Wednesday, January 16, 2008


It was my second time to Hangzhou, the first time being an unpleasant few hours in 2000. My friend Justin and I were making our way down the east coast of China. We had shared the planning responsibilities and while in Shanghai, Justin suggested that we spend a day in Hangzhou, famous for its West Lake. So we bought tickets and boarded a train. Unfortunately Justin had miscounted the days, something that came to light on the train; we'd have to leave Hangzhou straight away so we could board a long train ride to Guangzhou to make our exit from China on time. We got off in Hangzhou late at night and had to wait a few hours in the train station until the earliest departing train. Tired, we tried to sleep on the marginal train station benches. My stomach felt iffy, and suddenly nausea struck. I got up and quickly sought a plastic bag. Exhausted, I struggled to remember the word they use for plastic in Mainland China (one of the words that differ between the two countries). And what were the tones? I tried anyway and got my bag and ten seconds later my stomach put it to good use. After what seemed like forever we boarded a train and were whisked out of what is called one of the most beautiful cities of China.

This time it was well planned. I had descended my mountain and boarded a bus to be reunited with my Xinna and her mum in Hangzhou after their shopping blitz in Yiwu. There was a student sitting next to me on the bus who kept looking over my shoulder as I underlined words on a complimentary Chinese newspaper. The buses started and so did audiovisual programme. 'Please secure your seatbelts'. This would usually be hilarious. All buses have the advisory programme but usually the belts don't work, or are safely tucked under the seats. But alerted, I check and there was a working seatbelt. I almost fell out of my seat in surprise. All the more reason to put it on, I thought. A few moments later the student next to me also made it click - well foreigners can model appropriate behaviour perhaps. Which train station were we going to? I asked the student. The South station, he said. This was good as Xin and her mother were also arriving at the same station and at roughly the same time. The voyage went smoothly; we entered the city limits and proceeded onto the train station. I'm here, I texted. We're outside, Xin texted back. I went out the station and looked. Went over to the front and scanned the ragged masses. Xin wasn't here and more importantly, the word South did not feature in the bus station name. It was the West station. Argh. Fortunately after a taxi ride through rush hour, we were properly reunited at the hotel.

The next day Xin's cold was heavily weighing down on her. The mornings were the worst for her. I organised myself for a circumnavigation of the lake and visits to the National Tea Museum and a tea plantation for tea tasting. I only had two shirts: one with long sleeves and the other with short sleeves. The long sleeved one was sweaty and so I chose to have short sleeves. Her mother warned me that I should wear more, but I refused and left. This had special significance later.

It took me almost an hour to find the lake's edge; I had set off in the wrong direction due to faulty orientation. But once there, I was surprised to say it truly was a great sight. The path followed around close to the water's surface. There were hills surrounding it with the odd pagoda standing conspicuously on a summit. Mist was enveloping the mountains and floating along the water. I set out at a good pace, wanting to have time for everything but then I was assailed by my first local:

'Could I have a photo with you?' A young man asked in Chinese.
'Er, why?'
'I'd just like to have a photo with you.'
'But why?'
He was silenced momentarily, trying to think of a reason.
'There is no why, I'd just like a photo.'
'OK then. Why not..'
So I posed and he let me on my way.

I continued along and made an interesting discovery: the public toilets were free. This is very unusual in China where user-pays applies to lots of what we would call public amenities (like toilets, parks). This is brilliant because it actually removes disincentives from using them and reduce public urination, which is an all to common sight in China.

I walked for several hours, the scenery going from river-side traditional architecture to rural scenery, before I eventually found the Tea Museum. It was free too. I had a nice look around and had a tea-scented lunch. I walked another hour to the tea plantation where a lady upfront told me the situation (I could taste tea but I'd have to buy a canister of tea) and the price of the different qualities of tea. I was happy with this as there is nothing worse than finding out the expected obligation after enjoying a service. She identified herself in English as a peasant. I told her that she wasn't a peasant but a tea grower - peasant or farmer in Chinese, though being accurate to describe her role, carries a negative connotation. We spoke a lot about the tea and I learnt a fair bit. There was a mountain track behind the house but unfortunately time was against me.

I set off again and this started a sequence of encounters. I walked along the side of the road when a motorcyclist pulled up beside me:
'Would you like a ride?' He asked in Chinese.
'No, I like walking.'
'Where are you going?'
'Just around the bottom of the lake and then up the east side.'
'Your body is excellent.' This is a literal translation of a phrase that means your health is good, but I like the humour of the direct translation :-)
It was because of the short sleeved shirt. Only a crazy person or someone very confident in their body's physical condition would wear a short-sleeved shirt in anything less than sweltering conditions. He went on his way.

I went around the bottom of the lake. A street cleaner came from the opposite direction with a big wheelbarrow and a huge smile on his face. He said one thing:
'Your body is excellent.'
'Thank you.' I said unsure if that was appropriate.
He went on.

Light rain swept in and I made my way to a kiosk and started chatting with a man who was similiarly sheltering. He asked the usual questions and the expected comment that NZ is beautiful. We chatted for a while. He wasn't from Hangzhou, but from another province altogether, Jiangxi. I'd never met someone from there.
'Your body is excellent.'
'It is.'
The rain eased and I went further.

Rain swept in again and another kiosk presented itself. I ran beneath the eaves and a man who does photographs of people ran by asking me if I'd like a photo. I told him that I was fine without a photo, thank you. He chatted away how there was an American that always used to come to the park to chat with him very fluently but hadn't come for quite some time. The man wasn't a local either, coming from a city called Jiaxing.

After that I walked back to the more commercial edge of the lake, marked with a Starbucks, and then back to the hotel where a recuperated Xin was. There are some good merits to walking solo. I've never had so many random meetings with strangers.

That night we went with Xin's cousin Dongdong for dinner and snacks. I had a chance to have a debate about the shortcomings of the two education systems with Dongdong. It was a good practice of my chinese, but overall I didn't think I expressed myself clearly enough.

After going back to the hotel, our trip here was more or less over. The following day was striving to get to a bus station and head onto our next destination, Huzhou, the city where Xin's father's family live for the most part.

I now consider Hangzhou to be the most pleasant city I'd ever been in. The people were the most pleasant, openly approaching you without commercial intent, and more often than not, in Chinese. In Shanghai most people who approach you say 'War-chee! War-chee' to sell you things illegally. I would go back to Hangzhou again.

No comments: