Eastern China has drawn foreigners since the days of Marco Polo, but always on its own terms. No more of Guilin's folksy little home-stays with banana pancakes and all your favourite tapes. Hotels here seem imposing - at first sight. Meals are good - but uncompromisingly Chinese. Rice porridge anyone? But downtown Hangzhou throbs with neon-lit energy: Novotel, Jeans West. Traffic cops direct streams of sleek sedan cars on the waterfront boulevard. Smart couples stroll past brightly-lit shop windows, ears glued to their mobiles. The old taboos have faded into irrelevance: brides wear white, once the colour of death, even if the petticoats are the wrong length. Yet appearances may be skin-deep, as our hotel's split personality suggests. Gleaming marble, polished brass and plate glass up front quickly give way to the dark stains, gloom and institutional bedding of any old-fashioned state guesthouse. By 6.30 Monday morning all of Hangzhou is already cycling, strolling or stretching in slow motion as a rosy sun burns the haze off the lake. Buzzing little red taxis whisk us down broad avenues to the bus terminal, weaving and dodging through swarming cyclists, reckless pedestrians and lumbering trolley buses. The electronic arrivals and departures board is impressive, a wall of intricate characters, forming and re-forming. Wrong bus terminal. Into another taxi; they are metered and the drivers seem honest. Another crowded waiting room, numbered windows, impenetrable signs. Brisk ladies with signal flags and shrill whistles direct the reversing drivers. And here are the touches which colour the whole journey: our party is ushered into a private room to await departure time in privileged comfort. The city's outskirts form a repetitive sprawl of garishly-tiled shophouses with windows tinted metallic blue, spreading like fungi across the emerald rice paddies: shops and garages downstairs, apartments upstairs. In eight hours we drive 280 kilometres west along the so-called Golden Line to reach Huangshan, the mystic mountains of eastern China. Toll-gates and checkpoints interrupt our progress, ceremonial arches, emblazoned with golden characters. Leaf-green hillsides are covered in bamboo and cypress groves. A pervasive, dusty haze is exacerbated by heaps of crumbling rubble. At last the road squeezes into a valley, and now the villages retain a timeless charm - abstracts of dark curving tiles and creamy chalk cuboids. Solid door jambs wear auspicious characters pasted on paper diamonds and, sometimes, black ink drawings above the lintels. Pudding basin haircuts and plain blouses defy the seductions of the city, even if the village satellite dish is reaching out to the world. Huangshan has drawn domestic tourists for fully 12 centuries. Regimented parties set out into the dripping forests. As the mists lift, momentarily, you see the tiers of stone stairs below, crowded with hundreds of tiny figures, picking their way towards peaks like Bright Top, Purple Cloud or Heavenly Capital. Cableways work overtime: China's middle classes have come out to play, mobile phones tucked into purses and pockets. By following a 'road less travelled' back toward the coast, embarking on a crossing of Qiandaohu, Lake of a Thousand Islands, we may yet cross paths with farmers and fishing people not yet too familiar with telephones of any sort. The route weaves off through hills knitted with tea bushes, snaking through dusty hamlets where the soft sounds of a summer morning are disturbed by the clatter of an agricultural engine or by voices raised at a market stall. Near the bustling market square of Shendu, down a lane and a flight of wide stairs, lies a pattern of sampans and ferries nosing into the shore. Impounded by a dam built on the upper Xin'an River in 1959, this vast body of water was, according to some, created by dislocating (and dispossessing) as many as 300,000 people, echoing the controversy surrounding the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze. Piglets squirm inside cane baskets. Fresh-made dumplings stand in rows, ready to be steamed. Peaches, pears, green apples and fresh lychees tempt us, as do the dripping wedges of watermelon, weighed out carefully in a steel dish before grimy banknotes can change hands. Up the gangplank . . . and on to the eleven o'clock ferry, heading east. We find ourselves the only upper-deck passengers, gasping at the companionways to catch the passing breeze. For the first couple of hours we chug down a narrow waterway, the ferry zig-zagging and nosing into villages which tumble down dry stone embankments. People hurry down to the waterline to board or to unbundle their goods; heavy wooden chests, loaded with great physical effort by both sexes. Mid-afternoon. The lake has widened, the villages are left behind, only the rocky islands keep company as we steam eastwards. If Qiandaohu town seems at first sight unappealing, it is thanks to the wedding cake architecture dominating the foreshore. Ostentatious hotels perch on rocky headlands, flags flapping in the soft breeze. The warm hazy light washing over tacky buildings, craggy capes and tenacious pines momentarily recalls those old Soviet-bloc propaganda photos of workers' paradises on the Black Sea. Fortunately, the fresh light of morning reveals a less affected town going about its business. Travellers squirm on bench seats in the departures hall of the ferry terminal, while tricycle riders glide slowly down the lake-front boulevard, laden with crates of beer. Under a canvas awning a woman in orange cooks up tantalising pancakes, piled high with stir-fried vegetables and noodles. Watermelons again stand like polished green boulders, waiting to be carved up into dripping wedges. A cobbler hammers, taps and stitches in his corner of a laneway; a toy-vendor nearby has created an eye-catching array of bright acrylic colours. Two green-shirted Public Security Bureau men stand in the middle of an intersection, questioning an errant motorcyclist who seems unafraid to give as good as he gets.