Back in 2012 I had a page a day calendar of “1000 places to see before you die” sitting on my desk at work. This calendar used to give me tempting suggestions of places to visit on holiday and one place that was featured was West Lake in Hangzhou. I had not heard of this place before, but the picture was beautiful enough for me to do a quick Google to find out more. And that was that. I never thought back then that I would ever do something like we are doing now and China wasn’t at that point of time on my list of places to go.
Fast forward to 2014 and our decision to go travelling. Initially on our itinerary China was just a place to pass through on on our way to South East Asia. The more we read about China the longer the list of ideas grew until a double entry visa was required! It was during this research period that I stumbled across Hangzhou again and I remembered my desk calendar photo. This put Hangzhou firmly on the list of definite places to visit in China.
The lake is actually man made. That was a bit of a surprise as it is so vast! The marshy area that used to occupy the site was dredged by the governor of Hangzhou back in the 8th century creating the lake that is there today.
One thing I was keen to do was cycle round the lake. From all accounts I had read this sounded like an idyllic day trip of lazy cycling broken up with stopping to admire the lake. We rented some rather rickety bikes from our hostel and creaked our way over to the lake to commence our circumnavigation of it. It was quite an experience cycling on the road in China! We have got used to crossing the road intact as pedestrians but cycling felt a bit more risky. Cars and mopeds dart in all directions with little regard to indicating, red lights or other road users.
Relieved to have made it to the lake unscathed we were dismayed to find that you aren’t actually allowed to cycle next to the lake and have to continue on the road! I felt that this couldn’t be correct for the whole way, after all this was one of the things the lake was known for. We persevered onwards hoping that it was just for the busy section nearest the city that you had to cycle on the manic roads.
Fortunately come the causeway that crosses the lake we were allowed on for a traffic free cycle past the lake. This was more like it! We ambled our away across the causeway admiring the beautiful views on either side.
Unfortunately come the end of the causeway we were forced back onto the road until the next causeway when we were once more allowed back on for another traffic free cycle. Again at the end of the causeway we were forced back onto the road.
The weirdest thing about all of this for us was that the rules were being enforced! There were whistle touring security guards preventing you from getting closer and, unlike the guards at the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, these guards were to be obeyed. This was not the China we had come to know and love where the rules were to be ignored and actively flouted!
The next day we decided to tackle the lakeside area on foot. This was a much more peaceful and serene experience. Except for one thing…. The Buggies of Doom!
If you haven’t visited China you probably have no idea what I am talking about, so I shall explain. At any tourist attraction in China where there is an outside space which might require you to walk there are electric buggies which can take you from A to B, no matter how short that distance is. They are something akin to the mobility buggies you see taking less agile passengers around an airport in the UK. The only difference is that these are used by anyone who can’t be bothered to walk (quite a lot of people it turns out) and they are driven by nutters at high speed in densely packed areas of pedestrian activity. The responsibly is with the pedestrian to get out of the way or be flattened.
We opted to take a smaller path off of the causeway to escape the chaos. Amazingly walking only about 10 minutes away from the masses means you get the place more or less to yourself. This is where we opted to remain for the rest of the afternoon drinking in the peace and quiet with the scenery. This was what I had come to Hangzhou for and I was glad to have finally found it after our first few thwarted attempts.
On our last day we took a boat to the island in the middle of the lake. Again we managed to have here a much more peaceful experience of West Lake. No whistle touting guards, no Buggies of Doom! We did a few laps of the island before heading back to the mainland.
I think what I have realised from this is sometimes you can build up a place in your expectations so high that when you come to the reality you can be sorely disappointed as we were when we initially arrived. However, with a bit of flexibility and taking ourselves off of the beaten path we did manage to find a bit of West Lake that lived up to these high expectations we had built up for it.