West Lake is Hangzhou's defining urban element, both physically and culturally. A major city in southeast China, Hangzhou extends between the eastern edge of the lake and the Qiantang River. Otherwise, the West Lake is surrounded by hills to the north, west and south. The lake originated as a shallow bay on the left back of the river, whose mouth was progressively blocked by alluvial sediments.
At least that is the geological explanation. But there are beautiful stories about about the mythical origins of West Lake. In the legend, the lake starts as shinning pebble in the sky. The Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix meet on a fairy island where the phoenix finds the pebble. They carve it, one with his claw, the other with her beak, grounding and polishing it until the pebble turns into a magic pearl. As they grow attached to each other and to the pearl, the dragon and the phoenix decide to live on the island forever. One day, the Queen Mother of the West sees the glow of the pearl and orders one of her guards to steal it. The dragon and the phoenix chase after the queen, and in the struggle, the pearl falls off to the earth. As it touches the ground, it turns into the clear water of the lake to the west of Hangzhou. Unable to separate from the pearl, the Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix come down to the earth and turn themselves into hills, standing guard to their dazzling pearl.
(By the way, have you ever looked at the one-yuan bill? Yes, the front has Mao's ever-present portrait, but the back shows a delightful view of Hangzhou's West Lake.)