They work, rest and play in Hangzhou

A new flight from Europe has put this city of commerce within easier reach for tourists, too, says Mark Leftly

Dozens of Chinese tourists wearing orange, maroon and even tartan hats brush each other aside as they try to snaffle the best spots to photograph an ancient headstone.

This is the Temple of General Yue Fei, a 12th-century army hero. He is still beloved nearly a millennium later and his tall, slim headstone is one of the most celebrated attractions in Hangzhou, a city of great history and spectacular beauty.

The hectic scene is a sign of the popularity of this city in south-east China with domestic tourists. Last month, Dutch airline KLM launched the first service directly connecting Europe with the city, a cultural centre we have largely ignored despite it being little more than 100 miles from Shanghai. KLM has spied an opportunity in the business traveller market, as Hangzhou develops a mini-Dubai of towers, shopping malls and high-street designer-label shops. But it is also hoped that the city and its friendly 6.5 million inhabitants will lure Europeans looking for relaxation as well as commerce.

Hangzhou is based around the West Lake, a vast body of water surrounded by green hills and filled with historic man-made islets and causeways. Essentially a national park, West Lake claims to have more than 100 tourist attractions, the majority of which are many centuries old. Most of the monuments and rebuilt pavilions dedicated to largely forgotten poets and leaders are difficult to appreciate fully as a Westerner, but it is a relaxing place. Though the lake is overcast, enough sunlight breaks through to create attractively blurred views of the dramatic surrounding landscape in the shimmering water.

Slow-moving boats take sightseers between the islets and locations on the banks of the lakes, a hop-on-hop-off service that costs barely £4. The most famous and impressive site is on Small Yingzhou Islet, known as "Three Pools Mirroring the Moon". This trio of pagodas, nearly 400 years old and barely six feet tall, sitting in the water just off the shore, feature on the one yuan note. They come into their own when candles are placed inside during a full moon.

However, I'm here at about 2pm, so am treated to the less impressive but surely more amusing sight of oarsmen trying to get close enough for their passengers to touch the pagodas. Often the boats must make several spins of the little stones before the goal is achieved.

I head to the heart of the islet and find the centre filled with market stalls. I munch on a giant corn-on-the-cob, which costs me five yuan (49p) and watch the Buddhist monks laughing at the silly pictures they have taken of each other, and a middle-aged man feeding his two parrots. Then I take the boat to Zhongshan Park, a common term in China for places named after Dr Sun Yat-sen, the early 20th-century revolutionary leader. Artists paint in the small pavilions and lovers try to negotiate some of the cragged steps that lead to the top of the park.

In the distance, the golden spire of the Leifeng Pagoda, a stunning 10th-century landmark rebuilt only eight years ago, emerges out of the greenery. It tempts me, and I walk the three-kilometre (1.8 miles) Su Causeway to reach this architectural gem. The great relief is that no cars are allowed on the avenue, which is lined with weeping willows and magnolia trees and has six gorgeous stone bridges – drivers in Hangzhou are impatient.

Before I reach the pagoda, I take a slight detour to what is known as "Viewing Fish at Flower Pond". There is no denying the Chinese ability to describe the literal truth. The clear pond here is full of thousands of red carp that seem to swim on top of each other quite uncomfortably. No matter, the little children and adults gathered here are entranced.

I finally reach Leifeng, the entry fee a bargain 40 yuan. Located on a hill, a long escalator takes me up to what is actually only the ground floor. Inside are the remains of the original AD977 foundations. The balcony on the top floor offers a 360-degree view of the entire area. I watch the ant-sized boats in the tranquil lake below moving about at a romantic pace.

Time for a beer, and I narrowly avoid entering a crazy music festival aimed at teenagers before finding a terrific US theme bar called Eudora Station. I have never seen my favourite beer, Red Seal Ale, outside of its home state of California. Yet here it is, in a part of China that I had barely heard of only a few weeks earlier – two bottles for about £4 during happy hour. An American comes in, also excited that his own favourite brew, Rogue, is served here.

The bar is part of Hangzhou's burgeoning nightlife scene, which is an acquired taste. Nightclubs and bars along the waterfront have laughably poor singers who are usually little better than the average drunken karaoke star-for-the-night. At one fairly empty establishment, the young songstress notices me as a white European and asks what I would like her to belt out. This is one of the few young women who have approached me without commercial gain in mind – one of the very few uncomfortable aspects of Hangzhou.

Later that evening, it's from one of the ladies of the night that I flee to the shores of West Lake once more, where the moon lights the rippling water. It's by far this city's most seductive proposition.

Compact Facts

How to get there

KLM (0871 222 7474; klm.com) offers return flights from London to Hangzhou, via Amsterdam, from £805.

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