Sylvia Wu walks in the path of age-old lovers, sips endless cups of long jin tea while munching on lip-smacking dim sum
Meet on the “Broken Bridge”
There is an old Chinese folktale in Hangzhou, spanning over 700 years, about the famous romance between a white snake spirit (disguised as a beautiful lady, of course) and a young scholar, named Xu Xian. Legend has it that they first met on a bridge one rainy day. The lady was caught in the downpour and the gentleman lent her an umbrella, a meeting, which sparked an intense attraction. It happened on the “Broken Bridge” on the West Lake (at the east end of the Bai Causeway in the West Lake Scenic Area). Thanks to the narrative, this landmark has been a favourite place for modern-day lovers to hold their trysts.
The bridge is especially popular with tourists during winter. After a snowfall, the snow on the sunny side usually melts first. This, coupled with the remaining snow on the shady side, creates the illusion of a broken bridge.
Visit the tower
Another site related to the legend, which is also worth visiting, is the Lei Feng Tower. In the tale, it was used by an evil monk to trap the snake spirit, thus separating the lovers. Then, in the early 20th century, the structure suddenly collapsed, which to many symbolised freedom at last for the imprisoned beauty, and perhaps – everyone hopes – a happy ending for the lovers. This is located on Sunset Hill, South West Lake. Admission fee: CNY40 (US$6). Open 0730 to 2300.
Admire the Lotus
The best season to visit Hangzhou is summer, when the entire West Lake is filled with pink and white lotus blossoms set off by the unfolding jade-coloured leaves.
Numerous cafés and restaurants in the vicinity enjoy brisk business, among them Ming Jian (meaning “clear mirror”) House, which is outstanding for its delicate, traditional architectural style and stunning views. The structure boasts an almost 60-year history and features grey walls and a tiled roof. Taking a window seat, you find the only thing separating you from the verdant lotus is a layer of thick glass. If you want to get closer, opt for alfresco seating.
Ming Jian also boasts a Chinese traditional wooden pavilion connected to mainland by a footpath. Imagine a dining experience far from the bustle, enhanced by the scent of lotus blossoms and sound of lapping water. 2 Gushan Road, Westlake. Open daily from 1100 to 1400 and 1700 to 2100.
Sip tea on the mountain slope
Climb the mountain facing the West Lake for an immersion in China’s rich tea culture. Hangzhou is home of the famous long jin tea (long jin means “dragon’s well”) and hosts an abundance of tea plantations, scattered on the slopes surrounding West Lake’s southwest shore.
During the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qian Long, who had a special affection for Hangzhou, first tasted the beverage in the “Garden with 18 Tea Trees” and brought it back to Beijing for his mother, who suffered terrible headaches. It was said that after sipping long jin tea, her condition greatly improved.
The incident helped spread the fame of long jin throughout the country, prompting even travellers from Japan – even with its own rich tea history – to journey to Hangzhou.
The emperor visited the area four times during his life, and was inspired to write five poems honouring long jin tea. These have been carved on a stone, which can be found standing in the midst of rows of tea hedges in one of the plantations.
Why do Chinese people flock to Hangzhou to taste the tea, rather than buy it from an ordinary shop and sip it at home? Because water from the wells in Hangzhou is unique to the province, and that’s what gives the tea its distinctive flavour.
Dine on dim sum
What makes Hangzhou’s dim sum different from those offered in Hongkong restaurants or any Chinatown in the West? First, it’s made with less oil, making it tastier and healthier, and second, it’s very reasonably priced. And there is a wide range to choose from as well.
Simply order “dumpling” and over 10 kinds in a number of shapes and varying tastes will be presented to you. There are Shanghai-style steamed dumplings with meat or shrimp, dumplings in soup, fried dumplings, big dumplings stuffed with red bean and so on. Prices start from CNY2 to CNY20 (US$0.30 to US$3).
Try the special dumpling, called “cat’s ears” (since it looks like that part of a feline’s anatomy) prepared with seafood soup. It’s every Hangzhou resident’s favourite.
He Fang Street, the dim sum hub of the city, has been around for centuries, and looks certain to remain so for a very long time as no one seems to tire of piling its tables with steaming baskets of these tasty treats.