Given my recent busyness, I never got a chance to conclude the write-up of my previous mammoth mid-autumn trip around Jiangnan province. The third stop on this epic journey was the world-famous city of Hangzhou which lies about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai and is renowned for its beautiful West Lake as well as other historic sites.
To see Hangzhou properly you’ll need at least two or three days – one for the West Lake and the rest for surrounding places of interest. You can hire bicycles very cheaply from bike stations around the city – these come with automatic locks which allow you to hop on and off wherever you like. Don’t forget to take your passport as proof of identity when you first register.
One of the most interesting places I visited, slightly off the usual tourist trail, was the former residence of Hu Xueyan (胡雪岩故居) which is a colossal private house that was built by a rich businessman around 1872 (Qing Dynasty). Recently restored in 2001 the house is enclosed on all sides by high walls which hide much of the grandeur which lies within.
Inside is a complex labyrinth of exquisite courtyards, landscaped gardens, towers and sumptuously furnished chambers. Examples of the highest levels of craftsmanship can be seen everywhere with intricate stone/wooden carvings having been lovingly restored at a cost of 29 million yuan. Amazingly for a national holiday, it was surprisingly quiet and a nice place to relax away from the crowds.
Back in the hustle and bustle Hefang Old Street (河坊街) is a pedestrian area full of shops, restaurants and street food vendors. While most people passing through are tourists it’s worth a look, especially if you’re after souvenirs. Be prepared to queue if you’re going for dinner because most of the popular restaurants are often packed to bursting.
Along the street were a number of intriguing traditional Chinese medicine shops which were full of unfamiliar sights and smells. Despite the growing use of western medicine many people still rely heavily on this type of medicine to treat all manner of ailments – as to its effectiveness I have no idea but many swear by it. One shop was proudly displaying various ginseng roots, some of which cost the price of a modest house!
On every trip, I take there is usually at least one occasion when I get hopelessly lost. Such an occasion occurred in Hangzhou when I decided to cycle over the Qiantang River but vastly underestimated a) how far it was from the river and b) how wide the river was.
The river is known for the world’s largest tidal bore at this time of year, which is up to 9 metres high, and travels at up to 25 miles an hour. The original idea was to try and catch it but after nearly two hours of cycling the sun was setting and although I had crossed the river it looked like I had missed the main event.
I was clearly in uncharted territory and didn’t fancy the ride back (uphill all the way). Luckily after consulting Google Maps on my iPhone and the help of a bored security guard I managed to find a bike station not far from the opposite side of the bridge and took the bus the rest of the way back into town.
My lasting memory of Hangzhou will be walking along the lakeside at night and looking out over the still water. For all China’s crazy busyness it’s nice to know that you can still find a moment of peace and quiet.