For the China wary, or even the China weary, Hangzhou, a mere 45 minutes speed-train ride from Shanghai, is perfect. With a population hovering around 9 million, it’s no small-fry. Yet it possesses the rarest of qualities amongst large Chinese cities – namely pockets of quietude, spick-and-span streets and air-quality bordering on pure. Notables from Marco Polo to Mao Zedong have waxed eulogistic about Hangzhou’s beauty, the latter claiming “the environment…. is excellent. You aren’t disturbed by noise here; it’s ideal for work and for relaxation”. Mao was here in 1951 to draft a constitution for the fledgling People’s Republic. Today, domestic tourists flock for far fluffier reasons; to snap pics along the famed Bai Causeway, eat odiferous grey squares of the legendary fermented tofu, watch performances ofZhang Yimou’s exuberant “Impression West Lake” (a daily, outdoors, light and sound extravaganza) and spend their hard-earned RMB on shiny Made in China mementos at Wushan Night Market. It’s a getaway destination for China’s smart-phone-totting consumerist set and as this is a large group, there’s undoubtedly more hubbub now than The Chairman ever knew. He probably spins in his Beijing mausoleum at the very thought of all those selfie-sticks and MK day packs.
Longjing Manor (399 Longjing Road) is one of China’s premier food destinations, never-mind Hangzhou’s. Chef Zhu Yinfeng is famed for his daily, organic ‘farm-to-plate” menu (you don’t get to choose) fashioned from locally-sourced produce and home-made ingredients. Even his cooking oil is pressed in-house from tea seeds. The restaurant enjoys a particularly serene setting, over-looking tea plantations in the hills surrounding Hangzhou. There’s not much English spoken and the bill will make your eyes water but it’s worth any inconvenience. Or credit card blow-out.
Lakeside, The Four Season’s Jin Sha restaurant (5 Lingyin Road) is a predictably elegant diner. Their Shanghainese head chef Wang Yong injects his own spin into local favourites, rendering the famous Zhejiang dish hongshou (“red-cooked”) pork belly even more sumptuous with the addition of braised abalone and sweet soy. Elegantly pleated Shaxian-style dumplings have their vegetable stuffing embellished with Italian truffles and truffle oil. Chicken is free-range; pork is sourced from small-scale producers and vegetables are organic where possible. This fastidiousness translates to exquisite food and queues out the door on the weekend; book in advance.
The Steam House (22 Fayun Lane) is Amanfayun’s answer to Hang Bang Cai, the name of the regional cuisine. Which is best described using words like ‘fresh’, ‘pure’, ‘light” and ‘a little sweet’. Folk around here don’t like their ingredients mucked with and The Steam House keenly obliges the local palate. Decked out like a rustic village hall (albeit a stylish one; this is Aman, after all), complete with an open, steam-gushing kitchen, the food is simple and honest, crafted around ingredients of peerless integrity. And seasonality. Chef Stanley Xu features local Hangzhou produce such as white asparagus in summer and tender bamboo shoots in spring. His version of the benchmark dish Longjing prawns (marinated freshwater prawns quickly stir-fried then finished with a little brewed tea and a smattering of fresh leaves) is delicate. Around town, renditions of West Lake Vinegar Fish can suffer from too much sweet, gluggy sauce and just not enough care. It’s a must-eat dish in these parts and when the carp is as bright-eyed as Chef Xu’s, and the components, including quality Zhenjiang black vinegar, in perfect balance, it’s a triumph. He nails it.
Hangzhou’s favourite mid-range eatery is Grandma’s Kitchen, accessed across 20-plus outlets throughout town. Maybe the handiest is the one at 2/F, 3 Hubin Road, where there are always long lines of punters awaiting tables. From the encyclopedic menu (it’s pictorial, with English, handily), the signature Longjing tea-scented chicken is a must-eat. Chopstick-tender, the bird is soaked in tea, wrapped in paper then steam-roasted in a clay-pot. Also recommended is Hangzhou-style duck, cooked in a sweet, aromatic soy and wine stock and served in cold, burnished slices. Pumpkin lovers will find the Grandma’spumpkin simmered with red dates and fermented glutinous rice an utter revelation.
A consequence of Hangzhou’s relative sanitization is the absence of street-food vendors cluttering sidewalks, generally a gastronomic highlight of any Chinese city. Street-style food does exist, but you have to seek it. For the most famous noodles in town, Kui Yuan Guan (124 Jiefang Road) is the ticket. Established over 150 years ago, it seats 800 diners and hand-makes toothsome, fine-textured noodles according to a special, century’s old technique. They’re most famous for their eel-based soup noodle dishes, using only eels that meet a strict weight criterion and which they purge for three days to expunge muddy flavours. Another popular combination is called pian’er chaun, where pork, bamboo shoots and preserved vegetables are combined to utterly sublime effect.
Zhiweiguan (83 Renhe Road) is one of Hangzhou’s oldest restaurant businesses and it’s rather grand andfancy. At ground level they have a fantastic canteen-style eatery where you can recharge on varieties of steamed buns, dumplings, rice porridge, sweets and noodles that include Hangzhou mao er duo or ‘ cat’s ear’ noodles. Shaped like orecchiette pasta, these come floating in a wondrous chicken-y, ham-y broth. On the street, there’s a take-out set-up selling Zhiweiguan’s homemade cakes – red bean paste and rice flour rolls, fried sesame balls and pretty, pinkdingsheng (“victory”) cakes amongst them. These soft, steamed, rice-flour-based squares are tinted with jam, stuffed with red bean paste and traditionally have the characters for “victory” imprinted on the side. Delicious.
Guangfu Lu Food Street (near No. 88 Qinghefang Road) gets jam-packed and for good reason. Here you can sample bites from all over China, cheaply, from a series of small stalls. Join the happy throngs downing whole, spice-encrusted grilled squids, portions of beggars chicken, dong po pork, steamed rabbit’s heads, lotus root starch soup (said to be great for the skin) and rice cooked in fragrant lotus leaves, among other snacks. Look out for suo yi bing, also called Wu Hill Cakes. Slightly conical, slightly sweet and unique to Hangzhou,these comprise fine, crisp layers of fried dough and are named after the hill abutting Qinghefang Street.
Sights and Diversions
Much of the West Lake, the main reason to visit Hangzhou, was artificially formed through extensive dredging over 1,000 years ago. With it’s various islands, causeways, surrounding cloud-cloaked hills and shoreline dotted with temples, pavilions, gardens, bamboo groves and pagodas, it presents an idealised landscape of mesmerizing beauty. In 2011 UNESCO inscribed the lake on it’s World Heritage List as a “cultural landscape”. Spring is the best time to visit, when the weather settles, days are long and pink peach blossoms are everywhere. The rest of China thinks so as well- the 15km lake circumference offers jostling room only at this peak time. But rise (extremely) early and, for a peaceful few hours, you’ll have it almost to yourself. It’s blissful.
One of the prettiest corners is the 20 hectare Flower Harbour, encompassing walkways, bridges, old villas, a spectacular red carp pond and peony garden. The nearby Su Causeway, gorgeously tree-lined, punctuated with arched bridges and nearly 3km long, traverses the lake from north to south. It’s a favorite with local joggers and makes for an invigorating walk. An alternate way to get around is by bicycle and bike-hire depots are dotted all over town; to escape crowds head to the Yang Causeway on the less touristy western shores of the lake, built during the Ming Dynasty as a tribute to the governor of the day.
When you’ve had enough lake, taxi out to the peaceful Yunqi bamboo trail, a gorgeous walking path that cuts a swathe through some of the oldest trees in Hangzhou and lush stands of bamboo. Back in town, history buffs will love ambling along a section of the 2,000 year old Grand Canal, still impressive and still plied by large boats and barges. From the Wulinmen Dock you can take a tourist boat down the ancient waterway and, in stark dissimilitude, watch the high-rise expanse of modern Hangzhou slip by.
To wind-down after a strenuous day, check out Cheng Huang Pavilion, an imposing 1990’s reconstruction of the old City God Temple occupying a prominent hill that looks over the entire lake. There’s a teahouse built into one of it’s six stories and chilling-out on the balcony, over a pot of Hangzhou’s finest tea and watching the light fade, is magical.
If you only master two words of Mandarin, make them lóngjǐng chá. Longjing, or Dragon Well, is China’s most prized green tea and the genuine commodity is produced in a small area near Hangzhou: premium Longjing can fetch over $2,000 per kilo. Lingering over endless cups of it is a quintessential Hangzhou rite and the town boasts over 700 teahouses!
One of the best for first-timers is Qing Teng Teahouse (2/F, 278 Nanshan Road). Their tea selection is huge, plus they throw in such an ample buffet of tea-friendly snacks (chicken wings, egg tarts, fruits, dumplings etc) you could make a visit here lunch or dinner. For a more refined experience, head out to Fayun Village near Lingyin Temple to He Cha Guan Teahouse(15 Fayun Lane). It’s traditionally decorated, serves organic food and is sited in a peaceful locale. Owner and Tea Master Pang Yin is celebrated for her tea ceremony skills and her ability to tease the full fragrance and flavor from her leaves. She’s commissioned lovely tea cups and saucers for her customers and these can be purchased as souvenirs.
On the lakes’ northeast sits Hupanju Teahouse (1 Shentang Scenic Area, Xihu), one of Hangzhou’s most famous. With a 180RMB minimum charge it’s not the cheapest but they’re famous for the quality of their tea; especially their Shi Feng Longjing. Shi Feng, or Lion Peak, is a small area near West Lake where the highest grades of Longjing are produced. To brew it they use water from nearby Hupao Spring, celebrated for it’s puritty and tea made using this water is considered a “wonder” of Hangzhou.
Not far from the center of town are a handful of picturesque tea villages of which arguably the nicest is Meijaiwu, just a20 minute cab ride away. Set in a valley surrounded by (often misty) hills planted with neat rows of tea bushes, locals are accustomed to visitors wandering around their plantations, watching the manual harvest. This happens over a four week period that starts in late March. It’s a laborious process; pickers take only tiny terminal buds, with just a few of the adjacent leaves attached. Each pick should be unbroken and a good picker averages 2kg of leaves every ten hours. Which translates to just 500g of processed tea. In town, workers sort, dry and sift the fragile leaves. And roast them in large electrified woks, using their hands to apply gentle pressure and keep them moving. There are ten distinct hand movements involved in roasting Longjing tea and these are said to take three years to master. In season, the town is filled with the nutty aromas of roasting leaves. There are plenty of teahouses and casual, family-run restaurants strung along the main street; typically these serve simple, home-style fare. ( Even the rice here is delicious when it’s cooked the old way, over burning wood). Just choose any one – you can’t go too far wrong.
Feeling adventurous? Then show this address – 杭州第二百货商店旁边, 文晖路和湖墅南路交界口 – (literally, “next to No.2 Department Store, Wenhui Road and South Hushu Road”) to a cab driver early on a Saturday morning. You’ll wind up at an extensive outdoors antique market held once a week, down a lane off the main road. There’s no English spoken so come armed with plenty of bravado and join the bargaining fray. There is some sensational stuff- just follow what the old guys are after, they generally know the scoop. The low-rise building next door is home to a collection of permanent antique shops, which are slightly easier to negotiate.
Pedestrianised Qinghefang Street, a center of commerce for over 800 years, has been largely reconstructed for the tourist market. But with it’s paper-cutters, peanut-candy makers, tea hawkers, historical clan halls and pharmacies, roving performers and general, happy buzz, it’s a fun place to be. There are some venerable old businesses along here and off adjoining alleys, such as Wang Xingji fans (203-205 Hefang Street), going since 1875, and Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors (Shop 2, Houshi Street). Established in the Ming dynasty, their distinctive and sturdy steel cutters make excellent gifts, with a range including gardening, embroidering and nail scissors.
Urban Tribe (79 Dajing Alley), a Shanghai-based lifestyle label, makes gorgeously stylish clothing inspired by China’s ethnic minorities. Fabrics are beautiful and they also craft earthy jewelry using repurposed bits of jade, coral and turquoise. Ph7 (Xihu Tiandi, 105 Nanshan Road) is another Shanghai atelier- silver jewelry is their schtick. Their beautiful neckpieces, bracelets, earrings et al are modern in design, but infused with traditional Chinese motifs. The hand-crafting is outstanding.
Where to Stay
The Four Seasons (5 Lingyin Road) is literally steps away from West Lake – they’ll even organise a private boat arrival at the hotel for you. Slung low across a large corner of the lake, the resort cleverly combines traditional architectural elements and garden features with modern chic; they boast the largest guest rooms in town.
Amanfayun (22 Fayun Lane) is stunning. Never ones to do things by halves, Aman have appropriated an entire, centuries’ old tea-pickers village and turned it into a 14 hectare retreat of glorious tranquility. With plenty of walks nearby and on-site restaurants, spa, boutique and guest cultural activities to tap into, the danger here is you never really need to leave the property.
RadioSmartMouth travelled with the kind assistance of Air New Zealand.