Time Travel: Exploring China's Ancient Hangzhou

Time Travel: Exploring China's Ancient Hangzhou
Today Hangzhou is both a thriving metropolis and a popular retreat for successful Chinese. Those who seek nature's beauty and harmony head for Hangzhou's West Lake region and there, just past the village of Tianzhu, Amanresorts has developed Amanfayun.

Amanfayun Hangzhou

Fayun means village and the Amanfayun is a collection of 47 traditional buildings that once housed those who worked and supervised local tea fields. Located on 35 acres, nestled in a lush valley, it offers a chance to step back in time. Coastal China is ultra-modern. Shanghai and Beijing are 21st century cities. So much of China is forward-thinking that the opportunity to experience historical China is rare. The Amanfayun concept is intriguing and getting there is easy.

A new high speed bullet train streaks from Hongqiao station in Shanghai to Hangzhou every half hour in a mere 45 minutes. Hotels in Shanghai will purchase tickets for you (about 82RMB or the equivalent of $13 one way) or you can use the English version ticket vending machines in the station. Several properties, including Amanfayan, will arrange for a car pick-up at the train station. We take advantage of this service. English is not widely spoken in Hangzhou and, in contrast to Shanghai, street signs are not posted using the Roman alphabet spelling of Chinese names. We like the idea that Amanfayun will "ease our way."

Amanfayun Hangzhou

An Amanfayan representative is waiting for us; the name of the hotel on a bamboo scroll. We are quickly steered into a waiting Toyota SUV. Cool towels, chilled bottled water, and literature on the resort and environs are all supplied. On the 20-minute ride we travel first through clean, modern and busy downtown Hangzhou, and then out into the countryside. Terraced tea fields give way to serene forest and the promise of bubbling springs. Beyond, we glimpse the strangely rounded peaks Westerners once assumed were mythical.

Finally we turn down a narrow roadway that takes us past bamboo groves and up to the property entrance. The driver has called ahead and the manager is waiting to greet us. Check-in takes place in Fayan Place, accurately described by the Aman staff as "the most commanding of the original structures." High ceilings, white walls, lattice woodwork provide a calm refuge. Green tea is served -- be sure to wait for the water to become tepid so the loose leaves drop. In the ensuring conversation, our interests are gauged and suggestions made. We are excited about our options.

Amanfayun Hangzhou village bedroom

We are prepared for the minimalist décor in our room. Some guests have been disappointed and (rightfully) point out that that the five-star level of comfort is not met. Still, the goal is recreation and we are pleased with the authenticity. To walk through the grounds on what was once the main street of a village, to be surrounded by nature at its most plentiful, these are the experiences we've come for…and have found.

For our first dinner we decide to try the Hangzhou House. It is on the property but owned and run by locals. It seems like a good opportunity to sample regional food but we are in trouble from the start. The menu is confusing and our ignorance of the language is a barrier. There are a number of fixed price meals but not the option to order a-la-carte. We don't choose well and end up with a very expensive meal that is largely left on the plates. I compare the experience with our stay at another Amanresort, the Amansara in Siam Reap, Cambodia. There, meals were included and our guided introduction to Cambodian fare effortless and rewarding.

Hangzhou West Lake boats

The next morning we set out for a sunrise breakfast and boat ride on West Lake. For centuries Chinese emperors came to Hangzhou to ponder the beauty of water, mountains, and sky. (The man-made lake at the Summer Palace in Beijing is a model of West Lake.) A ten-minute car ride takes us to the lake's edge where we board a wooden boat propelled by only a single oar. Tea, coffee and a hot breakfast wait in a wicker basket and compete with the visual feast unfolding around us. Mist is dispelled by sunlight. Muted gives way to vibrant colors. It is a sight fit for an emperor!

Back at the resort, we decide to visit both the gym and the pool. The former is well equipped and the latter tastefully integrated into the landscape. It is a treat to have both to ourselves but I wonder at the absence of other guests. I've been told that the resort was filled to capacity during the weeks of the tea harvest (late March, early April) but May likewise seems an ideal time for a visit.

Amanfayun Hangzhou swimming pool

For lunch we head to the Steam House whose menu is far more "foreigner-friendly." All the dumplings we sample are delicious but my favorite are the ones filled with pumpkin. Fortified, we decided to spend the afternoon exploring the temples that border the Amanfayun property.

A mere five-minute walk from our suite is the Ling Yin temple, one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples in China. Its name translates as Temple of the Soul's Retreat and at one time was home to more than 3,000 Chan Buddhist monks. We time our visit to see the 4pm chanting session and find the grounds crowded with Chinese lighting incense and bowing to the four directions of the compass. I wish we had a guide to provide us with a greater understanding of what we are seeing.

Hangzhou Flying Peak Grotto

Across from the temple complex is a place called Flying Peak. It is a series of trails, grottos, and religious rock carvings built into the side of a mountain. We meander along the trails, enjoying the cooler temperatures and quiet of nature's place of meditation.

For tonight's dinner we decide to try the Western cuisine at Amanfayun's The Restaurant. The décor is attractive and of course we have no problem with the menu. We are the only customers -- though across the room a TV crew is filming a commercial in which the chef is serving a stunning Chinese actress. My own meal is tasty but not memorable. This property has so much potential but at the moment it seems elusive.

Amanfayun Hangzhou restaurant

On our final day we have two outings planned: first a guided tour of tea fields and the Tea Museum, and then visit to another local temple. Amanfayun has arranged for a personable young man who introduces himself as Jeffery to be our guide. His English is excellent and he offers a wealth of information on more than just tea. It's a rare opportunity to learn about the perspectives of young, educated Chinese and we are delighted. I wonder why Amanfayun doesn't follow the example of its sister resort, the Amansara, and include the option of local guides as part of the stay.

Once again it is only a short walk to the Yongfu Si (Temple of Goodness). Here the entrance is bordered by forest and garden and we climb up the terraced steps. The crowds are smaller and the experience more intimate. The contemplation of nature seems as much a part of the spiritual experience as any worship practice performed within the temple itself. It is the perfect conclusion to our visit for it reminds us of why we came.

Hangzhou Yongfu Si Temple

On the drive to the airport, I ask my husband for his thoughts. They match my own. If we paid for the luxury and superior service associated with the Aman name, we didn't get it. If we paid for a chance to experience another time and place, we came close. I imagine Amanfayun offering an all-inclusive experience, taking charge of meals and tours. Luxury here shouldn't be plush carpet and heated toilet seats but it can, and, for my money, should be the attentive service. This is a special place but is the Amanfayun right for you? Hopefully now you are in a better position to decide.

Hotel Profile: Amanfayun