The West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou is an implementation of the classical Chinese landscape ideal by improving the natural landscape with bridges, causeways, pavillions etc.
The 'improved' landscape had a profound impact on the design of gardens not only in China but also further afield.
Map of West LakeLoad map
In January 2020, I spent an afternoon walking around the West Lake. It's a pleasant walk, albeit a long one at 15km. Surprisingly, I recall no extended stretch where I wanted to fast forward: The West Lake simply offers great views everywhere with gardens and pagodas dotted along its shoreline. What a massive feat of human landscape gardening.
From the lake you can regularly hike into one of the attached gardens of which there are plenty. Each garden has a distinctive feel, as the West Lake landscape grew over a millenia and new gardens were added or existing gardens remodeled regularly.
- Zhongshan Park is grouped around a rock and it quickly feels like you are no longer at the lake, but in the mountains.
- Huagang Park meanwhile takes you out of China towards Japan. I felt reminded of Hiraizumi.
There are many more of these gardens to explore. With more time I would have liked to explore the South West corner a bit more. The core zone extends here to cover a large area of parks (West Lake Scenic Spot) that are not directly tied to the lake.
The closest similar site to the West Lake I have seen so far in China is the Summer Palace in Beijing. The Summer Palace dating from the 18th century is clearly based on the landscape gardening developed in Hangzhou over a millenia with a lake forming the center of the site.
What also sets the West Lake apart from other Chinese gardens, e.g. from Suzhou, is who the garden was for: everyone. The lake was open for the masses and used as a recreational area by all for a millenia.
I flew from Xian to Hangzhou. My comments re flying in China can be found in the forum (executive summary: it's discouraged). From the airport I jumped a bus to the city center where my hotel was located. It was in walking distance of the east shore of the lake (as most hotels seem to be).
The main railway station is Hangzhou East (Hangzhoudong) and it connects you to Shanghai, Suzhou and Huangshan. There is also an old railway station closer to the city center, but if you are travelling on a bullet train, it's not relevant to you. In town you can use the metro, but the network is fairly limited. E.g. only stations close to the lake are on the eastern shore (Longxiangqiao, Fengqi Road).
For travelling to other parts of the lake you can catch a bus. Or you can buy a hop on & off ticket for the shuttle train/bus (?). Be aware that the shuttle only travels in clockwise direction, so if you plan to walk parts, you need to follow the same direction. I also think you need to get your ticket on the eastern shore.
For those so inclined. there are different boat options. You can join a cruise. Or you can book a small boat to yourself. Prices are regulated by the authorities and well signposted. You need to catch a ferry to get to one of the islands.
While You Are There
A visit to the West Lake can be combined with Liangzhu. I went first to Liangzhu and then walked around the lake in the afternoon. You should plan at least 1h each way travel time. Generally speaking, there are plenty of sites in the Hangzhou hotspot that you can visit on a day trip.
I have been to West Lake several times, both before and after major clean-up and reconstruction. As one of the famous sites in China's history, it is incredibly crowded year round. Prior to the clean-up in around 2000, it was a dirty, filled with filth, as it was a culture relic of the "Old Civilization" which the Cultural Revolution was trying to get rid of, or at least, neglect. Since that time, they have build many hotels and entertainment facilities to choke it with tourists and chintz, including color-lit water displays. Wonder how such crass commercialism deserves a UNESCO WHS designation.
This is an adapted review from my blog (Drafts from My Coffee Table), which can be accessed by clicking on my name above.
Being a tourist spot most visited by locals and tourists alike, it wasn't easy to find a quiet spot in West Lake, but they do exist. There would be moments when a break appeared between the riot of crowds or a spot which was missed by the mass. It was at those times where I understood how this lake enthralled and inspired poets and artists of the past. The tranquility was unmistakable.
Motorboats occasionally broke the peaceful scene with their thrumming engines, the surface of the lake rippling with waves. Some captains seeking passengers would approach anyone standing near one of the simple piers dotted around the lakeside, trying to get some business by ferrying passengers. I wonder what the ancient poets would write about such modern contraption barging noisily over the lake.
West Lake in itself was charming, but with only the verdant as its colour palette would have been too monochromatic. Fortunately spring brought with it other hues to the scene - pink, the colour of cherry blossom. My exploration into the nook and cranny of the recreational area of West Lake brought me into the encounter with a group of men. And it was an extraordinary group of gentlemen in preparation of a celebration. Fortunately for my camera, their poses were set in stone literally - that is they were all statues.
Read more from Sam Ang here.
Jiang Nan, the name Chinese called for the Yangtze River Delta region, is the powerhouse of Chinese intellectual, art and economy since ancient time, and the main cities of Jiang Nan, Hangzhou and Suzhou, are well known for their beauty under the famous proverb "In heaven there is paradise, on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou". Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, is celebrated by its landscape of West Lake or Xi Hu, the lake is decorated with arch bridges, zigzag pathways, causeways, mountaintop pagodas, lakeside pavilions, lotus ponds, carp pools, willow trees, bamboo gloves, etc., everything of classical Chinese landscape should be.
I visited the lake in summer 2011, the landscape was very beautiful liked Chinese painting; strolling around the lake and taking a boat to see the Small Yingzhou Island and its three small pagodas in the water were just relaxing and had many spots for good photo shooting while the misty cloud enchanted the beauty of the lake. My favorite area is located in the southwest area of the lake, Hua-Gang Gardens and Xi-Li Lake, the small area but the landscape is truly outstanding with many gorgeous pavilions, bright orange carp ponds, wandering peacocks, fantastic green lawns, lovely forest and countless beautiful trees under the shadow of Leifeng Pagoda.
In my humble opinion, West Lake is not an overrated tourist destination; the lake has major influence on landscape design in East Asia as gardeners want to duplicate or imitated the landscape element of the lake, as the result, similar landscapes can be found everywhere in China, or even within famous gardens in Japan and Korea, more similarity you see, more outstanding value of West Lake will be obvious, making West Lake to be another great World Heritage Site of China.
Hangzhou is about two hours by fast train from Shanghai. The second time I visited the city was during the spring of 2009.
A lot of tourists take part in bike tours, boat rides and the musical fountain show at night. Shops, restaurants and souvenir stalls are found around the lake area.
The beauty of the site is manifested through the harmonious mix of man-made constructions (like arch-bridges, pagodas and temples) with the natural scenery of the lake and the surrounding hills.
I just read in the ICOMOS evaluation that this site sees an unbelievable 20 million visitors a year. This might make it the most visited WHS (not including major city centers). I visited it on a cloudy day in October 2007, as part of my Grand China Trip.
I walked all around the lake, a trail of about 10km. And busy it was! For some parts, it was as if I had joined some public hiking event. Lots of groups of schoolchildren, all dressed in similar training suits which are the Chinese version of school uniforms.
The lake is very typical of Chinese landscape architecture - it all looks very familiar, and you can see sights like this around all of East Asia. It's nice to do the walk, but the scenery is so very Chinese it is hard to get a feel for it as a westerner.
Hangzhou is located in the east of China, not really my favourite part of the country. There's not a lot to see in this modern town beside the lake.
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