China is full of surprises. The biggest one for us was the beauty that is everywhere in this country. We’ve seen it in the heat of summer and now in winter where the mist flows down off the mountains to hug the water and the leaves are still autumnal golds and reds.
After two days at Shanghai Disneyland we jumped on the train to Hangzhou. We visited earlier in the year but in the middle of five days of heavy rain so we moved on quickly and didn't get to see everything we wanted to. This time the weather was fabulous - cold, yes…but crisp and refreshing with a mist that added a touch of mystery.
Hangzhou is one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China and is now mainly known as the birthplace and headquarters of the Alibaba empire and home of the the stunning West Lake, a UNESCO world Heritage site for its natural beauty and significance in Chinese history.
Bullet train from Shanghai
We arrived on the bullet train from Shanghai. It only takes an hour from Shanghai but the departure station is on the city’s outskirts, so allow ample time to get there. You can buy your tickets online (probably the best idea) or chance your luck as there are trains every 15 minutes or so. The trains are super comfy and clean and tidy and it’s an easy trip.
Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake
We stayed at the Sofitel Hangzhou Westlake and experienced the special treatment they give their visiting families. Petit Prince is the hotel’s children program with special treats, menus and gifts for children to make them feel at home - like the lovely fox left on the bed for Emmie to sleep with while we were on property.
A huge fluffy ladybird and a bullseye game were also set up for her, and she was given a little penguin that she has adopted with love and now calls Blair. A fruit basket and sweet treats were left in the room each day. There’s a pool and gym - which we didn't get to use unfortunately - and a fabulous buffet dinner and breakfast at the Sofitel restaurant. A rooftop garden and bar gives fabulous views of the lake and town, and would be magic in summer.
Westlake Cultural Square & Museum of Natural History
The Museum of Natural History is a lovely couple of hours of interaction for kids, with information in Chinese and English. Emmie's favourites were the dinosaur eggs, dinosaur fossils and skeletons and the dioramas of animal environments like Antartica and Africa, with life-sized animals in a realistic settings. It’s well worth a visit.
The Cultural Square is a lovely area in front of the Museum, overlooking the oldest canal in the world - the Grand Canal, built in 600 BC during the Sui Dynasty to connect Hangzhou to Beijing.
The Grand Canal, known as the 'Great Transport River' was built by five million men, women and children by hand - what an epic construction, it’s hard to comprehend just how it was done and what the working parties much have looked like. By linking Beijing to Hangzhou it enabled the army to be fed with supplies transported by water and not to have to be self sufficient and plant crops wherever they stopped. It was also used for trade between the major cities and smaller ports along the route. It's almost 2000 kilometres long and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It's still in constant use and barges, with families living on them, travel the waters speeding up or slowing down according to how their product is trading. If copper prices are high, for example, and they have a load on their barge they’ll speed up to catch the good price, if it’s low they’ll slow down till it rises again. The barges are family businesses and are passed down from generation to generation with some families now owning fleets of barges and turning a lucrative business.
Chocolate afternoon tea and dinner at the Sofitel
Next up was an afternoon tea pampering with seven finds of chocolates for us to try - all made with choccie from France and accompanied by a chocolate drink. It was so delicious and decadent and we retired to the room for a little rest before it was time for dinner. Dinner was an incredible buffet (omg I had Aussie beef that literally melted in my mouth) chockers with seafood, hot dishes, cold dishes, salads and pastries. It was really one of the best we’ve seen and I know my buffets, let me tell you!
Biggest Christmas Tree in Hangzhou and Christmas markets
Hangzhou is usually lit up with sparking globes and strings of of fairy lights throughout its trees and along its streets, so it looks Chistmassy even when it's not Christmas time. But with a few extra some extra touches from local shops and malls - like huge Christmas trees and Santas - and there was a real Christmas feeling. We visited the Kerry Mall where they had Hangzhou's biggest Christmas tree and daily Christmas activities like Christmas beer tasting (strange but awesome), ornament making, Christmas craft and a Christmas Music Studio where you could record and video yourself singing a Christmas song.
Of course we jumped at that and were soon with a technician in the studio with a belting out Jingle Bells together. But when we finished and tried to get our recording we were then told we needed to download an app before we sung so we could download our song, and the studio was now closing. So funny and a good example of getting ALL the detail before jumping into a fun activity in China.
Golden Carp Pond Garden and Flower Harbour
Take a stroll around these beautiful gardens, once a private home and now made public through government ownership. There are lots of little spots for quiet reflection overlooking the lake, small streams and curved bridges and pagodas dotted along the shoreline. In summer it's the place to go to see China’s previous national flower, the peony (now the plum blossom) in full bloom with more than 100 species planted here.
The golden carp pond is full of red and golden carp who swim over for treats (you can buy at a small stall) or if you clap your hands. These carp are so huge.
There is so much wildlife at the lake, and if you’re into bird watching then you’ll be very happy, We found huge bunches of older men with fancy cameras and huge zoom lenses all hanging out on the edge of the lake waiting for their shots of birds - landing, flying, catching fish and hanging out. It looked like there was a great camaraderie between these retirees, and they got some great shots too (although exactly the same as the 30 men next to them).
Translated as the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, this was a highlight of our visit. The Temple in the Wulin Mountains and reached via a walk alongside mountains covered in hidden Buddhas, caves with Buddhas carved into the rocks and winding tracks for exploring. You could easily spend a day here wandering around, finding Buddhas, squeezing through caves and enjoying the temples.
There are five halls within the Temple complex, surrounding a tree covered courtyard. We joined the Chinese people who had traveled here to visit what is a very ausipicious Temple and said prayers with incense - Emma’s favourite - and were so lucky to listen to a long line of Buddhists chanting prayers as they walked around the temples, it really added to the spiritual vibe and made our visit even more special. The stunning golden Buddhas and relief carvings tell stories of Buddhist enlightenment and are incredible in their detail.
Dragon Tea Plantation
Tea is super important in China and this plantation covers rolling mountains just outside of town. In summer you can see uniformed ladies hand picking the buds but in the cold season we had to be content with looking at the lovely view of the tea plantation and sampling the tea which can apparently cure most of life’s ailments with eight glasses a day or super special tea tablets. I was almost tempted to buy!
Six harmonies Pagoda
This beautiful tall pagoda is 13 levels high (seven on the inside) and gives stunning views across the city and Qiantang River. You can climb inside or rest in the gardens outside. There's also a few shops at the bottom entrance to the garden that sell ice-creams! Em was so happy.
Cruising on West Lake
Jump on a little boat and cruise around the Lake watching the world go by. You can spot pagodas, mountains, traditional sailing boats and enjoy the being on the water and the beautiful views. You can also take smaller boats for two with a table in the middle - perfect for bubbles and cheese or cups of hot chocolate. A boat man will punt you around.