8 October 2013

West Lake Story

Temples, tourists and tandems – a first taste of Hangzhou's famous West Lake 

There were no cabs to be found. Bus after bus pulled up where I waited along with thousands of other tourists, but their drivers just scoffed when Cecily, my guide, told them where we wanted to go. I began to fear that we would have to walk, or else hire one of the tandems so popular with the rest of this enormous crowd, if we hoped to arrive before the start of the show we had tickets for. Walking was a no-no – we were exhausted from an afternoon ticking off the sights of West Lake – and given the number of unskilled cyclists on the road, not to mention the terrifying Chinese drivers, a tandem felt like a bad idea too.

Then just as despair was setting in an old man on a mobility scooter asked us if we wanted a ride. It sounded like a joke, but after some haggling over the price, we ducked under the jerry-rigged umbrella sheltering the scooter from the non-existent rain, squeezed onto the back seat and off we went.

West Lake is the reason why Hangzhou, an otherwise unremarkable city of 6 million people an hour by train from Shanghai, is one of the most visited spots in China. It attracts 3 million tourists a year, almost all of them Chinese. I was there at the invitation of the city's tourist board, my task to tell the world about this beautiful place.

A sightseeing boat cruises past Leifeng Pagoda
I arrived in Hangzhou on day two of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a three-day public holiday and massive thanksgiving and harvest celebration. I had been warned that Hangzhou was a popular tourist spot – nothing could have prepared me for how busy it was that weekend.

As I walked from our hotel to the shore of the lake, dozens of families and groups of friends cut across my path on hired tandems and triplet bikes. As I bought tickets for a sightseeing cruise of West Lake, women behind me in the queue thrust fistfuls of money past me towards the ticket window. As we cruised serenely across the lake towards Fairy Island, parents carrying small children in their arms squeezed into ever smaller gaps on the port and starboard side walkways.

West Lake was formed around 2000 years ago when silt build up on the Qiantang River created sandbanks and a lagoon. Over the following centuries, dredging projects, complex irrigation systems and the construction of dykes and causeways saw the lake evolve into the shallow 6.5 sq km body of water we see now. It's been a popular tourist attraction since the 12th century, when the Southern Song Dynasty made Hangzhou its capital in 1127: pilgrims, merchants, politicians and poets took boating trips and visited the area's many temples back then with exactly the same enthusiasm as visitors today.

On Fairy Island, at the very centre of the lake, I wandered busy paths, stopping to admire fields of lotus plants (sadly not in flower until summertime) and the Broken Bridge, said to be the place where Xuxian and Bainianzi, the protagonists of one of China's favourite romantic legends, met and fell in love. Prettiest of all was the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, an area of the lake where where three small pagodas form a triangle in the water. The peaceful scene they form appears on China's 1RMB notes.

Clearly visible in the background, standing resplendent on a hill overlooking the lake and Fairy Island, was the next stop on my West Lake tour, the Leifeng Pagoda. Another boat ride and a few minutes' walk later and I was there. The pagoda dates back to 975 AD but collapsed in 1924 after falling into disrepair. It wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that the local government decided to rebuild it, opening the new tower in 2002. What may have been lost in ancient mystique has been gained in convenience – lifts and excellent lighting make exploring the tower an easy and pleasant experience. The best bits are at bottom and top: in the basement the carefully conserved base of the original tower is on display, while the views over West Lake, Hangzhou and the surroundings area from level five are truly magnificent.

View over the countryside surrounding
Hangzhou from Leifeng Pagoda
Back at ground level, and following a thrilling 20-minute mobility scoot along the Su Causeway, the lake was the star once more as the lights went down for Impression West Lake. This outdoor spectacular with a cast of dozens was co-directed by Zhang Yimou, director of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and films including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Taking place on a stage built 3cm below the surface of the lake in a natural theatre formed by hundreds of weeping willows, it marked a beautiful end to the day. 

A scene from Impression West Lake

My only regret? After the show I had to make my own way home – my mobility scooter knight in shining armour was nowhere to be found. 

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