THE WEST PAINTS quite the picture of China. Ridiculously rapid economic growth at the environment’s expense, things that a Western eye would see as legal and political idiosyncrasies which gloss over the struggles of one billion hearts. Touching down in Beijing, or in any major city in China, the West briefs you to expect a thick haze and manic crowds who give any foreigner strange looks.
Somehow I managed to avoid all that on my way to my first destination in China. Flying in to Beijing Capital Airport, connecting to Shanghai Hongqiao and directly from the terminal to the high-speed rail station kept me in a comfortable bubble of state-of-the-art infrastructure deep into Chinese territory, virtually into the heart of my destination.
And that destination, despite being only an hour from Shanghai, is everything and nothing like you would imagine China to be at the same time. And to be fair, every expectation of China that was correct was something I got from Chinese class – or at least outside Western media. In Hangzhou, the air – and the streets – are clean. It’s walkable. Trees bloom on the sidewalk. People don’t stare (and you could argue a foreigner here is rarer than one in Beijing or Shanghai), and they drive within their lane. Folks in Hangzhou have a strong sense of stewardship for their community.
No more evident is this than in its most famous natural feature – 西湖/Xihu – literally, West Lake. It takes a day to circumnavigate (though my friend claims to have done it in two hours after having visited enough times), or an hour to cruise. It’s the place of fables, legends … and the RMB1 banknote. Tourists from all over China descend on it – and while we visited on a schedule probably more rushed than them, the scene inevitably conduces you into a state of relaxation, especially in spring, when the whole lake is in bloom. Hangzhou is perfectly located to get the best of everything nature-wise – lush mountains to the west, a large sound to the east that opens up to the Pacific, and a longitude that gifts it with a four-season temperate climate.
Though you’ll find the characteristically Chinese rapid growth on some outskirts of Hangzhou, Xihu acts as a natural greenbelt to prevent the sprawl, and it will stay that way. It’s a proverb here, sometimes attributed to Marco Polo, or his hosts, but also on signs with Deng Xiaoping’s image – that “in heaven there is paradise, on earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou.” And there is no Hangzhou without Xihu. Regardless of how fast China grows, signs everywhere remind you of its importance to Hangzhou. If Heaven upholds its treasures, so shall Earth be bound to do the same.