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Fascinating Hangzhou

Article for the Hangzhoufree Newspaper

Fascinating Hangzhou

The West Lake looks like the fair lady at her best

Whether she is richly adorned or plainly dressed.

“The West Lake, the Beauty" Su Shi (1073)

There's an old Chinese saying that goes "shang you tian tang, xia you su hang" - up there is heaven, down here is Suzhou and Hangzhou. Marco Polo admired Hangzhou for its exquisiteness. At the end of the 13thcentury, he wrote it was "the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world." And now, in the 21stCentury, Hangzhou is still making its mark on the world stage.

Hangzhou continues to entrance and attract visitors not only for the poetic delights of West Lake but also for the more material pleasures of eating, drinking and shopping. There is no better place to spend one’s time than wandering around the Hubin Business Area, comprising Hubin Road, Dongpo Road and Pinghai Road. These three roads fortuitously form the Chinese character 千which means ‘thousands’ – a clear prediction of the number of people who will be attracted here.

Once the haunt of poets and artists such as Su Shi or Dong Po, as he is also known, these renovated and upgraded streets now boast a range of attractions that will delight the most jaded traveller. Where else in the world might one rest and enjoy a milk tea from a roadside stall that boasts one Michelin star whilst looking out across a world renowned lake? The aromas of local and traditional snacks and food drifting in the light air makes one take note of the many popular restaurants for later when more sustenance is needed. If fast food is your thing, don't worry because KFC is here, one of the first of this global chain to offer a menu catering for the local tastes.

The pedestrianisation of these streets was first confirmed by the Ministry of Commerce in 2018 to increase the charm of Hangzhou and as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. Every detail in this new development has been thought about carefully. The welcoming seats along the way are coloured to match the four seasons, the very paving slabs I walk over reflect the history and aura of this place. Here, large circles remind us of the parasol industry that once flourished in this area, there, gentle ripples, so we walk as if on the clear water of the lake.

But this is no walk down memory lane, the streets bustle with activity and the business of the 21stcentury. Where the umbrella and scissor makers once made a living now the fashion brands of Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Chanel and more, add to the vitality of the area. Groups of photographers are shooting a pretty girl modelling the latest designer fashion while another cluster of girls dressed in their Tang and Ming dynasty finest giggle at their smart phones. The ancient culture mixing seamlessly with the present.

For those of us expats living in China, we are in awe of the Chinese led technological developments we use in our everyday life, from the fast and clean metro that dropped me off at Longxiangqiao station to the apps such as Alipay we use on our phone. Hubin Business Area is a smart space. Advanced technology developed by the Alibaba company fronted by Jack Ma allows the area managers to monitor everything from how many tourists are in the local area to how busy the car parks are. This intelligent design will allow visitors to experience the best of Hangzhou. For instance, on each street there are smart information points that tourists can use to help them answer questions or find their way to their favourite restaurant or shopping experience of their choice.

I spent a good few hours wandering around these streets on the opening day enjoying the festival atmosphere. On the eve of the 70thanniversary of the PRC the streets come to life as evening starts to fall. As the lights twinkle along the banks of the lake I sample plum wine and West Lake Longjing tea to the strains of music played by performers on stages and a roving band of brightly clothed foreigners beating drums and blowing trumpets bringing smiles to the faces of the onlookers. And then a finale: brightly coloured water shoots out of the calm surface of the lake as the fountains come to life to a background of romantic music, the crowd is captivated. The water dances to the sound of Celine Dion.

And then later, footsore, weary, hungry but happy, I go to eat. What else could I choose but Dongpo Pork­­! 好吃-yummy.

What a fascinating place Hangzhou is…

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