And so, on the penultimate day of my business trip, I finally found somewhere of genuine beauty in China. This vast country sometimes feels so wedded to progress that history survives at best as a pastiche, at worst not at all. However the West Lake in Hangzhou appears to have survived relatively unblemished, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
Sadly, it was completely dark by the time I got there – my itinerary and the horrendous traffic didn’t allow for a day-time visit. Nevertheless on the drive there, and strolling a short distance around the shore after dinner, it was quite clear why West Lake is a magnet for tourism in China and why the local authorities are so keen to preserve it. West Lake’s natural beauty has influenced poets and artists through the ages and has been one of the most significant sources of inspiration for Chinese, Japanese and Korean garden designers. No doubt it also influenced English garden style through characters such as Humphrey Repton and his “picturesque” landscapes.
West Lake is very much set in a landscape rather than a garden, its banks punctuated by a number of historically important temples and pagodas, and its calm surface criss-crossed by causeways. The resulting composition is what I now know to be a very romantic vision of China rather than a common reality, but it’s comforting to know that something exists of my “willow pattern” fantasy.
The section of the lake we walked around was lined with pines, tall bamboos and weeping willows, along with a few magnificent acers, which must look stunning later in the autumn. The cool air was lightly scented by cinnamon flowers – a pleasant change from some of the odours experienced in China – and a slight breeze came in across the water. The restaurant we ate at had a series of very grand private-dining villas positioned along boardwalks in a quiet backwater. We strolled along one of these to the tune of croaking frogs, and all was well in the world. In the distance a vast laser show and loud music was a reminder that the lake is at the heart of a city which is already home to over 6 million people.
I will add Hangzhou to the growing list of places I’d like to return to one day as a tourist. In spring or autumn it must be magical. As well as moon cakes, I return home tomorrow with some Longjing tea – described to me at dinner as “Dragon Well tea”, one of the finest teas in China, and produced entirely by hand. As the nights draw in I shall enjoy a cup of this refreshing brew, although I somehow doubt I’ll repeat the great ceremonies that go with drinking it here.
With that my thoughts return to what’s going on in the garden at home and how much things will have changed in 2 weeks. In nature, nothing stands still, so I expect there will be work to be done …… and most importantly bulbs to be planted. So farewell China, it’s been interesting, but I’m glad to be going home.
Top, Leifeng Pagoda as seen from West Lake in Hangzhou, China (courtesy of Louisa Salazar)