Even though Marco Polo once called it the most splendid city in the world, Hangzhou remains a relatively obscure destination for foreign visitors to Asia. The city has been beloved by Chinese for centuries, however, and there’s even an old proverb which goes something like “Paradise in heaven, Hangzhou here on earth.” To be honest, I was a little bit skeptical before my visit. Could Hangzhou live up to the hype, given the fact that it’s now a bustling metropolis of 8 million people?
But after a couple of days exploring the area around Hangzhou’s West Lake, I quickly became a believer. What really makes Hangzhou shine is its perfect balance between modern urban and pristine green spaces. Walking around West Lake, there will be plenty of times when you’ll find yourself all alone on a peaceful mountain trail or in the middle of a lotus garden. Then, heading back to the city center, you’ll have access to modern amenities and an efficient subway system. Though Marco Polo was here long before the skyscrapers and neon lights of central Hangzhou appeared, I’d have to say that his comments about the city still hold true to this day.
Hangzhou is also a great place to learn about Chinese history, as it was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1138 – 1276). In the West Lake area alone, you’ll come across everything from towering pagodas to ancient Taoist temples to former Imperial libraries. In fact, there’s so much to do and see around the lake that it can’t be covered in a single article. Below, we’ll be going to go over a walking itinerary for the sites around West Lake’s northern half. In Part Two, we’ll go over the southern half, while covering other areas of the city in separate articles.
The Broken Bridge & The Legend of The White Snake
Let’s begin the day at one of Hangzhou’s most famous landmarks, the Broken Bridge. I’m going to assume most visitors are staying somewhere within the modern urban center east of the lake, so this itinerary will take us across the northern half of the lake from east to west. If you’re lucky enough to be staying just across the street from the lake, or perhaps somewhere in the western mountains, feel free to follow this itinerary in any order you like.
Before visiting Hangzhou, you owe it to yourself to read up on the classical Chinese folktale called The Legend of the White Snake. While the story is famous all over China, many of its significant scenes take place around Hangzhou’s West Lake. Each version of the story you come across will vary slightly, but here’s the gist of it:
The Legend of the White Snake
During the time of the Southern Song Dynasty, when Hangzhou was the capital, there lived a magical white snake, deep under the sea. This female snake had been practicing meditation and energy cultivation techniques for many years, eventually gaining the extraordinary ability to transform herself into a human woman.
She would often visit the human realm and walk the streets as a beautiful woman named Bai Suzhen. It was at the Broken Bridge that she first met a young man named Xu Xie, and she couldn’t get him out of her mind. She went out of her way to meet him a number of other times after that, and the two eventually got married. They lived happily for awhile, opening an herb shop in town and curing the sick.
Meanwhile, there was a Buddhist monk named Fa Hai who was determined to banish and expel all demons who dared make their way to the human world. He had the uncanny ability to sense these non-human entities, even when no one else could see them. He approached Xu Xie and convinced him to give his wife, then pregnant, a special type of wine. The wine, Fa Hai, explained, would help protect his wife and unborn child from harmful demons.
Bai Suzhen unwittingly drank the special brew at the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which was meant to do away with her disguise. Though she tried to hide it, Xu Xie caught a glimpse of his wife’s true form and fainted. Bai Suzhen then went to gather special herbs from the mountain to revive her unconscious husband. But the monk Fa Hai kept Xu Xie locked up inside of Hangzhou’s Leifing Pagoda – possibly for his own protection, or perhaps as punishment for daring to take a demon lover.
Some versions of the story have happy endings, while others end up tragically. The story has been depicted countless times in Chinese movies, television dramas and in operas. Considering the unique Chinese blend of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian themes, though, it’s no wonder why there haven’t been many attempts made to adapt the tale for Western audiences – not even as a watered down Disney version.
I’ve watched a few of the more recent films to get a better understanding of the story, and let’s just say they weren’t my cup of tea cinematically. Still, getting to know The Legend of The White Snake and its significance to the Chinese will help you understand why landmarks like the Broken Bridge are so widely visited. In Part Two, we’ll also be visiting the Leifing Pagoda where the end of the folktale takes place.
The Broken Bridge
The Broken Bridge clearly isn’t broken, so why is it called that? The reason is because it looks that way when buried under snow in the winter. In fact, many of West Lakes famous ‘scenic spots’ are seasonal, meaning that multiple visits are required to see them all in their full glory.
For now, take some time to admire the Broken Bridge but don’t walk all the way across it just yet. We’ll eventually do some backtracking and cross it later to get to the island in the middle of the lake. It’s best to become acquainted with the bridge now, though, as you’ll be observing it from many of the excellent viewpoints from atop our next destination, Baoshi Mountain.
Hiking Baoshi Mountain
From most big cities, you’d need to take a bus or a train all the way out to the outskirts of town to find the nearest hiking trail. But Baoshi Mountain is accessible from just across the street from West Lake’s northern half. And after only a few minutes on the trails, you’ll likely find yourself alone, with the busy city of Hangzhou feeling like it’s a world away.
Baoshi Mountain is home to a number of sightseeing spots but we’ll just go over some of the highlights. If you have more time in Hangzhou, you could easily spend most of a day here. Navigating your way around Baoshi can be somewhat disorienting, and it can be hard to tell where you’re going at times. Just keep in mind that you’re never too far away from the city, and the panoramic views of West Lake which the mountain periodically provides will remind you where you are.
Baoshi Mountain Statues
Walking past the Broken Bridge and walking across the street from the north side of West Lake, you’ll eventually come across one of the entrances to the mountain trails on your right-hand side. Before starting your ascent up the mountain, you’ll come across the remnants of the ‘Baoshi Mountain Statues.’ Originally carved in 1381 during the Ming Dynasty, there were once around thirty Buddha images carved into the side of the hill.
Tragically, all but a couple were completely destroyed in the 1960’s. The informational plaque doesn’t say why, but I suspect it might have had something to do with a “Revolution” of the “Cultural” variety.
Baochu Pagoda is one of Hangzhou’s prominent landmarks and can be seen from all over West Lake. Surprisingly, the pagoda actually appears smaller up close than it does from afar. As you’ll eventually find out, Baochu differs greatly from Leifing, West Lake’s other famous pagoda on its southern side. It’s a lot more tranquil, here, though, with relatively few visitors bothering to make the trek up.
The original Baochu Pagoda was constructed around the year 970. This was during the Northern Song Dynasty, which was actually a few hundred years before the formation of the Southern Song Dynasty, when Hangzhou was made the capital. The area at the time was ruled by the Wuyue Kingdom, and its ruler, Qian Chu, was summoned by the Northern Song Emperor to then-capital Kaifeng. But many months passed and the local king did not come back. Fearing for his safety, his uncle built the pagoda as a prayer for his return.
The pagoda has been rebuilt several times since then, with the current incarnation dating back to 1932. Unlike Leifing Pagoda, there’s no way to enter Baochi and climb to the top. You can still get some great views of both West Lake and the city center on either side of the pagoda, however.
Near the top, you should also come across a rustic yet stylish coffee shop, should you need to rest your legs. There’s also a small but excellent collection of souvenirs which I found to be a better value than the shops in town.
Walk down from the peak in the opposite direction from which you came. The trails can get a little confusing from this point, but the occasional sign in English will help point you in the right directions.
On the way to our next destination, the Baopu Taoist Monastery, you’ll likely pass by the Sunrise Pavilion, although this obviously isn’t the ideal time for a visit.
Baopu Taoist Temple
The Baopu Taoist Temple dates all the way back to the Jin Dynasty (266 – 420 AD). The temple is named after the legendary medicinal practitioner Ge Hong, whose Taoist name was Baopu Zi. Ge Hong was the author of a highly important book to traditional Chinese medicine called A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. But his interests were rather wide-ranging, as he also used the site of Baopu Temple to observe the stars and watch the sunrise.
If you’re interested in the topic of Chinese medicine, you can learn a lot more about Ge Hong and other Taoist-herbalists at the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the eastern part of Hangzhou.
The Baopu Taoist Temple offers even more fantastic views of West Lake. It’s no wonder why ancient Taoists like Ge Hong chose this as a place for study and meditation. Just outside the temple there’s even an “Alchemy Well,” which the ancient Taoists used in an attempt to create immortality pills!
I was the only tourist there during my visit, but the locals sitting around chatting over tea didn’t seem to pay me much mind. The temple actually costs ¥5 RMB to visit, but with no ticket gate anywhere, you just have to wait until somebody approaches you about it.
Lian Heng Memorial Hall
It’s finally time to descend the mountain. Walking down from Baopu Temple, you should come across another tranquil garden outside of what’s known as the ‘Liang Heng Memorial Hall.’ Lian Heng was an interesting historical figure who wrote ‘The General History of Taiwan’ back in the 1920’s. He was an advocate of establishing a national Taiwanese identity, yet he was ironically also a supporter of the Japanese who were ruling Taiwan at the time.
There are a number of exhibits about Liang Heng and Taiwanese culture and history, but it’s all completely in Chinese. The gardens are very well-kept and worth walking around for a little while, at least.
Now let’s do some backtracking and head back to the Broken Bridge.
A Visit to Gushan Island
Though a number of artificial islands were built later, Hangzhou’s West Lake is home to just one natural island called Gushan, or ‘Solitary Hill’ in English. There’s a lot to see and do on the island, and just like with Baoshi Mountain, you could spend the better part of a day here alone. As there’s not enough time for everything, we’re only going to cover a few of the main sites, but feel free to come back here on another day if you have the time.
The Bai Causeway
Fed up with having to take a boat every time to reach Gushan Island, the Tang dynasty (early 800’s) governor Bai Juyi decided to construct a causeway, linking the island with the Broken Bridge. Supposedly, that original causeway no longer exists, but a more recent construction was built over the same spot. It’s now affectionately referred to as the Bai Causeway after the governor who came up with the idea.
One of the reasons Bai Juyi was so determined to build the causeway is because he enjoyed spending time on Gushan Island during his days off. And he wouldn’t be the last. Later dynasties, like the Song and Qing, would build palaces and libraries here. Today, Gushan island is an excellent place to appreciate magnificent manmade gardens while being surrounded by West Lake’s natural scenery in all directions.
Walking across the causeway, you’ll come across a special scenic spot named ‘Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake.’ I didn’t end up making it back here at nighttime, but you might want to return after dark if you’re in Hangzhou during a full moon. Arriving on the island you’ll pass by institutions like the Zhejiang West Lake Gallery, the Xihu Contemporary Art Gallery and the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, which is said to contain thousands of historical relics. Having already spent hours on Baoshi Mountain, I figured I wouldn’t have enough time to fit the museums into my itinerary, and so I kept walking.
The Wen Lan Ge Imperial Library
The Wen Lan Ge Imperial Library was established during the Qing Dynasty, and was one of the only places in the country to house “The Complete Books of the Four Treasuries” compilation. Traditional Chinese libraries differ from their Western counterparts, and you’ll see ponds and gardens in the middle of the structures which once contained thousands of books.
The Siku Quanshu
The Siku Quanshu, also known as the “The Complete Books of the Four Treasuries,” was a massive compilation of texts that the Qianlong Emperor (1735 – 1796) of the Qing dynasty felt were worthy of preserving. The books were to be copied and compiled by hand by thousands of scribes. The success of the project, however, depended on how many Chinese citizens in possession of rare books were willing to send them in.
The Qing dynasty was never very popular. This was partly due to their policies and partly because they were of Manchurian and not of majority Han Chinese, descent. Considering how many texts from the previous Ming dynasty took an anti-Manchurian stance, scholars and book collectors at the time feared repercussions should they submit their books for the project.
The Qianlong Emperor eventually promised that all books would be rightfully returned to their owners after the project’s completion, and finally, the compiling of the Siku Quanshu was underway. Seven copies were made, with four kept in different cities in the southern half of the country. One of those special libraries was the Wen Lan Ge library in Hangzhou.
In total, the Siku Quanshu compilation was comprised of around 3,500 books. But contrary to the Emperor’s word, the books that didn’t make it into the collection were often burned, with some of their owners even getting killed by the regime. And even many of the books that did get approved ended up in the Siku Quanshu in heavily edited form.
The remnants of the compilation are now safely kept in the Zhejiang Provincial Library, but the former Imperial Library and its gardens remain an impressive Hangzhou landmark to this day.
Zhongshan Park (The Temporary Imperial Palace)
As he chose it to be the home to one of just seven copies of the Siku Quanshu, it’s clear that the Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong had taken a special liking to Gushan Island. In fact, just down the road, the same emperor ended up building an elaborate ‘Temporary Imperial Place’ that he could stay in during visits to Hangzhou from his capital of Beijing.
The palace that once stood on these grounds, unfortunately, is no more. Only small remnants of the old structure remain, but throughout the area you’ll find informative plaques describing in detail which structure sat at each site and what it was used for.
If that sounds anticlimactic, don’t worry. Today the area is home immaculately landscaped gardens and peaceful pavilions, making the ground of the ‘Temporary Imperial Palace’ one of the top attractions on Gushan Island, if not all of West Lake.
Around West Lake's Northwest
There are a number of things to do in the West Lake’s northwestern area. For one, you’ll find an abundance of restaurants and coffee shops here. This area is also where you can come and watch Impression West Lake, a light and dance show which takes place on a special stage built right on the lake itself! The theme of the performance changes by season, but they often do renditions of The Legend of White Snake we outlined above. Tickets are not cheap, though, going for around ¥360 RMB for an ordinary ticket.
Quyuan Lotus Garden
The Quyuan Lotus Garden is a scenic area consisting of various lotus ponds connected by small bridges. The garden is quite large, well-preserved, and also surprisingly quiet. Locals also believe the area to be haunted by the ghost of Su Xiaoxiao, a grief-stricken 5th century courtesan.
If you still have some energy left, you could easily spend at least an hour exploring. Disappointingly, though, it’s not the best place to catch a sunset because of all the nearby trees.
The Tomb of Yue Fei
The Tomb of Yue Fei, a highly important Hangzhou cultural site, occupies a space of nearly 4 acres. Here you’ll find information about one of China’s most revered generals, in addition to his mausoleum. The tomb is also a great place to learn more about the happenings of the Song Dynasty, the era in which Hangzhou was made the Imperial capital.
Who was Yue Fei?
Yue Fei is one of China’s most beloved historical generals and is considered a hero of the Song Dynasty. Before the establishment of the Southern Song Dynasty, the Song Empire controlled most of what makes up modern-day China. But when the Jurchens attacked from the North, the Song were forced to give up half of their land, abandoning their former capital of Kaifeng.
Yue Fei was born near the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, and would devote much of his life to fighting the Jurchens. Born as a farmer’s son, Fei quickly excelled at archery and other martial skills which he learned from his mentor Zhou Tong. As he rose up the military ranks, Fei would go on to achieve significant victories over the Jurchens, despite often being heavily outnumbered.
Fei’s military achievements, combined with his kindness to his soldiers and to the civilians of the towns he conquered, are largely why he is such a revered historical figure today. And Fei also epitomizes the Chinese concept of loyalty. Torn between fighting for the country and caring for his elderly mother, his mother famously tattooed the Chinese characters for ‘Loyalty to One’s Country’ on his back, making it clear where she thought his priorities should lie.
Despite all this, Fei would shockingly be accused of treason by the very kingdom he fought to protect. At one point, he was very close to retaking the former capital of Kaifeng, where the previous Song Emperor was being held captive. But then-Emperor Gaozong feared Yue Fei’s success would lead to the release of his predecessor, ultimately threatening his position on the throne.
Yue Fei was commanded to return to Hangzhou, resulting in many of the lands he conquered to be retaken by the Jurchens. Fei was ultimately killed at the hands of Song Chancellor Qin Hui at the young age of 39. To this day, Qin Hui is still regarded as a horrible traitor. Outside of Fei’s tomb in Hangzhou, you can even see a bronze statue of Qin Hui kneeling in remorse.
Considering Yue Fei’s popularity, the tomb is often crowded with domestic tourists. Depending on the size of the crowds, you should be able to see everything in an hour or two. Entrance to the tomb costs ¥25 RMB and it closes at 17:30. This is an ideal place to end your day before going out for dinner or seeing an Impression West Lake performance nearby.
Remember, everything outlined above is still less than half of all there is to do around West Lake. Stay tuned for Part Two to learn about the sites around the lake’s southern half. And there’s still plenty more to do and see in other parts of Hangzhou, which we’ll be going over in future articles. Hopefully, you’re starting to see why Hangzhou may very well be the most underrated travel destination in Asia – at least from a Western perspective.
Hangzhou has a comprehensive subway system which is great for getting around the modern city center, as well as to and from either one of its bullet train stations.
When getting to and from West Lake, however, you’ll want to rely on buses. The city’s bus system and efficient and easy to figure out, even if you don’t speak Chinese.
Generally, bus number 7 or 52 is going to get you in between the urban area to the east of the lake and the destinations along the northern half of West Lake.
Buses number 4 or 31 will take you between the city center and the southern part of the lake.
If you have a VPN, Google Maps gives surprisingly accurate bus route information, even if many of the other details for Hangzhou contain errors.
As mentioned, the itinerary above is completely walkable, though you’ll most likely want to take a bus back to your hotel.
The closer you stay to West Lake, the better. There are lots of luxury hotels just across the street from the lake in various sections. There are also many hotels, from luxury to lower budget, in the busy area to the east of the lake.
I stayed at a place called Hangzhou Fresh House Hotel and the location couldn’t have been more ideal. I was right by the Longxiangqiao subway station, which meant I could easily get to the bullet train stations for day trips. There are also plenty of restaurants and shopping malls nearby.
Best of all, the hotel was only about a ten minute walk from the eastern edge of West Lake. It truly was the best of both worlds.
The downside of Fresh House Hotel would have to be the language barrier and customer service. Even when I was able to eventually get my point across using translation apps, some of the staff members were unwilling to help me out with simple matters (like reserving an early morning taxi to an obscure bus station I needed to get to).
Aside from the service, the location is probably the best you’re going to find in all of Hangzhou for those who can’t afford 5 star hotels.
Remember, hotels in China need special licenses to even service foreigners in the first place, making options limited.
Getting to Hangzhou is easier than you might think. The airport has direct flights to and from cities like LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
You can also take a direct bus to Hangzhou from Pudong Airport in Shanghai.
Hangzhou also has two bullet train stations and four bus stations, making it incredibly easy to travel to and from Hangzhou by train from pretty much anywhere else in China.
When most people travel to eastern China, they make Shanghai their base. This makes sense, as it’s the biggest and most famous city with a huge airport. From Shanghai, many visitors simply visit Hangzhou as a day trip and return in the evening. This is a shame, as there’s so much to see and do in Hangzhou that even a week isn’t enough to see it all. While I like Shanghai, I’d highly recommend choosing Hangzhou as your base instead.
The two cities are close enough (about an hour apart by bullet train) that they share many of the same day trips in common. For example, you can get to many of the region’s water towns or visit the gardens of Suzhou just as easily from Hangzhou as you can from Shanghai. Hangzhou is also closer to the stunning mountains of Huangshan.
Hangzhou has no shortage of places to see, yet is not nearly as exhausting or difficult to get around compared to Shanghai. It has all the basic amenities you’d expect from a big city, but without Shanghai’s insane crowds. If you’re going to be staying in East China for awhile, Hangzhou is much less stressful, nearly as convenient and contains more cultural sites than Shanghai does.
Compared to Shanghai, you might have a harder time finding direct international flights in and out of Hangzhou, but the airport does have direct flights to places like LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And with two bullet train stations, it’s also incredibly easy to travel to and from Hangzhou by train from pretty much anywhere else in China.
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.