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China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

Updated: 9 hours ago

The city of Hangzhou is a historical and cultural jewel of China. The West Lake, in turn, is a significant source of artistic and literary inspiration. Around its shores, historical structures and temples bear witness to the region's spiritual depth. The Grand Canal, connecting Hangzhou to Beijing, is an engineering feat and a vital link for trade. Together, Hangzhou, the West Lake, and the Grand Canal illustrate the harmony between nature, culture, and progress that China has consistently demonstrated throughout the centuries.


China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

Formerly the capital during the Southern Song dynasty from 1127 to 1279, Hangzhou has managed to maintain an impressive cultural character. This city, with its luxurious past, also demonstrates a state of quite rare wealth. This quickly becomes apparent when strolling in the evening through the tourist streets. Besides these aspects, Hangzhou also boasts a magnificent natural lake that every photographer visiting China should see.


Introduction

The West Lake region and the city of Hangzhou are brimming with historical treasures. The very peaceful atmosphere that prevails makes Hangzhou the most beautiful Chinese city I have had the pleasure of visiting for several years. Its modern and ancient streets, traditional shops and shopping centers, temples, and contemporary buildings coexist in an intriguing harmony. As if the city of Hangzhou had always anticipated its evolution.


The temples, pavilions, and gardens surrounding the city of Hangzhou have been a source of inspiration for many Chinese poets and artists since the 9th century. The city is also the endpoint of the immense canal that connects it to Beijing, covering more than 1700 km.


The West Lake, for its part, is probably one of the most beautiful lakes in the country. Featured on the 1 Yuan bill and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, this lake has everything to please landscape photographers.


Through this series of articles, I wish to revisit the fascinating history of the city of Hangzhou, its origins, and the relationship it has always maintained with the West Lake. I also offer some tips to optimize your photography trip and movements around the lake. I therefore invite you to read and discover these 3 parts in chronological order.


Part 1: History of the city of Hangzhou and the West Lake, traditional constructions, and the Grand Canal of China.

Part 2: Getting to Hangzhou, the shores of the lake, and how to organize your stay there.

Part 3: 9 photographic spots around the West Lake.


My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S3. The ultra-stable and versatile head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A durable reference for landscape photography and long exposures.

My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S3. The ultra-stable and versatile head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A durable reference for landscape photography and long exposures.

 

Contents of this article:


 
China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

Getting to Hangzhou

The city of Hangzhou is located in Zhejiang province. It's easy to get there as there are plenty of ways to communicate with other cities in the country. The simplest way is to come from Shanghai by express train. This Chinese High-Speed Train will take you from Shanghai Hongqiao station, located under the airport of the same name (see below). But of course, there are other possible options. They obviously vary depending on your starting point.


Different Options

By Air: Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport offers direct flights from many major international cities. Otherwise, you can arrive in Shanghai or another major Chinese international airport and take a train or bus to Hangzhou.


By High-Speed Train: China has an extensive network of high-speed trains. Hangzhou is easily accessible from major cities like Beijing, Shanghai (see below), and Guangzhou.


By Regular Train: Regular train services are also available. Although slower, they allow you to soak in the extraordinary landscapes of the different regions crossed. Fares are naturally much lower than express trains, even negligible.


By Bus: Interurban bus services connect Hangzhou to other cities. This is another interesting option to consider if you have a lot of time. Traffic conditions are unpredictable and traffic jams are very common around large cities.


By Car: You can also drive to Hangzhou, but be aware of local traffic rules and traffic density. This is an option I do not recommend.


My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack for hiking. Waterproof, sturdy, and lightweight. The perfect and comfortable protection throughout the day.

My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack for hiking. Waterproof, sturdy, and lightweight. The perfect and comfortable protection throughout the day.


Direct Train from Shanghai Hongqiao Station

Hongqiao station is also the largest station in the world. Therefore, plan the necessary time to find your way there because once inside, you immediately understand what it means to be the largest station in the world.


There are dozens of counters available to travelers and it can be quite difficult to find your way around. After waiting in a line that may seem endless, you will manage to make yourself understood at the counter without too much difficulty.


Despite the number of foreign tourists, the English language has not yet become commonplace in China, even in transportation. After giving your passport for the officer to make a copy and thus track your movements, you will obtain your round-trip ticket for about 130 RMB.


Unlike many other countries, the wait is not done on the boarding platform but inside the station in front of huge automatic doors. A few minutes before departure, the hundreds of people gathered will rush with you to the platform. Fortunately, seats are reserved and numbered.


You will arrive in Hangzhou in 1 hour. The express train will drop you off well away from the city at Hangzhou East station, specifically designed for these High-Speed Trains. You will still need to take a taxi or the metro (line 1) to get to the center of Hangzhou or directly to your hotel.


China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

Hotels

There are numerous quality options, from high-quality to luxurious ones. All hotels have the advantage of being generally very affordable in China. This allows for opting for a higher class or a better-located establishment.


For example, choosing a hotel located a few minutes' walk from the lake. Because it's a certainty, you will want to go to the shores of the lake at dawn. This site is very touristic, and the early morning is the only time when it's possible to enjoy a bit of calm for photography. I recommend the Hai Hua Hotel, comfortable and located 5 minutes' walk from the edge of the lake.


My equipment: GITZO Traveler Compact 5 sections. The ultra-light and stable carbon tripod. For long exposure photography without compromise.

My equipment: GITZO Traveler Compact. The ultra-light and stable carbon tripod. For long exposure photography without compromise.


To Visit in the Vicinity of Hangzhou

The immediate surroundings of the West Lake and the city of Hangzhou are full of exciting historical places to visit during your stay. They reflect the rich historical, cultural, and natural heritage of the region. Here is a selection of sites that, in my opinion, are not to be missed:


1. Hangzhou Botanical Garden: Admire the local flora, revisit endemic species, and the natural serenity of China in a refreshing green setting.


2. National Silk Museum: Explore the history of silk in China, a key aspect of Hangzhou's heritage and history.


3. Hefang Street: Experience the unique local culture, with traditional shops, restaurants, cafes, and snacks.


4. Hangzhou Museum: Discover an overview of the local history and cultural artifacts of the region.


5. Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea Plantations: Immerse yourself in the famous tea plantations and learn more about Chinese tea culture, from harvesting to tasting.


6. Grand Canal of China: Navigate this unique engineering work on a cruise, appreciate the natural scenery and local landscapes.


7. Xixi National Wetland Park: Discover an exceptional natural park offering wetland landscapes and preserved biodiversity.


China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

8. Lingyin Temple (Temple of the Hidden Soul): Enter one of the oldest Buddhist temples in China, famous for its carved caves and statues hewn directly into the rock (2 photos above).


9. Jingci Temple: Admire this small-sized temple located south of the West Lake, known for its large bell and beautiful gardens.


10. Six Harmonies Temple (Liuhe Pagoda): Enjoy the breathtaking view of the Qiantang from this temple mainly consisting of a pagoda that also serves sacred functions.


11. Fajing Temple (Temple of Pure Light): Rest in a historic Buddhist temple with impressive architecture and a peaceful setting.


12. Yuewang Temple (Yue Fei Memorial): Step back in history in this temple mausoleum dedicated to General Yue Fei, a national hero.


13. Yongfu Temple (Temple of Eternal Fortune): Observe local rituals in this temple located in a peaceful wooded area. Founded during the Tang dynasty, this temple has a long history spanning over a millennium. Yongfu is an important place of worship and meditation for local practitioners.


Each of these sites offers a unique experience, blending ancient architecture, Buddhist art, and natural serenity. They reflect the cultural, botanical, and spiritual richness of the region. They are also worth visiting during any stay in Hangzhou. All these places have fascinated me and I would ideally like to linger on each of them. However, for the purposes of this article, I will focus only on the shores of the lake.


My equipment: URTH+ ND Filters. High-definition filters with Japanese glass. Perfect for long exposures.

My equipment: URTH+ ND Filters. High-definition filters with Japanese glass. Perfect for long exposures.


A Contagious Joie de Vivre

Nowhere else in the world have I observed such a joie de vivre expressed by the population as in Hangzhou. Regardless of age groups, residents gather every day of the week to dance, sing, engage in physical or artistic activities throughout the day.


Painters and poets write on the ground with immense brushes dipped in water. An original spectacle of rare beauty. The traditional music played by dance groups transports you to a world conducive to creation. Unforgettable moments for photography but also for the spirit.


This joie de vivre, this apparent carefreeness, and this extraordinary ability to find happiness in these moments of simplicity are terribly contagious. Do not hesitate to observe these traditional practices for a long time. They will charm you, I am sure.


In the early morning, you can even experience special moments that astonish our European minds. It is not uncommon to see elderly people engaging in rituals, shouting cries and phrases of a strange sonority while walking. Then, suddenly stopping, they wrap their arms around a tree and continue their vocalizations.


You will also discover along the way solo musicians indulging in musical awakening on traditional instruments. If you are sensitive to music in your creative approach, these unexpected musical moments are undoubtedly conducive to inspiration. They constitute forms of free concerts that will accompany your first reflections as a photographer at sunrise. An experience to live and that surely brightens the day.


China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

The Shores of the West Lake

Later in the day, the thousands of people who roam the shores of the lake unfortunately force you to photograph amidst constant noise, contrasting with the tranquil ambiance of the lake.


Do not expect any particular understanding from the local population towards photographers. The Chinese are not much concerned about others. They are mainly preoccupied with getting photographed at all the spots that also interest you. And they like to take their time. Nothing aggressive in this behavior, quite the contrary. They are primarily a peaceful and adorable people. But it's a mindset you have to get used to if you're not familiar with this country.


To find a bit of tranquility, you'll need to walk and move away from the touristy shores of the lake located directly near shops and shopping centers.


Luminar Neo: artificial intelligence at the service of commercial imaging. Unlimited possibilities to try for free here.

Luminar Neo: artificial intelligence at the service of commercial imaging. Unlimited possibilities to try for free here.


The Tour of the Lake

The perimeter of the West Lake is about 15 km. The tour is quite easy as there are many spots to photograph, which easily make you forget the notion of time.


Once again, you need to be well-prepared physically as you will probably circle the lake several times during your stay. For example, we stayed there for a week each time and went around the lake every day. Not only for photography but also for our daily training. Read my articles on the importance of physical condition in my photography.


It is advisable to plan more than 4 hours to go around the lake while calmly observing and photographing different places each day. You might also want to stop for a well-deserved break in traditional establishments, for tea or lunch.


In the early morning, the lake is covered with a light mist that makes the atmosphere magical and ideal for minimalist photography. Especially in winter. Not to be missed under any circumstances because this mist will add that sought-after touch of mystery to your shots.


In the 3rd article of this series, I propose a selection of 9 must-see spots around the West Lake. If you plan to stay there for a few days, I highly recommend going around the lake in both directions alternately to enjoy the first lights on both shores and try to be as alone as possible. Some spots are also very interesting when it is still dark.


China: Getting to Hangzhou and Photographing the West Lake (Part 2)

The Final Word

The shores of the West Lake, with their tranquil beauty and historical richness, offer a profound reflection on the coexistence of man and nature. They represent a place where time seems to stand still, a space where the hustle and bustle of the modern world fades in front of the serenity of nature and the grandeur of history.


This lake, a mirror of Chinese culture and soul, reminds me each time of the importance of harmony between the past and the present, the human and the natural, the spiritual and the material. Each pagoda, each temple, and each bridge tells a story and reflects the philosophical quest for the balance so sought after by the Chinese.


To me, the West Lake is a symbol of the perpetual quest for beauty and inner peace. It invites us to seek through our photographs that harmony which elevates the spirit and nourishes the soul. As we contemplate its calm waters, it invites us to meditate on our own place in the ceaseless flow of time, and on how we can embrace tranquility in our busy lives.


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WISE Visa Card: A single card to manage your money, instantly exchange over 40 currencies at the real rate, pay in local currencies, and have your bank details in more than 10 currencies.


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