Hanging On to Heaven

Hangzhou, China

February 18, 2012

When I think of Chinese landscape paintings, an image of a body of water framed by distant mountains comes to mind. A bridge casts a perfect reflection on its mirror surface. A solitary boat ripples its glassy calmness. Drooping willows kiss its shore. Pagodas pierce through the mist. Such rustic delicacy has been recreated by the ink and brush of Chinese artists since the dynasties.

West Lake (Xī Hú) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China

In Hangzhou, less than an hour by train from Shanghai, the painting magically comes to life. The city’s famous West Lake (Xī Hú) epitomizes the traditional Chinese aesthetic, not only in visual arts but also in verse.

West Lake inspired Tang Dynasty poet Bo Juyi to immortalize a typical spring day on its shore in the poem Spring Theme: Above the Lake (Chun ti hushang 春題湖上). More than a thousand springs later, I would find that the description still held true.

Now spring is here, the lake seems a painted picture,
Unruly peaks all round the edge, the water spread out flat.

Here it Calms: West Lake (Xī Hú) in Hangzhou

Row Boat on West Lake (Xī Hú)

Pines in ranks on the face of the hills, a thousand layers of green:
The moon centred on the heart of the waves, just one pearl.

Pearly Sun on West Lake

Threadends of an emerald-green rug, the extruding paddy-shoots:
Sash of a blue damask skirt, the expanse of new reeds.

Pavilion Bend at West Lake, Hangzhou

An Expanse of Reeds in West Lake, Hangzhou

But reality gets in the way of poetic reverie. Throngs of tourists jostled one another for a lakeside photo op. My two girlfriends and I had to wait for a break in the crowd to catch an unobstructed view of the lake, but a pair of Chinese-looking women lingered for several photos.

I muttered impatiently in Tagalog, “Alis na, kami naman.” (Move over, it’s our turn.)

One of them turned and said, “Ay, Pinoy ka pala!” (Oh, you’re Filipino!)

Facepalm moment.

Hangers-on in Hangzhou

Shops at the Southern Scenic Area of West Lake

We expected to find cozy traditional teahouses by the lake; instead, rows of brand-name boutiques lined the paved lanes. Men peddled their row boats; street performers sang at the top of their lungs to blaring music. There was none of the peace and quiet conveyed by scenes in traditional Chinese paintings.

We were in Hangzhou for only a day, so we threw our budget to the chilly wind and forked out 100RMB to sail on the shimmering ripples. At that price we figured we had the row boat to ourselves, but a trio of chatty Chinese girls hopped on with us. It was far from the solitary, meditative boat ride I had imagined.

A Row of Row Boats

Hanging Out in Hangzhou with Vang and Perfy

Chinese Tourists in Hangzhou

Halfway to the middle, a sudden swell of symphonic music pervaded the lake as rows of fountains started ballet dancing on the water. It was the hourly musical fountain show by a posh hotel. We became unwitting voyeurs to a spectacle we had not bargained for in our little row boat out in the lake.

Musical Fountain at Hyatt Regency Hangzhou

View of Hangzhou from Starbucks

Before sundown, we had to go back to the train station. We couldn’t find our way, as when we came. On both ways, Hangzhou locals, without speaking a word of English, helped us with directions. On the bus from the train station to the West Lake, a middle-aged lady fought drowsiness to make sure we didn’t miss our stop. Going back to the train station, we were escorted for several blocks by a police officer who sent us off to the right bus. Hangzhou may slowly be pressed for traditional scenes preserved in ancient paintings, but old-fashioned kindness to strangers had thankfully survived.

“Above is heaven, below is Hangzhou” – an ancient Chinese proverb

Despite its modern diversions, Hangzhou is still a little piece of heaven on earth, as it has been regarded by Chinese poets and painters for over a thousand years. It just needs a wee bit more imagination to see, but it is there. It is in the visual poetry of West Lake in harmony with earth and sky, both reflected on its still waters. As Bo Juyi concludes:

If I cannot bring myself yet to put Hangzhou behind me,
Half of what holds me here is on this lake.

Lost in my reverie in dreamy West Lake in Hangzhou, 2012

Lost in my reverie under the willow trees, Bai Causeway, Hangzhou 2001

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34 thoughts on “Hanging On to Heaven

    • Thanks Inno! Each photo is a sacrifice. My fingers froze every time they were off the gloves to work the camera. Glad some of the shots were worth the pain. :)

  1. Best line in this blog: “”Ay, PInoy ka pala!” Haha!

    Why is it that when you write and post pictures of some place, it does seem to look better than it already is? Fascinated and envious of how well you write…AND… how well you frame those shots! You already, Cuz! ; )

    • Facepalm kung facepalm! I turned red, and not because of the cold. I guess they thought Chinese din ako. :D

      Anyway, thanks naman for the generous compliments. Kinilig ako, hahaha! In all fairness to Hangzhou (or West Lake in particular), it really does look like a painting, especially in late afternoon. The scenes had already been composed. All I had to do was snap the photos.

  2. Since I had seen all these pictures on your FB page, I was delighted to read this post which gives details of those pictures. The ‘picture postcard’ like pictures had me mesmerised and I could not take my eyes off the pictures or press the key for viewing further pictures. You are indeed a very gifted photographer, Age. All the shots (except you on the picture) look very professional. High time you start making a sub career out of photography!

    BTW, you look very different in 2001 and 2012. On a funnier note, in 2001, you look like an impoverished poet who is struggling to make money and in 2012 you look like a famous and philosophical poet who is quite rich than in 2001;)

    Joy always,
    Susan

    • Hahaha…ironically, I was making more money in 2001 when I looked like an impoverished poet. I was just thinner then. :D

      Your words of appreciation are rewarding enough, Mrs. Sus! Besides, I can’t afford to go pro! The training and the equipment cost more than I can handle for now. I’m just glad the images I took matched the poetry. Both articulated my feelings looking out the lake. But of course, I had to drown out – transcend, if you will – the noise of commerce around me. I’m not the Transcendental Tourist for nothing. :)

      You give me joy always, Mrs. Sus!

  3. Your last two photos exuded nostalgia. :) Oh, and Hangzhou is certainly a place in China that I would like to visit — looks calm and nice. Your pictures are definitely postcard-worthy! :) And before I forget, the “Facepalm moment” was a winner for me! Heheh.. who would’ve thought that you’d encounter a fellow Filipino. :P

    • Wow, you’ve covered everything in your comment. Comprehensive! :D Don’t be deceived though; it can be crowded. You can only see the scenic poetry with your heart, naks!

    • It was the tailend of winter, usually gloomy that time of year. Yeah, wag magtaray abroad kahit sa Tagalog. Meron at meron talagang Pinoy sa tabi-tabi. :D

  4. Very nice photos! West Lake must be a really beautiful place… Your facepalm moment is so funny! Hahaha! We should be careful on what we say, specially if we’re saying it out loud, because some people might understand us when we don’t want them to. Buti nalng di nagalit, noh? Hehehe!

    • Honga, di naman nagalit. I guess they were just as surprised cuz I look Chinese. They were nice enough to offer to take our photo. Moral lesson: Keep your thoughts to yourself. :)

  5. as usual, when I read your posts, you always manage to awaken in me a desire to go to these places you describe with such poetic imagery…and I am not the traveling kind ha…if you are the transcendental tourist, ako ya…incidental…hahah

    • I hope I won’t be accused of false advertising. :D Glad to know my posts inspire you somehow to travel, even incidentally. ;)

  6. Hi,
    Would you be interested in trading guest blog post on our blog, http://onetravelbloggers.com/? We are a blog whose audience enjoys reading anything about travel (e.g. “Best spots in Philly”, “Top 10 beaches in Spain”, “How to travel around Tokyo on a budget”, etc). And, of course, you’ll receive a FOLLOWED link to your blog or page of your choice.
    Please let me know if you’re interested. I think you’d be a great fit with our audience, and we’d also like to talk with you about other partnerships.
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    • Sounds interesting. I’m currently swamped with work, but I’d like to consider your proposal when I get some downtime. Thanks!

    • Floored by your groupiness, Jo! :) Nice to “see” you in my site. Hope to see you in our next get-together. We had a blast last weekend!

  7. Hi. I also was able to travel to Hangzhou and in West Lake. Did you go to the Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon? It’s less touristy there (or probably because I was there during winter), good for reflecting. But nice post. ;)

    • Xie xie Karol! I only had an aftie in Hangzhou. Never got anywhere beyond West Lake. Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon sounds decidedly poetic though. I could only imagine how Zen it is.

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