A Visit to West Lake and Hangzhou

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On Sunday during our visit to Shanghai, Tawn’s cousins arranged for us to drive to West Lake, a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, about a two-hour drive from Shanghai. Hangzhou is a city of almost nine million people located on the Yangtze River Delta, famous for its natural beauty.

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Our first stop was the Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple that dates back almost 1700 years. It is a wealthy temple, with many buildings and famous stone grottoes that include religious rock carvings. Being a Sunday and the weather being pleasant, the temple grounds were full of worshipers and other visitors.

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The smoke of thousands of sticks of incense hung heavy in the air, a perfumed fog through which the strong morning sun filtered. 

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Devotees lit handfuls of incense, not the mere trio of sticks common in Thai Buddhist temples, and every so often an uncle or auntie, waving their still-flaming incense with abandon in an effort to extinguish the flames, would nearly set another person alight. 

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The temple grounds were full of striking images and saturated colors – brightly painted buildings, monks in vibrant robes… 

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…and the rich reds associated with good fortune in the Chinese culture.

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The Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats features a complex floor plan laid out like a Buddhist swastika. Along the arms are bronze statues of the arhats, or Buddhist spiritual practitioners who have been liberated and attained nirvana. Each of the statues is unique, as are the seats upon which they rest.

We founds one statue which Tawn thought resembled his father’s grumpy frown. 

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Escaping the crowded, smoky temple, we drove a short way to the shores of West Lake. Our lunch was at a restaurant owned by the son of Hangzhou’s mayor, a friend of one of Tawn’s cousin’s colleagues. Because of these three-degrees of separation, we were seated in a small dining villa that offered a lovely view.

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Hangzhou is known for a variety of pan-fried green tea known as longjing, which we were served at the restaurant. It is very gentle, almost sweet tea and pleasant to drink.

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One of the highlights of our meal, beggar’s chicken. This famous dish is a bit complex to make (see here for one blogger’s attempt) but it is basically a marinated chicken that is stuffed, wrapped in leaves, then covered with clay and baked. The clay seals in all the moisture so you are left with a very tender, juicy bird. It is presented to the table unopened and the server asks whether you want them to open it or whether you prefer to do it yourself. We let the experts crack the clack.

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The second dish to arrive (sadly, I didn’t capture the name) was this cold gelatin-like lotus root. The sauce was sticky and sweet and it seemed more like a dessert than an appropriate second course.

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Another stand-out dish was the “gold medal braised sliced pork” or, as I like to call it, the ziggurat of bacon. The thin slices of braised pork belly are wrapped around a mold to create a delicate pyramid that you slowly unwind, slice by tasty slice. 

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The inside of the ziggurat is stuffed with fermented greens (lotus root, maybe?) that are a wonderful compliment to the rich pork. Combine that with some of the steamed bok choy and you have a balanced meal.

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The pork arrived with green crepes in which to wrap the pork and fermented vegetables. Add a dash of sauce and you had a burrito of porky goodness.

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An elaborate dish that didn’t live up to its promise was the crab meat steamed inside an orange. As the plastic bag was unwrapped, the aroma or orange was mouth-watering and the exquisite carvings on the orange were beautiful, but the sweetness of the orange overpowered the crab meat and one or two bites was sufficient.

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Getting full, the dishes continued to arrive. This was a tasty dish of greens and tofu, something simple but refreshing. 

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Shortly after we thought we could take no more, a huge bowl of noodle soup arrived with hand-pulled noodles and bitter greens. It was very tasty but I couldn’t manage but a few bites before I had to be rolled out of the restaurant, too full to walk.

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After lunch, we did end up walking to burn off some of the calories we had consumed. The scenery around West Lake is beautiful. Ah, tranquility… looks like we are there by ourselves, doesn’t it? But that’s not the whole story.

As you can see in this brief video, there were hordes of tour groups from all around China, each of them with a group leader waving a flag and amplified with a portable speaker that echoed their explanations and instructions across the lake.

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Walkways were full of tour groups, moving like the packs of zombies in The Walking Dead. It was fascinating to watch as groups from different directions would converge, the tourists jostling through each other like salmon swimming upstream.

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While walking, I heard the chirps of birds only to discover that vendors were selling bamboo whistles to visitors. None of the bird chirps were real! 

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Still, if you turned and looked the other way, you could block much of the din of the crowd and enjoy the beautiful scenery, sights so beautiful they deserve to be painted and perhaps have been hundreds of times.

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There were even some spots where couples could enjoy their own private moment, something that must be a rare commodity in such a crowded city.

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On the western side of the lake, the trees were starting to show some autumn colors and the lotuses turned their leaves to the sky.

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Tawn’s cousins Paul and Nicha pose with us at West Lake. Interestingly, I was approached by two teenage girls who wanted to take their picture with me. Paul took a picture of that and I’ll have to see if I can get a copy to share with you. They either thought I was someone famous or, more likely, were from somewhere in the country and don’t see white people ever. Anyhow, it was an enjoyable trip!