From Shanghai it was off by high-speed train to Hangzhou. This is one of those cases where the journey is every bit a part of the entertainment; there is just something about being on a train going 150 miles an hour that is cool. They’re all over China, of course; it’s just the U.S. that doesn’t seem to be able to develop effective high-speed rail.Once we got there, thought, we discovered that Hangzhou is really a beautiful city, or at least the part of it we saw is. It’s a city of “just” 8.7 million people, making it slightly bigger than New York City, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that most Americans – me included – have never really heard of it. It is, though, one of China’s primary tourist destinations, particularly for the Chinese themselves. As we walked around West Lake, the primary tourist attraction, there were almost no westerners besides us; I’m sure non-Asians made up less than one percent of the people enjoying West Lake the two days we were there. And as a result we were often the objects of much interest.
West Lake, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 for having inspired poets, artists, and scholars for over a thousand years, is the center of Hangzhou’s beauty. We had the opportunity to explore the lake on two very different days: Friday was gloomy and misty and beautiful while Saturday was clear and sunny and beautiful.
And crowded. Anyone who doubts there are a billion Chinese should go to West Lake on a beautiful spring Saturday, particularly after several days of cool rain. There might not have been a billion Chinese there, but there were a lot. And perfectly easy to understand why – it’s a stunning place. A big urban lake with beautiful landscaping and parks all around it. Even man-made causeways across the lake with willows and cherry trees and peach and plum trees, all just starting to blossom. It felt as though we were almost cheating to experience the beauty of spring in Hangzhou without having ever gone through winter. I mean, spring is supposed to be the reward for surviving winter, but for us we just dropped in at the right time. Instead, we saw – and more importantly smelled – our first lilacs of the year. Heaven.
Our last night there we went to a water show, one of those big Asian extravaganzas they like to produce on a lake or river. A cast of scores (though we saw one a couple years ago with a cast of hundreds) with lights and music and costumes on an only slightly submerged stage, acting out some great and ancient love story. I didn’t really understand it, of course, but it was beautiful and entertaining. The only down side of the evening is that for whatever reason the city is not remotely set up to get all the tourists who go to the show back to their homes or hotels afterwards; we had to walk a long way back – with kids who weren’t real keen on a long walk at 9:00 PM – before we could finally hail a cab for the rest of the journey back.
So that was Hangzhou. We would have considered staying longer but the forecast was for a return to cold, damp, rainy days after the one beautiful Saturday, so we decided to get out of the cold and head south to Hainan, a big island in the South China Sea. A little beach time is always a good thing.