Hangzhou is the rare Chinese city that appeals to tourists who seek its lush gardens replete with pagodas, and to city slickers looking for a little breathing space.
I live in Shanghai, where just getting to the ATM can be an exercise in street fighter-level combat, so on a handful of occasions, I have availed myself of Hangzhou's leafy boulevards and picturesque West Lake, home to folk musical Impression West Lake.
West Lake hosts one of five performances of the musical, each directed by renowned film director Zhang Yimou. Performances are also staged in Guilin, Yunnan, Hainan Island and on Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province, all with varying plots and special effects. Zhang is enormously talented. He has put on operas in Florence and New York, produced the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and directed award-winning films Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers. Still, my friend Leslie and I were sceptical about Impression West Lake; large public spectacles on the mainland can err on the side of gaudy. I was wrong and spent the hour-long show alternately on the edge of my seat and standing with my mouth agape.
The show was sold out on a warm Friday evening on which a cool breeze blew off the lake and, blissfully, there was nary a mosquito in sight. Eschewing sweet popcorn in favour of a very salty bag of peanuts, we took our seats. Some time in the split-second between when I looked at the inky water and then proffered the peanut bag to my neighbour, the trees that ring the lake lit up - lime green to purple to teal. Every camera was in the air.
The musical is like an endless dream sequence. Everything around you falls away as the dancers, who appear to be floating, flit left, right, left, all in perfect unison. Transitions are seamless, so much so that I'm shocked to find an enormous house has suddenly, silently materialised on the lake where the surface was once black and placid.
As with the incredible performances at the Beijing Olympics, Zhang chalks this precision up to the Chinese work ethic, telling Southern Weekly: 'This kind of uniformity brings beauty. Actors listen to the orders, and can do it like computers. This is the Chinese spirit. We can make our human performance reach such a level through hard and smart work.'
Zhang has been praised for the use of colour in his films, and its place in Impression West Lake is staggering. Combined with gargantuan blankets of fog, yellows and greens, reds and blues, and purples and whites explode into dancing dragons and misty mountains. The show uses West Lake not only as a stage, but also as a central character in the performance, with unabashed splashing and spraying of water.
I knew nothing of the plot. Two locals near me told me that the five-act performance is based on the tale of Bai Niang Zi, a white female snake that becomes human, meets a young man named Xu Xian and falls in love. Fahai, an evil monk, tells the one-time snake's new husband of her past and he dies from shock. Bai brings Xu back to life, only for Bai to be kidnapped by Fahai and held in Leifeng Pagoda, which still stands on West Lake.
'So it's very sad, then,' I said to Meng and Yao, with whom I had by now become quite chummy. I was not surprised by what they said next, as Westerners tend to be more focused on feelings than Chinese. 'Yes,' Meng agreed, 'but it's very beautiful'. I couldn't argue here; had I not known the lore behind Impression West Lake, I still would have walked away stunned.
After hiring bicycles from a stand near the lake the following day, Leslie and I cycled along busy Nanshan Road, stopping occasionally to marvel at the blue sky and sun-dappled leaves so rare in Shanghai. China Academy of Art, one of the country's top art schools, sits just across from the lake. Its campus and galleries are open to the public, and crossing the quad or perusing a student show is where you will see pieces that may well one day hang in world-class museums.
A small coffee shop near the entrance to the university has a few outside tables, making an excellent pit stop. On my most recent visit, Leslie and I sipped iced coffees while playing several spirited rounds of gin rummy, attracting a semi-circle of excited, elderly onlookers. 'Foreigners! What are you playing?' asked one bespectacled, suspender-wearing octogenarian. Card playing is a national pastime in China, so we explained the rules of rummy and invited him to play. Perhaps concerned with losing to two foreigners, he gracefully bowed out, but stayed around to watch Leslie win four of our five rounds.
From the art academy, it's easy to get back to the paths that wind their way around the lake. This is my favourite cycling area, with shaded bike lanes and plenty of spots for photo ops.
We also enjoyed a morning hike around Fayun village, taking in ancient stone Buddha carvings, descending into a pitch-black, wet, slippery cave and generally communing with nature - no small task for two exiled New Yorkers.
Lingyin Temple is inside an enormous park whose intricate Buddha grottoes are well worth an ogle. The park, though teeming with tourists, is lovely and leafy. Smaller and certainly more serene than Lingyin Temple is Yongfu Temple, which is beautiful in its own right.
No visit to Hangzhou is complete without a visit to The Grandma's, a Hangzhou-based restaurant chain serving extremely cheap and cheerful local cuisine.
TICKET TO RIDE
Bullet trains from Shanghai's Hongqiao railway station run every 20-30 minutes.
The trip takes 45 minutes and tickets are 78 yuan (HK$96).
You will need your passport to buy tickets, which can be purchased at rail-pass offices throughout the city and the station itself.
Impression West Lake tickets
Tickets can be bought from the West Lake box office, tour operators or at your hotel's concierge for 300 to 600 yuan.
Where to stay
Amanfayun, 22 Fayun Nong, Xihujiedao Xihufengjingmingsheng District, Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8732 9999
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, 28 Hu Bin Road, Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8779 1234
Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at Westlake, 5 Lingyin Road. Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8829 8888
Shangri-La Hotel Hangzhou, 78 Beishan Road, Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8797 7951
Tea Boutique Hotel, 124 Shuguang Road, Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8799 9888
Zhejiang Xizi Hotel, 37, Nanshan Road, Hangzhou.
Tel: +86 (571) 8702 1888