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Hangzhou: China’s Most Relaxing City

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

Relax is not a word you hear often in China. The Chinese are in an awfully big hurry to get to the future, and they’re not wasting any time.

When the subject turns to Hangzhou, however, the Chinese discover words you’d begun to think might not exist in Mandarin: Calm. Peaceful. Relaxing. “The most relaxing city in China,” my guide called it several times a day. This prosperous city of 7 million, famous across the country for its magnificent lake, is the rare place in China where the relentless national push toward tomorrow finally takes a break. You can still feel the heartbeat of old China here, in the mists and reflections on the water, in the old teahouses and exclusive new clubs keeping alive the spirit of the literati who gathered during Hangzhou’s golden moment, a thousand years ago, as capital of the Southern Song dynasty.

To get to the most relaxing city in China, hold on tight. China’s generic-white trains cover the 126 miles from Shanghai in 45 minutes, at a manic 217 miles an hour. It’s exciting and punctual and everything we dream of in the United States, though it never quite feels like a train. The wild ride quickly over, you’re in a taxi to your hotel, circling the lake, when you feel something change. Your shoulders drop. Your mood shifts.

Everybody succumbs. Under the spell of the lake, even the most driven person learns to be a little aimless here, to take a long walk with no destination, drift on a boat alone with an oarsman, pay a call at a Buddhist monastery, spend hours dining on local specialties, and drink cup after tiny cup—seven, eight, you lose count—of the region’s revered green tea. Perhaps the most interesting visitors these days are the new rich, or “overnight millionaires,” who come not only to slow down but also to absorb the finer points of their ancient culture, which they didn’t have time for on their short trip up the ladder.

Hangzhou revolves around West Lake, cradled by mountains on three sides, surprisingly shallow, crisscrossed by undulating stone causeways, and bustling day and night. With its vistas of humpbacked bridges and distant pagodas, it is the classic dreamlike Chinese landscape. You can come at it from any angle. I sailed it with a boatman barking at his cell phone. I tasted the life of the rich among the moon gates and rock gardens of historic houses such as Guo’s Villa. There were scenic points to photograph, with names like Breeze-Ruffled Lotus in Winding Garden. Countless restaurants and teahouses front the lake, as does a Prada boutique. The pagodas heat-shimmering in the mountains were tempting, too, especially the five-story Leifeng Pagoda, though my guide refused to take me there. “It was rebuilt twelve years ago. It has escalators,” she said, rolling her eyes and ending the discussion.

Walking out across the lake on the mile-long Su Causeway is the local equivalent of a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. For a country with fashion fever, this strip of park makes a perfect runway. At any time of day you can see young office workers in five-inch platforms meant for stumbling around St.-Tropez at 3 a.m.; and sometimes you feel you’re browsing louisvuitton.com. But you also see everyday family life, and endless sideshows. I watched an army unit jog back and forth, back and forth, over all those killer bridges on a hot spring day. My sympathy was with the poor boy bringing up the rear, out of breath and near collapse, and with the mate falling behind to keep him from giving up completely. My guide saw it differently: “The unit is only as good as the weakest man. He’ll be punished. And so will his friend, for helping him.” This is not the land of “a prize for every child.”

When the sun sets, the lake goes Vegas, with a show directed by Zhang Yimou, who created the unforgettable opening night of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I never could grasp the plot of the show on the lake, a legend every Chinese knows. So I just made up my own. The plot is the least of it. A platform just below the surface of the water serves as the stage. The sight of 50 people walking across West Lake carrying huge, glowing, red-paper lanterns under a full moon, with underwater lighting effects and (Grammy Award–nominated) New Age music swelling, did unimaginable things for my dreams that night.

All day every day I seemed to have a cup of tea in my hand. Hangzhou is famous for its Longjing, or Dragon Well, green tea. Each year’s vintage is as discussed as any Pinot Noir. An American student finishing a master’s degree in tea here, Danielle Hochstetter, showed me around the China National Tea Museum and shared her show-and-tell plastic box filled with all the colors of tea leaves, from yellow to black. The key thing to know is that the spring harvest is better than fall’s—and the earlier the buds, the better. The official first day of harvest is always March 25. The Chinese love to talk about what things cost (it’s not considered rude—actually quite the opposite), and I quickly learned that my guide had a weakness for $150-a-pound early-spring Longjing.

Tea is life here, with social, medicinal, and cultural roles to play. It’s in every thermos pulled out on trains and park benches. Families and friends pour cups compulsively in the packed booths at modern teahouses such as the rambling Qing Teng—the local version of the Seinfeld coffee shop—on the second floor of a mall, above Rolls-Royce Hangzhou.

In smaller, more traditional teahouses like Taiji Tea House, in the old town, where some of the city’s finest tea is sold, the experience is slower and ritualistic. The tea ceremony that most of us think of as Japanese actually originated in China. The Chinese find the Japanese version a rather one-sided performance: when taking tea with a Chinese master, as I did at Taiji with Zheng Chun Hui, you’re very much in the action. Zheng was as glassy-eyed as a mystic, his pale face framed by swirling black hair and a black cowl-neck sweater. His hands were soft, small, and feminine. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as he worked his brushes, poured the tea, swirled the small handleless cup, inhaled the steam, and slurped for effect, judging the quality of the brew with each cup. With utter effortlessness, he kept the tea coming, passed the tomatoes, lychees, and other accompaniments, and guided the conversation as he drew us all into the cloistered world of his table.

The new rich are in awe of men like him. Business is never far from their minds, and the intimacy a master creates at a traditional tea table is the perfect foundation for the next big deal. But they’re not entirely mercenary. Everything in China is a game of balance, yin and yang, and even the coarsest money man believes a measure of culture is an important counter to his material fortune. Tea, calligraphy, painting, flower-arranging, music: all the classic Chinese arts, associated with Hangzhou for centuries, are flourishing again. Hangzhou’s National Academy of Art has become China’s center for cultivating artists working in new media—the home of Zhang Peili, the “godfather of the video art scene”—and feeds a roaring contemporary art scene. Chic new private clubs, where lutes are played and the finest tea is poured, are drawing successful businessmen from all over China, who polish themselves with the masters while making useful contacts. It always comes back to business in the new China.

Dining is evolving, too. There is a distinct Hangzhou cuisine that the Chinese recognize: not oily, not spicy, and relatively light. The typical restaurant, like the popular Zhiweiguan, is big, brightly lit, and raucous. As my guide taught me, “Chinese don’t pass. You take.” I learned to avoid elbows the hard way.

In 2008 the English food writer Fuchsia Dunlop secured the reputation of a new kind of Hangzhou restaurant, the Longjing Manor, with a profile in The New Yorker. It compared the owner, Dai Jianjun, to Alice Waters in his zeal for organic ingredients from small, reliable, local sources. Processed foods are only part of the problem in China; the food chain can sometimes be corrupt, and being suspicious of what’s on your plate is not mere paranoia. Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cuisine, told the story of Longjing Manor seductively, with no adjectives spared: “Steam rose from a milky broth, in which a carp rested in the silky folds of bamboo-pith fungus.”

Today Longjing Manor is arguably Hangzhou’s most distinguished and prestigious restaurant. I was discouraged from going. Westerners don’t like the food, I was told.

The meal begins with a long meandering walk through a series of exquisite gardens. There are only eight tables, each in a private room. The teenage servers do not speak unless spoken to; food just appears. There’s no menu; you select the rate you’d like to pay, and the meal reflects the best ingredients available at that price that day. I asked my guide to join me. Eating alone doesn’t quite work in China.

“Do you like it?” she asked as I tasted the first course, a sweet milky broth not unlike the one Dunlop described, garnished from bowls of, among other things, tiny dried shrimps, with tinier eyes. I had no idea if I liked it. I’d never thought about how much of the pleasure in food comes from the brain, from anticipation and memory. It was all so new, my mind had nothing to fill the gaps between spoonfuls. I was blank.

“Do you like it?” was all I could think to say, knowing I would get the unsentimental truth, which I did: “The portion is very small. In a regular restaurant the owner would be killed by the eater.”

And so it continued for 12 more courses, from the vaguely familiar, like the most refined version of the local favorite, Longjing shrimp (delicate wild freshwater shrimp, poached in green tea); and the vaguely unfamiliar, such as cubes of pork braised for three days to the texture of hunks of butter; to the unnervingly unfamiliar, like bowls of baby frog’s legs and fish cheeks. (Fish cheeks look like Bayer aspirin.)

My guide, and the businessmen and government officials smoking cigars in the gardens during their fourth hour on expense accounts, clearly did not have the same experience at Longjing as I did. The strangeness of everything kept distracting me, while they were seeing food and symbolism through holistic Chinese eyes: frog’s legs and gorgon fruit cool the body. Tea lowers cholesterol. Beef is good for the chi. A whole layer of that meal went over my head. I can’t say I liked it, but I’m still thinking about it.

Much more easily appreciated is the food at Jin Sha, the extravagant Asian restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake, with its abalone menu and Lanvin crowd; or at the theatrically rustic Vegetarian House at Amanfayun, an Amanresort about 20 minutes into the countryside. A thousand-year-old village restored to perfection, its guest rooms are former houses, and an active footpath still runs through the hotel. Overnight millionaires have been known to check in and leave immediately. “Where’s the marble?” they want to know. But for the right person, Amanfayun is an unforgettable experience of extreme luxury and haunting, tranquil atmosphere.

The Vegetarian House, run by the monks at Lingyin Temple next door, is as dark as a cave and just as quiet, its few tables spaced far apart. The two hours I spent over the set menu were a lesson in the currently hot concept of mindfulness. Ten very small courses focus your mind and make you take every bite slowly and thoughtfully. Green-tea croutons; yam dumplings; a tofu box filled with mushroom matchsticks; rice noodles with green-tea-chili sauce: the ingredients were sometimes humble, but the results were imaginative, sometimes even dramatic. I tried to ignore the smoke pouring from the third course at the next table.

Amanfayun sits at a spiritual crossroads, adjacent to a cluster of Buddhist monasteries and one of Hangzhou’s most astonishing sights: Fei Lei Feng, a massive cliff carved with Buddhas making every imaginable face at you. Seven temples afford good destinations for contemplative walks. It’s hard not to be swept away by their gongs, incense burners, and chanting monks, though I now know monks are less reliable than I imagined. They clock in for chanting with fingerprint technology.

It was arranged that I’d have tea with Master Mingxing, a monk at Yongfu Temple. The climb up to meet him was tiring, with signs admonishing me every time I stopped to rest: “If you think you have everything, you have nothing.” We met in a tearoom in front of a psychedelic Buddhist video installation, with clouds and stars and ten thousand arms whirling in the heavens. I was expecting the wisdom of age, but he was barely 30 years old. “There are no old monks in China,” my guide said, her way of reminding me that Buddhism was crushed during the Cultural Revolution and did not begin to revive until the 1990’s.

His robes were saffron, he wore a surprisingly good watch, and we spoke through an interpreter. I’d always wondered exactly what a monk was. “Someone free from the cycles of life,” he told me, describing a typical day: up at 4 a.m., chant, work, chant, free time with self, dinner at 4p.m., in bed at 10. I wondered if there had been a resurgence of Buddhism in the new China. Older Chinese who are retired and have “space in their minds,” he said, are rediscovering Buddhism. Entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties, the ones with the big black BMW’s, are the temple’s other frequent visitors these days. “They’re more curious than devout,” he said. “Buddhism is another fashion to them.”

He never once looked me in the eye. At some point he and my interpreter had a side conversation in a too-cozy tone. I insisted she fill me in: “He said you’re very energetic and optimistic for your age. He said that isn’t easy.” I glared at him.

As the tea ran low and our interview came to a close, I asked what one thing he wanted me to learn from my short stay in Hangzhou. He thought a bit and said, “If you want to be happy, you have to know what is enough.” I flew home the next day.

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