Hangzhou: 'The city of heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world' (Marco Polo 1254-1324)
Today we travelled further east to Hangzhou, and as the train sped through the countryside you started to notice different kinds of terrain. After a series of tunnels through large hills the landscape flattened out again and became more verdant and watery which would set the scene for the next few cities we were to visit.
Hangzhou is a city of nearly 8 million people, and capital of Zejiang Province, built next to the large West Lake which is now a UNESCO heritage site. Many historical place names are poetic and enchanting, such as 'Orioles singing in the willows' and 'Heavenly wind over Wu Mountain' and you almost expect to meet a magical landscape. To the west of the lake are steep hills, which we would explore later on, the Botanical Gardens, and a complex of low rise home stays and restaurants, where we would stay for our time here. The main street of this holiday area was lively and bustling every day and with plenty of places to choose from, we ate there most nights. Our place was very hard to find though and it took three 'policemen' and 20 minutes to find our home stay.
The next morning we set off early for the China National Silk Museum, which when we found it had a small frontage but is actually very big with many galleries inside. The exhibits included silk cocoons, silk making tools and fragments of silk dating back to the Neolithic period. According to a Song Dynasty text Leizu, also called Xi Lingshi, wife of the Yellow Emperor, was the first person to cultivate silk in the 27th Century BC! An altar for the worship of the inventor of silk was built on the outskirts of the capital in the Northern Xi dynasty 550-570.
The museum had an encyclopaedia of silk which was organised using the the various dynasties throughout Chinese history. The first evidence of silk being traded long distances is along the Prairie Road through Russia, sometimes called the 'road through the clouds'. Zhang Qian, a 2nd Century Chinese official and diplomat was the first reliable source of information brought back from the western states and helped to realise the importance of trade routes between China and the rest of the world. Around this time the Romans learned of a silk producing country to the east and called it Seres. Ptolemy's 2nd Century book Geography inspired the Nicolaus Germanus's 15th century map which includes Sinae as a land beyond India and Sri Lanka. In order to develop, then control the developing route China built military outposts at Hexi, Jinguan, Zhangye and Dunhuang.
In the collections of archaeology are Neolithic whorls, a shuttle made from an antler and a model of a loom found in a Han Dynasty tomb. Grave goods included a pot found with a child's skeleton inside, all wrapped in silk, dating from 5000 years ago. There were also very old silk fragments from 200 BC during the Warring States period.
Overwhelmed by stories of silk, on the way back we took a slow stroll back around West Lake and across the long Causeway among many other Chinese tourists and tried to avoid being run over by the electric buses zooming between the pedestrians.
On Saturday, as with most days in Hangzhou we had breakfast on the move, sampling a variety of buns, cakes and dried fruits each day. We took a bus across the city as we wanted to visit Silk City, a few pedestrianised historic streets lined with a myriad of small shops selling silk of all kinds including many variations of the Chi-pao, curtains and bed spreads.
The Grand Canal is one of China's largest and most impressive engineering projects, started in the 5th century BC and completed in 1633. We spent a while watching the large barges navigate a few bridges on a tight section of the canal. They carry a lot of different kinds of aggregates, and in huge quantities (a draft of 3.2m) and most of them were loaded to the gunnels in one direction and empty in the other. We then made our way to the river ferry to visit the Gongshu area and found an incredible Chinese pharmacy with special water that people were collecting in bottles, consultation booths, a plethora of ingredients and piles of bags which looked like prescriptions ready to be collected. There was also a huge selection, literally hundreds of herbs and plants, including ginseng, complete with the whole root system individually heat wrapped with certificates of authenticity. We also saw signs to the fan, scissor and knife museums.
On Sunday we experienced rain for the first time in China, but in such a picturesque landscape, heading into the hills around Longjing village. The main reason for visiting was to see the tea plantations and drink some tea, especially Green Dragon Well Tea, the local speciality. The village had the feeling of a hill station in India, with home stays and restaurants, street vendors selling local tea which they were roasting outside. We went to a small house and drank tea with an old lady who spoke no English, and we communicated with her using Google Translate, but she wrote Chinese on a piece of paper using a pen. We managed to deduce though that her tea had been picked on 23rd of March, which is before the traditional tomb sweeping day, meaning it had less chance of insects being present. We climbed one of the hills to make some recordings of the tea plantations and got swept up in lots of people on a 20k sponsored walk and saw several couples all dressed up and having their pre wedding photos taken, something that we saw in nearly every scenic location.
The Tea Museum further up the hill road, was set in beautiful gardens on the hillside and we walked to the tea altar on top of the hill which afforded magnificent views. As we descended the rain started so we headed for the road to get the bus back. The buses are cheap in China, ¥2 or 3 for each journey, and if you can connect to the internet you can eventually work things out. Other things that we noticed here were fruit sellers on the road side and plenty of artificial rocks playing back traditional music.
Our last day was still a bit grey and threatening rain but we set out for the northern lake shore looking for the Brocade Museum and taking in the sights on the way, including lots of strolling tourists, the shorter causeway, large houses on Beishan Street and a couple of buskers. Our maps were giving us conflicting locations for the museum so it took a while to find it. It was closed, but we could hear the sound of looms working in the building opposite. There was no one in the Police box outside and the door was wide open, so we went in and were welcomed by the man inside. There were about 6 looms of 20 looms being operated by women and when we approached them to record, they stopped them and asked us to look at the cloth, a very fine traditional scene on sumptuous and heavyweight silk. There were a colourful selection of silk hanks on a rail and several small machines for winding and warping.
A lady in the company shop along the street said that the museum opened at 1pm so after looking at their bed spreads, ties and chi-paos, we headed there. The story and artefacts charted the history of Mr Du Jingshen, the silk business he set up in 1922 and how it had survived until today, which was very interesting, especially through out the years of war and reform.
We headed back to the lake and heard many street buskers including a pensioners playing traditional tunes with a trance beat and synth sounds, a large choir singing passionate and rousing songs with a small ensemble of traditional instruments. We found our way to the Academy of Art, had a coffee in its bookshop, and had a look around the show. For dinner we tried 'Beggars Chicken' at a restaurant on Gaoyin Street, a local dish where the whole chicken is cooked wrapped in a lotus leaf encased in mud. We also visited Renhe Road night market and picked up a bargain.