Hangzhou — placid people placid waters

A breakneck, 40-minute 高铁 ride from Shanghai brought me to Hangzhou, the capital of 浙江省 (Zhejiang Province). Hangzhou is famous primarily for two things, 浙江大学 (Zhejiang University), the third best university in China behind PKU and Tsinghua, and 西湖, its legendary West Lake, said to be the most beautiful body of water in all of China. People come here to enjoy the cool breeze and gorgeous views, and to reduce their walking speed by at least 80%. 不瞒你说 (“I swear I’m telling the truth” (no good translation)), people in Hangzhou must have moved, on average, 10 miles per hour slower than those in Beijing; perhaps it was just Hangzhou’s extremely relaxing nature.

Sunrise over 西湖
Sunrise over 西湖

Arrived at Lotus Glade 52, a hotel complex on the west bank of West Lake. Beautiful white cabin in the woods surrounded by the kind of lush green foliage that makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. Headed to 武林路, a bustling street on the other side of the lake, for lunch. Overrated “best burger in China” at Triple O’s, followed by an underrated “Cranberry Chicken Sandwich” at Maan Coffee, a two-story, open wooden structure with trees growing inside and numerous colorful chandeliers hanging from branches… impressive. Back to the hotel to rest; apparently still on Harbin time.

Lotus Glade 52 Hotel. Central compound on the West bank of 西湖。
Lotus Glade 52 Hotel. Central compound on the West bank of 西湖。

If Harbin was characterized by its impressive sights, Hangzhou was represented by relaxation. Woke up late in the day, quick revisit to Maan Coffee, and off to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum. More like the Zhejiang Porcelain Museum, it consisted entirely of Zhejiang’s ceramic history. 3 floors of china. Literally. The exhibit ranged from porcelain organized by material: clay, celadon, and lacquer to porcelain by color and thus by time period: yellow in the early Tang dynasty, blue and white during the Mongol occupation, black during the Neolithic Era, and white under the Song Dynasty.

Back outside to enjoy the high of 60 and clear skies. Rowboats neared the shore to invite couples for afternoon sojourns across 西湖. Hundreds of people walked the path that divides the lake almost symmetrically. I strolled back to the hotel along the western rim of the lake. 4 kilometers. 2 hours. Slow. Out to dinner with a friend of a friend, the owner of a Japanese restaurant and his 夫人 (companion of a lord… “wife”). Having studied in Japan as undergraduates, my host and his friend (co-owner of the restaurant) spoke Japanese and seemed to have a lost appreciation for the neighboring country’s culture (or at least their cuisine). Delicious barbecued cow neck, cow tongue, and cow ribs with homemade vinegar and peanut sauces and sides of fresh salmon, potato cake, sushi, and shrimp tempura. Left the restaurant for a long, cold walk in warm company to the north side of West Lake and back. On the way, we came across Asia’s largest Apple Store, three days from its grand opening, as well as a man on the outside steps of a “Bank of China” convulsing, screaming, flailing, and jumping up and down with eyes rolled back in his head; described by the woman I was with as being 精神病 or “mentally insane”… we hurried back to the car.

Up late the next morning. Frantic emailing and catching up on college application correspondence. Taking a cab two minutes to an intersection I thought was twenty away, I made up the excuse that I had just donated 10 kuai to the taxi driver and his family to make myself feel better about such an oversight. I soon discovered the home of famous Chinese painter and “catalyzer of modern art in China,” Lin Feng-Mian (林风眠), who founded the first National University of Fine Arts. The museum was filled with Lin’s old sweaters (made in China of course), repeated pictures of his Russian wife, his bed, a digital photograph of the Mona Lisa–“Lin’s favorite painting”–and his lifetime portfolio of artwork hung on the walls, only a handful of which were not poorly printed off of a low-resolution laptop. It’s safe to say that the museum was an under-representation of an impressive man.

Back to Lotus Glade 52 for 鱼香茄子 (delicious garlicky eggplant with a fish-punctuated sauce), green tea cakes, and fried dumplings before departing on an ambitious walk through the middle of West Lake, underdressed for the rapidly dropping temperatures. Hangzhou to the East, a setting sun and passing rowboats to the West, and a seemingly unreachable Lei Feng Pagoda far ahead on the South bank. Arriving at the base of the pagoda after a two-hour walk drifting in and out of Hangzhou-speed (practically crawling) at 5:31pm. While I was disappointed to find that admission had closed at 5:30pm, I ended up enjoying the journey more than the destination anyway. Hailed a “luxury cab” (the only taxi in sight… ten kuai more than the “common cabs”) and drove off towards 知味观, a local flavor cafeteria recommended by last night’s dinner buddies.

Rowboat amid a West Lake sunset
Rowboat amid a West Lake sunset

On the way, I talked with the driver about common Chinese resentment of 小日本, the derogatory term meaning “Little Japan,” to which he gave the following explanation: “the Japanese like to think they’re really big, but they’re actually really small. They’re on a small island, with little influence, so we call them ‘Small Japan.’ They hate that.” It was interesting to experience the prejudice of some Chinese against Japan after having visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum. Also learned from the driver, a native of 山东, that many people from 山东,陕西,安徽,and 江苏 migrate to Hangzhou for relaxation and work opportunity as it is a quickly developing area that maintains a relaxing environment. Arrived at the cafeteria feeling very white in a sea of Chinese. Two orders of fried dumplings, pyramid dumplings, meat noodles, dragon dumplings, and honey lotus root. On the way back, I noticed it had become noticeably more difficult to hail a cab as I traveled farther south; although, the base-prices of taxis do drop significantly the farther south one travels as well. Beijing: 16¥. Nanjing: 13¥. Shanghai: 11¥. Hangzhou: 10¥. Xiamen: 8¥. Hong Kong: back up to 10¥, but it’s not really even China. And finally Kunming: usually 8¥ but in one circumstance as low as 5¥! Excluding Harbin (far north) and Hong Kong (far south) for their respective low and high cab ride base fares, the model fits quite nicely.

4am. Early rise, pack, and departure from Hangzhou South Station. Seven-and-a-half-hour “slow-train” ride to Xiamen. On the drive to the station, I talked with the taxi driver about the Hangzhou dialect, English vocabulary, and the Chinese tradition of abandoning one’s current place of residence to revisit the homeland each New Year. Since Hangzhou is a common place for the emigrants of surrounding provinces, it usually becomes a ghost town (死城) for the month of February. Left the cheerful driver a 20¥ tip to 补上 (make up for) the foreigners before me who had failed to pay the full fare—Happy New Year. On the ride down to Xiamen, there was a noticeable lack of nuclear power facilities, and a refreshing presence of palm trees, tall mountains, and lush tropical foliage. Passed over a river between Fuzhou (apparently transliterated as “Fuchow” in English) and Xiamen with an old man sitting high up on a stilt in the middle of the current with a fishing net on a long pole. Wondered what his plan for making it to shore was. Threaded tunnels through mighty mountains. I noticed structurally fortifying hobbit-hole-like concrete frameworks lining the face of every massive precipice, longing to ditch the train and explore the vast hinterlands behind the colossuses. But alas, Xiamen was nearing and new marvels were emerging. Quarries, temples, uncultivated farmland, and children dancing in circles on the muddy bank of a placid river. Estuaries adjoined like provincial borders in random incongruence, each centered around a solar-powered water mill. Off in the distance, a man in an orange jumpsuit embarked on the impossible task of tilling acres of dirt earth, deep at the bottom of a long-emptied water repository.

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