Northerners (beifangren, 北方人), especially Beijing folk, love comparing – and more often contrasting – themselves with (or against) their Southern compatriots. Most of this is done in the spirit of snarkiness, though at times it borders on outright hostility (witness my ex-colleague of Cantonese descent who was harangued by a particularly foulmouthed cab driver for his Guangdong roots) – but even the most hardcore of beifangren will admit that those Southerners, particularly those along the coast, sure know how to live the good life.
Filled with lush, green hills, rivers and thousands of small islands dotting its coastline, Zhejiang sits right smack in the heart of China’s booming southeastern seaboard. We visited last week during the October 1st holiday to sample some of its southern charms and despite having to fight the holiday crowds (as expected), we enjoyed ourselves nevertheless. Among the highlights:
The Guan Yin of the South Sea at Putuoshan: After taking an overnight train from Beijing Railway Station to Ningbo, one of our first stops was this sacred island off the coast of Zhoushan prefecture (about a 2-hour drive from Ningbo). Famous in Buddhism as the Bodhimanda ("position of awakening") for the Boddhisattva Guan Yin, the 12.5 sq km island is filled with temples, beaches and holy sites – chief among which is the majestically serene 33-m tall Guan Yin of the South Sea (Nan Hai Guan Yin) statue that dramatically overlooks the coast.
Hangzhou’s West Lake (Xi Hu, 西湖): With a history dating back over 2,000 years, Hangzhou’s main attraction (which was named a Unesco World Heritage Site earlier this year) lives up to its reputation. Even with the overcast weather last week, it was a stunning sight: Surrounded by rolling green hills on all sides and dotted with a series of islets in the middle, it’s easy to see why it’s influenced and inspired politicians, painters and poets (and more recently hordes of tourists) over the centuries.
Leifeng Pagoda: Touring West Lake was definitely the highlight of our trip, but there are simply too many attractions on and around the lake to mention in a single post. Fortunately, we were able to squeeze in the main spots, the most famous of which is Leifeng Pagoda (Leifeng Ta, 雷峰塔, pictured at the top of this post) that dates back to the tenth century AD and was reconstructed and reopened in 2002. The new tower actually envelopes the original’s foundation, which can be viewed in an exhibit at the base of the structure, but the highlight is ascending to the top for a bird’s eye view of the entire lake. Unfortunately the holiday crowds made this an incredibly tedious task (waiting times for the lines for the elevator were averaging 45 minutes), so I ended up climbing to the top with carrying my very heavy daughter the whole way. Despite my fatigue and having to fight more crowds at the top (not to mention my crappy camera skills), the view was well worth it.
Lingyin Temple (Lingyin Si, 灵隐寺): Touring around China can result in "temple fatigue," even for the most devout – all Chinese temples, be they Buddhist, Daoist or even Muslim (at times), are similar in their basic layout and features. Of course every temple has its unique characteristics, but there are a few (i.e. Beijing’s Lama Temple, Lhasa’s Potala Palace and the like) that stand out. Hangzhou’s Lingyin Temple could surely be included in this category. Located in the northwestern part of the city, this Zen (Chan, 禪, in Chinese) temple was founded by an Indian monk named Hui Li in 328 AD and is among the largest and most prosperous in China, known primarily for its incense rituals and exquisite Buddhist carvings that fill the grottoes lining the path to the temple entrance. These carvings, which were inspired by similar carvings in the Indian subcontinent, look like they could be part of a scene straight out of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise (but just a few thousand years older). Each and every one of the dozens lining the path is an amazing work of art, but the most iconic is the carving of Mi Lo Fo (米咯佛, or the Maitreya Buddha, a.k.a. The Fat Buddha) pictured below.
Lingyin Temple itself is as grandiose as they come (and perhaps a bit overwhelming if you suffer from allergies due to all the tourists and worshippers burning incense) – my favorite part was this dazzling relief screen of the Bodhissatva Guan Yin (pictured below) in the main Temple of the Great Sage.
Hu Xueyuan’s former residence: One of Hangzhou’s lesser-known attractions (having only recently been opened to the public), this Qing dynasty style villa compound was constructed by Hangzhou’s then-richest merchant Hu Xueyuan during the reign of the Guangqu Emperor in 1872. Its deceptively nondescript white-walled exterior belies the fantastic traditional architectural designs and beautiful gardens within. Having visited other famous (and overrun with tourists) compounds in other provinces before, we entered this site with low expectations, but were pleasantly surprised and impressed, especially when we finally entered the main garden (pictured above) towards the end of the tour – the photo doesn’t do it any justice because I was standing on a massive craggy rock sculpture when I took it.
Of course Zhejiang has plenty more (Moganshan, Jingci Temple, Tiantai Shan etc.) to see and do, but this trip gave us a pretty good glimpse of the laidback, but industrious lifestyle of the locals and its many scenic delights. Hangzhou itself seems worth a second visit – perhaps for a romantic weekend getaway or when our daughter is a bit older. I’d definitely consider it a must-see destination before you leave China.