I travelled to Hangzhou, capital of the 12th-century Southern Song dynasty, in the only way one should contemplate such a journey these days: at 300km/h in the capacious seat of a sleek-nosed bullet train. I arrived in just 57 minutes from Shanghai, about 110 miles to the north. A few months earlier the same journey would have taken just 45 minutes. But the top speed of trains across China has been cut after a fatal accident on another line last year.
That has rubbed some of the shine off China’s high-speed enterprise. But the brilliant white train to Hangzhou, even shorn of its top speed, remains an impressive metaphor for the country’s extraordinary economic propulsion. It is certainly a contrast, worthy of the worst copywriter’s cliché, with the picturesque city of mist-enfolded lakes and hilltop Buddhist temples that awaits.
The fast train from Shanghai has made Hangzhou a much more accessible destination for foreign tourists. Chinese have been coming here for centuries but foreigners are now arriving at this city in greater numbers. West Lake, with its 10 classical views that have inspired poets and painters down the ages, was last year made a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The journey to Hangzhou begins in the newly built train station at Hongqiao, or Red Bridge, a cavernous cathedral to modernism on the edge of Shanghai. This is Heathrow’s Terminal 5 for bullet trains. So vast is the space that people, silhouetted against the glass window at the far end, resemble LS Lowry’s matchstick figures. The motorised police pods that buzz through the throngs are beetle-sized in the immensity. We are ants in the Aya Sofia.
Only the large bundles being lugged around by some passengers hint that China is not yet rich. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the luggage, the poorer the country. The train itself is like its Japanese counterpart, only roomier. The seats and padded footrests are the colour of the Little Red Book. The female inspectors wear purple trouser suits and blue-uniformed attendants come round with flasks of freshly brewed coffee. The train pulls out at midday and arrives in Hangzhou at 12.57. Precisely.
Hangzhou, capital of the wealthy Zhejiang province, is a city of 1.7m people, modest by the gargantuan standards of modern China. Like Japan’s Kyoto, or ancient Chinese cities such as Xi’an, there is a palpable sense of history squished between the steel and concrete. Hangzhou was incorporated into the Chinese empire as Qiantang County by the Qin emperor in the third century BC and was linked to Beijing by the Grand Canal in the sixth century when it became the southern terminus of that aqueous thoroughfare.
My hotel is set a little way apart from the city itself, about 20 minutes from West Lake, past tea plantations and into the surrounding hills. I’m staying at the Amanfayun resort, a restored Tang dynasty village set on 14 hectares, which opened in 2010. The scene a few minutes from the stone house in which I am staying is like an idyll from a Thomas Hardy novel. Along the banks of a little brook white geese muster in a ruffle of feathers on a grassy lawn. A couple of old men sit contentedly smoking cob pipes, gazing into the gurgling water. Trees rustle in the breeze, the geese honk and rays of sunshine are refracted through the crisp autumn air. There’s a quaint teashop a little way back from the water. A family on the veranda is taking afternoon refreshments. Yet this is China. The teacups have no handles and the accompanying snacks are not buttered crumpets but grilled Hangzhou snake.
After a short walk along the river one comes to a high wall protecting a temple complex. The main attraction is the Lingyin, considered one of China’s most important. Next to it, skirting the foot of the mountain, is the quieter Yongfu temple, like Lingyin said to have been founded 1,600 years ago by Master Hui Li, a visiting monk from India. One enters a forested area through a smallish wooden gate with a flared, tiled roof, like a samurai’s helmet.
Up some stone steps through the forest there’s a courtyard with a lovely wooden temple. Tourists are lighting incense and praying to the Buddha, though many of them look uncertain about the rules of long-forgotten religious worship. A man with a rush broom sweeps the stone path clear of fallen leaves. Monks in grey habits and closely cropped hair glide by as if they have wheels beneath their cloaks. We’ve left Thomas Hardy country for the China of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a place of bamboo forests, monasteries and monks, temple gongs and intoned prayers drifting up through the hills.
The next day, at 6am, Amanfayun arranges for a cruise of West Lake. It has a mysterious and magical quality, especially at this early hour. Mist rises from the still waters, obscuring and then revealing a pagoda. Weeping willows crowd the water’s edge. The surrounding paths are busy with elderly Chinese, walking briskly or practising their tai chi and yoga.
The early morning crowd has an old-fashioned feel. Instead of iPods, they carry bulky stereos, some perched on their bicycle baskets. Marching music from Maoist days drifts across the lake. In one waterside gazebo, couples, dressed in their finest, are ballroom dancing. It is not yet 8am. As we ease towards the centre of the lake the music fades. The only sound is the splash of the boat’s single oar wielded by the standing female boatman and the sound of birds skimming the water.
I end the day in Hefang Street, an old pedestrian alleyway lined with rickety wooden shops. In one, a man makes dragon beard-candy, pulling arm’s lengths of stringy dough and wrapping it around crispy corn kernels. In the Pan Yong Tai Cotton Shop, founded in 1898, an old couple are busily weaving before a watching crowd, with noses pressed against the window. Nearby, a couple take photos of each other standing next to jars of unnaturally large ginseng roots. They are as excited as if they were posing beside Brad Pitt.
At a medicine shop, whose plaque reads 1649, crowds enter through a towering black door studded with brass knobs. Inside, staff are busily filling prescriptions. They reach into one of dozens of drawers, fishing out twigs and powders and leaves, even dried seahorses, to be weighed on copper scales and packed tightly into paper bags. On the back wall are photographs of the white-outfitted doctors in attendance. There’s a giant urn of medicinal tea. People crowd around filling paper cups or whole flasks from a little metal spout.
I notice one man in a roughly cut blue jacket reminiscent of Maoist times. He is loading several packets of medicine into plastic bags, which he hangs by their handles on either end of a wooden pole. This he swings over his left shoulder before marching briskly from the shop. Perhaps he’s off to catch the high-speed train back to Shanghai.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
David Pilling was a guest of Amanfayun (www.amanresorts.com). Doubles cost from $650; deluxe village suites from $1,250. Accommodation ranges from Village Room ($650) to Amanfayun Villa ($2,250)