With six million people, Hangzhou would be regarded as a major centre pretty much anywhere else on Earth but China. But given its proximity to Shanghai, only an hour away on the high-speed train, it is regarded more as a sophisticated provincial city. And in fact despite its gleaming shopping malls and subway, the city does have a rather relaxed, not to mention, refined air. The downtown is mostly modern but quite attractive with tastefully pedestrianised streets, a lively food strip, little cafes and the odd older buildings looking well-maintained and preserved. It feels prosperous and calm. To the West of the city lies Hangzhou’s greatest claim to fame and a priority target for the city’s large number of domestic tourists, the West Lake. This body of water has played backdrop to some of the most famous episodes of Chinese legend and literature, and been described by poets and immortalised in various well-known idioms, for centuries. Given this, I was expecting a tourist circus so I was pleasantly surprised to find the lake circled with meandering pathways through thickets and beautifully maintained parklands. Although there are crowds at some of the most famous spots I am sure, its easy to lose them, and I was often left alone with the sparrows in the willow trees and the wind blowing through the lotus leaves. Beyond this is a strip of leafy suburbs, quiet residential streets and grand luxury hotels, before the lake stretches East to touch the city centre.
I actually thought the city compared favourably with Kyoto, which seemed marred (to me) by ugly modern buildings and maddening, milling crowds at all the top attractions. Hangzhou has the same sense of culture and history, but it is – rather surprisingly – better presented.