Hangzhou’s West Lake is a little piece of heaven on earth, say the Chinese. Famous painters, poets and writers came here for inspiration and fell so in love with the gardens, pagodas and islands of the lake that they never left. Thanks partly to travellers who followed the artists and discovered the region, even more lakes and temples were added in the past century.
Today’s West Lake is a cultural landscape. It has been transformed since the 9th century by the construction of temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and even complete islands. To suggest a perfect harmony between nature and culture, some of the most attractive locations bear poetic names. Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake and Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter sound so dreamy and romantic. These fascinating places are best visited by bicycle or boat.
The people of Hangzhou are quite superstitious and this is shown by the story of the Buddhist Leifeng Pagoda. This pavilion at the edge of the lake was built in 975 at the order of King Qian Chu to celebrate the birth of his son by one his favourite concubines. During the Ming Dynasty, the Japanese set fire to the building; miraculously, however, it survived. As visitors were superstitiously removing bricks as a talisman to ward against disease and other ailments, the pagoda collapsed in 1924. This may sound like a sad ending to a 1,000-year old pagoda. However, there was cause for celebration: some Buddhist scriptures were found in the debris dating back to 975. The pagoda was rebuilt in 2002 and is open to the public, as are the ruins of the bridge that led to the pavilion.
For the Chinese, the area around Hangzhou is interwoven with the popular legend of the white snake, one of China’s best-known folk tales. Legend has it that a snake madam had been locked in the Leifeng Pagoda. When the building collapsed the locals hoped to find clues that the story was real, but they never did.
A rental bike is the perfect way to explore the two dykes through the lake, the bridges and the parks. There are plenty of tea houses along the lake if you need a break, and should you pass the Broken Bridge on the way, remember to take in the spectacular view.
Every day at dusk, West Lake becomes the setting for an open-air show in which boats, lamps, drums, music and hundreds of dancers on a stage (beneath the water surface) provide a unique performance. Wisps of fog on the water enhance the mysterious ambiance. Although no words are spoken, the Impressions of West Lake tells the story of an impossible love. The show is directed by Yimou Zhang, who also designed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.