China: Part 2 – Hangzhou

After experiencing a chilling Beijing winter, we were looking forward to a southern and warmer side of China.  While planning our trip to China we made the decision to visit Hangzhou after reading how it has been for centuries a culturally cherished spot by China’s own poets and scholars .  We read that there is a high concentration of tourists in Hangzhou all year round.   What guide books will not tell you is that the “tourism” refers mostly to Chinese citizens as tourists and not foreign tourists.  Either way it wouldn’t have mattered to us, but for your information you will not be running into very many “Westerners” if that was your intent for travel.

(I really must stress how easy it is to travel from city to city in China.  It’s much easier than anything I’ve ever experienced in the USA.  To get from Beijing to Hangzhou by train (equivalent of a trip from Chicago to New Orleans) in under 6 hours is absolutely amazing.)

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We arrived in Hangzhou by train in the early afternoon.  Just as we expected the weather was great!  It was time for vacationing in Hangzhou’s West Lake area.

To our surprise there was even less English speakers in Hangzhou than in Beijing.  It wasn’t a huge deal, it just took a bit to adjust.  Even still, I liked Hangzhou right away.  The first thing I noticed aside from the weather was how clear the air was.  Although, Hangzhou experiences smog we wouldn’t have to deal with it.

Our hotel room was tiny, but we had water, heat, and a bedbug free bed.  Our hotel did allow smoking in the room, so the mattress smell was annoying.  (The grandest hotels do not allow smoking.  If cigarette smoke is a hazard to you, you may want to pay a little more to ensure that you don’t have to deal with it in your living quarters.)

My wife loves to play it by the book.  We thought we knew what we wanted in Hangzhou, but little did we know our real culture shock would come in Hangzhou and not Beijing.  Most of our planning went by the wayside when guidebooks proved to be unreliable.  The rate of growth and change in Hangzhou is spectacular and fast-paced.  Something that was said to be there a year prior might not be there present day.  Fortunate for us, we are walkers and we got lucky with a hotel deal in an area just a 7-minute walk east of West Lake.  We were also very close to markets and restaurants.

We would end up having a great time… in routine.  I found a breakfast place that I loved to go to each morning called “Xie Xie” just east of West Lake.  It is a modern style of cafe.  Their menu was a perfect combination of traditional Chinese and Western style breakfast, lunch and dinner. The service was great!  I dislike most cafes, but Xie Xie was my place.  It was around the new year when we found Xie Xie and they had a Christmas playlist on repeat…the same playlist.  My wife hated that part of it, but I didn’t mind it.  Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is embedded in my long-term memory.

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We did a full walk around West Lake.  It took us about 4 hours to walk it excluding our stop at a couple of places in between.  (Bikes are available for rent.  If you don’t like walking then bike it!  It would be just as beautiful.) A great workout.  Very romantic.  We had a lot of “fans”.  We took a lot of pictures with the Chinese along the way.  I must be on so many people’s Chinese “face” pages.  (I wonder what the captions are?)  The attention a foreigner will receive shouldn’t feel so strange.  It’s mostly cool, and people are mostly just excited to see you.  It’s very rare for this attention to turn dangerous.  One thing is for sure, the sights along the lake are quite beautiful and unique.  I could’ve stayed around that lake for a good while.

One of our notable stops just north-west of the lake was the China Tea Museum.  This museum has a nice setup and one can learn a lot about tea culture essential to Chinese culture and as an export.  The museum was very well manicured and its front law is tea plantation.  Very beautiful with a nice rocky hill at its backdrop.  There was a restaurant nearby (which I forget the name) that we wanted to eat at, but it was packed.  The wait time to be seated was over an hour.  Lines out the door some 200 feet (60m).  Next time.

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One of my favorites and a Hangzhou gem for relaxation is the Hanyan Coffee House located just east of West Lake.  The best rose tea in town.  I even got the chance to try a fruit salad.  Nice delicious fruit spread… with mayonnaise sauce!  “Ewwwww…”  I couldn’t do it.  I got weird looks from Hanyan staff when I asked for the fruit without the mayonnaise, but the sweet and sour is just not in my tastebuds.  Sorry Hangzhou!  We went to Hanyan Coffee House every night before trekking back to the hotel for sleepies.  A beautiful and unique place to chill.

Other notable restaurants for Hangzhou are the “Fat Duck” which is located a 15 minute cab ride north of West Lake, and “Dong Yi Shun” located on the very popular Goayin Street.  Dong Yi Shun features a blend of Middle Eastern and Western Chinese dishes that are no less than yummy.  If in town give these restaurants a chance!  You won’t be sorry.

There was so much more that we wanted to do in Hangzhou, but fortunate for us we found a routine that we liked as far as eating was concerned.  We we enjoy the places we weren’t able to fit in on the next trip.

To be continued…

 

 

 

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China: Part 1 – Beijing

My wife and I had a wonderful, eye-opening and sometimes tiresome two-week trip to China. It’s truly a beautiful country and if ever you have the opportunity to hitch a plane ride to the East then I advise you take it straight to Beijing or Shanghai. China has a lot to offer the active mind. I imagine that a dozen trips wouldn’t be enough to capture ‘what is China’. With that point in mind we’ve experienced a lot that I can’t really relate, but will try.

Walking into Beijing felt like walking into a labor camp. I would later regret this feeling. Stepping off the train we took into Beijing (Shanghai to Beijing) the air was suffocatingly thick with the smell of coal. The people around us looked sick, people were sick and I could feel myself getting sick. I did not want to be there. (There is a reason people wear the surgical masks, get one).

We immediately experienced the Beijing smog while commuting to our hotel and we could not see two feet (.6 m) in front of us. Apparently this happens more frequently in the winters. It was cold and dry.

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Tiananman Square & Forbidden Palace

We booked a hotel in a nice area called Dungsi (pronounciation: dung-suh). It was fairly close to all the tourist attractions, without being in the middle of all the chaos. One important thing is that it was one block from a Beijing metro stop which is very easy to navigate once you get going. (*Note: Beijing and Shanghai probably have the best public transportation systems in the world.) No one at our hotel spoke English, but people were amazingly nice and it was awesome. Do your research before you go! We got lucky that our hotel had great Wifi, and that we purchased a good VPN service before going. (*Note: Get a Yahoo! email account before traveling to China, your Gmail and AOL will be blocked.) These are musts when you are a budget traveler. We didn’t want to really rely solely on help across the language barrier.

In general, people did not speak English wherever we ventured in China. And, this is FINE! The Chinese were very patient with both my wife and I. It was not their fault we did not understand Chinese when traveling in a country that uses Cantonese and Mandarin as it national languages. On our end we did not become frustrated and blame our hosts for not speaking English. One time my wife and I were arguing with a cab driver for 10 minutes before we realized what one another was saying. Which in any city in the States an interaction like that would have probably ended badly after just a minute – (“Get the f**k out of my cab, now!”).

We enjoyed a tour of the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden palace and the Great Wall of China. We purchased a package online through a phenomenal tour company. It included an all-English tour to all three sites with a lunch at Subway (worst part of the trip) for about $115/person. The driver and tour guide picked us up and dropped us off directly at our hotel. We recommend you doing this to bypass all the insane tourism to these places. You get in and get out with very little hassle. And, it’s cheap for you anyway.

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Mutianyu – Great Wall

The Great Wall of China was absolutely amazing. It’s engineering and its magnitude will leave you speechless. We only walked 2 miles of it and it was so physically demanding which puts one in an even higher state of awe. The Great Wall defeated immigration. When you think of that impossibility you get a sense of the wall’s significance. There is an estimated number of one million people that died building the wall over the solid 200 consistent years of its construction – which was still being added to until more recently when it was being torn down by scavengers using it for materials – but this number is likely deflated. We’ve heard other stories that may put this number closer to 10 – 20 million, but who really knows. Go see it! It is unlike any other “wall” you will ever see in your life time! A true wonder!

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View on the way up to the Wall

Our guide did not walk the wall with us. She was so tired after one mile that she couldn’t go further. She told us to go ahead on our own. We did. We hit one of the steepest areas of the wall and then we were finished. (Literally and figuratively). Our bodies were beat to crap. It is a wonder unfit for those out of shape. I don’t really know, and in any case, I wouldn’t be involved with that sort of pomposity.
We found great food in Beijing. Our favorite being a Uyghur restaurant called Crescent Moon. Nice lamb dishes with good bread and soothing tea. It’s the Chinese way. We also found strange food. The things you hear about China and food are true. Find the right places to eat and don’t be afraid to try new things – unless it’s dog or rat, please do not eat anything that can be named Toby – because there is plenty to make the taste buds happy. We were paying roughly $20/pp per meal. Which is a little steep when it comes to China. I blame my wife, she has expensive tastes. You can do with nice $3-10 meals (which include 2-5 multiple dishes). These are common “deals” so don’t think you have to look too far to get them.

I would never get used to a Chinese breakfast – sauteed veggies and noodles and bread – because it felt too much like eating dinner.  So I always went out of my way to find a more Western breakfast, if available. You have plenty of options available to you. I couldn’t compromise being American in regards to breakfast, but otherwise, we did very well sticking to Chinese traditional meals and relaxation techniques – tea and massage.

There was a heightened alert in Beijing for terrorist activity against foreigners (which terrorism is only in question in the north and northwest part of China, at the moment). If you are any kind of Caucasian be aware of these things. Me on the other hand would be perfectly fine and probably never be in danger, but then I remembered that I was traveling with my wife. The Chinese military is top notch when it comes to protecting foreigners, though. They will go out of their way to ensure your safety. (*Note: For foreign ladies that like to travel alone China may be a great place. Statistically there are very little incidents that involve mugging, rape, or violence against foreign women. By law the penalties for crimes against foreigners are harsh and more often than not involve the death penalty.)

Only being in Beijing for four days and it being our first city experience in China we really didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore. If going to Beijing a good 7 days would do some good. There is much to see around Beijing and it is a hub to other nature sights in the north of China. There are plenty of day trips to involve one’s self.

To be continued…