Hangzhou’s West Lake, long considered by the Chinese to be a “paradise on earth,” has so much to offer that it takes more than one day to explore. In Part One, we went over a full day walking itinerary for special landmarks along the lake’s northern half. Now we’ll be looking at the southern half. Yet again, this itinerary can easily fill up an entire day and then some. We’ll be visiting two of Hangzhou’s most beloved landmarks – Leifing Pagoda and the mysteriously-titled Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, in addition to some lesser visited yet fascinating locations.
Along the Eastern Edge
Let’s start this self-guided itinerary from the middle section of the east side of the lake. We’ll gradually be heading south, seeing the sites on the southern end of the lake before heading over to the Su Causeway.
I’m assuming that most people will be staying in a hotel in Hangzhou’s urban center to the east of the lake. If that’s not the case with you, then feel free to visit the landmarks in whatever order works best. All the destinations below are easy to find, especially compared with some of the locations visited in Part One.
There are said to be dozens of pavilions around Hangzhou’s West Lake, but the Jixian Pavilion is the most iconic. Chinese pavilions are typically built in locations deemed best for taking in the surrounding scenery, and this one is no exception.
The Jixian Pavilion was built during the Qing Dynasty in a bid to attract more scholars and poets to the city. According to the plan, creatives and intellectuals would choose to set up base in Hangzhou after getting a glimpse of West Lake from the pavilion. This strategy largely worked, and Hangzhou has long been regarded as an important cultural hub. Jixian Pavilion was also used by the Qianlong Emperor, the same ruler who built the Imperial Library on Gushan Island, to observe military parades.
The pavilion collapsed due to weather in 2012, but was rebuilt and reopened a few years ago. While resembling the original in its appearance, the structure is now kept firmly in place by steel beams. Though the pavilion tends to get pretty crowded, it’s definitely worth stopping by for at least a couple of minutes before heading on your way.
The Golden Buffalo
Just south of Jixian Pavilion is an interesting half-submerged sculpture of a golden buffalo. According to an ancient legend, we have a golden buffalo to thank for West Lake’s existence. Around 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty, the water in the area would occasionally dry up. Each time, though, a golden buffalo would appear and spew out lots of water, refilling the entire lake.
Local officials were less concerned with the lake then they were with catching this mysterious creature. They told villagers to drain the lake intentionally so that the buffalo would appear, allowing them to catch it. The buffalo showed up, but the plan backfired. The angry animal spit out so much water that the officials drowned. Ever since, the lake has never gone dry. And no more golden buffalo sightings have been reported, either.
Qian Wang Chi Temple
Following the collapse of the powerful Tang dynasty in the 10th century, China was divided up into a number of smaller kingdoms and territories. This relatively short-lived period was known as the ‘Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ era. Hangzhou, at the time, was ruled by the kingdom of Wuyue (907-978), one of China’s most wealthy and powerful.
The Wuyue kingdom was led by a family named Qian, who had five different kings rule throughout the 10th century. Today, they’re enshrined in the scenic Qian Wang Chi Temple in the southeastern part of West Lake. The temple is well-kept and rather large, yet for some reason doesn’t seem to get too many visitors.
After the formation of the Northern Song dynasty, the Song Emperor decided to build a shrine to commemorate the Qian kings. After all, they were willing to relinquish their territory without a fight in order to help peacefully reunite China. Originally known as Biaozhong Temple, it was located in a completely different part of West Lake, and then the commemorative shrine would be destroyed a number of times over the centuries.
This particular temple was actually just reconstructed at the turn of the millennium. Don’t let this turn you off from visiting, though. Everything was built in a traditional style, making Qian Wang Chi Temple feel much older than it really is.
Walking through the temple’s various rooms and exhibition halls, you’ll have the chance to learn more about the Qian Kings, who, despite their relatively short time in power, left a lasting legacy on the city. Arguably the highlight of this itinerary, the Leifing Pagoda, was built by King Qian Chu in 975 AD.
If you’ve already visited the landmarks from Part One, you’ll remember the Baochu Pagoda on the opposite end of the lake. It was built by the Wuyue king Qian Chu’s uncle, worried about his delayed return from the Northern Song capital. It turns out that Qian Chu decided to base himself there to quell the Song Emperor’s fears of a potential rebellion. While there is some debate over how ‘voluntary’ the relinquishment of Qian Chu’s power really was, his cooperation with the emperor did, at least, leave Hangzhou in peace.
Orioles Singing in the Willows
In Part One, I expressed my fascination with the amount of tranquil green areas you could find in Hangzhou, despite being a bustling metropolis of roughly 8 million people. But that’s just after the steep climb up Baoshi Mountain, right? Well, turns out that there are plenty more secluded areas on the West Lake’s south side that don’t require any hiking at all.
The area known as the Orioles Singing in the Willows is home to immaculately landscaped gardens you can have nearly all to yourself. And unlike Baoshi Mountain, you don’t have to do any hiking to get there. This is a perfect spot to spend an afternoon with a book, though we won’t have much time for that today.
Orioles Singing in the Willows is considered one of the ‘Ten Scenic Spots’ of West Lake. The part with the willows also provides a view of the lake itself, but this is also where you might encounter some crowds. Just heading a little further away from the water, and it’s like having a whole private garden (nearly) all to yourself!
From this area you can also easily head into town if you want to grab a bite to eat. Also nearby is the Hangzhou Confucian Temple, though we’ll be covering that in a separate article.
The southern end of West Lake is where you can find some of the best panoramic views of the lake and its surroundings. The landmarks here are also some of the oldest, dating as far back as the 10th century. While walkable from the eastern landmarks described above, this part of the lake is also well connected by local bus.
The Leifing Pagoda, as mentioned above, was built by Wuyue Kingdom ruler Qian Chu in the year 975. It was originally built in celebration of the birth of his son. But like with many other landmarks around West Lake, the one you see today is a more modern reconstruction.
Legend has it that the first Leifing Pagoda stood five stories tall and was burnt down by Japanese pirates in the 16th century. Its brick foundation, however, remained standing for a few hundred more years. According to local superstition, taking a brick from the old pagoda brought a person good luck. As a result, the structure gradually shrank. Eventually, someone removed one brick too many, with the pagoda finally collapsing in the year 1924.
Hangzhou went without any Leifing Pagoda for nearly 80 years, until the current structure standing now was built in 2002. Many locals and tourists alike complain that about the “modernness” of the current pagoda, bemoaning the fact that there’s an escalator up to the base. I’m not sure how anyone could argue that an old pile of bricks would be preferable, however.
Inside the base of the pagoda, you can find some of the old bricks from the much smaller original. There’s also a small exhibition, though English information is scarce.
Regardless of anyone’s thoughts about the design of the current Leifing Pagoda, though, there’s no denying that the views from the top are spectacular.
Aside from the views, the famous Chinese folktale called The Legend of The White Snake is the reason why Leifing Pagoda is so popular with locals. As we went over in Part One, the pagoda is where the final scene of the story takes place. This is where the hero Xu Xie gets trapped by the evil monk Fa Hai. Depending on the version of the story you read, it’s either his unconscious or dead body that’s dragged here, or his post-mortem soul. In either case, Bai Suzhen (a.k.a. Lady White Snake) attempts to rescue and revive her husband with magical herbs.
Again, the ending of the story may vary. Some versions have everyone living happily ever after, while others have the White Snake getting trapped in the pagoda herself! Interestingly, the folktale as we know it now may have been completely altered from a much simpler original. It’s possible that the monk Fa Hai was actually once the protagonist who did his part to rescue Xu Xie from an evil serpent.
The Jingci Temple is considered to be the most important Buddhist temple of the West Lake area. It was constructed by none of other than Qian Chu, the Wuyue ruler who built the Leifing Pagoda. Jingci Temple actually predates the pagoda by 20 years, but the way it looks today is largely thanks to reconstruction efforts carried out in the 1980’s.
Jingci Temple is most well-known for its large bell. In fact, it’s included as one of the ‘Ten Scenes of West Lake.’ Confusingly, though, especially to first-time visitors, the scenic spot is listed as “Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill,” rather than just something like “The Big Bell of Jingci Temple.”
Before my visit, I was under the impression that these were two separate landmarks, but they’re really one and the same. In fact, the temple isn’t even open in the evening, so don’t let the nickname throw you off!
Supposedly, the temple’s large bronze bell can occasionally be heard ringing throughout the southern part of West Lake, but I didn’t happen to hear anything during my visit. Regardless, the bell is certainly impressive to look at, as the entire thing is covered in inscriptions of the Buddhist Lotus Sutra.
The room with the bronze bell, it turns out, is just one section of a much larger temple complex. There are quite a few buildings to explore, one of them containing a large golden Buddha statue. Climbing all the way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent view of Leifing Pagoda through the trees.
During my visit, there happened to be a Buddha statue exhibition taking place at the temple. After having taken an interest in Buddha statues from Southeast Asia, it was interesting to notice the contrasts and similarities with the Chinese Mahayana styles. Generally speaking, Chinese Buddha statues tend to be more expressive and also more intricately detailed.
The Su Causeway
The Su Causeway was created by Song dynasty governor Su Dongpo. Just like his predecessor Bai Juyi, after whom the Bai Causeway is named, Su Dongpo will forever be remembered by this remarkable creation. The Su Causeway is incredibly long, stretching from the south of West Lake all the way up to the northern end near the Tomb of Yue Fei.
Walking along the causeway heading north, you’ll find the entrance to Huagang Park on your left. But depending on the time of day, you may want to visit Three Pools Mirroring the Moon first, before headed over to the park around sunset.
Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
Three Pools Mirroring the Moon is one of West Lake’s most mysterious yet most-visited landmarks. In fact, it could be considered one of the most famous sites in all of China, given the fact that it’s on the back of the ¥1 RMB note. But what exactly is it? Even after visiting the landmark, I’m still not completely sure!
The “Three Pools” part refers to the three lantern-like stone pavilions sticking out of the water. They form a triangle right in the middle of the lake, and are best viewed from an artificial island. To get there, you’ll need to hop on a boat departing from the middle of the Su Causeway.
Supposedly, the pavilions were placed in the water by governor Su Dongpo for both practical as well as artistic reasons. Their original purpose was to help determine the depth of the water. Yet they were deliberately made with holes in which candles were placed during special ceremonies in Autumn.
The artificial island was later added to during the Ming Dynasty. The mysterious lanterns in the water aside, the island is pleasant enough to make for a worthwhile stop in its own right. As you might expect, it contains the pavilions, lotus ponds, willow trees and other traditional Chinese elements you’re probably used to by now. But it’s still impressive to see how everything was laid out, especially considering the age of this man-made island.
GETTING THERE: Walking along the Su Causeway, you should come across one of numerous ticket booths for a “Hangzhou West Lake Pleasure Boat” destined for “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.” At ¥55 RMB, the tickets aren’t exactly cheap, but this price includes both access to the island as well as the return trip back. Keep in mind that you can take a return boat back to Su Causeway or to a number of other locations around West Lake, including the eastern edge.
Returning from the island, head back south down the causeway to enjoy the peaceful Huagang Park before the sun comes down. This area is also known as “Viewing Fish in a Flowering Harbour,” another one of those poetry-inspired names that’s likely lost some of its luster in translation.
Originally a private garden of an official during the Southern Song Dynasty (when Hangzhou was capital), the overall area is quite large, containing four separate sections. This is another one of those areas in Hangzhou that can be fun to aimlessly explore, never quite knowing what you’re going to find.
During my visit, the sun had already come down before I could see too much of Huagang Park. Though Hangzhou was my main base during my time in East China, there were so many other things to explore in the city that I never ended up making it back. Hopefully, I can return to Hangzhou some day before the secret eventually gets out about what’s easily one of Asia’s most underrated cities.
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.