The first thing I have to tell you about Hangzhou is that if you are in China to travel, you have to go there. No ifs, buts and maybes, just GO! Hangzhou, together with Suzhou, is described as heaven on earth. A well deserved description for one of the most charming and lovely cities I’ve seen in China. Trust me, you will adore Hangzhou.
Hangzhou is one of those places you keep hearing people talk about, see on post cards, TV and just about every where because it is so photogenic and good looking. I was always meeting people who’d been there and receiving their looks of pity when they heard I had never been there.
Getting to Hangzhou
The trip started from Shanghai and the best way to travel to Hangzhou from Shanghai is by train. Trains for Hangzhou leave Shanghai from Shanghai Hangqiao train station. I had never been to Hangqiao train station before so I was very surprised when I arrived there to catch the 10am train. The train station looks so much like an airport you could easily believe you’ve take the wrong turn and ended up at Shanghai airport by mistake. The station was extremely clean, excellent security and had the modern minimalist design so popular with airports.
Learnt later that Hongqiao train station is only for CRH trains, the modern fast bullet trains that are taking over short trips in China.
There is a digital display of the train’s speed above every carriage door in kilometres an hour (sorry Americans) and watching the speed sit at 343 km/h or higher was mesmerizing.
Hard to find Hotel
Being a China travel expert (I wish) I had a bed booked in advance at the Touran Hostel and perfect directions on how to get there. The plan was catch the Y2 train from the Hangzhou train station to the zoo, get off, walk 100 meters back down the road and the hostel would be to the left and impossible to miss.
First problem, there was no Y2 bus at the train station. Eventually caught the Y2 bus at a nearby hospital, got off at the zoo, walked 100 meters back down the road and looked left. NO hostel. Finally found the hostel after asking for directions from several people and I swear, I must have walked past it 3-4 times. The hostel was not hard to find, I was just being clueless.
The hostel staff were friendly, checked me in and escorted me to my room, a 12 bed dorm with only one other guest, Di Tie. Di Tie was from Harbin and was in Hangzhou opening a bar with the hostel owner. A cool guy.
If you need a place to stay in Hangzhou, I recommend the Touran Hostel. Click here for a review of the Touran Hostel
First Day in Hangzhou
Travel objectives for that day were to explore the West Lake and to organize bike hire. Di Tie recommended a trip to Leifeng Pagoda so that became the third objective.
It was pouring rain on the first day which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was able to see how enchanting the West Lake looked in the rain. Walking from the hostel to the southern tip of the West Lake took all of 15 minutes. Click here for information and pics of the West Lake
The closest bike rental station where you could get a digital swipe card for renting bikes was roughly half way up the north east side of the West Lake just before the Yonglin Gate. There are numerous bike rental stations all over Hangzhou but only a few that supply the cards.
Walking from along the lake to Yonglin Gate and visiting the Leifeng Pagoda along the way was very enjoyable and a great introduction to the West Lake and Hangzhou. Walking along the lake, the Leifeng Pagoda is impossible to miss.
Leifeng Pagoda is a Buddhist Pagoda originally built over 1000 years ago and rebuilt only 9 years ago. The pagoda was easy to visit, has great views of the lake, full of tourist and thoroughly enjoyable. Click here information and pics of Leifeng Pagoda
After reaching the bike hire station, I handed over 300rmb to the staff there who were very professional, explained everything to me and even chose a bike with a raised seat to be more comfortable for tall foreigner.
Nothing much else travel wise happened for the rest of that day. Rode back to the hostel on my new wheels and found a local restaurant for dinner. Back to the hostel after dinner, had a chat with Di Tie and caught up on some work.
More Rain in Hangzhou
The rain was still falling that morning but not a problem because the rental bikes had mud guards and the rain was more refreshing than wet. First stop of the day was the Pagoda of Six Harmonies, followed by a walk around the lake that included a visit to Solitary Hill and the Temple of General Yue Fei
The pagoda was only 5 kilometers way from the hostel, a pleasant 20 minute or so bike ride. Grabbed a bike at a bike station near the hostel and pedalled off down the road to the pagoda.
You can easily finish a visit to the pagoda in less than 30 minutes. Go straight to the pagoda, climb up, climb down, do a quick walk around the base of the pagoda and your done. Most tour groups visit the pagoda this way. To really make the most of the pagoda which is an top travel spot, you enjoy can yourself for at least 2-3 hours wandering the grounds, finding miniature replica pagodas in the trees at the back of the main pagoda and if you are lucky, meet the cat guarding the Goldfish Garden.
After the pagoda was a ride back around the lake to the bike rental station from the previous day. I returned the bike at the station and switched over to walking because riding around the lake is good but to see the lake properly, you need to go by foot because many parts of the lake shore are not accessible by bike.
To be honest with you, the Solitary Hill is a great walking spot and has some nice scenes of the lake but is not in itself a really impressive site. The best way to enjoy Solitary Hill is to just include it as a part of your walk around the lake. Click here for information and pics of Solitary Hill
The entrance to the Tomb of Yue Fei is directly across the road from the beginning of the Su Causeway so very easy to include in your walk around the lake. Even walking slowly, relaxing and taking my time, the Temple of Yue Fei only took 30 minutes to see. An excellent site and Yue Fei’s story is fascinating. Click here for Informatio and pics on Temple of Yue Fei
The Su Causeway runs from the north west side of the lake all the way down to the south side and can easily take an hour is you take your time and enjoy the walk.
The lake is big, holds a lot of boats and even has its own dry dock.
Originally planned on seeing “Impressions of West Lake”. An evening performance held on the lake. The ticket prices at 260rmb to over 1000rmb were a bit steep so I gave it a miss. Finished the lake walk at around 6:30pm so decided to call it a night, grabbed a rental bike and headed back to the hostel for dinner and a bottle of beer with Di Tie.
Last Day in Hangzhou
With only the Lingyin Temple left to see, it was time to prepare a departure from Hangzhou. Today’s plan was to go to the train station to buy an evening ticket from Hangzhou to Suzhou, treat my self to a Brazilian lunch, visit Lingyin Temple, pack my bag, return the bike rental card and catch the train to Suzhou.
The day’s schedule had been organized with excruciating care to make sure there was time for everything. According to the schedule I had over one hour to enjoy the Temple which would be plenty of time. Wrong. The temple is enormous with many really interesting must see buildings AND is a part of a much larger scenic area with many cool places to see. Normally you’d need a full day to see both the temple and the scenic area.
What followed was a whirlwind tour of the temple madly taking pictures and sprinting from one building to the next. I saw every building and was in and out of temple so fast I would have done a Japanese tour group on speed proud.
The bike rental station closed at 5pm so with the clock ticking I caught the first bus back to the lake, grabbed a bike at the nearest bike rental station and peddled madly back to the hotel. Packed my bag, said goodbye the hotel staff and set off again peddling even more madly to the bike rental station to hand in the card. Finally with sweat pouring out and heart racing, I arrived at the bike rental station handed the card in and got the deposit backwith 20 minutes to spare.
Tips for Travel in Hangzhou
-2 to 3 days is enough time to visit all the sites and see the West Lake but if you can, stay for 1 or 2 days longer to indulge yourself. My only regret with Hangzhou is I did not stay there longer
-Take mosquito repellent if you plan on seeing the lake at night. The mosquitoes are veracious and every where.
-Stay at a hotel in the hills to the west of West Lake. This area of Hangzhou is much more pleasant, relaxing and in touch with the peaceful and natural character of Hangzhou. There are plenty of hostels in the area so finding one will not be hard.