Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, is a major commercial hub in eastern China – just 45 minutes from Shanghai – with a population of more than 10 million. Yet the city is also one of China’s most sought-after holiday destinations, thanks to its assortment of serene waterways and lakes, most famously West Lake. From ancient feats of engineering to natural phenomena and water villages, we explore the most beautiful aquatic features in and around Hangzhou.
The Grand Canal
Stretching 1,764 kilometres from Beijing to Hangzhou, The Grand Canal is the longest man-made waterway ever created. The 2,000-year-old transport network played a vital role in the fortunes of ancient China, helping transfer food, trade, people, armies and culture between north and south, with links to the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, Haihe, and Qiantang Rivers.
The Unesco-listed waterway offers up a series of tableaux of river life, with old-time dwellings, stone bridges, temples and historical relics dotting the riverbanks. Hop on a cruise to explore the final section of The Grand Canal, with several operators offering tours during the day and night. Sip some of Hangzhou’s famous Longing tea and keep an eye out for landmarks such as Gongchen Bridge and the historic Qiaoxizhi Street beyond, with its rows of old stone houses.
Another Unesco-listed treasure, Hangzhou’s West Lake is considered one of the most enchanting sights in China. The peaceful man-made body flows around three islands and several causeways, with a mountainous backdrop adding to the beauty. Take to the willow-lined cycle path along Su Causeway for serene views dotted with temples, pagodas and ornamental bridges, or wander through the Quyuan Gardens on the northwest shores to enjoy exquisite summer lotus blossoms.
For a more relaxed adventure, lake cruises show off the famous spots from the Leifeng Pagoda to the iconic Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, as featured on the 1 Yuan bank notes. There are also self-rowing boats available for hire should you wish to enjoy the inspiring scenes in peace. Don’t miss Impression West Lake – a stunning show performed on the lake itself, with a hidden platform just underneath the surface creating mindbending illusions.
Qiandao – meaning thousand islands – was created in 1959 when the area was flooded to create a hydroelectric power station. The mountainous peaks were transformed into more than 1,000 islets, that now create a picturesque playground for sightseeing boat tours. A popular spot is Meifeng Island, where you can hike up to a viewing platform for panoramic views of the area.
Another fascinating sight lies under the surface: the ancient ‘Lion City’ of Shi Cheng, which was submerged in 1959 but remains impressively intact. Dive tours can be organised with companies based in Shanghai such as Big Blue Scuba. Back on shore, nearby restaurants are renowned for serving up bighead carp. Order hongshao yutou (carp head braised with soy sauce, spring onion, ginger, pepper and Shaoxing wine) for an authentic local delicacy.
Every autumn (on the 18th day of the eighth lunar month, to be precise), thousands of people line the banks of Qiantang River waiting for an annual phenomenon to take place. The river, which runs through the heart of Hangzhou, is famous for having the world’s largest tidal bore, where tidal waves reaching 12 metres race up the channel – and sometimes spill into the streets.
The Qiantang River Bridge is another worthy spectacle, whatever the season. Designed by respected architect Yisheng Mao, it was the first double decker bridge in China, opened in 1937, and an important milestone in China’s engineering history. Sail under it with a sundowner in hand onboard one of the popular evening river cruises.
Eastern China is dotted with pretty water towns that are easily accessible for a day trip from Hangzhou. Wuzhen popped up on the Grand Canal over 1,000 years ago and is today one of the most popular water villages, with accommodation for overnight stays. Though often busy, it retains its historic feel with restored buildings, ancient stone bridges, stone pathways and delicate wood carvings lining the waterway.
Tongli is another popular ancient water town. Divided by a network of 15 canals and surrounded by five lakes, it has been likened to a ‘mini-Venice’, with more than 40 ancient bridges connecting the islets together. For a quieter experience award from the crowds, Nanxun offers a serene window into the past, with a mix of European architecture and historic ties to the silk industry.