HANGZHOU is probably the closest thing China has to a tourist's paradise. For centuries, the Chinese themselves have considered this city of about 1 million, reachable by train in some three hours from Shanghai, a major resort. In recent years that internal popularity has begun to be echoed in the hordes of international visitors attracted here. When they get here, they find that the fabled Xi Hu (West Lake) is ringed with more historic points of interest than anyone can possibly see in a four- or five-day stay. Among my favorites are the staggeringly tall Six Harmonies Pagoda, wall carvings at the Peak That Fell From Afar, and the tomb of Emperor Yue Fei.
The city, lake, and sites have become so popular that a sensible system of buses, tours, signs, guidebooks, and maps (with points of interest clearly numbered and marked) has been put in place. I use the word ``sensible,'' because this aspect separates Hangzhou from other Chinese tourist destinations. The Ming Tombs near Peking come to mind, where bureaucratic lethargy struck us as so pronounced it seemed no one cared if anyone came to visit.
We arrived on the midnight train in sweltering July heat and humidity, at the end of an exhausting 31-day tour of the Orient. We were pleasantly surprised to find wide, tree- and lamp-lined boulevards and the relaxed, exotic feeling induced by a sprawling lake with islands. No longer entranced with the mere otherworldly feel of simply being in China, we were still strongly taken by Hangzhou.
We were not on an organized tour, so we hired a guide from the China Travel Service, found through the Hangzhou Tourism and Travel Corporation. For three days with temperatures near 100 degrees F., he and a driver transported us in air-conditioned comfort to our choice of sites, expounding with such detail the histories of ancient emperors and poets that it became a standing joke. Those going to Hangzhou in summer should remember that the city rests on the same latitude as Mexico's Baja Peninsula, well below Japan's subtropical resort city of Kagoshima.
First stop was Six Harmonies Pagoda, at the top of Yuelu Hill, on the North Bank of the Qiantang River. An octagonal brick-and-wood structure 196 feet high, the pagoda has been renovated a number of times since it was built in AD 970. Erected with the belief that its cosmic force would deflect the huge waves of a powerful tidal bore brought on by the full moon, it has served as a lighthouse for river traffic. The name Six Harmonies comes from the six codes of Buddhism: to observe the harmony of body, speech, and thoughts and to abstain from temptation, from uttering opinions, and from accumulating wealth. Even though it's now leaning dangerously, according to our guide, I found it to be among the most amazing architectural marvels I saw in China.
Second stop was Lingyin Temple, founded by the monk Wei Li in AD 326 and now the best-known monastery in Hangzhou. Two great halls - the Great Buddha Hall and the Hall of the Four Major Protectors - face a 719-foot hill known as the Peak That Fell From Afar. Though the temples are interesting - one contains the 200-year-old Maitreya Buddha - it is the 330 stone carvings from the Five Dynasties Period and the Sung Dynasty that captured my fancy. Guidebooks say they are the most famous ancient stone carvings south of the Yangtze. I came to regard them as my second-favorite find of everything in China, second only to the Great Wall.
It should be said here that there are approximately 40 sites one can visit in Hangzhou, from mountains, pavilions, and temples, to ``Friendship'' and antique stores, fan and silk factories.
It might be best to sit down with a guide, either in Hangzhou or before disembarking, to settle on what suits one best. Our own lack of knowledge resulted in one wasted hike up a mountainside (to Running Tiger Cave), only to find what amounted to a concession stand where Chinese photographers were posing clients on a full-sized, porcelain tiger placed at the mouth of a cave.
We saw our antique and Friendship stores, took a boat ride on the serene lake, and hiked two series of bridge- and pavilion-lined parks. One is on an island filled with lotus leaf-covered ponds in the middle of the lake. Two more - Sun Yat-Sen Park and Autumn Moon on Calm Lake - are at the lake's north shore.
Ten years ago, only 5,000 Westerners a year visited Hangzhou. By 1981, they averaged about 2,000 a day. And in recent years the figures have climbed still higher. Yet the local population still looks on foreigners as interesting. As we left an evening's show of singing, dancing, and performing at the city's downtown civic hall, we were surrounded by dozens of gawking Chinese.
It is also interesting to note that after that performance, which we reached by bus from our hotel, thousands of Chinese disgorged from the theater to their waiting bicycles and caused a kind of traffic jam unknown in the West.
The last thing our guide insisted we see was the Xi Ling Engraving and Seal Society. The society was founded in 1901 by Xi Ling to preserve and develop traditional Chinese calligraphy. A wonderful statue of the old master graces the hillside park overlooking West Lake.
The train trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou - a wonderful journey through lush countryside on a 60-year-old German-made train - is short enough to make a one-day round trip imaginable. But I wouldn't recommend it unless scurrying is your idea of what travel should be. We noticed groups being shuffled in this manner, even though serenity struck us as what Hangzhou is all about. Better to sit back, enjoy the scalding hot tea served beneath rotating ceiling fans, and contemplate your guide's admonition: ``Above, there is heaven; below, there is Hangzhou.''
For information about travel to China, contact the China National Tourist Office, 60 E. 42nd St., Suite 465, New York, NY 10165, telephone (212) 867-0271. Or call your local travel agent.