West Lake

Lonely Planet review

The saccharine tourist brochure hyperbole extolling West Lake is almost justified in its cloying accolades. The very definition of classical beauty in China, West Lake continues to mesmerise and methodical prettification has worked a cunning magic. Pagoda-topped hills rise over willow-lined waters as boats drift slowly through a vignette of leisurely charm. With history heavily repackaged, it’s not that authentic – not by a long shot – but it’s still a grade-A cover version of classical China.

Originally a lagoon adjoining the Qiántáng River, the lake didn’t come into existence until the 8th century, when the governor of Hángzhōu had the marshy expanse dredged. As time passed, the lake’s splendour was gradually cultivated: gardens were planted, pagodas built, and causeways and islands were constructed from dredged silt.

Celebrated poet Su Dongpo himself had a hand in the lake’s development, constructing the Sū Causeway (苏堤; Sūdī) during his tenure as local governor in the 11th century. It wasn’t an original idea – the poet-governor Bai Juyi had already constructed the Bái Causeway (白堤; Báidī) some 200 years earlier. Lined by willow, plum and peach trees, today the traffic-free causeways with their half-moon bridges make for restful outings, particularly on a bike.

Connected to the northern shores by the Bái Causeway is Gūshān Island (孤山岛; Gūshān Dǎo), the largest island in the lake and the location of the Zhèjiāng Provincial Museum and Zhōngshān Park (中山公园; Zhōngshān Gōngyuán). The island’s buildings and gardens were once the site of Emperor Qianlong’s 18th-century holiday palace and gardens. Also on the island is the intriguing Seal Engravers’ Society (西泠印社; Xīlíng Yìnshè), dedicated to the ancient art of carving the name seals (chops) that serve as personal signatures.

On the northwest of the lake is the lovely Qūyuàn Garden (曲院风荷; Qūyuàn Fēnghé), a collection of gardens spread out over numerous islets and renowned for their fragrant spring lotus blossoms. Near Xīlíng Bridge (Xīlíng Qiáo) is the tomb of Su Xiaoxiao (苏小小墓; Sū Xiǎoxiǎo Mù), a 5th-century courtesan who died of grief while waiting for her lover to return. It’s been said that her ghost haunts the area and the tinkle of the bells on her gown can be heard at night.

The smaller island in the lake is Xiǎoyíng Island (小瀛洲; Xiǎoyíng Zhōu), where you can look over at Three Pools Mirroring the Moon (三潭印月; Sāntán Yìnyuè), three small towers in the water on the south side of the island; each has five holes that release shafts of candlelight on the night of the mid-autumn festival. From Lesser Yíngzhōu Island, you can gaze over to Red Carp Pond (花港观鱼; Huāgǎng Guānyú), home to a few thousand red carp.

Impromptu opera singing and other cultural activities may suddenly kick off around the lake, and if the weather’s fine don’t forget to earmark the east shore for sunset over West Lake photos. Walking around West Lake at night is also gorgeous and very romantic, with loads of benches and seats facing the still waters.

The best way to get around the lake is by bike. Tourist buses Y1 and Y2 also run around West Lake.