The wonders of Hangzhou

Chay F. Hofileña

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The wonders of Hangzhou
Undaunted by its long and humid summers, as many as 80 million people visit the beautiful and romantic city of Hangzhou each year

HANGZHOU, China – As stories would have it, among the cities of Zhejiang, it was the scenic Hangzhou that was described by Italian traveler Marco Polo as “the most magnificent city in the world.”

Perhaps unknown to many, the capital Hangzhou is picturesque, with its calm West Lake and the Grand Canal that stretches for about 1,764 kilometers, being among its must-see, if not inescapable, attractions.

Hangzhou, a medium-sized city, has a population of 3 million compared to Beijing’s 20 million. Regarded as a tourist holiday resort, it is a popular honeymoon place for locals.

Undaunted by its long and humid summers, as many as 80 million visit Hangzhou each year. After all, it is one of the 7 ancient national cities of China, having been formed during the Qing Dynasty about 2,500 years ago. Also the largest city of Zhejiang, it served twice before as the national capital. 

In 2001, Unesco called Hangzhou “one of the most livable cities” in the world.

West Lake

Among Hangzhou’s attractions, the West Lake was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011. A freshwater lake, this body of water, which spans about 6.5 square kilometers,* was described by Unesco as having “influenced garden design” in China, Japan and Korea.

The scenic, tranquil lake has tree-lined walkways ideal for leisurely strolls, and bike routes for those wanting to explore more.

There are various accounts of how the West Lake came to be but throughout history, reports of siltation and dredging are common. Averaging only 5 feet deep, the West Lake has 5 sections and incorporates bridges, islands, pagodas and temples against a backdrop of tree-filled hills that surround it on 3 sides.

Legends associated with it are mostly tragic tales of love, seemingly unfit for a lake of romance.

Grand Canal

Not to be forgotten is the Grand Canal – said to be 10 times the length of the Suez Canal and 22 times that of the Panama Canal, according to various China travel guides.

The Grand Canal, the oldest and longest man-made waterway in the world, runs from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. More than 2,000 years old, it was also declared a Unesco World Heritage Site on June 22, 2014. A vital waterway, it connects 5 rivers – the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, Haihe and Qiantang.

BUSY WATERWAY. The Grand Canal is lined by weeping willow trees that stand by as boats traverse the waterway

Sipping tea during a short cruise on the Grand Canal can be reinvigorating and relaxing as the wind blows gently and serene weeping willow trees sway and droop along the waterway.

The entire Canal has 11 sections nominated as cultural heritage sites, among them, the 400-year-old Gongchen Bridge, reminiscent of the stone bridges of Venice.

Named after the emperor, the bridge which measures 98 meters long and about 16 meters high has 3 narrow arches, the middle part measuring less than 6 meters wide. It’s wide enough to allow small boats to pass through.

The surrounding areas of the bridge – which has remained well preserved despite its age – has become a vital commercial center.

FANS. Artisans create fans while visitors watch

Arts and Crafts Museum

On the west bank of the Gongchen Bridge is the sprawling Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum which opened in September 2011. Formerly a cotton mill set up in 1889 by wealthy entrepreneur Ding Songsheng, the mill closed in 2007 after China opened up to the world.

The city government transformed the old mill into a museum and carved out space for artisans and craftsmen who demonstrate great skill in creating works of art.

A workmanship demonstration pavilion in the Museum itself reopened in 2013 to showcase the art and skill of craft workers who create bamboo paper, fans, chopsticks, umbrellas, embroidery, and scissors, to name a few.

Through the Museum, the Chinese tradition of hard work and striving for perfection is preserved and passed on from older generations to the next. –

*Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, we said the West Lake measured less than 6 square kilometers. We have made it more accurate and indicated 6.5 square kilometers in this updated version.

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.