Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Circling Shanghai I: Hangzhou

We flew into Shanghai on November 5 and spent three nights there at the Mason Hotel in the French Concession.  We'll do our show and tell about that part of the visit to Shanghai a few blog entries from now, when we describe that stay together with our return to Shanghai for the nights of November 15, 16 and 17, when we finished our visit to China with a stay at the Astor House Hotel near the Bund.

Today we'll begin describing the intermediate week with the first of three parts, about our two-night visit to Hangzhou.  As you can see from our map, what we did was "circle" Shanghai, sort of, using short train trips to connect Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou before returning to Shanghai.  The four train rides totaled just over 600 miles, for which we spent just over 6 hours on the train.  Half of that was the leg from Hangzhou to Nanjing.  By comparison, 600 miles is the same distance as a round trip by train between Seattle and Eugene OR, which takes twice as long on Amtrak's fastest West Coast train, the Cascadia.

Part of what keeps China's trains affordable is the fact that they run at close to full capacity almost all the time.  The demand is so great that they have to have a way of fairly distributing those tickets so that everyone has an equal shot at getting them.  They do this by making most tickets available starting ten days before one's journey, not a moment earlier.  If there are only one or two trains a day going from where you are to where you want to be, don't delay getting your tickets!

To be sure big tour companies don't gobble up certain trains, the authorities have also limited access to tickets to the region involved.  Our Beijing travel agent could get us train tickets from Xi'an to Luoyang and back only by using a partner travel agent in Xi'an, who booked them the moment they were available in Xi'an.  We paid the Beijing travel agent and the Xi'an agent dropped off the tickets at our hotel in Xi'an.  Cumbersome, but in this case it worked.

There are however a few busy travel corridors where it is possible to walk up and get tickets for travel the same day. We did so to get from Tianjin to Beijing, and tried again on each of these four legs.  As it turned out, we purchased two legs of the trip at a time, and had minimal waits for our trains.  Not surprising, since our destinations are all large and important cities and there are sometimes several trains per hour connecting the various dots we had circled on the map.  In Tianjin we were able to get tickets for a train leaving 90 minutes later, enough time for lunch nearby.  This time the train was about 3 1/2 hours from when we got the tickets, so we took the subway a few stops to see a museum that was on our checklist of places to visit in Shanghai, and it worked out perfectly.

The hotel agreed to hold our two suitcases for the week, so we packed some changes of clothing and what maps we had, along with the indispensable Kindle and iPad, and traveled light.  We arrived in Hangzhou about 5 pm and were duly impressed by the verdancy of the fields we passed along the way.

Hangzhou is the southern terminus of the world's longest man-made waterway, the Grand Canal, which by the 5th century stretched 1100 miles from here all the way to Beijing. We don't don't know if this next shot is of a section of it or of a branch line, but we followed it for a while then ran alongside a more modern transportation corridor, a freeway. Those cars, by the way, seemed to be driving backwards as we moved along so much faster. Our train rarely went below 160 mph other than approaching or leaving a station, and on this particular train we hit what for us became our new personal land speed record: 307 kph, i.e. 191 mph!

Since Hangzhou was once again a place not on the original itinerary, Jeff had not found and printed a decent map before we left home, and all we had was one that showed a few major arteries.  Our hotel was on one of them, however, and the train station was also marked, so all we had to do was figure out which way to turn and head about 2 miles in that direction.

Easier said than done, since it was overcast thus no sun to give direction, and the old Boy Scout trick of looking for moss on the north side of the trees doesn't work when you don't see a tree in your two-mile walk through Hangzhou.  After we made a few attempts at Mandarin that probably sounded like "Wet Lake" or "West Lick," we succeeded in getting someone to point us in the direction of West Lake, which gave us enough of an orientation to take off in what we hoped was the right direction.  As we passed a high-end hotel we popped in and located a concierge who reassured us we were indeed on a correct course, and gave us an indication of how far it was to the street where we needed to turn left.

We were booked in what the Ramada hotel website said was the "Hangzhou Ramada," but the name had not gained a whit of recognition from any of the few people we had asked for directions.  When we did arrive, we made two discoveries.  One was that we had indeed come by a direct route.  The other was that no one, including the folks running the hotel, refers to it as the "Ramada" hotel.  It has a Chinese name that translates to something catchy like "Golden Serenity" or maybe "Heavenly Pigeon Nest," but whatever it was, it slipped our minds as soon as we heard it.

When we reached our room, we made a third discovery.  We had chosen a Western chain hotel in the hopes that it would have a more Western bed, one that would be a little softer than a plank.  No such luck.  It did have a choice of two restaurants, one serving a buffet of Western food for about $28 per person, another serving Chinese food with a menu in Chinese and English.  We had a satisfying dinner for two in the latter for $12 total.

OK, enough talk.  Where are the pictures, you've been asking?  We came to Hangzhou for one overriding reason, to see West Lake, and it was even better than the guidebooks and fellow tourists we had previously met led us to expect.  It was so good we had our longest walk in China, 12 miles, in order to completely circumnavigate it.  Even though it rained off and on all day, mostly on in fact, the lake and the parks that completely ring it still shined.

The hotel breakfast buffet was a steep $14 per person so we headed over to a McDonald's a block away and filled up on McMuffins.  The lake was only a few blocks away and almost immediately we encountered an interesting sculpture group identified as an American exchange student talking with some of the locals.  Nearby was a second sculpture group of Confucian scholars.  When we reached the lake shore we looked through the gloomy weather to our right at the Bai causeway built about 1200 years ago, the first destination on our counter-clockwise journey.

We had counted on foraging off the land for lunch, and there were indeed several Starbucks to help us along.  At the second one Jeff broke down and had a grande mocha for $5.  Yes, overpriced particularly for China, but oh, so good!  Actual lunch spots were more elusive, so we settled at a tea house for a bag of shell-your-own peanuts, which came with a plastic bowl for the shells, and a bottle of oj to keep us going.

By this point the rain had become fairly steady, but our raincoats and rain hats kept us dry and comfortable.  We were greatly outnumbered by the umbrella users.  Actually, there was only one location, where we took this photo, where we saw large numbers of fellow walkers.  Mostly it was uncrowded.

We saw these three fellows practicing a course between two buoys on things that looked like a cross between a kayak and a paddle board.  Trying to make lemonade out of the sour weather, we did our best to admire the mist rising from the mountains south of the lake.  We walked past and admired the beautiful Leifeng Pagoda from several vantage points, but chose not to pay the few dollars to climb it since the visibility was so poor and the pagoda was only a reconstruction in any event.

As beautiful as the views of the lake and of the landscaping were, we also found ourselves often looking down at the walkway, it was so interesting.

As you can see from the raindrops on the water, it was a fairly wet day, but every day is a wet one for one sculpture we passed.  Water was also in motion in an enormous fountain that does a choreographed performance a few times a day.  It looks like there might have been a short respite from the rain just then as we stood and watched the fountains dance, so many of the tourists are without umbrellas or "Seattle Sombreros," the name of our rain hats from Seattle-based Outdoor Research.

Well, the next morning the rain was gone and we had a very pleasant walk back to the station, this time covering more than half the 2-mile distance by walking along a canal past some locals doing their Tai Chi exercises and another local who had brought his pet birds out for some fresh air.

One more story before we board the high-speed train past yet more verdant fields and local architecture to our next destination.  Our second night at the Hangzhou Ramada, we returned to the Chinese restaurant on the second floor for a second dinner.  "Shrimp in herbs" sounded like an interesting dish to accompany our two vegetable choices.  When it arrived, Jeff was still working on serving himself the tofu and gai lan when Louise raised her voice an octave and said "Jeff, there's something moving in that dish!"  We didn't have the camera with us, but a few days later got a glimpse of the same thing in a market.  They had put a bed of "herbs" in the dish and ladled a load of live shrimp on top of them!  We sent it back and asked them please to "cook the shrimp," but our waiter had apparently never come across the sentence "cook the shrimp" in whatever English classes he had taken, so nothing ever re-emerged from the kitchen.  We munched on a few snacks back in our room later, and made do.

That train took us on to the ancient capital city of Nanjing, which we'll describe in our next blog.

No comments: