The City Beside the Lake
Discover the poetic beauty of Hangzhou at the city’s most historic hotel.
While other regions in Zhejiang Province produce the same tea, the Longjing grown around West Lake is said to be the finest.
History tells us that Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, first came to prominence in the Sui Dynasty as the southern terminus of the Grand Canal. Along this 1,700-kilometre waterway cutting through both the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, barges straining under the weight of grain lumbered their way north to Beijing to fill the bellies of soldiers braving the defences on China’s northern frontier.
However, it was another expanse of water that sealed Hangzhou’s eternal fame. Crossed by causeways and framed by willow-lined banks and gentle green hills, West Lake (or Xihu in Chinese) is quintessentially China, the muse of poets and retreat of emperors for millennia.
Adorned over the ages with an arched bridge and a scenic pagoda, you might think of West Lake as the Chinese classical garden writ large. The great tourist emperors of the Qing Dynasty, Kangxi and Qianlong, sojourned to Hangzhou from Beijing on multiple occasions, selecting their most prized scenic views to add to the roll call of vistas made famous by emperors and literati before them. One of theirs, dubbed “Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn”, is to be savoured from a particular spot at a particular time of day in a particular season. It is a level of tourist connoisseurship akin to tasting fine wines.
Six hundred years earlier, a poet, essayist and gastronome called Su Dongpo would become forever associated with Hangzhou as the city’s governor, tasked with dredging the lagoon-like West Lake. From earth hauled out of the silted lakebed, he fashioned the Su Causeway, a three-kilometre promenade across the water which has long been a magnet for walkers, sightseers and (more recently) joggers. Early risers descend in the chilly pre-dawn to appreciate the mirror-like water in accordance with Hangzhou’s most celebrated view, “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway.”
Life around the lake today remains one of pleasure and luxury; Rolls-Royce showrooms, boutiques and restaurants line the southern shore, while over the water, exquisite temples and historic villas claim the city’s finest lakeside real estate. Since the Song Dynasty, the Feng Lin Temple has occupied a prized perch opposite Solitary Hill, the lake’s only natural island. However, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the temple made way for the Hangzhou Hotel in 1956, and the adjoining Xiling Hotel a few years later. Built for the country’s new ruling elite, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were regular guests (Zhou’s favourite room was 539, apparently). A glittering auditorium – a miniature copy of Beijing’s Great Hall of The People – was tacked on in the 1960s, so cadres could hold meetings away from the capital.
In 1984, during the earliest days of China’s reform and opening up, the Shangri-La group bought both hotels to establish Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou, its first investment in mainland China. Marking a turning point for tourism in the city, these grand buildings, a fusion of socialist-realist architecture with Chinese decorative flourishes amid 40 acres of landscaped gardens, were the first to be licensed to house foreign travellers.
Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Nelson Mandela were just some of the long list of VIP guests to have savoured Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou’s history and its discreet, Chinese-accented luxury. The updated guestrooms have retained their high ceilings and period styling, and balconies in the East Wing come with unrivalled views of West Lake.
A Taste of History
Remember Su Dongpo? The former governor also gave his name to Dongporou, a Hangzhou dish of stewed, sticky-sweet pork belly and one of many local specialities on the menu at Shang Palace, Shangri-La’s acclaimed Chinese restaurant. Hangzhou cuisine is characterised by a refined sweetness; at Shang Palace, plump shrimps are marinated in rice wine and cooked with the refined flavour of Longjing tea and fresh grass carp caught from the clear waters of West Lake are steamed and served with a delicate sauce both sour and sweet.
One of West Lake’s greatest gifts to the Chinese people is the fragrant Longjing tea. While other regions in Zhejiang Province produce the same tea, the Longjing grown around West Lake is said to be the finest. Steeped in water from the Hupao Spring, the result is a highly aromatic, emerald-green tea that is slightly sweet to the taste.
Foodies willing to venture further into the foothills beyond the city will be rewarded with one of China’s most revered restaurant experiences. Dragon Well Manor is a rural retreat with just eight tables and a focus on impeccable sourcing. Exploring the idyllic surrounds on foot or by bicycle, visitors encounter farmers nurturing the delicate rows of plants that make Longjing tea, countless Buddhist temples and monuments and the China Tea Museum, a tribute to the art of tea tasting and cultivation.
From West Lake to the tea terraces of Longjing Village, Hangzhou’s singular triumph is that, despite its fame and consequent legions of visitors, it is remarkably well cared for and maintained. The Italian merchant, Marco Polo, described Hangzhou as, “…the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world,” in the 13th century. To contemporary Hangzhou’s credit, this modern city of eight million people still manages to work the same spell on visitors today.
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service quality has big room to be impprved