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Discovering new highs in Hangzhou
Hangzhou is a picturesque and popular tourist destination within easy reach of Shanghai residents - but there is much more to the place than just beautiful West Lake.

Many Shanghai people find Hangzhou a "cliched" tourist destination - close and easy. But it's hard to think of a better place to resign yourself to countryside pleasures.

Two weeks back my wife and I ventured into the mountains around Hangzhou that are low enough for a three-hour trek but still high enough to make you gasp.

That was exactly what we wanted: a healthy dose of weekend exercise - not too much, not too little - to cure the ills of a week's sedentary office work.

In this golden season of tourism (April and May), it is wise to avoid the crowds at Hangzhou's hugely popular West Lake, even though it is wondrous in many ways. If you have never been to Hangzhou, you should visit the lake, otherwise perhaps follow our footsteps along a largely unbeaten track deep into the mountains and to the discovery of a rich tea culture.

All you need is a bit of daring.

There are many bullet trains from Shanghai South Railway Station to Hangzhou each day. We booked tickets for a train that departed at 9:30am and arrived in Hangzhou at 10:46am on Saturday. Actually it takes more than two hours for many of my work colleagues to travel from home to the office in Shanghai every day.

If you take Metro Line 1 from People's Square, you will get to Shanghai South Railway Station in 20 minutes. Another hour and you will be in Hangzhou. Another 20 minutes by taxi will take you to Zhejiang Hotel, a state-run five-star hotel at the foot of Santai Mountain. The hotel is wedged between the famous Longjing Road that leads to the China Tea Museum and Santaishan Road, leading to Santai Mountain and Southern Peak.

Zhejiang Hotel was built in the 1970s, initially as a temporary dwelling for Marshal Lin Biao. Guests of the hotel can visit the old 1970s facilities for free.

When we arrived at the hotel around 11:30am, our room was not ready, so instead of checking in we went to nearby Maocaowu (Thatched House), a farmer's restaurant, for lunch.

Surrounded by mountains and fishing ponds, Maocaowu serves freshly picked tea and fresh wild bamboo shoots that only grow in Hangzhou. An additional bit of fun were the abundance of chattering fortune tellers, not to mention some very polite beggars.

No sooner had I given one yuan to an old beggar than another approached smiling broadly. I thought it was the same beggar and said: "Didn't I just give to you?"

He bowed: "Sorry, sir, I'm a newcomer." Politeness shone in his eyes. I smiled back. Naturally he got my money.

After lunch we relaxed a while enjoying the spring breeze before deciding to defer checking into the hotel and go mountain hiking with unloaded backpacks instead. It proved to be a rather bad decision as we had no drinking water for the next two hours.

We visited the China Tea Museum before climbing three mountains - Jiqing (lucky), Tianma (heavenly horse) and Qipan (chessboard).

In the museum, I learned for the first time in my life that black tea comes from green tea through fermentation. It made me feel quite foolish!

For anyone interested in tea sets from different Chinese dynasties, or how different teas cure different diseases, the museum is a must-go.

Having conquered three mountains - all scattered with tea gardens - we finally returned to our hotel at 5pm, checked in, had a bath, and went to the gracious dinning hall for dinner. Following dinner, we strolled east of the hotel along the Tortoise Bay, which is 10 times quieter than West Lake. The bay is about 20 minutes' walk from the lake and yet remains known to only a few tourists.

The following morning we rose at 7:30am, had breakfast in the hotel, and headed for Southern Peak. At 257.2 meters above sea level, it is not particularly high, but the steps are steep - almost 45 degrees all the way up.

What held me in awe that day was not the steepness of the steps, but the sight of a young man with a lame leg. As we were coming down we passed him making his way to the top, very slowly, but very determinedly, inch by inch.

After checking out of our hotel we headed for lunch in a gorgeous farmer's restaurant on Santaishan Road called Linghuju (House of Listening to the Lake). It is so popular that Hangzhou locals regularly frequent the place at weekends.

A cup of tea and a big bowl of boiled home-bred chicken make for a perfect afternoon. When you eat in the open, you see leaves falling from the trees into your dishes. But who cares? It's the flavor of nature.

As we booked tickets for a return train at 8:41pm - the last bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai - we had plenty of time to stroll along West Lake which was much quieter after the departure of most of the other visitors.

We had dinner at the famous Lou Wai Lou restaurant on the Bai Causeway at 5:30pm (you won't get a seat if you arrive after 6pm), then walked along the causeway to Beishan (Northern Mountain) Road where we took a taxi to the railway station and headed for home.

So ended our Hangzhou mountain adventure. But we enjoyed the trip so much that we went to walk in mountains for a whole day this past weekend - on yet another unbeaten track. This time though we took some drinking water.
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