The 3 Pagodas of Hangzhou: You Best Best for Stunning Vistas Through the Smog

China is polluted. Everyone knows this, but of course levels of pollution vary from region to region. Last month, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released an updated list of its ten most polluted cities in the country, seven of which are located in the same province. Hebei is located in the north, though, and my family hails from Zhejiang in the south–specifically, the capital city of Hangzhou.

While passing through during the late 13th century, Marco Polo famously proclaimed Hangzhou “the finest, most splendid city in the world.” (My grandpa loves reminding me of this; it’s pretty adorable.) You can’t escape the smog, even if it’s markedly better from what you’d experience up north, but I almost don’t mind. It’s romantic. I get the urge to climb until I see something, anything. I think the three major pagodas of Hangzhou–Baochu Pagoda, Leifeng Pagoda, and Liuhe Pagoda (often called the Six Harmonies Pagoda)–are perfect opportunities for that. Plus in a city with nearly 1500 years of history, you have to admire these three pagodas for surviving restorations, Japanese pirates, and even superstitious locals who used steal bricks to grind into ancient powder-based remedies.

Baochu Pagoda

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The only pagoda out of the three that doesn’t allow visitors inside. It’s probably obvious why–Baochu Pagoda is tiny, more decorative than functional. Apparently there’s a proverb concerning Hangzhou’s three major pagodas: Baochu Pagoda is a slender beauty, Leifeng Pagoda is an honorable monk, and Liuhe Pagoda is a general. Hmm.

The pagoda is at the top of Baoshi Hill, which ended up being quite a trek for us . . .

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But the view was worth it. Can you believe that growing up, my dad used to race my grandpa to the top of the hill every morning? If that isn’t ridiculously charming, I don’t know what is. Baoshi Hill looks out to the south of the West Lake, where you can catch the Broken Bridge and, if you squint, Leifeng Pagoda. (Want to expand your repertoire of convoluted Chinese folklore? Read the Legend of the White Snake.)

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At the top of the hill, we discovered a collection of rocks inscribed with calligraphy. I wish I could read Chinese all the time, never more so than when I stumble across crazy-old rocks stamped with scholarly wisdom. Even though there were signs discouraging monkeying around, I got the sense that some locals couldn’t care less.

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Leifeng Pagoda

The most crowded out of the three pagodas. Thousands of tourists come here every year because if there’s one thing Chinese people appreciate more than a good folktale, it’s a good folktale with a love story wrapped inside. The Legend of the White Snake has inspired countless operas, movies, and TV series. Hence the crowds.

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But you know what? My thighs were glad that crowd control apparently involved being herded on to escalators. The view was breathtaking. You can, on the southern side of the building, espy the sturdy-looking “general” of Liuhe Pagoda in the distance.

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Liuhe Pagoda

In a way, a pagoda that shows its age and, unlike Baochu Pagoda, is nothing if not functional. The six harmonies its name refers to is derived from a Buddhist sutra. Before being inaugurated as a pagoda, it served as a lighthouse of sorts for sailors along the Qiantang River.

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