Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Hangzhou

In this newly wealthy medieval capital, Mary Lussiana finds luxury casting the city’s heritage into dynamic relief.

August 16 2010
Mary Lussiana

“Green mountains surround on all sides the still waters of the lake. Pavilions and towers in hues of gold and azure rise here and there. One would say a landscape composed by a painter.” This description of 13th-century Hangzhou, as cited in historian Jacques Gernet’s Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, is arguably the most evocative known to scholars; but as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) the citadel’s beauty has been immortalised by poets such as Bai Juyi or Lin Bu. For Marco Polo, who visited Hangzhou in its heyday as the prosperous capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, it was a “celestial city of abundant delights, which might lead an inhabitant to imagine himself in paradise...”

Cut to 2010, and Hangzhou is still arrestingly beautiful – though far from a static relic of the past. It’s become a thriving, modern metropolis of 6m inhabitants, counting information technology and cartoon production among its biggest industries. But the city has been sensitively segregated into areas of heritage sites (recently restored, as much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution) and 21st-century residential and commercial hubs, the inevitable high-rises thankfully kept away from the picturesque shores of West Lake. Meanwhile, the modern downtown is appealing and accessible, with an unmistakable buzz of prosperity in the perennially thronged streets.

Hangzhou itself is more accessible than in the past. The local airport began accepting long-haul international flights in 2004, and a bullet train zips here from Shanghai in a smooth 90 minutes, while a new maglev train is due to enter construction this year. Equally, Hangzhou is now particularly well suited to those seeking restful and deeply luxurious surroundings to complement the cultural enlightenment. A manicured, elegant Banyan Tree resort opened in January, as did Amanresorts’ second property in China, Amanfayun, while a formidably stylish Four Seasons will début later in the year.

What’s on offer varies greatly, providing degrees of opulence and austerity, heritage and modernity to satisfy all tastes. The Banyan Tree, set in the Xixi National Wetland Park, comprises 72 luxurious water-terraced suites and villas, richly decorated with locally produced silks and carved wooden lattice screens, and offering views over innumerable pools and fountains. There’s also the sort of massive state-of-the-art spa for which the brand is renowned, while its traditional Chinese restaurant, Bai Yun (White Cloud), does Hangzhou’s a delicious version of one of its most traditional dishes, West Lake carp with vinegar sauce.

Amanfayun instead lies just to the west of Hangzhou proper, nestled in a lush valley where magnificent Chinese horse chestnuts soar skywards and sweet osmanthus jostle with waxberries and magnolia. The local tea, Longjing (Dragon Well), is famed as the finest green tea in China, and several neighbouring villages have modernised alarmingly as a result of their successful exporting of it; hence the cachet of Fayun village (in which Amanfayun is housed) and its near-perfectly preserved architecture. You see no outward sign of a hotel here; the dwellings, some centuries old, are mostly constructed of camphor wood – dark and smooth and meticulously joined – with peaked clay-tile roofs. Interiors provide every comfort yet embody a restraint that befits the hushed surroundings: generous showers are framed by wooden lattice screens, deep basins encircled by hewn granite.

The path through Fayun village passes the hotel’s Steam House restaurant; aromatic vapours billow out from the bamboo baskets filled with steamed duck and quails’ eggs or beef shank with lotus root. Nearby, Hangzhou House offers regional delights: shrimps with green tea leaves, and meltingly tender Dongpo pork with Shaoxing rice wine, the sweet/sour combination typical of the local cuisine.

Also in Fayun is He Cha Guan tea house run by Miss Pang, who has another shop in the centre of town and is renowned for her Tea Ceremony skills, deftly showing how to release the sweet flavour of the fresh green leaves. Beautiful tea fields are found in the nearby village of Meijiawu, while Longjing is the location of China’s only Tea Museum. At the village entrance is Longjing Manor, considered Hangzhou’s best restaurant, with private dining pavilions set in gardens of ornamental trees. There is no menu (and no English) but the seasonal, organic food speaks for itself.

One of the attractions of Amanfayun is its proximity to Lingyin Si – Temple of the Soul’s Retreat – one of China’s 10 most important Buddhist temples and an absolute must-see whether staying at the hotel or not. Founded in 326AD by the Indian Buddhist Hui Li, whose ashes lie in the pagoda near the entrance, it houses a huge gilded camphor statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni (the original “Enlightened One”). Just opposite the temple is Feilai Feng – The Peak that Flew from Afar – so called as Hui Li was sure that this limestone mountain was the twin of one he knew in India. Between the 10th and 14th centuries more than 300 Buddhist statues were carved into its face, the most famous being the large-stomached Laughing Buddha.

On a clear day, one can see to West Lake from here; but far better to explore it up close. Daytime boaters enter a magical scene, rowing under bridges and past pagodas. Look out for the Six Harmonies Pagoda, originally built in 970, and the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon – a trio of diminutive water pagodas that are crowned with candles during full moon (a sight famous enough to have graced the one-yuan note). Willow trees bow and whisper, and in late summer hundreds of Lotus flowers unfurl over the jade green waters. An evening visit, however, affords the chance to see the sensational Impressions of the West Lake. This modern opera, retelling old legends, is directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, with music by Kitaro and a theme song by Zhang Liang Ying, one of China’s most revered pop stars.

It is on these shores that the Four Seasons is opening. Built in the Jiang Nan style – pagoda roof pavilions, rows of red columns and traditional Chinese water gardens – it will have 78 guest rooms and three villas, with hand-painted silk panels behind the beds and LCD screens inset in the bathrooms. A stroll out from the vast lobby reveals an infinity pool surrounded by the waters of the lake itself, which also course in channels through the gardens.

Serene interiors aside, the vibrant heart of Hangzhou is in its heritage neighbourhoods. For centuries renowned as the Capital of Tea and the City of Silk, and for its superb craftsmanship of fans and parasols; shopping for all the above amid the city’s myriad historic streets is still a deeply enjoyable pursuit. Xinhua Road is Silk Street, boasting 14 discrete varieties of the weave in wonderful bolts of colour that tumble out from the hotch-potch of shop fronts (look for scarves by Zhejiang Baoshidi, rated by locals as the best designer).

A walk down Qinghefang Street – the commercial centre of Hangzhou since the late sixth century (the carved wooden façades typical of the Ming and Qing dynasties) – turns up some of the city’s top craftsmen. Visit the Zhang Xiaoquan scissors shop, open since 1663, where the large handles and small sharp blades of its products have earned it a Time Honoured Brand marque of excellence; and the Wangxinji fan shop, selling exquisite examples in aromatic Sandalwood and black paper. There are chopstick shops catering for every budget and style; and between them stalls of paper cutters making fast work of lotus leaves, entwined fishes and intricate dragon scales from glossy red paper.

Slightly further into the centre is the fascinating Hu Qing Yu Tang Chinese Medicine Museum, which houses a wealth of implements and specimens, and is unique in China. Established as a pharmacy in 1874, it remains perfectly preserved, and is as fascinating for its architecture as it is for its ceaseless prescription of various medicines over the last century and a half: from swallows’ nests (excellent for the skin, it’s said) to cordyceps Sinensis (aka caterpillar fungus, offering hope to seekers of endurance and longevity).

Once only the haunt of die-hard history seekers, this ancient city is beginning a new chapter in its life. Beijing may be the Republic’s cultural epicentre, and Shanghai its financial one; but it is in cities such as Hangzhou where you can see what is happening in ordinary China – and ordinary China is going places, fast.