Heavenly Hangzhou

Discover one of China's most beautiful cities

By: Gary Bowerman

Snow fell on Hangzhou just a handful of occasions last winter. Each time seeming more magical than the last. Kids threw snowballs outside historic temples, the sun glistened on white-tipped willow trees and old men tending carts selling roasted sweet potatoes struck a windfall. Any client lucky enough to have witnessed this beautiful lakeside city dressed in snowy white will cherish their photos forever.

Located in Zhejiang province, Hangzhou (pronounced HANG-Jo) is a fast-growing city built around the mythical Xi Hu (West Lake), historically one of China’s most revered destinations. For centuries, its calming waters, hills dotted with shrines and pagodas and indefinable serenity have inspired China’s finest writers, poets and painters. Emperors and governors made this their retreat of choice. The Chinese even have their own eulogy: “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.” (Suzhou is a similarly beautiful city in neighboring Jiangsu province.)

In 2004, Hangzhou was ranked China’s number-one city for foreign investors by Forbes magazine. Tourism is also booming. Less than three hours by car or train from Shanghai, it is easily accessible. The airport receives flights from all China’s major cities, Japan, Korea and several other Asian countries. New hotels, restaurants and bars open regularly. Xihu Tiandi is a new dining and drinking development built by the owners of Shanghai’s popular Xintiandi. A lakefront luxury shopping plaza, featuring Swarovski, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani, opens this summer. You can almost taste the brightness of Hangzhou’s future.

Clients should allow at least two, preferably three, days to enjoy Hangzhou. Exploring the lake and its parks and temples will account for one day, the Longyin Temple complex and caves a second. And clients still need time to visit the silk factories for which the city is famed. And having come this far, you must drink several teapots of the local specialty Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea, which grows in the fertile terraces fringing the city.

I began my circumnavigation of the lake in front of the brand-new Hyatt Regency and set off in a clockwise direction. Passing in front of a small pavilion, I saw a group of shivering boatmen drinking tea and gamely trying to generate business. This appeared unlikely, given the bitter wind. During summer, these spacious, covered wooden row boats dot the lake.

I wandered along the footpath to Qinbo Gate. Moving away from the lake, the gate led me into beautifully landscaped gardens where trees and streams camouflage traditional merchants’ houses and pavilions. Halfway around the lake is the octagonal, five-story Leifeng Pagoda. Originally built in 975 AD by Qian Hongchu, king of Wuyue, to celebrate the birth of a son, the structure has since been rebuilt, however, uncovered brick ruins of the original building are open for viewing. Climbing to the top floor of the new pagoda reveals a fabulous view over the lake and its islands, bridges and gardens.

On the second morning, I rose early and caught a 20-minute cab ride ($3) into the surrounding hills. My destination was Lingyin Si (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat) one of the largest and most spectacular Buddhist temples in China.

After buying a ticket and entering the complex, clients should head to the left and explore the shallow caves and grottos featuring over 400 rock carvings. Most of these date from the 10th to 14th centuries and depict various representations of Buddha. Look out for them at shin, knee and face height and also several feet above your head.

At this point, I thought the stunning collection of rock art would be hard to beat. I was wrong. Stepping into the incense-filled Lingyin Temple, an immediate sense of awe drifted through me. Each of the four main temple halls is more lavish, colorful and spectacular than the last. My favorite was the 40-foot-tall Hall of the 500 Arhats, which features 500 human-sized, sitting Buddhist saints, each holding his own symbol, arranged in the formation of a giant swastika.

But wait, I hadn’t entered the Grand Hall, yet the centerpiece of which is a 65-foot-tall statue of Sakyamuni Bhudda carved from camphor wood. It is China’s largest sitting Buddha. Lingyin is also a working temple, and yellow-robed monks join the Chinese locals and tourists in offering prayer and incense to Buddha.

Back downtown, I headed along Fenqi Lu to the new “Silk Road,” a district of silk clothing and accessory stores which recreate Hangzhou’s silk trading history. It’s a great place to buy souvenirs, but remind clients to bargain hard.

Sadly, my time was up, and I never got to visit the Tea Museum of China or the famous Dragon Well that gives the specialty local tea its name. I wasn’t too disappointed though. Sitting in a park at the end of Hubin Lu, I listened to a group of aged musicians playing traditional folk songs on Chinese instruments, local women providing the vocals. I’ll be back, I promised myself. Very soon.


Hyatt Regency
Opened in late 2004, this contemporary-style luxury hotel is located by the lakeshore and close to the best nightlife and entertainment. An elegant lobby and comfortable rooms are matched by the fine service and excellent restaurants. Rates vary. Commission available.
28 Hubin Lu
86-571-8779-1234, 800-233-1234

A longtime favorite of visitors, this sprawling mansion sits luxuriously beside the lake near the famous Broken Bridge. This well-managed hotel offers a good selection of bars, restaurants and gift stores. Top-floor rooms afford great vistas. Rates vary. Commission available.
78 Beishan Road
86-571-8797-795, 800-942-5050


Va Bene
Having established successful restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Va Bene has brought its highly regarded Italian cuisine to Hangzhou. On the ground floor is the Pizza Pazza restaurant, head upstairs for more sophisticated Italian fare.
House 8 Xihu Tiandi, 147 Nanshan Lu

28 Hubin Lu
Designed in the style of a Chinese courtyard, Hyatt Regency’s signature restaurant is extremely classy. Serves a range of traditional and modern Chinese dishes from Hangzhou and the surrounding regions.
Hyatt Regency Hotel, 28 Hubin Lu

J Bar
Hangzhou’s coolest cocktail lounge is housed in a converted villa. Smooth jazz sounds, elegant sofas and moody lighting are complemented by a great drinks menu.
5 Liuying Road

Night & Day
Fun-packed bar with regular live Latin music and a warm atmosphere. Drinks are mid-priced and the mix of locals and tourists works well. Upstairs is a well-stocked Cuban humidor with top-brand cigars.
240 Nanshan Lu