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Hangzhou -- A Paradise on Earth
Hangzhou, capital of southeast China's Zhejiang Province, is a famous tourist city featuring beautiful scenery and places of cultural interest. It is nestled at the foot of Tianmu Mountain and embraces the West Lake. The majestic Qiantang River also passes through it. Marco Polo, an Italian traveler in the 13th century, praised Hangzhou as the world's most beautiful paradise.

Hangzhou is a historical city that has been prosperous since ancient times. As early as some 5,000 years ago, it was settled by its first human inhabitants, who created one of China's earliest primitive cultures. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Hangzhou, then known as Lin'an, was the capital of the nation, and therefore, China's political, economic, and cultural center. Today, Hangzhou has become an international, tourist city that has opened its arms to people from different parts of the globe.

The West Lake: Always Alluring

Hangzhou has many scenic attractions; and the most impressive is the West Lake. With a breathtaking beauty that is hard not to admire, the West Lake is dubbed the shining pearl of the East, resembling Lake Leman in Geneva, Switzerland.

Surrounded on three sides by rolling, wooded mountains, the West Lake covers an area of 5.65 square kilometers. Viewed from above, Xiaoyingzhou, Huxinting, and Ruangongdun Islets look like three gems inlaid in the lake's surface; and the Su and Bai Causeways intersect the lake like floating ribbons, embellished with green willows and red peach blossoms. While the lake reflects the skyline, the mountains set off the grace of the water, each shining more brilliantly in the other's company. All these elements compose a beautiful landscape painting; and travelers feel as if they are inside the painting. Su Shi, an eminent poet of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), once likened the West Lake to Xi Shi, a famous beauty in ancient times, in one of his poems: "Rippling water shimmers on a sunny day; misty mountains are wonderful in the rain. Plain or gaily decked out like Xi Shi, the West Lake is always alluring." As Su described in his poem, the beauty of the West Lake lies in its lasting charm which survives the change of seasons, weather, and times of day.

Since the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907), the urban construction of Hangzhou has been closely connected with the development of the West Lake. Today, the municipal government of Hangzhou still places a premium on optimizing and beautifying the environment of the scenic area around the lake. In 2002, the government carried out a renovation project of the West Lake's south bank area; and thanks to this project, the south bank has now taken on an even more beautiful look. The enclosures, which in the past separated the lakeside parks from one another, have been torn down, and all the scenic spots circling the lake have thus been linked together. More excitingly, all these parks and scenic spots, which previously charged a fee, are now open to the public for free.

Just after a rain shower had cleared and freshened up the air, I went to the south bank for a stroll. Jade-green willows swayed in the breeze, trailing their branches over the lotus-carpeted lake. The dewy grass emitted a delicate fragrance. I trod on the cobblestone paths, and stone slabs with lifelike carvings caught my eye. The south bank's natural scenery and artificial landscapes come together to create an enchanting image, which includes stone bridges zigzagging on the lake, towers and pavilions elegantly standing by the water's edge, the wind creating waves in a lotus pool, and verdant lawns rising and falling according to the gradient of the mountain slope.

Being from the northern part of China, I found myself completely stunned by everything that met my eyes. I thought to myself, how wonderful it would be if time could slow down so that I would be able to carefully savor and contemplate the elegant beauty of South China.

Silk: Glorifying Hangzhou

Hangzhou is well known for producing fine-quality silk. Its history of planting mulberries and breeding silkworms can be traced back to the late Neolithic Age. During the Southern Song Dynasty, Hangzhou became the national center for the production and trading of silk, and has since enjoyed a reputation of being the Home of Silk.

Reputed to be the "colorful clouds in the sky," Hangzhou silk is famous for its soft texture, shiny color, and fine, smooth feel. Early in the Han Dynasty (206B.C. - 220A.D.), Hangzhou silk was introduced to foreign countries via the Silk Road. Today, the city produces a wide variety of silk products that sell well on both domestic and international markets; and the silk industry has greatly fueled the economic growth of the city.

For visitors to Hangzhou, silk products are their first choice when buying gifts to take back home for relatives and friends. When buying silk products, one is recommended to shop at the Hangzhou China Silk Town near the West Lake. Built in 1987, the silk town has been expanded and occupies an area the size of a real town. Here, commercial streets crisscross; and on both sides of the streets, shops in ancient architectural styles stand in close order selling various silk textiles, including cloth, garments, handicrafts, scarves, and ties. Vendors radiate brilliant smiles and ardent enthusiasm as they greet prospective customers passing by. The commodities are of high quality; and if you are good at haggling, you can get really great prices.

Longjing: Empress of Green Tea

Green fields of tea trees carpet the terraced mountainside; and the round hats and bamboo baskets of girls picking tea leaves dot the fields. This is a common scene every spring in Hangzhou, the center for growing Longjing tea.

Reputed to be the "Empress of Green Tea," Longjing tea is primarily planted in Longjing (Dragon Well), a small village 20 kilometers from downtown Hangzhou. Perching on a mountain southwest of the West Lake, and endowed with lingering clouds and mists as well as abundant rain and dew, Longjing offers favorable conditions for growing tea. Longjing tea has a history of more than 1,200 years. Due to its unique fragrance, luscious flavor, nice leaf shape, and emerald color, it used to be a tribute given to the imperial families of the past dynasties.

The fragrance of Longjing tea drifts across the city of Hangzhou, and wherever it goes, it nurtures people's taste for tea. Savoring tea has become an integral part of people's cultural life in Hangzhou. Believe it or not, teahouses are everywhere, numbering in the thousands so far. Large or small, simple or exquisite, the teahouses compose an attractive part of the cityscape and help develop and spread the long-standing Chinese tea culture.

On the recommendation of a friend, we went to a teahouse in the downtown area. We almost didn't find a vacant private room. According to my friend, had we arrived a bit later, the teahouse would have been filled to its capacity. Such brisk business is not only attributed to the teahouse's atmosphere, featuring elegant furnishings and decorations, but also to its distinctive service. At an expense of only $4, a guest can enjoy tea as well as a wide array of food and refreshments, including cold dishes, stir-fried dishes, dessert, nuts, and fruit. "Hangzhou teahouses create a pleasant atmosphere that attracts people who are tired of the bustling city and want to relax or meet with friends," Zhang Sheng, a trading firm employee, told us. "Businesspeople like me also like to have business meetings at teahouses. Very few guests purely come for the tea."

To enjoy my teahouse experience, following the Hangzhou custom, I had a free-flowing talk with my friend while sipping tea and nibbling on snacks. The time had slipped away before we even realized. We were still in the mood for tea, though, and wanted to continue taking part in the teahouse culture.

Hangzhou: An Ideal Environment for Living

Hangzhou has a subtropical monsoon climate with mild and moist weather and four distinct seasons, and boasts constant sunshine and abundant rainfall throughout the year. Such climatic features, plus its picturesque scenery, have made Hangzhou a comfortable and enjoyable city to live in.

Over the past several years, the city has continued to improve the living environment of its citizens; and its endeavor in the reconstruction and protection of the ecological environment has borne fruits. In 2001, Hangzhou won a UN award for its living environment. In October 2002, it was awarded the title of "International Garden City"--the world's highest honor that encourages and rewards a city for its excellent ecological environment.

Due, probably, to the city's beautiful and comfortable environment, Hangzhou people are free from tension, stress, and intense competition. The first thing they try to ensure is a leisurely pace of life so that they can indulge themselves in the scenic beauty of the city. It is no wonder some people say that the people of Hangzhou only know how to enjoy life.

On weekends, teahouses and restaurants are packed. People don't care what they eat or drink, but how light-hearted and delightful the surroundings are. In April, when the grass turns green, flowers burst into full bloom, and birds dart around in the warmth of spring, the West Lake experiences its best season. In the company of family or friends, people come to the lake to appreciate the scenery, play cards, and spend time with each other; and thanks to their arrival, the lake stirs with life.

In August, the osmanthus flower blooms in white, yellow, and soft, reddish orange. As the warm breeze blows the sweet scent of these flowers to every corner of the city, people, alone or in groups, eagerly come to the parks and sit by the osmanthus trees, to enjoy the flowers and to sip Longjing tea. When a strong breeze passes by, some flower petals are shaken off the trees. Occasionally, the flowers drop into teacups, adding a special aromatic flavor to the tea.

(China Pictorial March 3, 2003)

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