Pressing on to Hangzhou

After descending Huangshan, I headed back to Mr. Hu’s restaurant-inn for lunch. His wife whipped up a delicious eggplant with fried rice that hit the spot. They then let me shower and relax in a room with a television at a discount rate to kill a couple of hours waiting for the bus to my next stop: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

The bus ride was pleasant. I had the rear window seat next to some girls. I drifted off to some podcasts only to wake up to find the girl next to me had whipped out a tiny furball dog I thought was a toy, until it blinked at me with its small black eyes.

The Anhui countryside was dotted by paddy fields. It was a scene familiar to the Cambodian ruralside. Farmers with darkened skin from years toiling under the sun plowing fields with water buffalos. Anhui is one of China’s poorest provinces. It hasn’t enjoyed the economic boom of neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, which feed off the glow from China’s economic powerhouse Shanghai. Rather, it is a hostage to nature. Frequent floods to the north and rugged mountains make for mediocre crops even at bumper harvest.

But a peculiar sighting amid the rice paddyfields were tiny houses, each donning giant solar power panels – no doubt of government subsidy.

The bus pulled into Hangzhou about 6.30pm. It’s towering buildings signaled greater economic prosperity. No farmers here. After hailing a motorbike taxi and haggling a great deal, I made my way to a youth hostel situated a stone’s throw from the city’s famous West Lake (西湖). I checked into a male dorm of six bunks, the other five occupied by polite but shy Chinese backpackers.

I went for a walk and found an Irish bar nearby, appropriately called the Shamrock Pub. It was decked out in arbitrary vintage Guinness posters with friendly Chinese bar staff. I picked up the manager’s accent dripped in er hua, suggesting he was a northerner. It turned out he was a Beijinger, who affectionately, though somewhat embarrassingly, told his coworkers I was a fellow Beijinger. He told me in Chinese he’d been in Hangzhou for three years, and was engaged to a northeastern girl.

The next morning I rented a bike a set off around the West Lake. This was no small feat. Hangzhou is a great city to explore and easy enough to navigate with its giant lake – you’ve only got to follow the causeways around it. But you can expect to take a fair whack out of your day.

There are remnants of poets from past dynasties. No one is more famous perhaps than Bai Juyi (白居易). This Tang Dynasty poet is revered as the author of nearly 3,000 poems, dipped in social responsibility and historical satire.

Passing the wide causeways on two wheels would be equally well appreciated by a lazy stroll. There are plenty of benches to perch on and just watch the lake; boats rowing visitors from one side to another, and graceful willows bowing to the water’s surface.

The highlight for me was General Yue Fei’s mausoleum. This guy commanded the southern Song armies to a series of victories against northern invaders during the 12th century. His reward? His execution along with his son at the willing of treacherous premier Qin Hui. I shared the mausoleum that day with a group of tourists no doubt from one of China’s 50-odd ethnic minorities clad appropriately, along with a nostalgic revolutionary dressed in a dark green military and bearing a disturbingly strong resemblance to Chairman Mao.

From the mausoleum I took a cab driven by a middle-aged woman kind enough to put down her knitting to take me in. She was great. She asked me where I wanted to go and I asked her to take me somewhere good for buying presents of the silk variety. “Look at my skin,” she cooed in a sweet Hangzhou accent. “See how soft it is? I sleep with a silk pillow. I’ll take you to a good place.” It turned out to be the China Silk Museum. We made a brief stopover at the China Tea Museum beforehand where, after several discerning tastes, I picked up an expensive but rich 100 gram pouch of Hangzhou’s famed longjing (龙井) or “dragon well” tea. This won’t be quaffed at work, strictly for guests at home after dinner.

The Silk Museum was sadly little more than a cool, clean market flogging expensive, albeit fine quality, wares. I passed and headed to the Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔). Built in 977 AD, its modern makeover is less than subtle with an escalator leading to its grand, renovated entrance. History buffs can take heart that Buddhist scriptures written on silk were found just a decade ago during renovations. Once inside, you can take an elevator to the top for impressive panoramic views of the lake and city.

After the pagoda I planned the leg of my journey at the railway station ticket booking office: 429 kilometers over half of the next day northwest to Nanjing.

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