October 17th was mostly a travel day, packing up, etc. I did a little catching up on the site while Cody and Don made a last round through the old city, etc. At about 10:30am we were off to the airport to catch a flight to Hangzhou (about 1600km south). The pollution on the way to the Taiyuan airport was even worse today than when we first arrived.
Hangzhou is one of many 'former capitol' cities, a distinction shared by over a dozen Chinese cities. It's also the city that Marco Polo called the most beautiful city in the world. It's located about 2 hours SW of Shanghai and its most well known feature is West Lake, a big and very scenic lake that the city has grown around. It's a very modern Chinese city, much along the lines of Shanghai.
The first thing to notice coming into Hangzhou is the dramatic change in weather. Suddenly it's a bit warmer than Ping Yao (the taxi driver poked a fun at me for wearing long sleeves) and a great deal more humid. It's also obvious that it's a good deal more upscale here compared to most of the China I've seen... more nice cars, nice clothes, etc. The pollution is significantly less, but still present. Finally, there is real interesting zoning going on here. You can see it very clearly on the plane, and it's obvious on the way into town, but for miles there are stripes of well kept but densely populated residential streets that are separated by lush, green, football field sized agricultural plots.
Our hostel was a stone's throw away from West Lake, which is good, but one problem was that all the eating and drinking opportunities near there were a bit pricey. Since we were doing our best to eat like natives, the first night there was a search for cheap food. After walking about a mile, we found one of those typical Chinese garage-diners where the kitchen is open to the world and the dishes are probably being washed in buckets ten feet away from you. We ate noodles while sitting in the street and did our best to communicate what we wanted to the owner. We didn't receive exactly what we ordered, but what we had was really good, and really cheap.
West Lake itself is a humongous urban park where you can spend days exploring. There are probably over 100 scenic and historic sites within the area, as well as dozens of pedestrian walkways and smaller parks. There's the Su Causeway, a large wooded sidewalk that runs right down the middle and all the way across the lake (3KM long). There are several islands. The lake is also surrounded by trendy, expensive and sometimes unusual bars, restaurants and stores... a favorite playground for the newly rich in China. There's even a Massarati (sic) dealer. It's like Green Lake in Kunming, times twenty.
Our time in Hangzhou was the pretty standard tourist gig. It was just too big and we had too little time to do it justice or see much of the city. We also ran into some delays replenishing our cash and ended up being rushed out of town (see below).
On the first morning, Cody and I set out for Lingyin Temple, one of the largest and wealthiest Buddhist Temples in China. Lingyin has been in existence since roughly 328AD and peaked in influence around 978AD. Although most 'artifacts' within have been rebuilt and restored many times since, there are still some original structures. There are also 350 cave carvings in the Feilai Feng Peak grottos that run right along the hill next to the Temple. Lingyin was a very impressive place with an active community of monks, some impressive Buddhas and that sort of thing.
After that we started walking randomly abound West Lake. We stopped at a memorial to General Yue Fie, who is considered a model of loyalty in China. He successfully protected the Song Dynasty against Manchurian invasion, and for his pains was executed by a corrupt Imperial court. We cruised through some remarkable "fields" of Lotus plants growing sometimes six feet out of the lake. We stopped at Guo Villa, a famous residence and garden in Hangzhou.
By late afternoon we made it down to Lei Feng Pagoda. Lei Feng Pagoda is a structure of significant historical importance but it's almost entirely new with high-tech elevators and all that jazz. Regardless, it is probably the best view of Hangzhou and West Lake that there is. I posted quite a few pictures from there and made one panorama shot that covers one of the southern skylines.
Underneath the new pagoda, you can see (beyond plexiglas barriers) what's left of the original walls of the Pagoda. These are mostly crumbling and covered with money. What.. covered with money? Anything the Chinese feel is even remotely lucky, they throw money at. A small pond of water near a buddha statue... lucky.. throw money. A statue of an eagle on top of a cave... lucky.. throw money and try to land it on top of eagle's head. A crumbling wall under a pagoda... lucky.. throw money. What's left of the original pagoda is nearly coated in silver due to all the coins people have thrown over the plexiglas at it. The sand around the bottom is also littered with bills, because if you don't have any coins...
Gops did his own thing today, but we met up with him again for the evening. I had contacted an online friend of mine, Lily, who was meeting us for a trip to Wu Square (or Qinghefeng Street). Lily is a broadcasting student at a university about an hour away from town. Her and a friend took an hour long bus just to show a few bumbling foreigners around.
Wu Square is a pedestrian street of stores that is constructed in Song Dynasty architectural style. For the most part, it is completely inauthentic but it's still a good time. It also has a great food market with much more appetizing choices than what you'll find on Wangfujing Street in Beijing. Howver, do not eat the Camel! We all tried it and it tastes ok, but it smells like absolute crap. Get some on your fingers... then you smell like crap. Don't do it!
Somewhere along the line, an older Australian guy (Robert) from the hostel also attached to our group. He came with us to Qinghefeng and, after Lily left (9PM), the four of us continued on to sample some nearby bars, hoping find something other than the usual Chinese ales. Our first stop was the "Reggae Bar" which seemed like a decent place to stop, but nothing was really going on, and the beer selection was typical (they did have Newcastle). I also saw the first black person here that I had seen on the whole trip. I saw another in Yangshuo a few days later. Two total.
After one beer, we moved on to try the next place over which was "Shanghai Inn". This place had some live entertainment but seemed a bit too fancy for guys who had been walking around all day. Three of us stayed anyway to have a beer and play dice for a few minutes. Robert couldn't abide it though and decided to keep moving. About 15 minutes later, he came back and tipped us to where we should head next, "Travelers".
"Travelers" had good beers, live entertainment, pool tables, and people. Win-win. The live entertainment was a Philippino-Californian girl with an eclectic song selection that included the Evita theme song. Strange. The lack of encouragement she was receiving from the audience prompted Cody to go absolutely apeshit in cheering her on. Go California!!! We also played some pool and Cody ended up attracting the attention of a local barfly who had him dancing, and bumping into complete strangers who were trying to play pool, but not much else. She was either incredibly drunk, incredibly silly, or thought she was "on the job".
On day two in Hangzhou, we took off for a ride to see something else the area is famous for... tea, by many accounts the best in China. The area's specialty is Longjing tea and an entire tourist element has built up around it. You can drive out to any number of tea villages and waste the day sipping tea, eating, seeing the fields, etc.
Gops had a particular interest in this so we grabbed a taxi to Dragon Well Village and walked around the hills a while everyone and their great-grandmother tried to sell us their tea. When we first arrived, an elderly lady offered to show us around for a nominal fee ($1.25). This was fine because we had no idea where we were, but we also knew it would eventually end in her trying to sell us tea... which it did. Still, she showed us where the main village was and from there we took our leave. Honest to God, 10% of the population of China must be involved in selling tea. Not just in this area, but every tourist site, airport, and store of whatever stripe, seems to have a vendor selling tea.
For lunch we found another great place where no one spoke English. As I started pointing at dishes on other tables that we wanted to order, I ran into an Indonesian businessman who spoke English and helped us out. He ordered us up some prawns, a big bowl of chicken noodle soup and other goodies. He hung out with us a bit too.
After the tea village we headed to Liuhe (Six Harmonies) Pagoda, another historically significant pagoda, but one which remains in a fairly original state. It was first built around the 5th Century, completely destroyed in 1121, then reconstructed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. No fancy elevators here. It also has a great view, but much different than Lei Feng Pagoda, as it's southwest and over a hill from there. Its main view is toward the south and the Qiantang River where there is yet another Hangzhou skyline rivaling the one along the lake.
After Liuhe we could not hire a taxi. Maybe there was some rule about picking up white guys between 5pm and 6pm... I don't know. We must have asked seven or so drivers and none would take us (although hey did take chinese fares when we walked away). We started walking and asking, still none would take us. Finally, about half a mile down, we found someone to take us back to the hostel. Jeez.
In the evening, we went back to the food market in Qinghefeng for appetizers... and then, made a visit to a Hooters in China. There are four of them in China now. They do it right here. The help is embarrassingly attentive... one trainee stood by our table most of the time we were there. The only downside was the occasional high-pitch sound of a bunch of Chinese girls cheering, but I think some guys like that.
Hooters was also one of very few restaurants in China that actually exhibits the same level of service (or better) as we see in almost every American restaurant. For some reason, Chinese restaurants and bars have never dialed into the truth that folks like to be waited on and have service with a smile. Even though there is usually twice as much staff on hand than is necessary, you generally have to find someone to take your order, refill your drink, etc. This is the downside of a system that frowns on tips.
The next morning was the clusterf*** that was bound to happen. Two days earlier I had asked the hostel staff to buy us train tickets for an overnight, 24-hour trip to Guilin (part of the China experience). No problem!!
On this last day in Hangzhou we were planning on a nearly full day of touring and then catching the train at 3pm or so. I woke up early and was taking care of some business, like posting, in full view of the staff. Once done I asked when they wanted me to pay for the tickets. ... sorry, we weren't able to do that... train full. OH, AND YOU DECIDED TO WAIT UNTIL NOW TO SHARE THAT INFORMATION!!! They could have tried another train, different types of seats, but no, they just didn't buy any and didn't tell us. Naturally, they had no space for us to stay an extra night either.
So, I scrambled to buy us some domestic flights (a pain). We had just barely enough time to book the tickets, grab our gear, check out, take a taxi to a place where no one spoke english to pick up & pay for the tickets, and then grab another taxi to the airport. Fortunately, there was a special, and the airfare was not much more expensive than rail. End result, one extra night and full day day in Yangshuo, a small town by Guilin, one of the most scenic areas of China.