I have been living in Shanghai for 10 months now and one of my favorite day trips/quick weekend getaways is to the beautiful city of Hangzhou. Shanghai is known for its iconic skyline. It has a new Disney Park and Resort. It has every kind of shopping/bar hopping/eating that you could imagine, but when you need to see a little green and escape the smog for a day, Hangzhou is just a train ride away.
An hour by metro, followed by an hour on a high speed train (the whole trip only costs $15), and you’ve emerged from the most populated, forward thinking metropolis in China to see a very different city, one with over 2000 years of history. This adoration of the past is nearly unmistakable, made evident by hundreds of stone sculptures, sprinkled like beads of jade amongst the native fauna. If you haven’t noticed yet, there is just something I love about seeing so much green in nature. I will take a beautiful mountain full of trees over a white sand beach any day. (But give me a white sand beach at the bottom of a green mountain and I’m in heaven)
Anyway, I have put together my list of ‘Top 5’ things to do in Hangzhou!
1. Fei Lai Feng/Lingyin Temple – When I was trying to research where exactly this hilltop got its name (Fei Lai Feng loosely translates to “peak from afar”), there were various versions of the story, but most common was how a monk noticed this particular mountain, made mostly of limestone, is not typically found in this part of China (limestone is usually found in the most southern recesses of Eastern Asia). As you walk around the garden and mountain on your way up to the Temple, you can see hundreds of different Buddha statues carved into the mountain, some of them dating all the way back to the 10th century. While my mom and I were walking around, we started to hear chanting coming from what looked like a tiny hole in the mountain. Obviously, I had to go check it out. We found the entrance to the cave, a hole was just big enough to walk through. Inside, people were lighting candles and praying to a Buddha statue that had been carved into the cavern wall. Young men, women in heels, children, elderly, all sorts of people were climbing up steep, slippery steps to pay their respects to these hundreds of statues all along the mountain on their way to visit the Temple.
2. Six Harmonies Pagoda – The first version of this pagoda was built in 970 A.D. and still contains over 200 brick carvings. You can climb up these ridiculously steep steps to the top and get the most beautiful view of the city and the Qiantang River. After reaching the height of the structure, I was able to see how perfectly placed this pagoda is. You really can see everything. Surrounding the pagoda is a garden that has statues of all of the famous pagodas around other cities of China. There is even one that was so old, if you didn’t know to look for it, you wouldn’t be able to find it because the trees and grass have almost covered it completely. There is also the sounding bell. If you ring it six times, you’ll be blessed with good luck (six is a lucky number in China.) Naturally, I snagged some good luck before heading to my next destination.
3. West Lake – Marco Polo called Hangzhou the most enchanting city in the entire world because of how beautiful West Lake was when he first laid his eyes on it. Legends say that the lake was a jewel that fell down to earth from heaven. It has even been labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you want to see the whole thing, my suggestion would be to rent a bike to ride around to see all ten scenes of traditional architecture they have built around the lake. My first trip, I tackled this mission while it was extremely foggy, so I couldn’t see all the scenes, but I still really enjoyed it!
4. National Tea Museum – When I heard about the museum and how you got to see the tea fields, I pictured something like this: A large building full of various types of tea, how to brew it, how they plant it, etc. Then, they take you out to see one specific field and that was that…. Nope. I was wrong. It is not an actual museum at all. No walls. Just scattered small buildings throughout tea fields and other vegetation. When I was there, I saw some cars in the parking lot, but honestly did not see anyone around. So I just followed paths wherever they led me! Some were to other buildings that were a part of the museum, others to dead ends, and one took me all the way up to the top of the mountain where the fields stop. I kept waiting to see a sign that would give me some indication as to where I was supposed to stop or have somebody come out of no where to tell me I wasn’t allowed to enter that area, but no one came by. I was truly able to walk around and pretend it was my very own secret garden.
5. Hefang Street – The hostel that I had stayed at for a night was down one of the side streets off of Hefang street. During the day it looked like your typical tourist vendor street, but at night it turned into a spectacular night market. Hefang is a pedestrian walking street with no cars allowed. It was filled with Chinese crafts, food, artisans, tea shops, general souvenir shops, and storytellers. There was a man selling beautiful glass necklaces with flowers inside of them. Through my practically nonexistent Mandarin, his equally nonexistent English, and 10-year-old girl who was clearly more attentive in her language classes than either of us, I was able to figure out that he makes the necklaces by hand. His grandmother spends her day outside trying to gather flowers for him to use. I got a few for myself. Christmas was right around the corner, so I picked up a few as presents for friends, as well.
If you are super diligent and plan ahead, you COULD get all of these done in one day…if you leave before sunrise and are ok with taking the last train out of Hangzhou… but a weekend trip would be perfect if you want a chance to breathe. You could do it as a solo trip or with friends. Either way, it is a nice escape to what is, technically, a tourist destination, free of swarming foreigners.