West Lake - Part 1

On July 2nd, the day after we completed the Certification Seminar, we had a day off between the Certification Seminar and the Advanced Wine Course. Dr. Lim declared it a student ‘holiday.’ Of course, that means it’s a holiday for the instructor as well.

Dr Lim had arranged for Ms. Soon and Ms. Chen to take me to West Lake. Ms. Chen was there because she was a ‘local’ from Hangzhou, and if she talked to the merchants they would hear her accent and know that they could not demand a high price. Ms. Soon is actually from Malaysia and I am obviously not a local.  Both Ms. Soon and I would have been treated as ‘foreigners.’ In fact, anybody not from Hangzhou would be treated as a foreigner – even if they were from another part of China.

Ms. Soon and I took a taxi to the West Lake, about 30 minutes from the school. A taxi ride is about the same in most countries.  In China the driver is enclosed in a thin plastic cage, separating them from the customers.  It is also common for a customer to sit in the front seat because the cage only enclosed the driver’s seat on the back and right side since the Chinese drive on the same side of the road as we do in the US. No tipping.

However, weaving around the bicycles and electric scooters, as well as the multitude of pedestrians that walk in the streets, as well as on the sidewalks, can be a little nerve racking at 45-50 miles per hour.

West Lake is a phenomenon that must be seen to be believed. It is a man-made lake originally designed to be the private ‘garden’ for a few (3) wealthy families as well as the original drinking water supply for Hangzhou.

What makes it unique is that it is about 5 km (3 miles) by 4 km (2.5 miles) in size and is divided into three ‘zones’ and surrounded by ‘mountains’ on 3 sides. There are also three pagodas along the shore, and three stone statues to keep the ‘monster of the lake’ from escaping, as well as three islands (man-made) and three ‘ancient’ bridges. 

Apparently three is a “lucky number” for West Lake.

It was initially constructed about 950 AD and is famous all over Asia. Marco Polo talked about it in his book on China. It is a major tourist attraction. All of the books I read preparing myself for this trip had lengthy descriptions of West Lake. In fact, it was at West Lake that I saw the only other ‘Westerners’ I have seen in Hangzhou.  A couple, from England, judging by their accents, probably on ‘holiday.’ I did not get a chance to talk to them.

I was told that the Lake was kept as private property until the early 20th century when it was given to the City so everyone could enjoy it.

Ms. Chen presented me with a ceremonial fan, with a picture of West Lake on one side and a poem about the lake on the other. It was a gift rather formally presented – from student to teacher. 

It is a beautiful fan, which I ended up using as we walked a partway around part of the lake.  There are paths all the way around the lake – but it was 102F and 100% RH, not the best weather for walking great distances.  Still, we walked for over 3 hours before stopping for a rest.

The fan is shown in Picture 1 – it is about 24-27” across.  A close-up view of the right-hand side of the fan is shown in Picture 2, as this was the portion of the lake we walked, or boated, around.

The outer lake is to the East, which is towards the bottom of the fan.  This is also the City side and the new lake development area. The City of Hangzhou is along the bottom of the fan. There is not as much to ‘see’ in this part of the lake. Towards the center of fan there are a group of three islands, as well as a causeway and bridge to a fourth island. 

If you drew a line going across the causeway and then connected the two larger islands with your line and then drew the line to the peninsula on the left (North) shore, the area between your line and the city would be the outer lake. 

From the line you have drawn to the long thin causeway (over 3 km long), also man-made, shown about in the middle of the fan would be the ‘inner’ lake and the area west of the long causeway – called lovers causeway – would be the ‘private lake.’ The private lake with many man-made causeways criss-crossing it is at the top of the fan. These are the three zones of the West Lake – outer (or external), inner and private.

It is the private lake that is most spectacular and I had an opportunity to see – or at least I saw a small portion of it.

The second picture of the fan, the close up of the South shore, shows this part of the lake in more detail. The large island with the causeway ‘points’ westward (upward) to the small part of the lake we walked around.  It includes a small group of pagoda and a section of the lover’s causeway.

Ms. Soon and I met Ms. Chen at a ‘famous’ ‘new’ landmark just at the place where the highway – the big yellow road on the fan – intersects the ‘Lover’s causeway on the South shore – the right hand side of the fan.  The ‘famous’ landmark was a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant: the most popular American restaurant chain in China.

I did not take a picture of the KFC – it looks much like a KFC anywhere. However, across the street from it is the tomb of the Prince/General that tried to protect the royal palace at the end of the Song Dynasty.  This is the Prince killed in the battle scene of the Song Dynasty Opera I talked about in my last blog. The entrance to the tomb is shown in Picture 3.  It is a classic example of architecture of the Song Dynasty of about a thousand years ago.

Turning around, Picture 4 shows the walkway to the lake; the KFC would be immediately to our right in this picture. The large stone gateway seen in the picture is the ‘entrance’ to the Lake – three stone openings.  A small ‘viewing’ pagoda can be seen in the background, through the gateway.  This pagoda is new, constructed in the 1970s.

Walking past the viewing pagoda there are several paths around this part of the lake that have been carefully designed so as not let you see all of the lake at one time. Then, as the path turns, sharply left or right, it opens up to a unique vista.

One of the first vistas is a bridge on a small man-made causeway leading to a small island.  This is shown in Picture 5.  It looks exactly like we all imagine China to be like. The ‘mountains’ are in the background.  They would be foothills to us – but keep in mind China is next to some of the largest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, so we should allow a little poetic license.

You turn another corner and you are walking past a large group of lotus plants that are beside an ancient pagoda. The lotus plants are enormous.  A few were just beginning to bloom.  The pagoda and lotus are shown in Picture 6. All of the ancient buildings around the lake are empty – there is no furniture to indicate how they were decorated and furnished.  All that is known about them is how they are believed to have been used.

The path we were walking on had probably been tread by Marco Polo – he was the ‘governor’ of Hangzhou for a period of time, some 800 years ago, while he was in China. And, according to his own writings spent a great deal of time on the 'private' lake.

We followed the path to another vista.  Picture 7 shows a small man-made stream (since it is man-made it probably should be called a canal) with a sleeping pagoda next to it and an incredible array of plants along the banks – weeping willow can be recognized among the array of plants.  The Lake, as well as Hangzhou, are famous throughout China for their weeping willows.

Moving on down the path, now surrounded by trees, it opens up to another vista and you can now see that the bridge we first saw actually leads to a small island with another pagoda – in this case a dining pagoda. And more lotuses, with some in bloom.  See Pictures 8 for the bridge and pagoda and 9, of blooming lotus.

Because mountains from this angle do not frame the bridge, it looks quite different.  The lotus plants are kept from expanding beyond certain portions of the private lake, but in ancient times they probably covered this entire portion of the lake.  They are huge, 30”+ leaves with fist sized bulbs, the pedals of a flower can easily be as big as your hand.

As we continue following this path, it passes by another narrow canal, shown in Figure 10. This one is designed to allow someone to leisurely paddle down in a small boat, with the weeping willows brushing across you hands and face as you moved down the canal.  It continues for about 3/4 of a mile, but because of the willows and other plants, it is impossible to see – or be seen – for more than 20 or 30 yards in either direction. 

The black pole with the lantern on top that can be seen in this picture is a reproduction of the lanterns that were beside this canal, about every 50 yards, for it’s entire length.  Not hard to imagine how beautiful it would have been at night illuminated by candle light.

I will continue my trip along the West Lake in my next email. 

I want to spend a little time talking about dinner that night.
We went to an ‘up-scale’ restaurant specializing in southern Chinese cuisine. We had eight dishes: (1) stir-fried fish with garlic, peppers and chives, (2) thin-sliced pork in gelatin, (3) glutinous rice and mango wrapped in port strips (think bacon), (4) lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice in a sweet sauce, (5) Hong Kong shrimp, (6) Hong Kong fried rice, (7) spicy frog legs in vegetables and stir-fried lotus root, and (8) soy milk soup with river prawns and dumplings. 

There were five of us for dinner, including Mr. Cheu – the importer who has been running all over Hangzhou trying to find wine for our classes.  He has been amazingly successful, finding more than 80% of the wines. Amarone and Kabinett in China!

Picture 1. The fish with garlic, dinner picture 1, was very tasty, lightly fried and, as you can see, laid out flat to stir-fry.  You eat this by ‘cutting’ off a piece with your chop sticks and then pick the meat and skin off the piece you have put on your plate, or in your rice/soup bowl.  It is common in China for people to serve each other – so members of the dinner party might ‘cut’ off a piece of fish and give it to me to eat.  Eating with chopsticks I am doing OK, serving myself is another story.

The thin-sliced pork in gelatin is basically identical to any similar dish you would see in Europe.  It was not very flavorful and served cold.  It is also shown in dinner picture 1.  I was surprised at the lightness of the flavor.

Picture 2. The glutinous rice and mango wrapped in port strips (like crispy thick bacon), picture 2, was delicious.  The pork strips were baked crispy and the rice was slightly sweet because of the mango and fat from the pork.  Again, all of us at the table would take bites off the dish with our chopsticks. 

The idea of serving yourself with ‘serving chopsticks’ is not common in China – more common, from my experience, in Japanese cuisine.  So everybody takes individual bites from a serving bowl or dish using their own chopsticks.

Picture 3. The lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice was also quite tasty; this dish is shown in picture 3.  The lotus has an herbal, earthy, flavor and the glutinous rice is slightly sweet.  The sauce was only moderately sweet, so the dish was not cloying or overly sweet at all.  The size of the pieces also made them easy to pick up with chopsticks. It was also a cold dish.

Picture 4. Hong Kong shrimp, picture 4, are your basic stir-fried coconut shrimp.  However, they are slightly different in that they were breaded in panco with just a few pieces of coconut and lightly stir-fried.  Legs were left on because it is common to eat the legs and shell of small (river) prawns.  The sauce was soya based – and tasted a little like ranch dressing, although more tart than ranch dressing.

Picture 5. Stir-fried rice is similar around the world, see picture 5.  However, this has little soy sauce in it and the egg is duck not chicken.  So it had more (stronger) flavor.  Serve it with a spoon; eat with your chopsticks.

Picture 6. The spicy frog leg in vegetables and stir-fried lotus root, shown in picture 6, was also delicious.  Very good frog legs, cooked just right and a little spicy; another Hangzhou specialty. You hold the leg with your chopsticks, eat the meat off and spit out the bones (either on your plate or on the table).  This was an up-scale restaurant so nobody was spitting bones on the table.  One of the vegetables was a thin sliced stir-fried potato – basically a spicy Chinese potato chip.

Picture 7. The soymilk soup with river prawns and dumplings is shown in Dinner Picture 7, the last picture.  It was very much like eating milk toast – with shrimp.  Again, the shrimp are whole – so you bite off the heads and spit them out, bite off the legs and spit them out and then eat the rest.  Optional: don’t bite off the legs – eat them as well. By the end of an evening you can have quite a mound of fish, frog leg and shrimp bones and shells on the table in front of you.

We drank a unique beverage, but the container did not photograph well at all.  It was water with baby lotus rootstalks, carrot slices (long ways) and whole chestnuts in it.  It was served warm – tepid, not hot.  Slightly sweet and herbal at the same time and surprisingly good with the food and refreshing.

This is the first dinner that contained several dishes similar to what you would find in the US in a Chinese restaurant.  However, the Chinese version was subtler, in each case, except the fried rice, in flavor and texture than the American version. The fried rice had stronger flavors – but not as much soy sauce.

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