a great alternative to western medicine for many people throughout the world as well as the Chinese.
Dragon Well Tea
China is the world’s second largest tea producer. Tea varieties include green, white, yellow, oolong and post-fermented teas such as Pu-erh, that serves as a medicinal as well. Due to the wonderful taste and beneficial health properties reputed in unfermented teas, the Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years. The most famous green tea in the country comes from the Dragon Well Tea Plantation in Hangzhou’s countryside hills in the village of Mey. Presidents, dignitaries and royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth, have visited the plantation to taste its legendary Longjing green tea that is picked and processed by hand. Upon arrival, visitors see hillsides covered with emerald green tea bushes in neat rows that stretch as far as the eye can see. It takes five years for a tea bush to mature before the leaves are ready for picking then a tea processor gently turns the leaves by hand in a large wooden barrel with a metal inner bowl. This process takes a significant amount of time and a lot of patience. After guests have walked through a portion of the plantation, they are treated to an entertaining small tea ceremony. It is then time for the garrulous and humorous Dr. Tea to arrive and provide visitors with a comprehensive and science-oriented tea class that explains the antioxidants in tea and why it is so incredibly beneficial to health. He also explains how to choose quality green tea as well. The good doctor even provides natural and simple tea recipes for common ailments (constipation included). Dragon Well tea is a bright emerald green with flat leaves and is quite distinguishable from other processed green tea leaves and the taste is unbelievably delicious! If you like the Dragon Well tea, make sure to buy some from the plantation, as it is difficult to obtain outside China and is extremely expensive if you do find it. Here is a tip on storing tea: it will stay fresh for up to five years if you store it in airtight containers in the freezer; and only one year if left on the shelf.
Buddhist temples reside across China and many are open to visitors. While in Hangzhou, visit one of China’s most famous monasteries, the 1,700 year-old Lingyin Temple (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat). The temple is set in a beautiful hillside with resident monks in attendance. Upon entering the temple grounds, visitors will see numerous Buddha images carved into the stone hillside, such as the Laughing Buddha. Some of these carvings are older than the temple and resonate the spiritual atmosphere that surrounds the sanctuary. The grounds are lovely and peaceful with Camphor trees lining the courtyards with 18 pavilions and 75 temple halls; the public can pray in several of the halls and burn incense in the outside courtyard over ornate pagoda-style burners. Lingyin is also the site of the largest sitting Buddha in China. The temple has many historical treasures, such as literature and spiritual artifacts that date back centuries. The most interesting sculptures, as side from the temples, is the hall with the 500 Arhat or followers of Buddha. No two are alike and it is said that if you go into the hall and look upon the Arhat, you will find the disciple you resemble. Lingyin temple is a treasure and a serene place to visit and admire the spiritual environment and artifacts that grace this famous and remarkable retreat.
When visiting China, most tourists elect to go with a tour group to get the most out of their trip and it is certainly recommended. The country is large and it can be difficult to communicate in some cities, as well as drive. Our top recommendation for the paramount tour company in the U.S. that provides the best value for the cost is China Spree. The company attends to literally every detail and provides four levels of tour packages; Super Value, First Class, Affordable Luxury and Expedition. Their rates are unbelievably low for the quality and length of tours; and the hotels, coaches and cuisine provided.