Protected by a cascade of mountains and hills on three sides topped with pagodas, terraced tea fields and gentle rolling hills nestled with temples, West Lake is akin to a mythical paradise. The freshwater lake has not only served as a scenic background to romantic folklore and a homage to Buddhist thought, it has also provided a refuge and a source of inspiration for poetry and poets, as well as being a blueprint for classical gardens found today across Japan, Korea and throughout China. In 2011 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, introducing it to the world as a must-see place to visit in China.
West Lake covers an area of 2.5 square miles and forms part of the Qiangtan River basin which flows into the Grand Canal. The streams from the surrounding mountains serve as tributaries which deposit silt, contributing to its shallow depth of only 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) – continuous dredging has helped maintain the lake over the centuries. There are three causeways on the lake and several man-made islets dotted within its boundaries. The most famous of the three causeways is Su causeway, constructed under governor Su Donpo’s instruction. It is marked by two prominent pagodas; Lei Feng Pagoda to the south, and Baochu Pagoda to the north.
The best way to fully appreciate the beauty and expanse of the lake is by taking a gondola, or simply by strolling or riding a bike around its circumference along stone-paved pathways. The lake is perfect for strolling lovers and tea sipping retirees, and serves as a sanctuary for flora and fauna. It is also a preferred spot for newlyweds – it’s not uncommon to witness a dozen couples trailed by photography crews around the edges of the lake vying for a picture-perfect pose.
The lake is a year-round attraction, and is stunning whether covered in a white sheet of snow in winter, or bursting with fragrant life during the warmer peach and plum blossom seasons. Since 2007 it has been host to ‘West Lake Impressions‘, a permanent theatrical installation from film maker Zhang Yimou, featuring music, dance and lighting that tells of Hangzhou folklore. The production is shown nightly to sold out crowds and is a perfect way to view the lake at night.