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China Deep Dive: Hangzhou's West Lake

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Monday seemed like an opportune day to visit the Songcheng theme park that was just south of the forested area where we had visited the Longjing tea village. The bus conveniently stopped just a block from our house but it was a long ride through heavy traffic. Fortunately Spenser was willing to be my pillow for part of the trip.

Songcheng celebrates the history of the Song Dynasty that ruled China for three centuries during the Middle Ages. The Song rulers made Hangzhou their capital after being forced to retreat south of the Yangtze after losing territory to the northern Jin Dynasty. This excursion was planned by Mei Ling and her family so I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would be better than sitting around the house. The first place we headed after arriving was the pool which had some fun features for the kids like stepping platforms and a bamboo bridge. These were intentionally hard to navigate so that almost everyone ended up in the water. Fortunately we were prepared with the kids' bathing suits. Mei Ling and her sister left me alone to watch the kids and a young Chinese woman soon came up and began questioning me bemusedly in rudimentary English about why I was in Hangzhou. This was the second time something like that had happened on this trip even though I never felt particularly conspicuous while we were traveling. It was a reminder that Western tourism had really dropped off a cliff since the beginning of COVID and hadn't begun to recover yet. Some of the younger adults in China's secondary cities might have only rarely seen a Westerner in person before, especially in a local hangout like a theme park.

Once the kids were dry we pressed further into the park and encountered an impressive building whose facade was entirely covered in vines and exterior metal walkways. In front of the building three performers on stilts inside colorful robot soldier costumes were performing a choppy robotic dance to techno music. How this may have been related to the Song Dynasty was anyone's guess.

In the rear section of the theme park there were some displays of Song Dynasty artifacts and dioramas and a rather random collection of small amusements. There were also a couple of rather cheesy haunted houses which the kids were still young enough to find terrifying. Although the focus of Songcheng on Chinese history and culture was at best half-hearted, the most prominently featured attraction was a musical show called "Romance of the Song Dynasty". This was in fact Mei Ling's primary reason for visiting the park. We purchased our tickets and filed into the crowded amphitheater but I didn't have much appetite to watch the show, having already seen something rather similar in Xi'an. Our seats weren't very good and of course I couldn't understand a word so I closed my eyes for most of the show and tried to zone out. The crowd seemed entertained especially when the action took place in the aisles and Mei Ling was pleased as we spilled out into the sunlight with the rest of the throng.

One of the cooler displays was a VR environment which captured images of people on the ground and then incorporated them into a digital display that was occupied by moving dinosaurs. It was quite fun to anticipate the movements of the dinosaurs on the screen and then react to being squashed by a giant foot or whipped by a prehensile tail.

In the center of the park there was an artificial river spanned by an impressive traditional Chinese bridge. This proved to be the setting for the most remarkable event of the day for me. The schedule advised that there would be a water show that didn't require any additional payment and I thought it might be fun for the kids. We settled into the bleachers alongside the river at the designated time and a few minutes later a couple of jetskis appeared each towing a half-submerged performer in a helmet. I thought we would be seeing some waterskiing tricks but after a few seconds both performers suddenly shot high into the air propelled by powerful water jets emanating from platforms attached to their feet. After a few moments they embarked on a series of terrifying gyrations and somersaults that probably looked much more dangerous than they really were. I had a strong feeling that this wasn't a new invention but I had absolutely no idea that such a thing existed and it was quite entertaining to watch. I later learned that flyboarding had been invented more than a decade earlier in France and isn't exactly a state secret, having been featured in talent shows and movies several times since its invention.

By the time we left Songcheng we were ready for an early dinner. I wanted to check out one of the "food streets" I had uncovered in my research but when we arrived it turned out to be a building containing several ho hum restaurants of the type where the customer chooses seafood from live tanks. Most of the restaurants were empty and the employees were quite eager to attract such a large group. We chose the place that had the most customers and had a decent enough meal although it wasn't particularly memorable.

By the time we returned to the center it was already dark and we decided to take a walk along the shore of West Lake. It was a beautiful, warm night and the cafes on the shoreline were brightly illuminated. We came across a tourist boat that was ready to push off and we spontaneously decided to buy tickets and jump on board at the last minute. The water was beautifully still, disturbed only by the ripples created by the ferries and tour boats that were crisscrossing the lake. The pagodas were especially bright against the purplish sky and their reflections extended improbably across the water.

On the way back to the house we passed through the mall with the metro station and noticed for the first time a colorful little art installation on the staircase leading downward from the sidewalk. We still had quite a bit of energy as we were arriving home so we decided to walk a couple of blocks further to the local night market. There was some food here but most of the stalls were devoted to clothing and knick-knacks. The coolest stall was the sneaker vendor where the display stand was a BMW convertible. I renewed my search for Chinglish T shirts here and found a couple worth buying, although as usual the very best ones were either designed for women. The best I could find for myself was a shirt decorated with an inexplicable combination of a Nike swoosh and Mickey Mouse. Since I hate T-shirts that advertise multibillion dollar corporations this unwitting mockery of both Nike and Disney brands felt perfect.

The evening boat excursion had convinced me that it would be worthwhile to devote most of the following day to an exploration of West Lake. After breakfast we strolled back to the shoreline and studied the boat schedule. The most intriguing place on the lake seemed to be a small island whose interior mostly consisted of water as well. The island’s romantic name was “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” or San Tan Yìng Yue in Chinese.

The atmosphere of West Lake was quite different during the day than it had been the previous night. Now we could appreciate color and detail rather than just the contrast between illumination and darkness. The designs of the boats were very creative and some of them looked more like floating temples than vessels.

The Three Pools island was every bit as beautiful as we had hoped. The pathways on the island formed the shape of a sun cross with the spaces between occupied by water. The small greenish internal lakes were festooned with clumps of lilies and filled with brightly colored koi. Some visitors were feeding the koi and a couple of opportunistic ducks from a walkway that traversed the corner of one lake in a series of ninety degree turns.

Once we had circled the island Mei Ling and her sister wanted to head back to the house but I felt like I was just getting started. The kids were polled and the boys decided to go back home and Cleo opted to stay with me. She probably would have preferred to go back and play with her Pad but I could tell she didn't want me to be alone. We hopped onto a different ferry heading towards the northern bank of the lake.

The main reason I wanted to reach the northern side of West Lake was to see the Yue Fei temple, the mausoleum of an important Song Dynasty general that was originally built in the thirteenth century. As is common with Chinese historical buildings, it has been reconstructed so many times that it is impossible to know if any of the original structure remains. After we disembarked it was quite a task to reach the temple on the opposite side of a busy road that was rather deficient in crosswalks. Eventually we identified the safest route and were able to enter the complex. There were several buildings and pavilions as well as a number of altars and statues whose significance was opaque to me. Yue Fei had apparently been framed for treason and murdered by his contemporaries and was rehabilitated by the emperor twenty years after his death. Inside the mausoleum locals appeared to be praying to a statue of the general.

The next thing I wanted to do was walk all the way across the lake to its southern bank via a narrow pedestrian causeway called Su Di. At the beginning of the causeway the water was completely carpeted with lotuses and their pink flowers were in bloom, forming a breathtaking expanse in every direction. It was quite a long walk and I felt a little guilty for having taken Cleo because she's not the biggest fan of walking. Fortunately she was still happy to have the time with me without the boys around and didn't complain about the distance, aside from asking me how much further it was about a dozen times.

At last we reached the southern shore of West Lake and I had one final destination in the park. The Leifeng Pagoda is a modern reconstruction of an ancient building that collapsed in 1924. The original edifice was built by a tenth century king to celebrate the pregnancy of his favorite concubine. The five story pagoda is the most prominent structure on the periphery of West Lake, especially at night when it glows brightly and its reflection stretches halfway across the lake. The building is at the top of a steep hill but fortunately there was a working escalator that we could use as an alternative to the stairs.

Inside the pagoda there was a series of staircases leading to the highest level but there was also an elevator. I couldn't make Cleo climb the stairs after she had gallantly volunteered to walk with me all afternoon so we stood on line for the elevator, which had a capacity of about twenty. All I could occupy my mind with as we stood on line was calculating how many groups would get on ahead of us and how long it took for the elevator to make the journey up and down. I was quite depressed when I came to the conclusion that the people directly in front of us would likely be the last allowed on the elevator before ours. Imagine my elation when we finally approached the front of the line and there was still just enough space for Cleo and me on the elevator. Small victories. At the top we had a somewhat hazy view over the expanse of West Lake. It was interesting to see all the places we had been over the course of the day and put everything in perspective. To the south dense greenery covered rolling hills and somewhere in the distance was the Longjing tea village.

If I had been on my own I probably would have walked back to the house but it was way too far for Cleo. We tried to flag down a taxi but there were way too many people doing the same thing. Eventually we crossed the street and located a bus that got us pretty close and walked the rest of the way. The rest of the evening we didn't do anything besides a quick venture out to the local night market that was cut short by rain. There were only two full days left in the trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:07 Archived in China Tagged family hangzhou west_lake family_travel travel_blog flyboarding tony_friedman family_travel_blog songcheng

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