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Hangzhou, China is a must-see for tea and temples

Hangzhou – historically famed for its West Lake, Longjing tea and fine silk – is finally shaking off it’s reputation as only a day trip from Shanghai.

The capital of eastern Zhejiang province has a lot going for it. The wealthy city’s ongoing development has paid heed to its ancient allure. While many Chinese cities convert heritage neighbourhoods into highways and skytowers, Hangzhou recognises the tourism dollars to be earned by preserving its many historical attractions.

Hangzhou also has an eye on the future. Expansive infrastructure and leisure projects are underway citywide. Last year, Hangzhou was linked into China’s super-high-speed rail network, the 350km/h train cutting travel time between Shanghai and Hangzhou to just 45 minutes.

The ongoing makeover is having an effect. Hangzhou house prices are the highest in the country and global hotel brands are queuing to open luxury resorts. Meanwhile, Xiaoshan Airport, which is undergoing a major upgrade, is establishing itself as a budget airline hub encouraging visitors from across Asia, and a few European destinations, to fly directly to Hangzhou – and then stay awhile.

April Tea-picking
Visitors to Hangzhou in April are in for a real treat – the annual tea harvest.Hangzhou’s most famous export is Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, which grows on the phosphorous-rich slopes and valleys around the city. Go straight to the source at Longjing Tea Culture Village atop Longjing Hill.In this historic valley straight out of a Chinese watercolour painting, you can pick your own leaves from the terraced fields then have the local farmers dry your harvest in roadside woks. If you visit ahead of the Qingming Festival (5 April, 2011), you could score some of the highly-prized first tea harvest, known as Mingqian Longjing.

Aquatic Adventures

West Lake is the heart of Hangzhou and a stroll (or paddle) along at least part of its 15km, willow-fringed shoreline is de rigueur. Flanked by pagoda-studded mountains and often draped in mist, it has entranced generations of poets and painters. Watch the local Legend of White Snake come alive each night at Impression West Lake, an animated music-and-laser pageant directed by Zhang Yimou and performed on the lake surface.

West Lake isn’t Hangzhou’s only watery attraction. In the west, the Xixi Wetlands cover 11.5 square kilometres of marshy wilderness. Designated China’s first national wetland park in 2005, it offers cruises through winding waterways that are home to 90 species of migratory birds. You can alight at various stops en route to wander along nature trails lined with mulberry, hibiscus and persimmon trees, go freshwater fishing, and explore the low-lying farming villages, nunneries and noblemen’s residences.

Temple Hopping

There are countless ancient temples in Hangzhou, but if you have time for only one, make it Lingyin Si (or Temple of the Soul’s Retreat). The 800-year-old Buddhist temple is one of southern China’s largest and features four grand halls, including the 12-metre-high Hall of the 500 Arhats, which displays 500 life-sized seated saints. Surrounding the temple is a labyrinth of hillside caves and grottoes embedded with over 400 Buddhist sculptures and rock carvings dating back to the 10th century. If Lingyin is too crowded, retreat to the tranquil Yongfu Monastery nearby.

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