Warning: This is a long and awesome post with a lot of greenery and food images!
Over the recent Chinese holiday weekend, a group of three coworkers, J. and I went on a trip to Hangzhou. This beautiful city is on the Yangtze River Delta 180 kilometres (112 mi) southwest of Shanghai. The region has a healthy population of 6 million, though the city itself is only around 3 million. Unlike the urban eyesore that’s Shanghai, this town has a lot of natural beauty. West Lake is obviously the centerpiece, but various canals, a river, and green hills round out an enchanting landscape. The architecture of the urban core is just as garish and mismatched as anywhere in China, but the streets and landscaping are immaculate.
Day 1, Friday
Our trip began early Friday morning. J. and I woke at 5:30AM, ate some breakfast and headed downstairs at 6:15 to meet M. who’s staying in the same building. At that early hour on a public holiday, there was virtually no traffic on the street. It was easy to catch a cab to the southern train station. The cab’s suspension was shot and it took bumps like a obese man on a pogo stick.
We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare. The station felt like a cross between an airport and a stadium. It’s circular shape funneled people into the a variety of waiting areas. Only a few of the numerous doors where open, so people choked at the only available baggage screening checkpoints.
The interior of the southern train station.
The rolling, artificial hills outside the station.
Our train was fast and immaculate. While the boys sat together. J. and I shared a table with a local couple. I attempted to go to the lavatory, but the lines were too long. When I returned to my chair, a little Chinese girl was sitting in it. She got up and I made room for her to sit next to me. The couple on the seat across had a kid on their seat too. The children’s parents stood in the isle and laughed at our seat sharing.
M. offered the younger child a white chocolate Pocky stick. Instead of taking just one, the girl took the whole box. She munched on them in a lazy, contented way. At least she said thank you.
In under two hours, our train arrived in Hangzhou. We split into two cabs and careened to our hotel. While all cabs in Shanghai and Beijing are boxy and maintained old VWs, the Hangzhou models are more curvaceous and dented.
Hangzhou Tower was built into a high scale fashion mall. The elevators leading to the stylish lobby were between an discount store for Escada and the cosmetics counters. Our room smelled of cigarettes, but was clean with free instant coffee, lights, and good water pressure. There were a variety of non complimentary convenience items such as three pairs of underwear (2 female, one male), condoms, green tea, mystery pouches, and drinks.
BBC news makes CNN look like a joke.
After lunch, we deliberated over coffee for a bit before deciding to walk to West Lake and find lunch along the way. We got a little turned around near the hotel as the streets weren’t clearly marked and the hotel card map was vague. But after finding some dried fruits and asking a local, we were strutting southwest towards water.
Moments outside the hotel, we realized that people were staring at us. Almost everyone we passed either made prolonged eye contact, giggled or pointed while saying the Mandarin word for “foreigner”. Granted, of the thousands of tourists in town, there were very few foreigners. But had they never seen one before? It made for a surreal and self conscious first day.
Traffic light and pink flowers.
An experimental school with an unusually long name.
Lunch consisted of weird grade meats and veggies from a restaurant on a side street. I ordered a beef and veggies on rice dish that tasted of stew. I felt sorry for the chicken orderers, as their dishes had a random assortment of boney chicken chunks.
West Lake was crowded and beautiful. We walked around, took a boat to an island, walked around some more, took another boat. As the afternoon sun set, we ascended Leifeng Pagoda for a crowded view over the lake and the distant city. The evening breeze rustled the trees lining the 3km long Yang Causeway.
The weather was perfect.
Man walking across a garbage trap, Baochu Pagoda.
Bridge on the causeway.
Lake, boat, and hilltop pagoda.
The crowds on the bridge.
The guys on a boat.
Devil baby and man.
Microphone with decorative lace cover.
Crowds along the tree lined causeway across the lake.
Bridge dragon and willows.
Red leaves, formaldehyde free beer.
Black sticky rice in steamed wicker baskets.
The original stone pagoda preserved in the base of Leifeng Pagoda. People would throw cash at it for good luck.
A bad example of the insanely intricate wood relief sculptures inside the upper floors of the pagoda.
Popular 1RMB ($.14) green pea sweet popsicles.
The woods near Leifeng Pagoda.
J. and I in front of West Lake.
A three wheel motorbike caught fire and had to pull off the road.
For dinner, we ate on the rooftop of a 150 year old and still popular restaurant called Lou Wai Lou. The place was packed, so while waiting for a table we watched hundreds of bats take to the sky. Luckily, we were able to get a rooftop table overlooking the lake. We tried their most popular dishes: Sweet and Sour Fish and Beggar’s Chicken. The former is a whole baked river fish in a dark vinegary sauce. The latter is a succulent whole chicken wrapped in fresh lotus leaves and baked on fire. We rounded out the meal with river shrimp and some vegetable dishes.
Beggar’s Chicken: gross looking, great tasting.
Sweet and sour river fish.
After dinner, we walked back to the hotel. For J. and I, it was time to retire for the night.
Baochu Pagoda and luminous woods at night.
Day 2, Saturday
Grey skies greeted everyone in the morning.
After deliberation, we decided to get some lunch at an awesome restaurant in the mall with the unfortunate name “Grandma’s Kitchen.” With 5 people at the table lots of different dishes were ordered. We tried some local specialities and washed it all down with some cotton candy tasting tea and cans of coconut milk. The food was cheap and top notch.
Dongpo pork: mostly fat.
Sticky rice, green beans.
After lunch, the group took two cabs up to a temple in the hills. But once we got there, J. and I decided we wanted a head start on exploring the Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea Fields. The cab driver was a little confused by our request. Apparently the tea fields cover a lot of ground and go from the base of the hill to the top. It was only after we had gotten into the cab that we realized that he was wondering where on the hill we wanted to be dropped off. We chose the base of the hill.
Harvester and harvested tea bushes.
Tea, tea everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Green tea close up.
As J. and I started walking amongst the green tea fields, it started to drizzle. We wandered up a stone path alongside a creek lined with irises and tea fields. Butterflies and birds fluttered and sung. We stopped at a pavilion to rest and a multiple generation local family stopped to rest too. The grandfather skillfully played harmonica as his 83 year old wife and middle age daughter ballroom danced. The rest of the family watched and smiled. Their dog yapped. Some unidentifiable animal made noises in the bushes near the creek.
Parts of the path had numerous, enormous millipedes.
After fifteen minutes on the path, we reached some stone buildings on the hillside. It was hard to tell how old the buildings really were, but at least they felt authentically restored. The drizzle was pretty steady by then, so we hung out in a pavilion over a pond. A few goldfish nipped at the surface. A rat and a bird lingered on the bank. Groups of people were drinking glasses of green tea while playing cards. Kids were playing an endless and repetitive game of rock, paper, scissors.
Tea fields and old buildings.
Red orchids hanging from a tree?
Creek, flowers, stone bridge, awesome!
We met the rest of the gang back on the road. It was time for dinner, so we trudged up the hillside trails in search of food. Two of the guys had bought umbrellas for less than a dollar each. One was already falling apart. We were soggy by the time we found a decent looking restaurant. The food was okay. We had our first, and only, glass of local green tea.
Local green tea.
Mashed cucumbers, sugar, vinegar, garlic, and chilies.
For the ride home, we bribed the cab driver 10RMB to take all five of us. Technically, they shouldn’t carry more than four people. The backseat was packed with four studs and a broad. One stud rode shotgun.
When we got back, I was more pooped than a triceratops with diarrhea.
West Lake at night.
Lefeing Pagoda at night.
Day 3, Sunday
The weather was better on Sunday. We got some dumplings for brunch then headed via bribed 5-up cab to the center of town to rent bikes. Hangzhou has cheap red bikes everywhere for anyone to use. They look a little dorky, but get the job done. The only problem is that you need a magnetic card to unlock and return them to their stands. This card only comes from a few places in town. The main card stand was on an busy intersection clogged with both foot traffic and construction. It made for a lot of dodging and weaving in the first few minutes of biking.
Bike for rent.
On bike, we headed along the north side of West Lake, taking a long detour through the surprisingly wild Hangzhou Botanical Gardens. We watched people fishing for crayfish in ponds, took a walk in the woods, got all sorts of eye attacking flies in our face (one got under my eyelid), biked up and down hills, through a surreal wedding ceremony in a clearing. The other guys had fun trying to ram bikes into each other or run everyone off the road.
A. and J. pose with green tea.
Tribute to golf?
The marriage arch.
The marriage car.
The marriage helicopter.
Boy fishing for crayfish.
Old man fishing for crayfish.
Tunneling into the woods.
Eventually, we stumbled on a small restaurant by the lake. Our table was literally on the lake, set upon a small wooden pier. Shade trees dropped cottony pods to the wind. The water lapped at the shore. It was peaceful and beautiful. We spent two hours eating at the little lakeside paradise.
Another view. Peaceful.
On the way back, we remarked at how vast and varied the park was. The amount of effort in maintaining it must be near impossible, but the effect is sublime. Everywhere you go, there’s something new to see. Little landscaping details are everywhere, themes emerge. The balance of plants, water, and bridges is near perfect.
We got the bikes back, picked up our bags from the hotel, and made it to the train station with plenty of time to spare. It had been a wonderful trip. Total cost: 977rmb/person (about $150 USD) + taxi fares and snacks. Not too shabby.
Inside the train back to Shanghai.
Walking up to the serviced apartment in Shanghai, I was shocked that it felt like I was home. Not that I was looking forward to it necessarily, but that weird apartment tower felt familiar and safe.
That evening in the bathroom, I noticed that the fly under my eye had finally slipped out onto my cheek via a tear. It was encased in eye gunk and quite dead. I had had a fly in my eye for half a day.
It was time for sleep.
Monday morning would come soon. Monday morning would bring diarrhea!