Hangzhou: A Chinese puzzle

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A village that's really a hotel, a hill that can fly, and a lake that evokes the spirit of ancient China. Welcome to Hangzhou, says Ben Ross

Perhaps the monks are having a lie in. Well before the pale fingers of dawn are due to clutch at an overcast sky, I'm awake, dressed and loitering outside a low building within Yongfu Si, the Temple of Goodness. Along with half-a-dozen other early risers, I've prised myself from a comfortable bed in a warm room to make my way here through the chilly, inky blackness for morning prayers. But there's nobody about. So we flash our torches around, letting the beams play over the vast incense burner, the swooping roof of the temple, the sparkle of the golden, many-armed statue within the shrine.

After about 10 minutes, the swish of saffron robes. A tired-looking soul turns up to pull apart the main doors and turn the lights on. Then a trickle of his fellow devotees arrive, clattering across the darkness of the courtyard. Soon 20 or so monks are lined up inside, and we take our places too. The interior is brightly lit and strangely modern. I find myself distracted by the sight of a plug socket on the opposite wall. And that Buddhist statue? It looks brand new, with a sheen that makes it seem cast from plastic.

There's nothing ersatz about the ceremony itself: a pulsing thrum from the drum; a droning, mesmerising chant from the monks that rises to a crescendo, then pauses at the tinkle of a bell. There's a weird physicality to the sound. It seems to hit you somewhere low in the stomach and high at the back of your neck. Within a few minutes one of our group has fainted, her collapse either due to the intensity of the experience or the earliness of the hour; another has retired hurt, complaining of lumbar pains. Later, the abbot explains that for these two, fallen by the wayside, the path to enlightenment will be a long and weary one.

There are a total of seven temples clustered close together in these green-clad hills, a 20-minute drive west from the centre of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. Despite having a population in its own right of six million, Hangzhou is now almost a suburb of Shanghai, which lies 200km to the north-east. A high-speed train link opened last year, with sleek rolling stock that almost halves the journey time between the two to 45 minutes and hits 350km an hour in the process.

Many of the travellers who make the trip from the grandiose hangar of Shanghai Hongqiao station to Hangzhou's rather less salubrious terminus are on a pilgrimage to Hangzhou's West Lake. This gracious expanse of water is hemmed by a pagoda-spiked swatch of green parkland, sculpted over the years into an idealised view of rural China.

For Chinese nationals, it's one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, a place of great literary and dynastic importance. Hordes of visitors promenade along the two long causeways or potter about on tourist boats; couples jostle to get their wedding photos taken along the shore.

The dazzling nightly performances of Impression West Lake presumably add to the allure. This extraordinary dance and light spectacle involves a cast of hundreds performing on a submerged platform out in the water. To Western eyes the incomprehensibility of the story is outweighed by its dramatic staging, which is bombastic and elegant in almost equal measure.

Throw in the hectic bustle of Hefang Street in downtown Hangzhou, with shops selling everything from painted fans to scissors (the region is the scissor-manufacturing capital of China) and the city satisfies almost every tourism impulse: nature, culture, shopping... haberdashery.

However, for peace and quiet, visitors will need to leave the busy lake shore. Here, in an undulating stretch of land, draped in bamboo and lined with tea trees, a spattering of rustic dwellings gathered along a cobbled street gives another flavour of the past. Once comprising a farming village known as plain old Fayun, these one-time homes for tea pickers have been redeveloped as part of Amanresorts' group of luxury retreats. Now converted into 42 rooms, suites and villas, they opened to guests at the beginning of 2010 with a new collective name: Amanfayun.

Yes, an entire village has become a hotel – and one that is designed to appeal as much to China's new rich (who make up about half of its clientèle) as it does to Western tastes. A two-storey wood-lined building serves as a central hub called Fayun Place, with gracious internal courtyards and even its own calligraphy room. There's a quiet tea house, a tiny street-side restaurant serving steamed dumplings, and another larger eatery set back from the road, which proffers Western cuisine. The scattered rooms are dimly lit affairs, elegantly furnished in pale elm and hugging private flagstone courtyards.

It's a strange mix: the main street is still a right of way for the general public, so the resort has installed security guards on each corner. (They smilingly offer you directions in lieu of apprehending miscreants.) And although the buildings seem ancient, in fact there's very modern underfloor heating throughout, resort-wide wi-fi, a heated outdoor pool, and an array of sophisticated treatments on offer in an elegant spa surrounded by magnolia trees.

Amanresorts is due to take the concept even further next month when it opens the revamped Sveti Stefan, a whole Adriatic island converted into a hotel, off the coast of Montenegro. Nevertheless, transforming a farming village into a place of refined, low-key luxury is an impressive undertaking in itself. Especially given Amanfayun's position at the gates of the grandest temple in the region: Lingyin Si, or "Soul's Retreat".

This religious complex – yellow-walled, red-roofed – is the primary focus of the Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area, where a RMB30 (£2.85) ticket grants access to a throng of kiosks selling incense sticks as well as a diverting collection of hundreds of ancient carved Buddhas which trail up Feilai Feng ("the Hill that Flew Here"). Admission to the temple itself costs RMB35 (£3.30), well worth it for the sight of the 25-metre-high golden statue of Buddha, and for the four impressive painted warriors which rise within the Hall of the Heavenly King: the Guardians of the Four Directions.

Now those guardians had inspired me in a new direction of my own. For the sake of completeness, I'd decided to visit all seven temples during my two-night stay. The chance to attend morning prayers at Yongfu Si is reserved solely for guests at Amanfayun (the monks also run the resort's vegetarian restaurant). And after I'd said goodbye to the abbot, I began to climb upwards in the grey, post-dawn light, following the narrow pathway through the trees that line North Peak Mountain. To start with the going was serene; perhaps I had the mountain to myself. But then I arrived at the covered archway which marked the lowest point of the Temple of Tao Guang Ghau Hai ("the Temple with a Sight of the Sea").

Above, the temple itself loomed: ornate levels of one-storey buildings running upwards, hugging the mountain's steep contours. Laughter and the smell of smoke proved that there were plenty of people up and about already; gaggles of elderly women clutched at incense sticks, praying to the north, south, east and west in front of the main shrine.

The view, I'd been told, would stretch at least to Hangzhou city itself – but a deep, dense mist hid almost everything. So I carried on upwards, via switchbacks of steps, past gaggles of unaccountably alert-looking teenagers, and after 20 minutes or so found myself at the top of the mountain.

Despite having been a religious site for 1,600 years, the modern incarnation of Lingshun Si (the Temple of Wealth) now wraps around the base of a tall telecommunications mast: practical, perhaps, but in rude defiance of Buddhist aesthetics. A couple of paper lanterns had been hung from the lowest rungs, in a hapless attempt to de-emphasise the carbuncle. These buildings may look ancient, but most have been rebuilt in stages following the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.

The three final temples on my itinerary lay at the other end of the pilgrims' path through Amanfayun. The lower of the two Fajing Temples (known as Reflection) is set in a small tea village and serves as a nunnery. It seemed to be in the midst of some serious reconstruction of its own: breeze blocks were stacked haphazardly in a corner.

Beyond lay the grander Fajing Si (Purity), and further still – reached via a quiet road set back from the main route – was Faxi Si (Happiness), the largest of the three, with tranquil gardens winding upwards from a wide courtyard.

In the hills above the road to Faxi Si, clusters of houses gave way to fields striped with tea bushes. Longjing tea, harvested by the nearby village of the same name, is a local speciality. Thirsty now, and with my temple-bagging quest complete, I made my weary way back to Amanfayun for a celebratory cup or two. And it was there that I realised a great truth, though probably one in the British rather than the Buddhist canon: the path to enlightenment is a lot easier if there's a nice hot drink at the end of it.

Travel essentials: Hangzhou

Getting there

* The writer flew with British Airways (0844 4930787; ba.com), which operates six flights per week from Heathrow to Shanghai. Return flights cost from £694. Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and China Eastern Airlines (020-7935 2676; flychinaeastern.com) fly the same route.

* The fast train from Shanghai Hongqiao station to Hangzhou takes 45 minutes and runs 15 times daily. Single tickets cost RMB87 (£8.20) for a second-class seat; RMB131 (£12.40) for a first-class seat.

Staying there

* Amanfayun, 22 Fayun Nong, Xihujiedao Xihufengjingmingsheng District, Hangzhou (00 800 2255 2626; amanresorts.com). Village Room doubles from US$747.50 (£498), room only. The hotel will arrange car transfers from Hangzhou for US$34.50 (£23).

Red tape

* A single-entry tourist visa to China costs £66 including service fee. Apply through the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (020-7842 0960; visaforchina.org.uk), which has offices in London and Manchester.

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