Tag Archives: West Lake

Hangzhou Trip Part 4: The Smiling Buddha in the “Paris of the East”

25 Mar

Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple, originally founded in 328 AD, is the most famous Buddhist Temple in Hangzhou. It makes an easy day-trip from where I was staying on the south bank of West Lake.

On the way from the bus stop to the temple, you have to go past some truly epic carvings–IMHO, even better than the temple. Buddhist monks carved scenes into limestone cliffs over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years. The whole area is called Feilai Feng, or “The Peak that Flew from Afar.” It gives me the mental image of a winged mountain, flying a great distance to land next to Lingyin Temple.

From which “afar” did it fly? Stories vary–some say it flew all the way from India, the origin of Buddhism. The Laughing Buddha, pictured below, I think dates from the Song Dynasty–the golden age of Hangzhou.

Supposedly, if you rub his belly your wishes will come true. But I think you have to climb the cliff first…

The Laughing Buddha

Hangzhou is sometimes called the “Paris of the East.” I think the two towns have more similarities than you’d think–both are a consistently aesthetically pleasing experience (assuming you spend lots of time walking past the Seine, anyway), and both can be SUPER touristy (just try the north bank of West Lake). But both draw tourists for a reason. Sure, the Eiffel Tower is all rusty up close, and the lines to go up are awful. But you can get lost in Pere Lachaise cemetery for hours, wandering between the graves of 19th century artists, and stuff like that makes Paris epic.

West Lake, with its utterly inauthentic, Disney-ified good looks, makes Hangzhou pretty. But stuff like epic, centuries-old carvings of Buddha (and the twelve apostles?! or something) on the side of a cliff is what makes Hangzhou really cool. The rolling tea-covered hills just outside the city don’t hurt, either. I can’t wait to go back in spring sometime, when the villagers fry tea on the street and everything is blooming.

Verdict: Hangzhou is definitely worth a visit, even if you find Dragonwell tea yoǔ diaň cù (a little bitter).

Next time: Shenzhen (I swear I had good reason to spend a week there, because miracles do happen!)

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Hangzhou Trip Part 3: Tea in Autumn, Silk in Fountain(?!), and Unseen Looms Looming Luminously

23 Mar

I love this shot because it captures the two best things to do in Hangzhou–drink tea, and bum around West Lake. It’s a glass of chrysanthemum tea, in case you were wondering–and yes, it is hard to drink it around the flowers.

My week in Hangzhou was really quiet. I spent a lot of time wandering through museums, drinking tea, thinking and writing–it was actually National Novel Writing Month at the time, and I was just starting Nine Circles. My friends back in Changsha thought I was crazy, but I wrote most of my 50,000 words by hand that year. A small notebook turned out to be more portable (and less steal-able) than my laptop!

I think that’s basically what a week in Hangzhou is supposed to be like, though. People said I was missing out because spring was the best season since the trees around West Lake bloom, but I have no cause to complain because the autumn had scenes like this:

The color palette makes it look like something out of a postcard, but I was really there (staring with mouth gaping like an idiot before I fumbled for my camera). It’s from the garden of the tea museum. The Hangzhou Tea Museum & garden are surrounded by fields of–you guessed it–tea.

Tea’s a strange plant. I had ample time to go and poke it (no, don’t worry, I did not actually sully your future tea with my greasy little hands–I just stared at it a lot), and it’s so…well, shiny! I expected it to look dull in the light, dry like what you wind up putting in a tea bag/strainer/yuppie tea-making implement of choice. But of course that’s tea leaves that are ready to exude tea-ness when immersed in hot water–that is, tea whose leaves have been made permeable. Permeability in water is probably not a good thing in nature, for most plants, most of the time! So natural tea apparently comes with an outer layer of shininess, which is presumably removed in processing.

At the Tea Museum I learned and promptly forgot more than most of you will ever know about a single beverage. Among the most interesting random facts I have more-or-less retained:

  • the tea plant is sort of originally from India, by way of Yunnan Province
  • Changsha (my teaching site) was actually an important tea trading town, in ancient times
  • there exists something called Dark Tea which is distinct from Black Tea in that it is more oxidized or something
  • back in the day, they used to drink tea REALLY WEIRDLY. Like, they would mix in onions and spices and random stuff. It sounds like a soup more than anything, really. This modern purism thing is completely different from the “authentic” ancient preparation of tea.
  • Tibetans drink butter tea, which is a whole different thing
  • Back in the day, tea used to be packed into cakes for transport, because really how else are you going to do it? loose leaf is for us extravagant moderns
  • in a Chinese tea ceremony, it is proper (and fun) to pour hot water over absolutely everything first, to cleanse and heat your serving cups and pot
  • China mostly exports green tea; black tea is largely from India (even though my favorite black tea, Yunnan tea, comes from China!)
  • From now on I want my tea in the form of cakes transported from Yunnan province by llama, then I will add onions and cinnamon to it and make my friends chug it
  • Not really

There was also the silk museum, which had a huge gorgeous fountain out front. Presumably the statue’s sash is meant to be silk…getting wet?! It’s a tragic fountain!

The silk museum was pretty groovy–lots of beautiful clothing (that I didn’t get good shots of because it’s all behind glass), plus some interesting stuff about silk worms and different historical looms. Looms are crazy, you guys. I saw so many looms from different eras of history, from ancient up to today. Think Babbage and early computation. Think about Odysseus’s wife weaving and unweaving her tapestry to ward off suitors…I don’t really remember what loom she would have used, but it is just impressive that she had a loom. Loom loom loom.

Okay I am clearly sleep-deprived so I am going to cut this entry short. Next time, I will wrap up my Hangzhou trip with some photos of Lingyin Temple and ancient cliff-carvings of Buddha!

Hangzhou Trip Part 2: Three Dudes, Two Monuments, One Fascist on Holiday, No Eye Contact

20 Mar

In Hangzhou I stayed at a hostel right next to Jingci Temple (pronounced Jing-tsuh), where this gentleman was paying his respects. It was pretty wild to be staying within walking distance of a Buddhist temple that dates from the 10th century, even if it had been “embellished” since then–you see, Chinese culture doesn’t value authentic, untouched ruins the same way Western culture does. Or maybe modern mainland businesspeople just value tacky touristy paint jobs and overdevelopment more. At this particular temple, I actually ran into the construction crew building an entire hall from scratch…that was embarrassing. Then again, maybe it’s an adaptation to 1) the Cultural Revolution and/or 2) a historical tradition of building mostly in wood.

At the southern edge of West Lake, the temple crowd was apparently not noisy enough to keep the monks from drifting off.

No offense meant to any Buddhists in the crowd–I just couldn’t stop myself from photographing monks-acting-like-normal-people. Doing normal-people things, like napping with their shoes off. On that note…

Later I made it over to Leifeng Pagoda (mentioned previously here) and ran into a bunch of PRC soldiers. Or, as I liked to think of them, Fascists on Holiday. I got a shot of one of these gentlemen admiring the view of West Lake.

I was totally afraid I’d be deported for taking this photo, so you best appreciate it.

Next time: The Silk Museum, The Tea Museum, and Buddhist Cliff Carvings on Peak Flying From Afar (what?)

Hangzhou Trip Part 1: Leifeng Pagoda and White Snake, or: How Ancient Chinese Sorcery is Counter-Revolutionary, Comrade

19 Mar

West Lake is what makes Hangzhou famous. That, and Dragonwell tea, of course. There are many folktales about West Lake, hyped to glorify the overglutted regional tourist industry, to be sure, but one in particular caught my attention–that of White Snake.

According to legend, White Snake was a spirit who fell in love with a human man. She transformed herself, as spirits can, into a beautiful woman and they married. They started a pharmacy together (China has been civilized for WAY too long, that there are pharmacies in folklore, by the way) and did a bustling trade in traditional remedies. Every version I’ve read is careful to note that these were kind-hearted people’; if villagers were too poor to purchase their medicines, they would give them away free of charge.

That’s when Fa Hai, a meddling monk-slash-sorcerer, stepped in. During Dragon Boat Festival one year, he told the husband that the woman he’d married was really a spirit. White Snake at this time had weak magic because she was pregnant, and also because villagers were performing many rituals to drive away spirits–a common theme of Chinese holidays.

Various misadventures and miscommunications ensued, and despite White Snake’s best efforts to prove her true love and devotion, her husband left. When the time came for her to give birth, he returned to visit their son with a gift from Fa Hai–a hat. But these things are never quite what they seem, and the hat turned out to be magic. It swallowed White Snake up and trapped her inside. When Fa Hai got a hold of her, he imprisoned her within the stones of Lei Feng Pagoda.

Here, again, the story depends on who’s doing the telling. Does the White Snake ever escape, or is she bound for eternity? Does her sister, Green Snake, defeat Fa Hai? Does her son rescue her, or does he die of old age before she can be reunited with him? Frustratingly, they never seem to mention if her husband forgives her for her deception.

We’re left with nothing but questions. Can a white snake become a woman?

Does love transcend mortality?

Probably because of White Snake’s association with medicine, villagers came to believe that bricks from the pagoda in which she was supposedly imprisoned had the power to repel illness or prevent miscarriage. Many people stole bricks to grind into powder for remedies, until finally the structure became unsound and collapsed. Lei Feng Pagoda, built by aristocrats, was a symbol of the Chinese empire which, symbolically enough, crumbled to pieces in the early 20th century. It’s possible that “White Snake” became “White Lady” (her alternate title) during this time, in the consciousness of the People–Lei Feng Pagoda was no longer protecting them from a rogue spirit, but imprisoning an innocent commoner who’d lost everything for love.

I think if I write any story directly inspired by China, it’ll involve White Snake. I love the image of a spirit imprisoned in a tower–not a woman trapped inside, awaiting rescue, but a magical presence bound to the very rocks of the place, looking out over a lake and waiting for the human construction to crumble before the ravages of time.

I think my White Snake wouldn’t mind waiting. But when she gets out, she’ll be having words with Fa Hai the sorcerer.

I think that kid's studying either Potions or Herbology. Man, Hogwarts would TOTALLY have a study abroad program in Hangzhou.

Is that glow Fa Hai's protection spell, or tacky neon tourist lighting? You be the judge.