Wanderings in China: Hangzhou
The train pulled away from Suzhou while I was still dreaming of its canals. The early morning light cast a strange quality over my surroundings. Everything seemed sharper, from people's cheekbones to the hills unfurling outside the train window.
China is a fast-paced place. The cities are big, the crowds jostle, and every train, bus and street is crowded. Even the language is rapid-fire quick. After 2 weeks of exploring different Chinese cities, I was tired. I felt like a disk full of too much information. I couldn't process any more of the beautiful, incomprehensible world around me.
And so it was probably perfect that we arrived in Hangzhou when we did. Known for its sprawling lake and natural beauty, it was the perfect place for me to rest and relax.
We stayed in a French Country-inspired guesthouse called You Sheng Mei Di (unfortunately they have no website) in Hangzhou's historic neighborhood, which makes the perfect home base for seeing all the city has to offer.
We spent the next 2 days exploring the famous West Lake and its' surrounding forests and parks. Had the brothers Grimm ever made it to Hangzhou they would've found the perfect setting for a fairy tale- the lush greens and deep waters, the spotted coy fish and smell of flowers in the air makes it feel like there must be princesses and elves nearby.
If you go, make sure to take your time and wander around the west lake and the trails across the road from it. If you stay in the historic neighborhood as we did, you'll be about a 15 min walk away from both. Get lost in the green-ness and remember how to walk at a slower pace. Breathe out.
Also, make sure you go on a boat tour of the West Lake. Traditional Chinese-style boats wind you through the waters, out to floating pagodas where, according to legend, Buddha left something for his followers (some say it was his hair, others claim his teeth, still others say it was documents of some kind- unfortunately a language barrier kept me from getting more details).
You may not find enlightenment on the water but you will find a sense of calm, which is perhaps one of the biggest commodities of our day.
We also visited the Leifeng Pagoda, sitting near the banks of the West Lake. The bottom levels are the ancient remains of the temple, and the rest is a historical reconstruction of it. The view from the top of the pagoda is also not to be missed, as you stand above the mist of the West Lake and feel the ancient air all around you. It's approx 35 RMB per person, which may feel pricey but is worth every bit.
[From top: 1) the forest across from West Lake, 2) Me in front of the Leifang Pagoda, 3) The view from the Pagoda peak, 4) the grounds near the pagoda]
But amidst all this heavy ancient air, near the trees that whisper of princesses and adventures, are normal people living simply. The slow pace of the historic neighborhood where we stayed felt like a never-ending Saturday. We ate at mom and pop traditional restaurants (there are a few great ones in this neighbourhood, so I suggest wandering around until your tummy rumbles!), and people-watched to our heart's content. Often, that meant watching others sort and tumble-dry green tea picked in the nearby mountains, literally considered the best tea in China. Women on their back porch roll the leaves in baskets, knowing their afternoon's work will be drank by politicians and dignitaries, and tourists willing to spend a lot on a cuppa.
I ate cheesecake and dragon fruit for breakfast at RS Cafe, across from our guesthouse. Located in the heart of the historic neighbourhood, they make a mean macchiato—something to brag about in China, where tea still permeates culture and coffee is more niche. I scribbled in my note book while drinking lattes there for hours and loved every second of it. I sketched the ladies with their tea leaves.
Later, I felt like a parallel universe Marie Antoinette, soaking in the tub of my guesthouse under a chandelier and watching the street life happen below my window later that same day. How had I forgotten to relax? I knew now I could never forget again- it was too wonderful to sleep in and not worry about being perfect.
[From top: 1) My cheesecake breakfast from RS Cafe, 2) The RS Cafe, 3) Hangzhou's famous tea]
We went to Hangzhou to see the lake and drink the famous tea. But, while we were there, we remembered how to slow down, how to exhale, and the pleasures of doing nothing.
Everyone knows the importance of balance, but for those of us seeking to find it, Hangzhou is a perfect lesson in what we're missing. It teaches the art of idleness like no other.
I left realizing how much I still have to learn.