As the sun was setting, fog soon descended. Walking down the dimly-lit roads lined with tall trees and thick bamboos shrouded in heavy mists, one couldn’t help but be transported into the setting of Sleepy Hollow à la Chinois. I could imagine the ghost of Kublai Khan and his horde of barbarians bursting through the bamboo forest, only to disappear across the waters into the thick, damp air. Ah, winter in Hangzhou’s West Lake; cold but eerily peaceful, the perfect setting for contemplative long walks into the depths of night.
My first visit to Hangzhou took place three months ago. I had no clue what to expect, as I was just thinking of hitting another Chinese city within an hour or two by train from Shanghai when my best friend was visiting. Before this I had visited other touristy cities such as Suzhou, Nanjing and Guilin which are famous for its cultural and natural landscapes, but nothing prepared me for Hangzhou.
The city of Hangzhou is a sprawling metropolis boasting sky rise buildings that rival those of Shanghai’s, though to tell you the truth I’ve never been to the city centre. Instead, I headed over to Hangzhou for the second time to enjoy the scenic West Lake region. For all its pursuit of modernity and growth which comes with many failings, the Chinese government has done a great job in preserving the UNESCO-appointed World Heritage Site; not only of the lake itself, but its surrounding parks, hills and dwellings. Walking through this preserved spaces felt rather otherworldly, not quite China, not quite 21st century either; imagine if medieval China, Korea and Japan had converged into a single union with the availability of modern conveniences. The tree-lined roadsides are occasionally punctuated by small pagodas and pavilions for resting. And unlike the other parts of the city, the number of cars that can pass through this zone is restricted by the number plates which makes a huge difference in maintaining the tranquility. I cannot stress this enough because Chinese drivers are quite liberal with their honks. When the hordes of buses and local tourists have retired for the evening (they tend to do so early, thank goodness!), the hidden parks provide a respite where it is possible to not meet another soul for a stretch of time, not a small feat in a metropolis. A wooden bench overlooking the waters turns into an ideal reading spot in the midst of a hushed atmosphere sweeping through the night.
Winter in the eastern seaboard of China is usually a damp affair. Although the sun does provide a photogenic backdrop for the landscape, it was the mists over the waters that enthralled me. Walking on the Su Causeway felt like watching a painting coming to life. For the first time I understood why Chinese scholars wrote the poems they had written many moons past. Their loneliness and longings, hopes and dreams were reflected in the view that I was seeing there and then, transcending history, a millennium after their deaths. The swaying leaves whispered their thoughts, the ripples their sadness.
Shang you tian tang, xia you su hang. Loosely translated, it means paradise above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below. Marco Polo described Suzhou as the city of the earth, and Hangzhou as the city of heaven. One finds much difficulty in arguing against that statement. Having influenced garden designs across the country and in Korean and Japan, West Lake is a cultural landscape that displays the highest ideals of Chinese aesthetics espousing harmony between man and nature.