A few days in Hangzhou

Arrival in Hangzhou

I arrived in Hangzhou (pronounced han-joe) two days ago after my short stay in Xi’an. As cheap as cabs are (<$15), I decided to take the airport bus to the city ($3) and after much pointing at the address of the hostel I’m staying at in Hangzhou that I thankfully acquired while in Xi’an, I found out that I should get off at the first stop on the bus at the railway station. 45 minutes later, I did so and then tried to take a cab to my hostel. No one would take me. I started thinking they didn’t like that I’m white—I’ve been informed the word for white person in Chinese literally translates to “white devil”—but really they just didn’t know the obscure side-street on which the hostel is located.

Going into the nearest hotel, I got some more directions and took the public bus a few stops, though the bus driver himself had no idea where the stop that I wanted to take was. After walking a bit, I finally called the hostel myself (the hotel I stopped in also did this, but apparently their directions were insufficient), hailed a cab, and gave the phone to the cab driver. That’s been a popular method of telling a cab driver where to take me when I don’t have the Chinese address. Apparently I was close to the hostel, because three minutes later we were there. But not before another phone call to the hostel when the taxi driver got lost, during which he screamed at nearly the top of his voice at the hostel asking where to go. Screaming seems pretty common here, so I don’t think the lady at the hostel was all that taken aback.

The hostel is nice, although tucked onto a very hard to find side road. There are a lot of people here, many of whom hang out in the common areas, and it’s fun to talk to them and hear about their trips. I met one Frenchman who went to school in Toulouse this year, and I was just so glad to practice my French some. Apparently my French accent (and unpracticed French itself) was far more understandable for him than my New Yorker accent, which he claimed was thick. Both a (surprising) compliment and a diss at the same time—Manhattanites don’t have accents!

Exploring the market

The first night, while Becca and Sally were still returning from their excursion to Suzhou, I went out and explored the area around the hostel. There was a gigantic street market with many blocks littered with stalls selling local wares (and more of the same that every other city has), such as fans, jade bracelets, Chinese flutes, light-up flying toys (the Chinese versions of the wooden airplanes always being demoed at FAO Schwartz), stamps with your name, and pictures painted on the spot. As always, I saw very few Westerners there — apparently locals love exploring these, too.

The best part of this market area was the large open space at the beginning of it, at which there were hundreds of people all doing this perfectly-coordinated dance. It was quite a spectacle as they performed many songs in a row and everyone was in perfect sync.

Eventually found some food as I hadn’t eaten since right before my flight around noon. My dinner included what I think/hope were chicken and beef skewers/kebobs (wow, Chrome doesn’t like that spelling, actually) and some noodles. A lot of pointing and putting up one or two fingers to explain what I wanted and how many. Worked out and pretty delicious in the end. Walked back to the hostel after this stopping to watch the New Zealand vs. Slovakia World Cup match on a gigantic TV in the same area where there had been dancing before (ended 1-1 when NZ scored with moments to spare). I met up with Becca and Sally once back in the hostel when they got back from Suzhou (farther away than they thought it was), and we planned our 6:30am departure for the next day (yesterday), continuing the trend of not sleeping past 7am since Beijing!

Dragon Boat Festival

Yesterday was the Dragon Boat Festival, a public holiday in China. To celebrate, Becca, Sally, Sally’s family (dad, brother, two cousins—an adorable 8-year-old and a 22-year-old—and aunt and uncle), and I went to a river to race dragon boats and also went boating through a cave! It was a great local, cultural experience as everyone in Hangzhou celebrates the festival in some similar way. The buses for this local tour group left around 7:30, thus the very early morning. We couldn’t even find breakfast around the bus departure point it was so early, but Sally’s dad kindly provided some snacks that Becca and I made into breakfast. Becca and I were the only two “foreigners” (i.e. white devils) on the excursion, and the tour guide was certain to make mention of that “welcoming” us (in Chinese—there was no English translation this time around).

The dragon boat races, like the rest of the day, were a culturally eye-opening experience. A “one-hour” bus ride was actually 2+ hours each way, but we eventually made it to the river and boarded boats. The young people splashed with their paddles, getting my camera soaked (thankfully it’s resistant enough), and the older folk, including the man behind me, shouting loudly about not wanting to get a drop of water on him. For once I was thankful that I didn’t understand Chinese and couldn’t be blamed for this. Or at least I could feign ignorance.

The rowing was fun and the racing was sort of a joke, particularly because our puny oars didn’t really accelerate us through the water much at all; it really was the guy steering at the back with a large oar that actually had any effect on our speed.

After the race, we got back on our tour bus, and after making a few more stops, one simply to take a group photo with a large banner, we eventually made it to lunch where food was already in the middle of every table. The best dish: turtle. Only freaked me out a little bit, but tasted pretty good actually. There were also many zongzi on the table, the classic dish for the festival, as shown below. After the tables were mostly cleared, two women came around to everyone at every table letting them take a slip of paper out of a box: raffle time! The ensuing scene was more raucous than any of the previously mentioned shouting matches. The best prize we encountered: a face towel. I won a $15 gift certificate that expires at the end of June applicable toward another tour with the same tour company—how perfectly useful!

Zongzi, the classic dish/dessert to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival.

After lunch we eventually arrived at a cave through which we also traveled by boat. The sides of the cave was all lit up with bright multi-colored neon lights (tacky!), and everyone in our boat was shouting (the Chinese way), so the experience was anything but natural or peaceful, but it was a fun, and again eye-opening, experience.

Becca and I noted the lack of efficiency or logic with much of our itinerary throughout the day. For instance, why didn’t we do the group photo where we were doing other activities rather than just at some random stop wasting time getting off and right back on the buses.

Evening activities

We then boarded the buses back and made it back to Hangzhou around 5pm. Some of us then walked around West Lake, the main attraction in Hangzhou. It’s a gigantic park with some ancient things tucked away inside. As it got dark, the park lit up and looked great at night. There was a spectacular fountain light show, though it didn’t quite rival the Bellagio’s in Vegas. We ended the night with dinner at a local place with lots of different stalls. Price of dinner for 4? $8.60.

A long hike and beautiful views

Today Sally hung out with her family while Becca and I explored Hangzhou some more. After wasting over an hour failing to find a bank that would accept and change Becca’s traveler’s checks, we made our way to West Lake; it really is one of the main attractions for the seemingly relatively unattractive city. We decided to walk all the way around the lake (15km) including a few hour-long hike in the middle to Baochu Pagoda. There were absolutely incredible views from the top, and every path we took on our hike led to some new, fantastic area tucked away in the hills.

Last few days

We’re leaving Hangzhou early early tomorrow morning for a (longer) hike/stair-climbing on Huangshan and then staying in a hotel at the top for one night. Once we get back down we’ll take a train to Shanghai, where I’ll conclude my trip early next week! I’ll try to post again one more time from Shanghai before heading home.

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