West Meets East – Day trips to Zhejiang’s lake districts
Of course, you don’t always need to limit yourself to just a day. We as teachers do get 2-day weekends outside of peak season, so overnights are always an option. But chances are you will want the first day off to rest and to catch up on – well, on your life. Your favourite TV shows, your friends and family at home, laundry and grocery shopping – that sort of stuff. But then – you are a foreigner in China and you will probably start to feel guilty if all you see are the insides of your school, your apartment, and the local supermarket.
Shaoxing’s East Lake
I actually feel pretty lucky that I was hired in a city like Shaoxing. It isn’t a big and modern commercial centre like Shanghai, so it lacks much of the Western comforts that the big cities tend to offer. Starbucks and KFC are pretty much all you see. It’s a prefecture level city about an hours train ride south of Hangzhou and a fairly good example of the ‘authentic’ China. Parks, mountains, and historical attractions are plentiful, so there is enough to do without even leaving the city. If Hangzhou is famous for Xihu -West Lake- then Shaoxing is known for its Donghu – East Lake, a place I had been hearing about for months but never actually got to, until yesterday. It is much smaller than West Lake and far less crowded, but no less appealing. I was impressed by the stellar rock formations, the size of it reminding me of parts of the Canadian Shield from back home. It’s structure, colour, and grottoes within offered much scenic beauty. Rock climbing is an option, as are boat rides on the lake, but we chose instead to walk around and take a path leading up to the top of the cliff. No sooner had we reached the top when we got caught in a tremendous downpour, common in this part of China at this time of the year and making our experience all the more ‘Chinese.’ Our descent was met with some fantastic views of the city and surrounding mountains, but not without some difficulty as we slid down the rocky path and stairs to continue our walk around the lake.
Hangzhou’s West Lake
The first time I went into the city was over the Tomb Sweeping Holiday, so I actually spent 3 days and two nights in the city, just walking around and getting familiar with the sights. I have since gone back a couple more times just for the day, usually when I feel like I need a change of scenery or am craving good Western food (and beer). I can get a train out of Shaoxing shortly after noon and be back at my apartment by 9. It’s my routine now that when I go into the city I will walk down to the metro at Chengzhan station and take the subway one stop to Ding’an, which is just a short walk away from the famous West Lake. If you have never been to Hangzhou before, it is well worth your time to walk around the lake, or if you are pressed for time or just don’t like walking, renting a bicycle is another popular option. While I have walked by the lake for a while in both directions, I have never actually made it all the way around. The last time I was there, on a stinking hot Tuesday in June, I ended up taking a boat to the other side of the lake, another fantastic option since this way you can get out on the water. This was my first time to the far side of the lake, and it was far more peaceful than the hustle and bustle that you find along the causeways by Nanshan Lu. Obviously a trip to Hangzhou isn’t complete without a taste of the comforts of home, so the day usually ends with Happy Hour at Eudora Station, a popular restaurant by the lake for foreigners that offers decent hamburgers and sandwiches, pizza, and beer.
Xiaoshan’s Xianghu Lake
Xiaoshan, perhaps more commonly known as Hangzhou Nan, is a suburb of Hangzhou on the opposite side of the Qiantang River. While not a tourist destination, it is home to a third lake that is well worth exploring if you ever find yourself in the area. Xianghu Lake is a man made lake and much larger than I was expecting the first time I went there. It is smaller than West Lake, but quite long and can still take a few hours to walk the perimeter. It seemed to be popular with the locals but remains far less crowded than West Lake, while still offering the same natural scenic beauty. There also appeared to be some trails leading up the mountains, which could be a good option for what might be a challenging experience with some rewarding views at the end.