Published: April 20th 2008April 20th 2008
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”
- Bill Bryson.
When we arrived in China we were like babies - we could barely speak, couldn't read, and didn't really know how to get around. The smallest task that you take for granted in an English speaking country requires a tremendous amount of effort and planning. When you get hungry, you think: “Shit, I have to go to a restaurant again, and use my 10 words of Chinese to get a table, order food, order drinks, get the bill, pay, and look like a fish gaping for air if someone Chinese asks me questions... how do I say 'I want' again?”
When you can successfully do all those things in Chinese though, you feel like a legend. When you catch a taxi and the driver understands where you want to go; when you get through a supermarket checkout without having to say “I don't understand”; and when you can order bottles of water in a shop
without pointing, you feel like you are getting somewhere. Progress is slow - learning 5 words a day slow - but the sense of achievement in just living here everyday is tremendous.
When you consider that everyday you can see something you've never seen before, or eat something you've never eaten before, or talk to people who are looking at the same world as you but with a different understanding of it, you start to think that you are very lucky... It is something that is difficult to convey through a narrative of where you went and what you did, because it is present all the time. It is one of the best things about travelling and our visit to Hangzhou though.
Hanging out in Hangzhou
On April 4th there was a public holiday in China called 'Tomb Sweeping Day' - this is when the Chinese people visit the tombs and graves of their ancestors. Since we have no tombs to sweep, we took advantage of the long weekend and spent a couple of days visiting Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. Our new foreigner teacher friends Jacob and Michelle came with us too, since their tombs
were already clean
When we ask people where we should visit in China two names stand out: Hangzhou and Suzhou. The Chinese have a saying “Heaven above, Hangzhou and Suzhou below” and though we only got a taste test of Hangzhou we did like it. Anyone thinking of travelling to Hangzhou should be aware of their timing however: avoid public holidays and weekends. Some of the popular attractions were swamped by tourists when we were there. Despite the crowds, places like Leifeng Pagoda and Lingyin Temple had islands of calm and were quite serene in places - I particularly enjoyed wandering through the gardens of Leifeng Pagoda. We never realised how much we liked trees until we left Australia.
We can't say as much about Hangzhou's most famous attraction, the West Lake, simply because it was packed with people. We only spent a little time here before claustrophobia set in, but the peacocks and the gardens were quite beautiful - we'll be back to check it out on a weekday soon.
Our hostel, 'The Four Eyes', was located next to the Hangzhou zoo. To find the hostel was a bit of a mission, as it's tucked
behind a group of similar hostels away from the main road and is not clearly signed. Every taxi driver we met could find the zoo but none knew the hostel. Prospective visitors should take a map, compass, GPS and picnic lunch before attempting to find this one. The effort taken to find it was worthwhile though - the rooms were clean, cheap and cheerful, and the staff were very friendly. We bought a bottle of vodka there on our first afternoon and were in the process of demolishing it with Jacob and Michelle, before one of the hotel staff came up and gave us an impromptu Chinese lesson. She spoke slowly and was so good we even remembered some of it the next day!
The weekend got off to a pretty good start, when, after we had checked in, we wandered down the road and found a small eatery that was popular with the locals. The menu was entirely in Chinese, but we managed to order a feast, thanks particularly to Emma who has been learning to read the characters for different food items. The Chinese red wine was also quite good and relatively cheap at about 5 Aussie
dollars. Despite all our improving Chinese, we still accidentally selected pig's intestine noodle soup, perhaps the only thing in China that Toby won't eat... there's a subtle smell that just reminds him of the gut room of an abbatoir too much... but there was plenty of other food to feast upon. Luckily, Emma has since learned the character for intestines!
We've been surprised to discover that China has a substantial array of home-grown wines available in most supermarkets and restaurants as well. The taste is different from other Australian and international wines, but it grows on you and it is (most importantly) cheap. In addition to Chinese wine they also stock a decent selection of Australian, South American and French wines - although obviously for about 10 times the price. The Chinese also often add to their red wine with sprite, lemon, ice cubes and spiced prunes, which makes it a bit like sangria (a spanish drink). This is quite a refreshing way to drink and makes it last longer. You can also buy Chinese beer for around 80 cents per bottle (or about 30p for those working in pounds). The taste is lighter than western beers, but quite
I'm a dancing fool, I'm a love machine
We decided to head out for dinner somewhere a little upmarket on the first night, but since the map that we had was entirely in Chinese, and we were some distance from the downtown area, we weren't really sure where to go.
Emboldened by the wine we'd drank earlier, we flagged a taxi from the side of the road, and Toby (in his best Mandarin) said “I go restaurant, I go restaurant” - to which the driver nodded, as if this was a normal request, and off we went.
As it turned out, he took us to a great restaurant. When we walked in, we were immediately ushered to our own private room, and the menu had pictures! After dinner, we decided to check out a bar nearby.
Bars in China, like so many other things in China, are “same, same but different”. We'd already been to a place in Jiaxing called 'F1', which was more of a nightclub. It played incredibly loud dance music (mostly in English), which was interspersed by some scantily-clad singers who appeared on the stage and sang Chinese pop songs. The
clientele of the club was a mixture of smartly-dressed middle-aged men, and younger couples and friends. Most people sit at tables, which all have waiter service. There are snacks served (fruits and nuts), and you have to spend a minimum amount every time you order, which is about 100 RMB. There are even some 'podium dancers' wearing bikinis - which was a plus for Toby and Jacob. The Chinese people also love to dance, so the dance floor was constantly packed. The dance floor is mounted on springs and the whole thing bounces up and down as you dance. Perhaps the oddest thing though is the guys walking around in what looks like formal army dress, with starched pants and shirts, caps and shoulder badges. I'm fairly sure they are just security guards, but they do make you think twice about getting rowdy. For some reason, we were expecting a Chinese bar/club to be more tame....
The bar we went to in Hangzhou was called the 'Top Red Prestige Club' and was a little different. On arrival, we were shown to a table in a plush leather booth (the best seats in the house as it turned out), and
Spring has Arrived
There were lots of pretty flowers in bloom along the banks of the West Lake
again we had waiter service with everything bought by the bottle. The club had the dance music, the lasers, and the stage, as in F1, but this time we were treated to an entire stage show. There were singers, traditional Chinese dances, face changers, magicians, and actors.
Not knowing much Chinese we can only assume there were comedians too: one lovely 5ft lass pulled our American friend Jacob up onto the stage and demanded a kiss on the cheek - he gave her one on the mouth. The audience loved this (as did we) though his taste in women is a bit suspect - she was at least 100kg, and may have been a crossdresser, we're not sure. In any case it was quite a performance. They also played-up to the fact that they had foreigners in their audience, and Jacob was pulled onto the stage quite a few times.
After our night out we emerged delicately the next day and ate what could approximately be called an American breakfast (cooked by our hostel). We then visited the Leifeng Pagoda on the edge of the West Lake, and climbed to the top of it. From there,
we got some fine views - if a little hazy. As you probably know, the air quality in China isn't the best - but the weather has also often been overcast. I can't say that we get bothered too much by the pollution in general, and the air seemed to be much cleaner in Hangzhou.
After lunch, where we stuffed ourselves silly with Korean food (we mistakenly ordered 7 large dishes between 4 of us), we waddled to Lingyin Temple in the afternoon. This turned out to be worth the fairly lengthy taxi journey. The site is a sprawling complex of buildings built on a hillside. There are some impressive stone Buddhist scultures which line the sides of the hill, which date from 10th to 15th centuries. Some of them are pretty high up into the rock face, and are fairly intricate. They seem to have weathered the test of time pretty well.
Lingyin temple does attract a large number of tourist groups (the number of which was a little overwhelming at times). However, the further into the area that you venture, the quieter and less populated it becomes. Eventually we found a little spot of 'calm' on
the steps of a temple building in front a large, laughing gold buddha. We watched as a small number of Chinese people arrived with burning incense sticks to stand silently, hands clasped, in front of the buddha. It seemed like a nice ending to our weekend.
In all, we enjoyed our weekend in Hangzhou, though we feel like we haven't really seen it properly yet. Perhaps next time we'll go when it's quieter and see more of the zoo, lakes, temples and gardens. We definitely recommend it to anyone coming to China though.
There are more photos below