Halcyon Scenes of Hangzhou

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The monolithic powerhouse that is China may not immediately be synonymous with a peaceful retreat at one with nature, but in Hangzhou I discovered pockets of serenity and natural beauty that remain deeply entrenched in history – monuments to an imperial past.

 

Marco Polo dubbed Hangzhou the ‘city of heaven’ more than eight centuries ago. With a multitude of sacred temples gracing the area, this statement still holds true. One could dedicate an entire trip to exploring religious edifices, but a good start is Lingyin Si, one of the ten most important Zen Buddhist temples in all of China.


I set off in the morning with a companion well versed in its storied past. Lingyin Si – which means ‘Temple of Soul’s Retreat’ – was founded in AD 326 by an Indian monk named Huili. Enthralled by his surroundings, he concluded that the land should belong to holy beings. It was not hard to see why. Nestled in between the striking Feilai Peak and Beigao Peak in the Wulin Mountains, the fog rolled into the thickly wooded compound; misty tendrils lending an otherworldly air to the setting.


In its heyday, Lingyin housed 9 towers, 72 halls, 18 pavilions, and living quarters for over 3,000 monks. It has been reincarnated 16 times over the years due to decay caused by the ravages of time, marauders, and damage during the Cultural Revolution. Today you will encounter variations of the Buddha, pagodas, gardens, and cultural relics. Part of Lingyin’s charm is that it is still a practising temple. Saffron-robed monks can be observed going about their day, and pilgrims light fragrant incense offerings that waft plumes of heady smoke into the clouds.


The grounds are built in absolute harmony with the forest, and it is impossible not to be moved by the ethereal atmosphere. Adjacent to the temple is Fei Lai Feng, or the ‘Flying Peak’. This limestone peak is distinct from its sandstone neighbours, and legend has it that it flew in from India. Hundreds of Buddhas have been carved into the craggy hillside, and it is at once eerie and peaceful turning corners to see yet another benevolent figure within the rocks, or peeking out from a grotto. Nearby, children reach down into the stream fronting the famed Laughing Buddha, his grin as big as his pot belly. They splash each other without a care in the world as their parents stand in awe, gazing at this symbol of abundance and wealth.


Later that day, I was off to see the jewel of Hangzhou’s crown. The West Lake is synonymous with the city, and praised for its pagoda-capped hills, calm waters topped with lotus blossoms, and verdant landscaped gardens. The epitome of an iconic Chinese mise en scène, the West Lake is referenced in poetry and art across the ages, and has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.


The best way to enjoy the lake is by hiring a private, traditional wooden rowboat. The diminutive Mrs Wang welcomed me onto her little vessel, nodding towards the bow so I could sit alone, observing the vastness of the foggy picture before me. Low-hanging willows brushed against my skin as a cool breeze rippled through the foliage, and the sound of oars rhythmically diving into the water offered a soothing soundtrack. 


This is the spirit of the West Lake in a nutshell. Deeply entrenched in history, the scenes are so evocative one almost expects Confucius to appear from the mists, robe swishing behind him. Whether in winter or in summer, the changing sights remain pleasing to the eye. In the warmer months, grannies move slowly but surely through their early morning tai chi, performers practise Chinese Opera, and squirrels scuttle nimbly across tree branches. In the depths of the colder months, lovers huddle under snow-framed gazebos, clutching cups of steaming tea.


Hangzhou has long been hailed as a purveyor of the finest green tea in China, and even for a dedicated coffee aficionado, a visit to the Longjing tea plantations is a must. Legend has it that on a trip to Hangzhou, the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty was so taken by the tea he was served at Hu Gong Temple, that the 18 bushes in front were granted ‘imperial status’. The trees are still living, and their harvests are reserved especially for China’s top government officials.


Longjing, also known as ‘Dragon Well’ tea, has a remarkable smooth, aromatic, and refreshing flavour, and Hangzhou residents are fiercely proud of it. Little wonder then, that I was looking forward to actually sampling a cup of this revered brew at its source. Perched on Fenghuang Hill is a village blanketed in the emerald-green carpets of tea bushes. During harvest season in spring and autumn, guests are welcome to join in picking the leaves. The leaves are then graded and processed manually in iron pans. Tea masters adjust the temperature and their nimble-fingered movements change depending on the quality of the leaves. They swish, toss, and shake green buds with expert ease, but could I do the same? At China Tea King, I tried my hand at ‘roasting’ a batch in what resembled a large wok, strewing the leaves as best I could between my hands, much to the amusement of two giggling little girls.


My hard work complete, I was rewarded with a tea tasting, learning the subtle differences between the seven grades. The tea master, an elegant woman of an indiscriminate age, recommended that the tea be served in glassware or porcelain, and steeped in water no hotter than 75?C. Lesson over, she triumphantly raised her cup to mine, proclaiming that I too could look forever young if I drank as much as her. With this sales pitch, it was impossible to leave empty handed, and I’ve been a Dragon Well tea convert ever since. I guard my batch as fiercely as its namesake, and each time I take a sip I’m transported back to the West Lake.



 

My Hangzhou

Amanfayun

Nestled in a picturesque valley surrounded by dense forests and bamboo groves, Amanfayun is a serene 700-year-old village of 47 traditional dwellings set around a main pathway, adjacent to Lingyin and Yongfu Temples. On your way to the spa and t’ai chi room, you might hear the strains of beating drums or encounter monks passing through en route to their studies. This tranquil bolthole truly embodies the spirit of ancient Hangzhou and is an ideal base for your explorations. www.amanresorts.com

 

China National Silk Museum

South of the West Lake, on the road to Jade Emperor Hill, you’ll find a well-organised, commodious homage to silk. Covering over 50,000m2, the museum offers a compelling insight into the history of this precious textile. From interactive exhibits on silkworm cultivation, to working loom and spinning-wheel displays and archived artefacts dating back thousands of years, this is an essential starting point to precede your shopping.
en.chinasilkmuseum.com

 

Xinhua Lu – Silk Street

Xinhua Lu is a pedestrianised boulevard with over 600 wholesale and retail outlets selling silk apparel from Mandarin-collared shirts and cheongsam dresses, to modern clothing and decorative items such as tablecloths, fans, and even silk umbrellas. Purchase swathes of tapestry satin, georgette, and elephant crêpe to tailor into evening gowns or bridal wear, and you’ll be the belle of the ball.

 

Dragon Well Manor

Epicureans and locavores delight at the affable Dai Jianjun’s organic farm-to-table cuisine. Set in the pavilions of a classical Chinese garden, the restaurant boasts a seasonal prix fixe menu of Hangzhou dishes lovingly prepared from wild vegetables, farmhouse chickens, and seafood from nearby waters. In a country where food is commonly dosed with MSG, Dai is adamant that flavours should come from exceptional ingredients and home-made stocks and seasonings.
Book well in advance. 399 Longjing Road. Tel: +86 571 8788 8777

 


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