March 21-24, 2013
(Posted by Xavier and Kristin)
We were grateful for the travel day between Tunxi (Huangshan) and Hangzhou — we could barely move our legs after the steep hike down from Huangshan. Our hostel had conveniently arranged the bus for us, and at the appointed hour, someone came to take us to the bus. We thought they were taking us to the bus station, but oh, no. Our minivan pulled into some random parking lot and signaled to us to get on this other waiting bus. We motioned to them that we wanted to put our bags in the hold, but they told us to just bring them on the bus and put them in the back seats. We squeeeeezed our way through the packed bus, dropped our bags at the back and grabbed the last available seats — and we were off! We settled in for the 3-hour ride, and actually enjoyed the martial arts movies they were showing, one of which even had English subtitles!
A few hours later we pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of Hangzhou. Oh, another bathroom break? People started getting up — in fact everyone started getting up, so we started to wonder if this was the final stop. Really? A gas station? We were all prepared with detailed directions on how to get to the hostel from the bus station, but not from this random gas station. We had definitely been thrown a curve!
Keeping the option of an expensive taxi ride in our back pocket (assuming we could communicate with the taxi driver), we studied the hostel information which gave us a number of options for local bus connections to get to the hostel. We trundled over to the bus stop near the gas station and checked out the list of scheduled of buses. We saw that one of the buses that stopped there was a bus we could take to get to our hostel. Hoping it was going in the right direction, we jumped on the bus when it pulled up. But now the problem was where to get off to make the connection. The hostel had indicated the number of stops from the bus station (these were seriously good directions), but that wasn’t going to help us now. Everything was in Chinese, the bus was packed, and we ended up sitting in the back seats. We finally asked a passenger, using sign language and mangled pronunciation, where to get off for the connecting bus. He motioned for us to get off now! Oh man, we knew we were close but not that close. We jumped off the bus and started looking for the connecting bus. In a bit of disarray we completely blew it and proceeded to walk several blocks to find our next bus, not realizing it was at the exact spot where we jumped off the first bus. Realizing our mistake we returned and caught the connecting bus. Well, at least we were able to work off a little of Yellow Mountain’s hiking soreness, NOT!
We finally made it to the well appointed and wonderfully staffed Wushanyi Hostel, located right smack in the center of Old Town Hangzhou! We dropped our bags and set out to discover what this popular city was all about.
Hangzhou is celebrated as one of China’s most beautiful cities, primarily because it is centered around the wonderful West Lake, itself peppered with historic temples (most of them rebuilt fairly recently), scenic causeways and beautiful landscaped gardens.
It was grey and rainy (as usual), so the city was not looking its best.
We decided to start by exploring the neighborhood around the hostel. Within the first block there was some really wonderful and unique public art built along the walkways.
Further down this pedestrian-only cobblestone street and around the corner from the hostel, was a mixture of old buildings and new-but-made-to-look-old buildings. This was something completely new to us and something we hadn’t seen before. It had a Disneylandish feel with a feverish festive atmosphere. We found ourselves giggling at times because it was all too much. But the streets were packed with tourists and locals alike, all out enjoying the happenings.
There were all sorts of specialty stores selling everything! Custom chopsticks, teas,
every conceivable type of coffee shop preparing coffee a dozen ways,
hand made candies,
men mashing peanuts into a paste,
street artists performing their acts,
barkers crying out for people to come in and see their show,
calligraphy, leather goods, jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc.
We looked up…what’s that, flying saucers? No, just a bunch of people flying their glowing kites high in the air in Wushan Square this evening. Then right past them we saw a large crowd of people, almost all women, illuminated by a gigantic outdoor video screen and they all seemed to be pulsating in exact rhythm.
As we approached we saw that there were actually three different groups doing a type of line dancing. There was the hip 20-ish group getting down with the latest sounds, all in perfect step.
Then the 30 – 40ish year olds doing it in style.
But the best group by far was the older group. This gang had all the moves, led by this taller older fellow who was just too smooth for words (and he knew it).
It was a sight to behold and a real pleasure to see them all having a blast!
Worked up an appetite from all that dancing? Well walk one street over and you have your choice of restaurants serving up the best there is in local dishes. And if the prices were too high there, then all you need to do is search out the food alley. Once you found it, oh boy! Get your camera out because you’re going to see things here you’ve never seen anywhere else. I’ll just let the pictures do all the talking.
One culinary delight that has left an unforgettable impression on us is stinky tofu. We were first told about it by our old friend Joe, back in Malacca, who warned us that you can smell it blocks away. To make this a little more entertaining I thought I’d let my creative juices go a little crazy.
An Ode to Stinky Tofu
There once lived a man, so many years ago
Tofu was his passion, his name was Mr. Lo (not really, but it rhymes)
One day he made too much, he had gone too far
He knew not what to do, he stuck it in a jar
Days and weeks passed, oh no, oooh, OOOH!
Quick — open the jar, peeyoo, PEEYOO!
Hold on, wait a minute, let me take a bite
Hey, that’s pretty good, he exclaimed in delight!
So in China wherever you go today
You can smell stinky tofu from blocks away.
This stinky tofu and that durian fruit are neck and neck
As the worst smelling food we’ve smelled on our trek.
Hangzhou is known for the beauty of its wonderful West Lake.
Unfortunately the whole of China knows that too. Why do I say that? Because trying to get around the lake is like trying to drive around Central Park, New York in the middle of rush hour and the subways are down. Got it? Hangzhou has no subway, and car and bus traffic moves painfully slowly. The pedestrian crowds around the lake are enormous; at times you can’t even fit on the sidewalks.
And this was in bad weather during the low season! Busload after busload of tourists unload at every available bus stop and flag-waving tour guides maneuver their groups of anxious tourists around the lake.
There are large golf cart size vehicles that transport people from place to place around the lake for a fee, using the pedestrian-only walkways, but if it weren’t for the constant beeping of their horns they too would be swallowed up by the crowds.
Trying to get from one place to another around the lake is nearly impossible. Now don’t get me wrong the lake and countless gardens are beautiful and amazing to see.
The crowds, if you are not used to large crowds, could make you just throw your hands up and say “forget this”! Your best option, the most expensive and relaxing one, is to take a leisurely boat tour around the lake. There are plenty of choices here too as the lake is sprinkled with all sizes and styles of boats, junks, canoes, gondolas, dragon boats, etc.
But if the price of a romantic, leisurely cruise around the lake is too steep for you, what else can you do? That’s where Hangzhou gives you its best option: bicycling. Thank you Hangzhou!
The city has established a very economical bicycle rental system around town. And with that, we cycled around West Lake with relative ease, moving much faster than a car or bus, squeezing by all the traffic, flying by the crowded pedestrian crowds and able to stop anywhere we wanted to take in the view.
Like most bike-sharing systems, you just park the bike at any of the city’s official bike stalls, walk around, see a museum, walk through one of the countless beautifully manicured gardens, grab a bite to eat, have a cup of java, come back and get another bike (probably not the same bike) and continue your ride around the lake. Brilliant, and we loved it. The only and best way to go.
Unfortunately we got some pretty lousy weather while in Hangzhou, which affected what we could do while we were there. In addition to the bicycle ride around the lake, we were able to visit the tomb of Yue Fei, who is regarded as one of China’s greatest national heroes and a supreme example of faithful loyalty to the Chinese empire. The accompanying museum also gave us some good background information about the history of Hangzhou.
After visiting the tomb, we failed in our attempt to get to the China National Tea Museum before closing time. We started out with good intentions but because we didn’t know just how far out of town this museum was (we should have ridden the bicycles), the traffic mayhem trying to get past the lake area, and the impending rain clouds, we missed the last tour of the tea museum by minutes. Aaah! But at least we were able to get out to the countryside and see the beautiful hillside terraces filled with rows of hundreds of thousands of wonderfully cultivated tea bushes, and see workers picking the tea leaves in the pouring rain. No problem though, as they all were outfitted with their rain gear.
The culinary highlight of our Hangzhou visit was a bowl of dumplings. I had spotted the hostel staff eating some tasty-looking dumplings and asked where they came from. They sent us to a series of stalls near the Drum Tower…then we had to figure out which stall to pick since there were a couple of them selling the dumplings, steaming away in cast iron pans.
We followed Rule #1 and went with the stall with the most people in it (though we felt a little sorry for the lonely restaurateur next door). We managed to order a heaping bowl of the dumplings. We piled on the hot sauce and bit into these little morsels of heaven, delicately sliced pork on the inside, crunchy dough on the bottom from being lightly fried in the pan, and a little kick of hot at the end. Next thing you know our bowl was empty! We had to go for another round! We went up to the lady and ordered a slightly smaller order. Immensely pleased that we had enjoyed her cuisine, she piled on a few extras — and they did not go to waste.
We wrapped up our time in Hangzhou a little disappointed because of the weather, but you do what you can do with the time you have, and our time in Hangzhou was up. Next up was the super sized city of Shanghai, where we planned to stay with Kristin’s colleague’s sister, Lauren, and her husband Brian. We grabbed a to-go bag of yummy dumplings and headed to the train station.