West Lake in Hangzhou
Hangzhou is a beautiful city (more so than Suzhou in my opinion), largely in part because of West Lake. There are a number of other places to visit in and around the city, and lots of shopping possibilities in the streets east of the lake, but nothing compares to the lake, particularly at dusk.
After arriving at the long-distance bus station in Hangzhou, I hopped in one of the mainy waiting taxis to make my way to the hostel. I’m glad I did because the hostel, which was south of the lake, was quite a distance away from the station. At 62 yuan (about $10 USD), it still stands as the most expensive cab ride I’ve had in China.
Fortunately, just about everything was in walking distance of the hostel. It wasn’t always a short walk, but it was always manageable. Most importantly, there was a train ticket station about 3 minutes away from the hostel, so I was able to make arrangements for the next leg of my trip fairly easily.
It was obvious from the stores in the area that the city was much more accustomed to getting (high-value) tourists than Suzhou. Pretty much every major expensive car company was accounted for, as were the top of the line clothing brands. The shopping area also seemed more developed than the main shopping road in central Suzhou.
If you aren’t looking to drop some serious cash in the area, you can always walk south a bit to get to the historic roads, which are lined with restaurants and souvenir shops and stalls. Walking through those was fun, but it does get repetitive after a while given that most of these places sell similar stuff across different cities. There were a lot more tea shops here though because the area is known for a high-quality green tea.
My favorite sights where West Lake, the Buddhist temples in the area, and a somewhat scary mountain path that runs north of the lake.
West Lake during the day is pretty nice, but I think it really shines in the evening as the sun is falling and the main buildings are lighting up. I imagine that it looks equally splendid in the morning, but I never made it out early enough to verify. There are walkways and parks all along the lake, so it is pretty active throughout the day (mainly with Chinese tourists), meaning you don’t have to worry too much about being lost and alone.
There are 2 Buddhist temples in the area: one that you can walk to and one that you need to catch a bus to get to. The one that requires a bus is by far the better of the two; it is larger, has more statues and buildings, and is located at the end of a path that is filled with statues carved into a mountain.
It was my first time going to a Buddhist temple, and needless to say, I was very impressed. The statues in the buildings are amazing, both for their detail and their size (a few much have been 3 stories high). At the temple that is farther away, there is a massive wall (again, probably around 3-4 stories high) that is completely engraved with a story about a set of monks. I had never seen anything like it. Initially I was taking pictures of the statues in the buildings, but I was eventually told by a nice passerbyer that doing so is considered disrespectful, so I contented myself with just taking it all in sans camera.
Finally, although the mountain path suggested in the Lonely Planet guide provide some amazing panoramic views of the lake and city, that wasn’t what made the trek so memorable. instead it was the fact that it was the only time I felt concerned for my safety on the trip. The mountain actually has a series of criss-crossing paths, occassionally marked by Mandarin signposts, and the guide’s directions were less than stellar.
I found myself checking the guide often, stopping everyone I saw to ask which way to go, and just taking blind leaps of faith in deciding what paths to take. All the while I was thinking to myself that if anything happened to me on the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would find me for a long time. I’m glad that I decided to take the trail though, because ie provided the most memorable experience during my time there: watching a pretty cool flute/yoga performance next to a pagoda at the top of the mountain.