Jin Sha - West Lake of Hangzhou, China
- Jin Sha
- Four Seasons Hangzhou West Lake
- January 13, 2019
I had my big city fix, to say the least, in China with several days in Shanghai, which is a big city. A BIIIIIG city. So we went to Hangzhou, a small Chinese city of a mere 10 million people as opposed to 35 million.
The draw in Hangzhou is not urban, but instead the stunning lake immediately to the west of the city, and the lake and its environs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a respite from the urban vastness of China's east coast. UNESCO writes:
"The West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou, comprising the West Lake and the hills surrounding its three sides, has inspired famous poets, scholars and artists since the 9th century. It comprises numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and ornamental trees, as well as causeways and artificial islands. These additions have been made to improve the landscape west of the city of Hangzhou to the south of the Yangtze river.
The West Lake has influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries and bears an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of vistas reflecting an idealised fusion between humans and nature."
Jake set out rather early to explore, and I followed several hours later, well behind, because of an unintentional hangover and an eye popping amount of sudden work. The avenue that I walked down before getting to the lake was pretty (and relatively empty!) on its own, but once I came to the water's edge, it was immediately clear why this place was so special. I wandered my way to the first "causeway," where pedestrians stroll across a man made pathway on the lake, with lovely trees and benches on either side. There were plenty of people, and the regular tourist carrying vehicles, much to my annoyance, but my headphones helped me filter through the noise and crowds and made me feel like I was almost alone in this wonderful natural world, right next to a city larger than New York and yet a million miles away.
Sadly for the little dreamworld I entered, it was about mid-morning, and thus a time for a certain biological need to interrupt my walk, rather abruptly and generating a situation of pretty immediate urgency. Unfortunately for me, I could not find a public bathroom for a long while, and even if I had, China's public bathrooms are most often "squatty" potties, and that's a HARD pass for me. I like my imperialist porcelain western throne, so naturally I sought out an imperialist western institution in which to locate such a throne.
Oh look, I'm right next to the Four Seasons! What could be more western, privileged, and imperialist!? Surely they have an appropriate throne.
The Four Seasons on the West Lake is absolutely stunning. It captures the traditional architecture and wooded serenity of the place in its design, and it was actually a place I would have liked to just go have a look at anyway (was WAY too expensive to stay). How convenient. But moreover, as I wandered like a transient onto the property, it so happens that I discovered that a restaurant that had been on my list for places to try Zhejiang cuisine (considered one of China's "Eight Great" cuisines, alongside the likes of Sichuan and Hunan) was in the hotel, and while it was definitely out of my price range for dinner, the lunch didn't took too bad at all!
Also, I needed an excuse to use the throne.
I wandered in and the hostess seemed rather reluctant to seat me, first telling me that they were closing (they didn't close until 2 and it was 1:15), then that they were full (they weren't), and finally acquiescing to seating one ("BUT JUST ONE!") person. Maybe she saw the awkward manner in which I was walking into the hotel.
Upon being seated, I was rather presumptuously presented with a fork, which I told her I didn't need (she must have really not wanted me there...), and took a look at the options on the menu. It was HUGE; took me about 20 minutes to get through it, and much of it was still dinner prices, but they had some inexpensive dim sum options for lunch, which I love, so I decided to snag some local Longjing tea, dim sum items, and at least one Hangzhou specialty. The waitress was decidedly more accommodating than the hostess, and helped by guiding me toward dishes that were Zhejiang specialties that she thought I would enjoy in order to experience the unique cuisine of Hangzhou. Though the two most famous specialties of the area, beggar's chicken and Dongpo pork, were off the table because they needed to be ordered ahead of time, I settled on a recommended shrimp dish, consistent with the region's emphasis on seafood.
Despite the much lower lunch prices, the "fancy" essence of the place was clear in many of the ingredients. The tea, for example, came from an immense list of different types of Longjing tea, which is grown just up in the hills beyond West Lake, that ranged from about five dollars to fifty dollars a cup (no thanks). Longjing means "dragon well," and comes from the name of an artificial body of water that collects spring water from the hills that is used to cultivate this type of tea. It's considered one of the most prized teas from China, and the price point often matches! Not being any kind of tea connoisseur, I ordered the second to cheapest one, and it was absolutely delicious. The tea was delicate and aromatic, with a sort of nutty note underlying its classic, herbal green tea flavor. It also had a shitload of caffeine, come to find out, since I was absolutely shaking after drinking a pot of it.
I was presented with a bite of shaved kohlrabi and raw scallop first, with a little bit of heat and vinegar to it. This embraces the distinctive style of Zhejiang cuisine––light, often seafood-focused, with hints of spice and often vinegar. It was a delicious bite, and a nice touch for a pretty basic lunch order.
The dim sum followed: veggie dumplings with little bits of black truffle, pork and scallop shu mai with tobiko, and beef shu mai with white truffle. All of them were really delicious, and I appreciated that the addition of the truffle didn't absurdly inflate the price. The slices of scallop in particular on the pork were lovely and added a fresh sweetness that I appreciated to complement the heavier meat.
The Zhejiang specialty came out next, which was sautéed river shrimp with Longjing tea leaves. This dish came highly recommended by the waitress; in fact, she steered me away from a different (and cheaper) shrimp dish to this instead, but I have to say that I really didn't get it. The tiny shrimp were beautifully cooked, had no hint of fishy essence, and were tender and juicy, but the sauce (if there was any!) didn't taste like much of anything. When I added the spicy condiment (made of chilis, radish, and small fish) that I was provided at the beginning of the meal, it was much tastier, and I alternated with some soy sauce to add flavor.
I will say that for this dish, I really wish I had swallowed my pride and taken the presumptuously offered fork, because picking up river shrimp with chopsticks is VERY difficult, and many people with vastly more proclivity for chopsticks were witness to my embarrassing struggles.
I also was served a little treat at the end, which was a sweet rice and bean porridge-like drink that the waiter told me "everyone is drinking in China today." Not sure if he meant today, as in January 13, or today like the zeitgeist. In any event, it was nice to end with something sweet, but I'm not sure I'd actively seek that out any time soon.
The highlight of the visit, besides the imperialist throne which made the rest of my day much more manageable, was the beautiful property. It was a nice stop, consistent with the rest of the 11 mile circumnavigatory walk around the lake.
The West Lake was my absolute favorite spot on my trip to China. I may have walked 12 miles and consequently been next-to-unable to walk for the next two days, but it was an absolutely incredible experience that redeemed some of the turbulence of the previous days––this could have been the only thing I did on the whole trip and it would have been worth the journey.
Have one more post about China, and then it's back Stateside! Hope y'all have enjoyed the updates! More home cooking posts and recipes will be the focus when I get back to Texas.