Wednesday, April 04, 2007 China China


Hangzhou pond [Enlarge]

There is a saying in China: Shang you tian tang, xia you Su Hang or 'Heaven has paradise, earth has Suzhou and Hangzhou'. Having seen beautiful Suzhou, we were looking forward to Hangzhou. But first we had another long train ride. It's not very far in a straight line between Suzhou and Hangzhou, but the train between the two goes the long way round via Shanghai. As a final demonstration of her thoughtfulness and consideration, Jing had been on the internet at home to find out the name of the stop before Hangzhou so that we would know when to get off the train.

This time it was a day train, and we were the only Westerners in our soft seat carriage. The other passengers were all Chinese people who were constantly eating, going to the loo, or going up to the end of the carriage for a crafty smoke out of the window. They couldn't sit still. The man opposite us had brought with him a plastic container full of pork ribs. As he only had about six teeth in his head he had to suck the meat off the bones. It took him a very long time and the sound effects were repulsive. We were glad when we arrived at Hangzhou and could escape. China is not even remotely comparable to India in terms of filth, but the men do enjoy a good slurp when they eat—especially when they eat noodles—and it is the national hobby to hack up and spit out big green balls of phlegm on the pavement. Anyway, we had the promised delights of Hangzhou to see us through the journey, which took five hours.

On the station platform we met Lily. She was about the same age as our last guide Jing, and very bubbly. Her English wasn't quite as good as Jing's, but it was good enough. She took us out of the station to the car and we met our driver, Mr Pan. He was also extremely friendly, much better than the others who hadn't seemed bothered about saying hello or interacting with us at all. He spoke a few words of English and was keen to learn more. When his vocabulary failed him he employed sound effects and gestures to communicate his meaning. We drove from the western railway station to a hotel near the central station for lunch. In the car, Mr Pan reached onto the dashboard and handed a leaflet to Lily, and asked her to ask us what it said. It was written in English and he had been handed it on the street, or by a passenger—we didn't catch which. It was a Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlet! We would have thought they'd have more luck bringing The Truth to China if they re-wrote their literature in the local language. Anyway, lunch was good and Isla got the opportunity to impress Lily with her chopstick skills by successfully picking up and eating a slippery peanut. Okay, so it wasn't impressive enough to elicit a round of applause, or even a single word of praise, but at least Lily didn't call for the knives and forks to be brought over.

There is a light-hearted competition between Suzhou and Hangzhou for which is the more beautiful. Lily conceded that Suzhou is beautiful, but stressed that its beauty is man-made whereas Hangzhou's is natural. For us it is a close run thing. Both towns have lovely wide tree lined streets and a general air of well-kemptness. Our first stop was the West Lake. This is Hangzhou's main attraction and covers an area of 8.9 square kilometres—that makes it bigger than Macau! We walked through a beautiful lakeside garden to the boat jetty to take a scenic tour of the lake. The sun was shining and the setting was lovely. Lily pointed out the the six harmonies pagoda, visible through the trees. Then she got out a one yuan note and showed us that the picture on the back of the note is exactly the scene we were looking at. She also told us about Hangzhou's three strangely-named sights: the Long Bridge, which is short, at six metres; the broken bridge, which is completely intact; and the solitary hill, which is (you guessed it) right next to another one. Each of these inaccuracies does have a little story to explain it, and they kind of make sense when you hear them.

The view from the top of the six harmonies pagoda was great—it was 102 steps up to the door and 227 to the top floor of the tower, so we were glad the climb was worthwhile—and the surrounding grounds were full of blooming peonies (China's national flower). We returned to our hotel with Mr Pan's recommendations for an evening walk scribbled on a local map that Lily had given us, but in the end we were so sleepy after our early start, and with the deficit caused by two overnight trains in the past week that we went to bed early and slept well.

We had a plane to Xi'an in the afternoon and so we only had time to visit one more site in the morning: the Lingyin Temple. Lily told us that without a visit to Lingyin Temple our visit to Hangzhou would be incomplete. She was right. The temple complex has many different sights to attract visitors. The first thing we saw was the Fei Lai Feng (Peak flown from Afar), covered in Buddhist rock carvings. The name is said to come from a legend which states that an Indian monk named Huili arrived in the valley 1,600 years ago and was surprised to see a limestone peak so dissimilar from the sandstone ones in the rest of the valley. He believed that the peak had flown over from India because its shape, although unique in China, is common in India. Around the peak are said to be 338 different carvings including many of The Buddha in various poses and incarnations. We didn't count them, but there were definitely a lot. After looking around some of the the carvings we climbed up to the temple itself. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the halls, so to see the amazing statues inside you will have to visit yourself, but it's well worthwhile!

Huge lunch for two [Enlarge]

We had another massive lunch at the hotel. See photo—we took this shot after we had eaten so much that we were full! It looks as though we haven't touched the food, and there is still enough left over to feed a family. We will need to have a few days of eating nothing after this tour is over. Lily and Mr Pan took us to Hangzhou's very modern airport and we said goodbye to Mr Pan in the car park, and Lily at the security check gate. Chinese airport security was very laid back, and there were no queues. We sat back and watched the locals pushing and shoving to be first out of the departure gate. Then when they had finished we sauntered over and were the last ones out and onto the bus—which made us the first ones off the bus and on to the plane! The Hainan Airways flight was very full, not just with people but also with ridiculously oversized hand-luggage. Eventually everything was fitted in and we were ready to go. Next stop Xi'an, home of the famous terracotta warriors!

Map of Day 130

Day 130
Suzhou to Hangzhou

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.