MY FIRST impression of Hangzhou was how modern it was.
Rows of shopping malls, hotels and businesses fl ashing neon signs line the streets in the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China, reminding me of cities like Hong Kong and Taipei.
But while bright lights and modern buildings dominate the downtown landscape, there is still a lot of the old in Hangzhou.
The magnificent West Lake, for one, is a stark contrast to the city in which it is located.
Traditional architecture — temples, bridges and pagodas built during the Five Dynasties period — complement the beautiful scenery here.
With its crystal-clear water and plum forestry foliage, it is easy to see why this freshwater lake has been celebrated in many a poem and artwork.
Going on a cruise allowed us to marvel at landmarks such as Leifeng Pagoda and the Jingci Temple and learn about the legends associated with them.
Surrounding the lake are gardens planted with different variety of flora, including peach trees that blossom in spring.
The contrast of old and new struck me again when we were strolling along the lake bank. The traditional buildings have been taken over by shops selling modern fare like ice cream from Harbin. There’s even a Starbucks.
We saw more evidence of modernity along our drive to Qinghefang Ancient Street.
Shining malls boasting huge posters of David Beckham and famous brands such as Zara and Adidas made me dread that our shopping destination might turn out to be similar to the familiar Orchard Road in Singapore.
Fortunately, Qinghefang has a more authentic and local feel.
Although there are bubble tea stalls and shops selling contemporary fashion, toys and games, century-old shophouses selling traditional oil-paper umbrellas, sandalwood fans, ornate scissors and kitchenware also abound here.
For a dose of heritage, you can watch locals using old-fashioned tools cut sesame biscuits or sharpen knife wares.
The last of the ancient towns
To get a feel of what an ancient town looks like, we headed to Nanxun, a water town less than two hours’ drive away from Hangzhou city.
The town, which is more than 700 years old, is a well-preserved residential district housing the area’s richest families.
The gated community showcases Chinese old-town lifestyle, with traditional houses lining an extended canal, cobblestone pedestrian walkways and stone bridges.
Many ancient towns in China are today overrun by tourists and services catered to them. Other ancient villages we visited felt more like museums — we looked at artefacts behind displays and read information translated into English on display boards. Then there were the touts shouting for our attention at almost every corner.
In Nanxun, the atmosphere was more relaxed. Tourists can hop on a boat and sail along the mini canals to see locals going about their everyday lives, like having tea, selling wares and playing cards.
Unfazed by visitors in their midst, the locals chatted with tourists, sharing their stories and the history of the town.
Visitors can visit some of the ancient mansions in Nanxun, like the estate of the Liu family, also known as the Red House.
This fancy estate, whose buildings are decorated with ornate flowers and Chinese calligraphy carved into the woodwork, dates back almost six centuries. There is a European-style annex with French balconies and stained glass windows.
We took a Singapore Airlines flight to Shanghai. From there, it is a four-hour coach ride to Hangzhou.
■ West Lake can be enjoyed all year round, but less rainfall is expected between September and November.
■ An evening activity at West Lake to consider is the theatric spectacle directed by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Prices start at 360 yuan (S$76).
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