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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On the West Lake (part 2)

The West Lake 西湖 in Hángzhōu 杭州 may have been celebrated through the centuries by Chinese emperors and poets, but on Sunday it was difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Literally, for the previous night's drizzle combined with the day's haze to dull the skies over China's most famous lake. But as one can't travel to Hangzhou without getting out onto the water, following breakfast we left our hotel and made our way to the nearest pier:

The sky may have been overcast but the sailing was smooth as we traversed the lake:

We got off the boat at the island of Xiăoyíng 小瀛洲, better known as Sāntányìnyuè 三潭印月, which was built up in 1607:

The name Santanyinyue means "Three Flags Reflecting the Moon". The three "flags" are stone pagodas set in the water and are considered one of the defining scenic spots on Xīhú (West Lake). It's difficult in the modern age to see what so transfixed Chinese artists and poets of centuries past - perhaps a photographer should undertake a project to recreate those scenes that supposedly make the lake the very epitome of the Chinese aesthetic:

Looking across the water toward Léifēng Pagoda 雷峰塔. The day before we had climbed to the top floor of the tower to gaze upon Santanyinyue:

We next boarded another boat to travel to the northern shore of the lake:

In need of a taxi, we crossed the road to the Shrangi-La Hotel and had the staff hail one for us. The cab took us three kilometers (1.9 miles) to Fēilái Peak 飞来峰. The name of the hill translates as "The Hill that Flew Here" or "Peak Flying from Afar", and is derived from a legend of a hill that supposedly flew to Hangzhou from India. Fēilái Fēng is noted for its 470 Buddhist sculptures carved into the limestone rocks. They date from between the 10th and 14th centuries:

Feilai Peak's other big tourist draw is the Língyĭn Temple 灵隐寺, aka the Temple of the Soul's Retreat. It was founded in 326 by Huì Lĭ 慧理, an Indian Buddhist monk who visited Hangzhou in the 4th century. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt 16 times in its turbulent history:

The Great Hall has a 20 meter (66 feet)-high statue of Siddharta Gautama, carved from 24 blocks of camphor wood in 1956:

In the rear of the Great Hall is an amazing collection of 150 small figures surrounding Guānyīn  观音, the goddess of mercy:

Other halls contained statues of even more recent vintage than the Great Hall's:

Monks be chillin':

On the way out of the Feilai Feng tourist area:

We took a taxi back to our hotel, retrieved our bags, rode the subway to the train station and made our way back home. The dreary scenery and thick smog made for a dull, though mercifully short, ride back to Shànghăi 上海:

Frankly speaking, unlike some other of China's noted attractions (the Great Wall, the Army of the Terracotta Warriors, the cruise down the Li River), Hangzhou's West Lake doesn't always live up to the hype. The celebrated views that were so inspirational to poets of yore are hard to see these days among the tour groups and souvenir hawkers. Still, if we have time before we leave China, I would like to return to Hangzhou to see some of its other sights and to explore more of its surrounding hills.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On the West Lake (Part 1)

Lonely Planet describes it as "The very definition of classical beauty in China..With history heavily repackaged, it's not that authentic - not by a long shot - but it's still a grade-A cover version of classical China." The place in question is China's fabled West Lake 西湖, a must-see for virtually every Chinese tourist, and a stop on the itineraries of many foreign travelers as well. It took us sixteen months, but we finally got around to visiting some of the sights of Hángzhōu 杭州, home of the West Lake and the capital of the Southern Song dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries. Only an hour by high-speed train from Shànghăi Hóngqiáo Railway Station 上海虹桥站, we arrived at our hotel late on Friday evening:

One of several weak locally-brewed beers I would have this past weekend:

The Dōngpō Hotel 东坡宾馆, named after Sū Dōngpō 苏东坡 (an important Song dynasty political figure and a name that features prominently in local history), was a "B-grade" hotel by official Chinese standards (according to a sign in the lobby, similar in appearance to the health inspection certificates seen in restaurants). Our room had a view of the lake (if you cracked open the window, stuck your head outside and looked to the right) and there was a cool-looking atrium in the hotel's interior:

So on Saturday morning following breakfast, we strolled the couple of blocks over to the West Lake from the hotel and commenced walking in a northerly direction along the waterfront. The weather was cool, the sky was blue (sort of), and though it was hazy over the water, the seven-story Bàoshŭ Pagoda 报数塔 soon came into view:

The lake is spanned by two long causeways. We first walked along the shorter of the two, the 1500-meter (4921 feet) Bái Dī 白堤, which was constructed on the orders of a local governor in the 10th century. Lined with peach, plum and willow trees, it made for a nice walk in the early morning, before things became too congested:

The Bai Causeway leads to Gūshān Island 孤山岛, the largest island in the lake. It's home to a large park as well as the Zhèjiāng Provincial Museum 浙江博物馆, which we didn't enter despite the free admission but which is supposed to have an interesting collection of historical relics including coins and banknotes:

My daughter pauses to admire the view:

The Xīlíng Seal Engravers' Society 西泠印社 is dedicated to the traditional art of carving names on seals. The grounds are interesting to explore...: well as a good spot to have some Jasmine tea, play a few games of Go and admire the scenery of Xī Hú as the artists and poets used to do in centuries gone by:

The Broken Bridge connects Gushan Island to the mainland:

The Mausoleum of  General Yuè Fēi 岳飞墓 is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Hangzhou. Yue Fei was a 12th-century Southern Song military leader who defeated the Jurchen armies of Manchuria which had overrun northern China in a series of battles, only to fall victim to Song court politics. Executed in 1142, he was posthumously rehabilitated twenty years later and reburied in this tomb, with statues of those who conspired against him bound and kneeling in shame:

My wife was interested in the displays on Yue Fei's life, but I found the hagiographic paeans to loyalty, patriotism and the supremacy of the Han Chinese 汉族 all a little tiring, and it was with some sense of relief that we made our way out of the temple:

Another watery beer at lunchtime:

Qūyuàn Garden 曲院风荷 is a collection of gardens spread out among several islets. We would return to this spot later that evening:

Tackling the Sū Dī 苏堤, the longer of the two causeways. It was built under the auspices of Su Dongpo while he was serving as governor in the 11th century:

The Léifēng Pagoda 雷峰塔 popped in and out of sight as we walked along the causeway:

Reaching the end of the Su Causeway, we turned west and entered the grounds of the pagoda. It's a recent construction, with the 977 original having collapsed in 1924:

The foundations of the original pagoda could still be seen. To quote LP: "During renovations in 2001, Buddhist scriptures written on silk were discovered in the foundations, along with other treasures.":

The pagoda is associated with the famous Chinese folk tale Legend of the White Snake  白蛇传. Famous in the sense that most Chinese, my wife included, are familiar with the story. I was content with just admiring the views from the top floor:

From the pagoda we took an illegal taxi back to our hotel on the east side of the lake, where we relaxed for a while before going out for dinner:

After dinner, we took a bus back out to Quyuan Garden to watch Impression West Lake, a sound-and-light interpretation of the White Snake folktale. Though the show assumed the audience was already familiar with the story (a safe assumption), I enjoyed the lighting and the effect created by having the performers move around on submerged platforms, creating the illusion of making it appear they were walking (and dancing and running) on water:

A promotional film of the show:

We lucked out after the performance: a taxi driver who on his way into the city to pick up a fare overheard my wife telling another driver where we wanted to go (back to our hotel) and offered to take us at the normal metered rate. Such good fortune called for another 2.7% nightcap: