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Lotus Blossoms & silicon chips

Hangzhou was thrust onto the world stage in September as world leaders and legions of press gathered for the 11th G20 summit like the conquering hordes out of Mongolia. Hangzhou, however, was not completely unknown before the summit and if by chance you don’t know it, you should.

An important center for economic development and education since the sixth century, the city traces its roots back seven millennia. It achieved renown when Marco Polo called it “the finest and most splendid city in the world.” But even Polo was a relative newcomer to the influence of this ancient metropolis.

As a testament to its importance, its 2,000-year-old, 1,200-mile Grand Canal – longer than either Panama or Suez canals – was specifically designed to drive commerce between Beijing and Hangzhou, connecting the five rivers along the way to the two vital economic capitals.

The canal also serves as a central spot from which to take in the splendors of the city. It rests on the banks of the Qiantang River at the head of Hangzhou Bay, which is bookended to the northeast by towering Shanghai where the bay flows into the East China Sea.

China’s Silicon Valley

Today, Hangzhou is better known as Silicon Valley in Paradise for one simple reason: It is the epicenter of China’s tech industry. It hosts the headquarters of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that Wired called “every tech company rolled into one.” It includes four of the top global Internet companies, including Baidu, Google’s counterpart in the Middle Kingdom.

Some 12,000 firms in Hangzhou have foreign investors. Included among its corporate denizens are such global companies such as GE, Volvo, Morgan Stanley and Cisco. Forbes has ranked it among the top business cities in Mainland China and the World Bank has ranked it number one for its business investment climate. Its 21st century tech incarnation is just the latest link to its two ancient industries – silk and tea – that remain a quintessential part of its economy and make a little tourist diversion a must.

Making the US Connection

With its tech ties and nine million population, it was little wonder that Hangzhou has attracted the only US nonstop air service when United inaugurated thrice weekly Boeing 787 flights from San Francisco on July 13. United’s service directly links this tech epicenter with its US counterpart Silicon Valley for the first time. The service is part of United’s strategy to go deeper into China serving secondary cities, which in addition to Hangzhou, also includes seasonal service to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors, and year-round service to Chengdu.

United is, in fact, mirroring moves by Chinese airlines, which connect secondary Chinese cities to the top business and leisure destinations around the world. But United’s strategy is about more than mirroring its Chinese counterparts. It is about tapping the incredible population of these teeming cities. In fact, according to the Global Business Travel Association, the Chinese business travel market has surpassed the United States as the largest in the world.

One thing makes United’s strategy clear. The top 10 cities in the US range from San Jose at about half a million population to New York at eight million. China has 15 cities with populations over five million and United serves six of them – Xi’an, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Chengdu. The immense numbers in these giant metropolitan areas give new meaning to what cities can sustain in terms of air service. Hangzhou is also part of a relaxed visa program in which visitors spending no more than six days (144 hours) can visit Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces without a visa.

For United, the whole idea is to shave travel time – in this case, four precious hours to Hangzhou. On top of that, its Business/First product provides a hint of things to come when with its upgraded Polaris product debuts on the long-haul Boeing 777 beginning in December.

Welcome to Lotus City

Perhaps the best advice for doing business in Hangzhou – or China in general for that matter – is pack your patience along with your suits. Most veterans of business dealings in the Middle Kingdom will tell you that finding and thoroughly vetting a Chinese partner is critical to success.

The key is building face-to-face relationships, a vital part of Chinese culture that cannot be rushed. While Western business travelers may want to cut to the chase and get the deal, Chinese take their time. In fact, it often takes multiple trips to get a deal and it helps to view all this as part of savoring the Chinese culture.

The good news is, if the savoring has to be done anywhere, Hangzhou hits the spot. That’s because there’s far more to see in this ancient trading center than hotel and board rooms. After the first visit, you’ll understand why Hangzhou has charmed five dynasties of emperors, painters, poets, 1.3 million annual visitors and, now, me.

Hangzhou may be a magnet for tech but it is also a resort city peppered with luxury hotels surrounding the Xixi National Wetland Park and West Lake where the Chinese version of gondoliers ply the shallow waters. A UNESCO World Heritage site, 12,000-acre West Lake is sprinkled with temples, pagodas and gardens. Its small islands, topped by tiny houses and temple-like structures, peek through their willow veils and seem to float on the surface. Ringed by green mountains, West Lake has two famous pagodas, Leifeng and Baochu, which are destinations in themselves. The meandering walkways and causeways provide charming vistas of the lake and boats drifting lazily by the islands.

Hangzhou is the Lotus City, with vast floats of huge green leaves dotted with delicate pink and white blossoms surrounding the West Lake shoreline, in the gardens throughout the city and the Xixi National Wetlands Park. Ringed by luxury hotels such as the Banyan Tree Hangzhou, where I stayed, Xixi National Park is a rare urban environment, the first and only such park in the country.

Banyan Tree’s 72 suites and villas are nestled amongst the wetland’s canal system where romantic lights reflect on the water below graceful bridges. Being in a tropical delta, Hangzhou is naturally warm and humid. Xixi is no exception, although our guide tempted me to come back for a special winter treat when a delicate, pink cherry-like blossom blooms only to be exquisitely scalloped in falling snow.

The Banyan Tree portfolio includes the Angsana, which also has a property at Xixi, and Dhawa and Cassia brands. While many want the familiarity of Western hotel brands, staying at a Chinese resort allows you to be imbedded in the culture. The luxury offered by Banyan Tree includes huge suites and villas with spacious bathrooms, bedrooms and numerous sitting areas for relaxing, watching television or working.

Of course, this was a working trip for me. As I hunched over my computer before dawn and late into the evening, the delicate music provided by a sound system nestled on a nearby credenza definitely lifted my mood and reminded me to appreciate my surroundings.

One of the area’s unique experiences ties you to the ancient traditions surrounding tea, making a trip to the nearby Meijiawu Village a must. A center for the production of Longjing or Dragon Well green tea, Meijiawu Village in the Xihu District near West Lake, is one of only a few sources of the best of green tea in the world, which is the budding tea leaf, harvested in spring and quite pricey at nearly $900 per kilo.

Nestled among hills striped with row upon row of tea plants, the village is where you will not only learn about the Vitamin C, amino acids and powerful antioxidants that make green tea a popular health drink, but heartily indulge in a sumptuous multi-course lunch served by a local tea farmer at his own house.

These are very well-to-do plantation owners, harvesting the fragile leaf buds and roasting them to perfection. One of the fun parts of the visit is the performance by tea sellers who make any late-night infomercial host look like a piker as they charm you with the intricacies of green tea.

While Hangzhou may be a vibrant business destination, it also provides plenty of unique and relaxing diversions to turn your business trip into a sparkling bleisure destination.  

By Kathryn B. Creedy