This is a very famous Chinese saying that most speakers of the language, no matter how inept, would have heard before. The literal translation is, ‘Heaven up there, Suzhou and Hangzhou down here’. Sounds awkward, but the meaning behind this phrase cannot be more clear, that the picturesque landscape of Suzhou and Hangzhou are comparable to the beauty of Heaven.
In particular, I have developed romantic notions of West Lake (西湖) in Hangzhou since my school days, owing to a Chinese novel I read when I was 14. In the novel, the introverted female protagonist went on a road trip with her schoolmates to Hangzhou and fell in love with a fellow schoolmate while in West Lake. I was deeply captivated by the way the author described this innocent first love. She even went as far to state that falling in love in West Lake must be the most fortunate and beautiful thing that could ever happen to any girl. And of course, Su Dongpo (苏东坡) my favourite great Song Dynasty poet had on several instances, described the beauty of West Lake in his works. That too, cemented my impression of West Lake.
Since then, I have wanted badly to visit West Lake before industrialisation brings about too much pollution to the beautiful water body. And finally, after decades of yearning, I got to visit my heaven on earth with my most beloved beside me. If falling in love there is the most beautiful thing, then visiting West Lake with one’s love must rank amongst the top as well. 🙂
We took a day trip out of Shanghai to visit West Lake, the top destination in China that I wanted to visit. There are a couple of ways we could have done this day trip, including signing up for a local package, or doing it all on our own. We preferred the freedom of the latter option naturally since language was no barrier. From Shanghai, we proceeded to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station (上海虹桥站), located towards the western side of Shanghai to catch a train to Hangzhou. It is the 2nd last station on Line 2 (light green), and the last station on Line 10 (light purple).
There are many, many trains linking Shanghai and Hangzhou – at last count the fast trains alone (about 1 hour journey) stand at 60 per day. And the train station is HUGE, so huge I akin it to the size of an international airport terminal building! So do factor in walking time (and time to get lost) when you purchase your train tickets, which cost 78RMB for a 2nd-class cabin ticket, and 124RMB for a 1st-class cabin ticket. We gave ourselves 30 minutes to stroll, orientate ourselves and visit the restroom so we wouldn’t feel so rushed. The seats are assigned at the instance when you buy tickets over the counter (foreigners can only buy over the counter, so bring along identification) hence there is no rush to get adjoining seats etc. We sat in the 2nd-class cabin both ways and found the trains to be very clean with ample leg room at the seats. But if you mind noise (the locals really like to yak through the train rides – it’s almost like it’s rude to them not to chat), then you might wish to consider buying 1st-class cabin tickets (where I saw more foreigners sat at). If luck would have it, it should be quieter.
Getting off the train and making our way to the bus station was the tricky part, not because it was difficult to find the way but because there were simply way too many touts blocking our way. From the look of the DSLR I was carrying, it was obvious we were tourists and probably new to the area. We must have met no less than 50 of these persistent locals trying to sell us day trip packages in the short 100m we cleared from the moment we got off the train. I decided to turn deaf and dumb, leaving the mister to fend off the annoying touts.
Now, you DO NOT need to sign up for any local day trip packages, so don’t even bother stopping to look, because there will be no end to it. Right up till the time we got seated on a public bus (#K7, at 2RMB per person) to get us to West Lake, one of the touts was still following us and trying to sell us a package. On the bus, mind you. By then, I had absolutely no idea she was one of the dreaded touts. I looked quizzically at the mister and asked in English, ‘Why is she so helpful? Are the people here all so helpful?’ To which, the mister just rolled his eyes.
Oh, I got it. And still couldn’t believe it until she got off the bus in a haste when it was about to move off. Boy, are they persistent.
We got off the bus near the Bai Causeway (白堤) named after Tang Dynasty Poet and once governor of Hangzhou, Bai Juyi (白居易). This causeway is about 1km long and includes the famous Broken Bridge (断桥) at its eastern tip. Of course, the bridge is not broken per se. It is difficult to explain in English how the origin of the name came about, but I’m going to try anyway. Apparently after a snowstorm, snow accumulated on the side of the bridge facing the sun will commence melting to reveal the brownish facade of the bridge. From afar, it looked like the bridge is broken into two resulting in a famous scene called Remnant Snow on Broken Bridge (断桥残雪). Broken Bridge is famous for another reason: according to Chinese folklore, it was the place where Madam White Snake and her human husband Xu Xian first met and fell in love with each other.
In total, West Lake has 10 famous scenic primes:
I know the translations sound simply ridiculous but let me assure you (if you do not read Chinese characters) that the 4-word Chinese epithets beautifully and succinctly encapsulate the mesmerising scenes found in and about West Lake. And it will be quite beyond me to try describe the origin of all the epithets in English because some things will simply be lost in translation.
The whole perimeter of West Lake is estimated at 15km. It’s a walkable distance, but hardly a choice tourists on a leisurely trip would consider. There are several options to get around this UNESCO World Heritage Site: public buses, bicycles (widely available for rental in several locations), sightseeing boats, round-the-lake battery cars and of course, simply walking. We did a combination of walking and hopping onto one of those battery cars when we got tired. These battery cars that sing the tune of The Butterfly Lovers as honks are cute: several of them ply the perimeter of West Lake in clockwise-direction, and you could flag them down like… anywhere. Depending on your destination, one could pay anything from 10RMB up to 40RMB (for a trip round the lake in slightly over an hour). The lady drivers (I’ve noticed only females handling the battery cars) would advise the pricing upon boarding. These same drivers also expertly introduce significant scenic spots around the lake (in Mandarin Chinese) while manoeuvring the battery cars deftly. An exceptionally convenient way to tour West Lake in comfort, not to mention economical. Only a slight problem if you are a photographer-traveller – you can’t just stop to take pictures along the way, and even adjusting the DSLR to a fast shuttle speed may not get you a well-composed picture.
Of the 10 official scenic primes of West Lake, we must have come across at least half of them on our 8-hour long stay in Hangzhou though not necessarily in the most optimum weather/season to view them. In addition, we had the really temperamental climate to get used to: in the morning to mid-afternoon it was like a summer day, and then it suddenly turned extremely windy exactly like autumn/winter in the afternoon. It was rather tiresome when we had to repeatedly take off and then put on our coats, only to repeat the same process again some minutes later.
From Su Causeway, we took the battery car to Leifeng Pagoda, purportedly the place where Madam White Snake was imprisoned under for many years until her son saved her. The present pagoda was rebuilt in 1999 when the provincial and municipal governments decided to built one over the collapsed pagoda built in AD 975 (it collapsed in 1924 due to neglect and disrepair). Leifeng Pagoda is a beautiful pagoda, and under usual circumstances, we would scale the pagoda to the top for a overview of West Lake. However, we decided not to the day we were there, in part due to the gloomy overcast sky (we would not be able to see far even if we reached the top storey) and in part due to fatigue.
Before we left West Lake, we walked back to Long Bridge (长桥) to take a look. There is yet another folklore associated with this Long Bridge, which in contrast to its name, is not long at all. It is believed that The Butterfly Lovers Liang Shanbo (梁山伯) and Zhu Yingtai (祝英台) first met on this bridge. It was also on this bridge that they tried to bid each other farewell and in total walked 18 li on the bridge alone (十八相送).
There are just so many folklores and stories behind every little corner of West Lake I wished we had visited in better weather.
We couldn’t find the bus-stop which had buses that would bring us back to the train station. Because it was already dark (although it couldn’t be more than 5.30 pm), the mister decided we should hail a taxi. We stood by the roadside for quite a while, but there was just no single taxi in sight. Along came a black car who stopped next to us by the road. The female driver wound down her window and asked us where we wanted to go. We told her we wanted to get to the train station and she gave us a quote – 30RMB for the both of us. It was then that I realised that she was operating as an illegal taxi with her private car, otherwise known as a 黑车 (black car). The price was acceptable, and after assessing the risks involved, the mister decided we could take the car.
Along the way, she asked if we were in a hurry because she wanted to see if she could pick up a couple more tourists who might wish to get to the train station too. Without wishing to complicate matters further, the mister offered her a total of 50RMB if she would drive us straight to the train station, to which she gamely agreed. Even then, she asked us to pay up when we were still a distance away from our destination and later on, she also daren’t drop us right at the train station as she was after all operating an illegal business.
We recounted this episode to our friends in Shanghai, to which they exclaimed that we should not have done so as there were risks involved. We discussed about this at length over dinner and in conclusion, our episode was safe because it was a female driver and the mister was with me. However, lone (or even two) female travellers should never, ever attempt to ride on a black car in China.