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The quiet wilderness:Xixi wetland park

  Hangzhou is in the news after its West Lake scenic region was listed under UNESCO's Cultural  heritagesites. But there is a less-known but no less picturesque attraction in Hangzhou, as Alexis Hooi finds out.

  Hangzhou's West Lake draws more than 30 million people a year, making it one of the country's top attractions. The numbers are even more amazing when you consider why so many visitors go there - West Lake is best enjoyed by sipping a cup of the area's famed longjing tea as you try to soak in the tranquility that has inspired so many Chinese poets and artists through the ages.

  Perhaps that is why many visitors are heading out instead to a less well-known gem in the city - the Xixi wetland park.Xixi, located less than five kilometers from West Lake in the west of Hangzhou, is China's first national wetland park. The area covers about 10 square kilometers and it has been around for more than 1,500 years, although it was only recently revived to offer residents and visitors a green respite from the concrete of the city.

  "Many people are now heading straight out to Xixi and it's becoming one of our hottest attractions," says Lai Hong, director of the city's information office. Despite its increasing popularity, the wetland's winding waterways, lush greenery and rich biodiversity guarantee serene spots amid nature. Wetlands themselves are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems, acting as natural green lungs, water purification systems and flood control. But environmental degradation is threatening them worldwide.

  More than 20,000 hectares of wetland in the country have disappeared every year on average in the past decade, the China Institute for Marine Affairs warns.

  More than half of the country's inter-tidal wetland has also vanished, while the wetlands of the Yellow and East China seas have lost up to 90 percent of their natural function, the institute reports.

  That makes the 226 plant species, 50 kinds of fish and aquatic animals as well as 126 kinds of birds in Xixi even more valuable.

  Xixi's native vegetation consists of subtropical mountainous swamp and evergreen and deciduous, broad-leafed forest, watered by six crisscrossing rivers that also flow into the ponds, lakes and swamps.

  Silver pheasant, wild egret, common kingfishers and mallard ducks have been sighted, while carp, ray-finned fish, prawns, eel and crab are some of the resident aquatic fauna found in the wetland. Xixi also offers villages, villas and temples that give a taste of the culturally rich south.

  Near Deep Pool Mouth off the park's Jiang village, which is intersected by river ports and canal networks, dragon boat races are kept alive every summer as part of a custom to ward off flash floods from the west by appeasing the dragon king. The practice was even continued during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), when villagers stealthily carried the boats to race in the waters.

  For the rest of the year, the vessels are housed in a museum in the park's restored Hezhu Street, where tourists can also find traditional shops selling longjing tea, tofu snacks and souvenirs, or enjoy a Shaoxing opera performance.

  The wetland's waters are said to be particularly suitable for growing Hangzhou's longjing tea. Prominent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Sun Qingchuan was a native of Xixi and wrote in his Nanzhangzi tract that Xixi offered little farmland, but it could be used to grow tea that could then be exchanged for grain.

  Just like Hangzhou itself, Xixi's allure involves the enjoying of its longjing and other simple pleasures. Venture off the street for a boat ride along the waterways to snake through the reeds swaying in the wind and brush the bottom of quaint arched bridges. Drift idyllically past the white-walled, gray-roofed houses of Autumn Snow Temple or Misty Water Fishing Village, where farmers cultivated the Xixi silkworm as part of a vital economy in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

  Visitors today can further experience a slice of the Chinese aesthetic at the Bo An Thatched Cottage, where Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholar Zhou Xiaochi renounced the trappings of officialdom and retreated to the simpler things in life with his two brothers. Records tell of how the siblings farmed, and read literary classics in the cottage, which was surrounded by dense reed and accessible only through a small wooden pier.

  For more down-to-earth matters in modern times, tourists can round off a hot summer's day with an ice-cold beer outside one of the watering holes in the park's bar street, conveniently located near its exit where impact on the flora and fauna is limited.

  "Xixi is a great place to spend a weekend with nature," says James Cheng, an IT consultant based in Hangzhou. The 40-year-old expatriate from the United States rides his bicycle from his downtown apartment to the park at least twice a month.

  "The city is really lucky to have this wetland as a green lung, where residents can let off some steam built up during the week." Address: Less than 5 kilometers from West Lake. You can take Bus 13 from Hangzhou and get off at Xixi Wetland.