Hangzhou - The Adventure that Was Going to Be

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A weekend in Hangzhou with the other USC Global Fellows.

The Adventure that Was Going to Be
For the most part, I travel alone. This weekend, for a change, I accepted an invite to join Brian, Emma, and Mike in Hangzhou. Never missing an opportunity to Jew it up at the local Chabad for Friday Shabbat, Brian and I let Emma and Mike leave Friday night, suggesting that we would join them Saturday morning.

A late arrival at the train station Saturday morning brought our first obstacle: there were no seats left on the 9:30am train. Luckily, China has no safety standards necessitating that all passengers actually have seats, so we bought tickets anyways and curled up with a small contingent of Chinese travelers outside the train bathroom.

We arrived in Hangzhou by 10:30am and bowed to the all-powerful Maglev train as we left (all guidebooks cited the Shanghai-Hangzhou route as a ‘2.5 hour’ journey). As strapping young men frequently are, Brian and I were hungry after doing nothing but sitting in cabs and train floors all morning. We set off in search of food, the Lonely Planet Shanghai City Guide’s ‘Hangzhou Excursion’ map leading the way.

Our path led us along Hangzhou’s ‘Old Street’ which, as it seems all streets become after they reach a certain age, is now lined with thousands of tourist shops peddling mass-produced candies, traditional Chinese instruments, tea, and millions of other trinkets that can be found at every other ‘Old Street’ in China. We thoroughly enjoyed our foray into consumerist China, ducked into a back alley to admire colorful, creative, and entirely unappetizing dishes we hadn’t yet seen in China, and finally ended up in the Hangzhou branch of an old line of vegetarian restaurants found in a few major cities across China known as Gongdelin, or “Godly”. Brian and I were almost brought to tears over the tiny bursts of joy known as pumpkin cubes but were brought back to reality by the pools of grease that tried to pass as our other dishes (a theme any foreigner must learn to be comfortable with in a country trying to solve a calorie shortage in any way possible).

Just as dinner ended, we got a call from Emma and Mike. The local hostel was full. We frowned and headed for the only other hostel on the Lonely Planet map, suspecting that our weekend in Hangzhou might now be a day trip.
“You meiyou fangjian?”
Thank God! They had rooms.
“You have passport?”

The Adventure That Would Have Been
Unfortunately, renting a room in China requires an original passport - something I had not known and Brian had assumed could be solved with a mere copy of his passport. We tried doe eyes to elicit some foreigner sympathy. No go. Next we tried bribing the hotel across the street with an upwardly-adjusted ‘special rate’. Another no go. We resigned ourselves to the idea that we were now on a day trip and headed back to the hostel to rent bikes, delighted to find out that they were free with a security deposit (or ‘mianfei’). Earlier that day, I had yelled at a man for offering me a bike rental for a 300RMB ‘mianfei’, assuming it meant ‘hefty fee for wealthy white foreigner’. My apologies if he reads this.

As we emptied the necessities from our backpacks so that we could store them at the hostel during our ride, I found a surprise at the bottom of my pack - my passport.

The Adventure That Should Have Been
We immediately booked a room at the hotel near the hostel. The women at the counter thought it a bit strange that I needed a room with two beds for myself but couldn’t complain when I handed her 200 RMB. Planning to sneak Brian in that night, we set off to explore Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. Our stroll through the beautiful parks surrounding the lake were quickly interrupted by dozens of boatmen offering to take us for a ride. Unable to resist, Brian and I set off on a romantic journey across the lake, relaxing to the smooth hits of Eric Clapton and pondering over which school district was best for the kids. Our helpful guide pointed out the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon image, famous for its depiction on the back of the 1 RMB note. Feeling a bit emasculated after our honeymoon float, Brian and I headed for the ‘ancient’ Leifeng Temple. To recharge our testosterone levels, we ‘Rocky’ed our way all the way up the pagoda’s stairs. We admired the expansive views of the city, lake, and surrounding national park… then frowned at the sign on the way down, informing us that the real Lei Feng temple has actually collapsed in 1928 and what we had paid 40RMB to climb was a 2002 reconstruction. Foiled again…

All that honeymooning, walking, and climbing had our stomachs rumbling again so we headed back to the city proper for dinner. After an epic game of chess at the hostel while waiting for Emma and Mike to finish napping (in which Brian made a Spartan stand against a relentless onslaught and soundly defeated me), we set off for some Indian food along with a British-borne-but-raised-French-Singapore-national-teaching-English-in-Beijing (yes, one of those people ) we met at the hostel. Indian food turned out to be sinfully satisfying after two weeks of Chinese fare and we praised China’s southern brother for his culinary innovations.

After dinner, I learned to appreciate how much Chinese people smoke, as we headed to a local bar to play a dice bluffing game (supposedly popularized by ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’), watch an Olympic preliminary soccer match, and pose for photos with ecstatic Chinese tourists (Note to American and European travelers: Hangzhou is the Disneyland of China and many Chinese with newly established discretionary incomes make it their first travel destination ever, so expect to be seen as a novelty by people who may never have encountered a foreigner before).

The Adventure that Could Have Been
I had planned an epic bike ride through the mountains that morning but was stymied by two things: a lack of windows and a formidable cold.

Chinese hotels are apparently not obligated to have windows and after several attempts to ‘fall back asleep because it must still be midnight’, I suspected foul play and rose to find that it was 10:30am. Not only was the morning gone but the bar smoke the night before had paralyzed my thinking, breathing, and biking abilities. Brian, Emma, and I resentfully set off for breakfast and after turning down three unsatisfactory restaurants (noodles are not food), we settled in at a local joint serving Hangzhou cuisine.

Never in my life have I experienced such a delicious and varied feast for less than the price of large soda at the movie theater. Sliced pumpkin, fermented greens and tofu, garlic bean curd, fried green beans, something made of corn and faintly resembling a funnel cake, and at least 4 other dishes I cannot recall. We feasted like kings and all for less than $2.50 a person. Hangzhou food is like Shanghainese food if you add pumpkin and serve food on plates instead of in buckets of grease. I highly recommend it.

The others decided to battle their sickness by shacking up in a tea house and resting for the day but I decided to battle my cold the only way I knew how - masochistic brute force. I hopped on a bike and set off for the mountains.

Passing by at least three separate groups shooting wedding photos, I was quickly convinced of why Hangzhou’s West Lake is considered one of the most beautiful locations in all of China. The problem with most beautiful spots in China is that you can’t see them over the crowds of people standing in front of you (unless you’re foreign and therefore taller than everyone of course) but the meticulous gardens surrounding the lake are so expansive that, even in China, you can find a peaceful spot to sit alone and admire the lake’s beauty. After sitting in a pavilion and reading a bit of Ayn Rand’s ‘Fountainhead’ lake side, I welcomed the interruption of a local Chinese family to practice my Chinese by answering their eager questions and, of course, pose for a picture with their shy daughter.

I continued onward to discover the rumored rolling tea fields delineated to me be our Singaporean mutt friend from the Indian restaurant. I was surprised to find that, unlike many things in China, the tea fields looked exactly as I had imagined them, stretched across the hills like a blanket, dotted with the occasional farmhand touting a stereotypical Chinese worker’s hat. Perhaps next year the Chinese will wise up and build a hotel in the middle with an elevated train running over the fields. A visit to the nearby Chinese National Tea Museum taught me that the only difference between green and black tea is fermentation.. and that the Chinese haven’t learned to write interesting histories in English (Note to museum curators: You must engage your visitors by either making connections between your material and the lives of your visitors or providing rich enough backgrounds to let them do so on their own. Half-assed, play-by-plays of obscure historical occurrences do nothing but perpetuate the stereotype that history is a boring amalgam of dates and events.)

Feeling falsely re-energized, I boldly set off for the famed Lingyin Temple and its Buddhist stone carvings, deep within the national park. Minutes later, I realized my mistake, slothfully meandered back to the nearest bike drop-off point, and caught a taxi back to the hostel. As I sat staring regretfully at my 15RMB cup of ‘Dragonwell tea’ (read: hot water) and waiting for the others to join me for the journey back to Shanghai, I vowed to return to Hangzhou with a tent, a pack of supplies, and a healthy body.