Day trip to Hangzhou, China

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Hangzhou (杭州市), capital city of Zhejiang province, is the fourth largest metropolitan area in China with a metro population equivalent to the entire Australia. Less than 200km away from Shanghai, Hangzhou is the end point of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal making it one of the most prosperous city in China for the past millennium. It is also the home base of Internet giant Alibaba who recently debuted on the NYSE for US$167.6 billion, making it one of the largest IPO in history.

Famous for its picturesque scenery and rich history, despite extensive urban development, Hangzhou retains its historical and cultural heritage making it a popular tourist destination. Frequent schedules of high-speed train operate between Shanghai and Hangzhou where the commute takes only 45 mins to an hour depending on the train type.

Tickets can be purchased online via travel agents 20 days in advance, or at the train station and local train ticket office 18 days in advance. In our case, our local travel guide David took care of it all which made it a breeze.

Waiting hall is more than 10,000 square metres

Waiting hall is more than 10,000 square metres

For our visit, we took the G train from HongQiao Railway Station (上海虹桥站) which is currently the fastest train in China travelling at maximum speeds of 250km/hr to 350km/hr. To be frank, HongQiao Station – the largest railway station in Asia – itself is a site worth seeing. Opened in July 2010, the US$2.8 billion station can handle 10,000 passengers at any time with 16 platforms covering a massive 1.3 million square metres. Twice the amount of steel was used to build this gigantic structure compared to the Bird Nest for the Beijing Olympics. The waiting hall is more than 10,000 square metres offering plenty of retail and F&B outlets to help kill time.

The Harmony Train 和谐号 under China Railway Highspeed (CRH) 中国高速铁路 offer frequent services between first-tier cities, state capitals and major cities including the Shanghai-Hangzhou route. Harmony is comfortable, non-smoking and well appointed, with two to three classes of travel at varying prices: Second Class, First Class and Business Class (on selected G trains).

Boarding is easy and orderly and every passenger is assigned a specific car and seat. Make sure you read your ticket correctly and sit accordingly as your ticket will be checked by an attendant during the trip. Our return First Class tickets from Shanghai to Hangzhou was ¥240.50 (approx. US$40). The First Class carriage is set in a single aisle 2+2 per row layout, seats offer a partial recline, arm rest, foot rest, small pillow, foldable table and power outlet – think premium economy class on an airplane. However, there’s no check-in luggage, just carry-on of up to 20kg per person.

We had free WiFi on our train (but apparently not all trains are equipped with this yet) and there are mounted TV screens that you can tune into for entertainment (Business Class passengers get their own personal LCD screen). Food/snack is served on trolleys by an attendant or there’s a dining carriage that serves mainly Chinese food but really on a short trip like Shanghai to Hangzhou, you’ll probably find better options once you reach your destination.

One of the must visit sites in Hangzhou is West Lake (西湖) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Earliest records of the lake dates back over 2,000 years and it’s natural beauty has attracted and influenced many poets and painters  throughout China’s history, including the famous Bai juyi (白居易) from the Tang Dynasty and later Su Dongpo (蘇東坡from the Song Dynasty. The cultural landscape at West Lake covers a massive 8,210 acres, so if you have time, you can spend hours walking around entrenched in Chinese culture.

West Lake was a personal favourite for Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝) who made six visits during his 61-year reign, making him the longest-reigning and one of the greatest emperors in China’s history. Depending on what time of the year you visit, Hangzhou can get pretty hot so if walking is not your forte, jump onto one of these man-powered wooden cruise boats for a leisurely paced ride along West Lake. Actually, even if you enjoy walking, the cruise is definitely a must try. If you’re visiting in the warmer months, shorts and singlet is best due to the humidity, drink plenty of fluids or buy ice-blocks from the many outlets around.

Another place of interest is Meijiwu (梅家坞), an ancient village of more than 600 years, famous for a variety of green tea – Longjing tea (龍井茶) a.k.a Dragonwell tea, that forms an important part of Hangzhou’s culture and economy. Tea produced at Meijawu is of top quality, and superior grade Longjing tea was granted the status of Imperial tea, reserved for royalty.

Several small-group workshops are run everyday at Meijiwu to introduce Longjing tea, from the picking process, differences between the grades, to the best ways to appreciate the tea.  We were completely sold on these natural tea polyphenols health supplements but as clever as they are, you couldn’t purchase the supplements without buying tea, so we ended up buying 1kg of premium pre-qingming (first spring shoots) Longjing which was ¥1,200 (AU$220) and another few thousand yuan on polyphenols. These workshops are “free” to attend and there really wasn’t any hard-selling but if you’re easily sold to like us, obviously there are plenty of opportunities and reminders to purchase.

A day trip is probably a bit rushed so if time allows, set aside an overnight stay or more to explore the beauty of Hangzhou.