Half term is upon us. This is confusing my body somewhat, as it isn’t used to the concept of a holiday that starts in September. I wouldn’t say that this is the most unusual thing we’ve had to get used to since moving out here (or in the top 10) but it struck me as unusual this past week in the build up to Friday. On Friday itself, the government announced that the bridges and tunnels linking Pudong to the rest of Shanghai would be shut early because of the National Holiday (more on this in a later blog) and so school would have to follow suit if anyone wanted to get back to the other side of the river before midnight. This news was not met with universal disappointment by either staff or students, and so at 1.30, off we all went to begin our week of good tidings and dumplings to all men.
Upon waking at the weekend, we were fully ready for the typhoon weather that I talked about in this blog. We had packed our winter gear, coats, long trousers, and waterproofs and came out of our apartment block to this:
One (warm) cab ride later, we arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao rail station. Upon arriving, we realised that most of Shanghai had also had the idea to go away for a few days, so we were greeted by a station alive with energy, noise, bustle and terrible queuing.
The bullet train from Hongqiao covers the 177km south-west to Hangzhou in just under 1 hour, topping out at 301km/h. The seats were extremely comfortable (we had upgraded to first class for the princely sum of £15) and the sound of a young girl’s ipad singing ‘Incey Wincey Spider’ at her in the world’s most irritating American accent notwithstanding, we had a very pleasant journey into Hangzhoudong station.
So, what’s in Hangzhou? Well, until about a month ago, the G20 summit was in town which gives you some indication of the size and importance of the city. We weren’t in town for politics though; we’d come for some R&R. We spent our first afternoon there
walking around some of the local streets looking for something interesting to do. We didn’t really find anything; but this isn’t a slight on the city – it’s more that we had a limited time budget and had done relatively little preparation for the trip. We were saving the big trip for our full day, after all. Hangzhou is most famous for its West Lake which, for any nomenclature fans among you, is a lake on the west of the city. There’s nothing I can tell you here about its history that isn’t widely available on Wikipedia or a million other sites, but having read and heard about it, we were excited to see it for ourselves. We thought it would be easy enough; after all our hotel was at the north end of a park just near the lake…
We were also told that there are paths through this park which bring you out by the lake, and so we thought we could easily have a leisurely walk through the local greenery and take in the views of the lake. Well, it’s not a park. It’s a mountain. Baoshi Mountain, to be exact, and the gentle leisurely path through the park we were expecting was replaced by a stone path of approximately four hundred million stairs, all of which seemed to go up at fairly scandalous angles.
On the plus side, it was very picturesque and made for a moment of pride when we reached the summit (I don’t know the height of the mountain, but since we both climbed it in about 40 minutes and weren’t, you know, dead, by the time we got up there but merely a bit sweaty and out of breath, it can’t be all that high in the grand scheme of things. That said it was a damn sight higher than either of us had planned to be when we’d set off that morning) to discover that you can’t see anything from the top because of the foliage all over the place being all green and blocking your view of the lake on one side and the city on the other. There is, however, a thoroughly dilapidated building at the top that looks like it’s been used in a million TV shows as either a torture chamber or the place where some obscure cult have their headquarters.
Realising we didn’t want to be tortured or join a cult, but really only wanted to get off this mountain and see this infernal lake, we ploughed ahead and were rewarded before long by rounding a corner to finally get a nice view of this famous body of water. It didn’t disappoint – suddenly the air was thick with mysticism and romance, and we tackled the descent with a considerably renewed energy.
On the way down we encountered a museum about ancient times which had some pleasant curiosities and was free to enter, which is always a bonus. We also found some pagodas erected along the route (Lord only knows how they managed to do it, but those are questions best left unanswered, I always think) and even one or two houses that appeared to be domiciles for some local Hangzhouians. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how someone would live in such a reclusive place; but then I suppose I’m not living there and if they’re looking for some seclusion, I can think of plenty of worse places to find it.
Eventually, we found ourselves lakeside…and it was time to handle the crowds we’d been warned about. Unsurprisingly, the mountain hadn’t seemed all that busy (perhaps everyone had done a tiny bit of research and, upon realising there was a mountain in the way, taken a different route to the lake) but now we were in the middle of quite the rush.
It was a relatively harmless rush though; everyone seemed willing to co-operate and generally keep things moving as much as possible. What we weren’t expecting though, and had to get used to pretty swiftly, was being looked at with great interest by a lot of people. I am tall, Sarah is a redhead, we are both westerners and basically none of the five or six million other people around the lake met any of those descriptors. This ranged from the subtle (both of us had to tell the other about people sneaking very interested glances at them when they thought we weren’t looking) to the not quite so subtle. While crossing the lake on one of its causeways, one family stopped posing for their picture together to take a picture of us instead. This was odd enough, but not as odd as the woman who firmly instructed her husband to put down what he was doing, and take a picture of the three of us together. He couldn’t work the camera and so we had that wonderful moment when she tried her best not to get annoyed with him, got annoyed with him anyway, and then produced a selfie stick (from where, I thought it imprudent to ask) and snapped away, with us as willing if slightly confused participants.
Once we had escaped the crowds and waded through the stationery traffic and its cacophonous symphony of horns (I really will never understand the logic of sitting in a queue that is clearly going nowhere just blaring your horn randomly. What exactly is the best you’re hoping for? Anyway, one for another day, I think) we retreated back to our hotel. And what a place to retreat. If you ever find yourself in Hangzhou you could do a lot worse than staying at the Dragon Hotel. The bed was as comfortable as it was big, and it was huge. The room service was tasty and could be ordered by remote control, and so once ensconced we proceeded to sleep deeply and pleasantly. The next morning we were treated to some of these intricately decorated sweets which tasted oddly of nothing at all, but weren’t unpleasant, and then it was time to head home.
Hangzhou, we barely knew thee. Thanks for having us though, we must do it again some time.