Something very strange happened this Tuesday afternoon.
I’m pretty sure it’s nearly May so why is it snowing??
April 30th, 2016
April 30th, 2016
Sunday was my last full day and I got up super early to catch the metro to Hongqiao on the other side of the city. A bit of a forward planning fail meant I only looked up where the train left from at 10pm on the night before. Anyway after an hour’s uneventful train ride I arrived, seemingly along with half the population of China, in Hangzhou. The crowding I’ll address later but for now Hangzhou is famous for exactly two things: tea and a massive man-made lake.
There might be other things in the city. But I didn’t see them because my stay there exclusively involved an extended stroll around the lake. It’s called 西湖 “West Lake” and was dug out and landscaped over 2000 years by various dynasties. And is surrounded by gardens and pagodas and little temples. Due to it being a sunny weekend day and one of China’s top tourist attractions the paths around the lake were clogged and progress was very slow. Also there was over an hour of queuing to get into any of the lakeside attractions. So my advice to anyone going would be to visit on a weekday. I think it may have been particularly bad that weekend as unbeknownst to me Hangzhou was hosting the G20 summit so all the roads were gridlocked.
Anyway I eventually made it to the west side of the West Lake and the crowds had thinned out a little. Around here is the start of the famous tea growing area. There’s the Chinese National Tea Museum which is quite good. And outside there are some plantations you can wander around and see tea being grown in the traditional way.
The most well known local tea is 龙井 “dragon well” but it’s normally just transliterated to Longjing in English. The tea picking and processing is still done by hand. By luck I had arrived just at the end of the 2016 harvesting season so all the tea was super fresh. I wondered idly what effect the recent pollution has on tea flavour.
I bought some for a slightly extortionate 180元 for 50g in a small small shop. But the staff were friendly and they dished it out of a big sack which seemed pleasantly rustic.
By the time I’d completed my circumnavigation of the lake and returned to the city it was time to go back to Shanghai. I said to myself “well it’s an hour and a half until my train so I have plenty of time to collect my ticket and maybe eat dinner at the station”. Oh-my-god I had never seen so many people. Queuing for the metro, packed into the metro, and then queuing for nearly an hour at the ticket counter. I barely made it onto the train in time, which would have been awkward as I had to fly home the next day. I think I learned an important lesson about travelling in China at the weekend. At least it wasn’t Chinese new year.
Anyway, Hangzhou seems like a decent enough place. Apparently there is good hiking in the hills nearby, and some tea producing villages you can visit. So maybe worth another extended trip in the future.
April 29th, 2016
For the Easter weekend I left Suzhou and returned to Shanghai. In the morning before I took the train I intended to visit Tiger Hill. But the walk there proved somewhat longer than I had anticipated, and when I reached it, it was already time to go back. Sadly it will have to wait for another trip. On the way there I passed through a very crowded “local” market with all sorts of strange foodstuffs and even live chickens in cages and fish in paddling pools. Often China appears quite modern but occasionally you veer off the tourist or business track and it becomes suddenly a bit third world.
The train back to Shanghai, however, was the very latest technology. Completing the journey in about half an hour where the car ride out from the airport had taken over two. I travelled first class, because at £10 a ticket who wouldn’t? I didn’t have the best impression of Shanghai from my last stay there. So I only planned to spend half a day exploring and then do a day trip on Sunday. At least it wasn’t raining this time.
I stayed right next to “People’s Park” which was expensive but I was using some of my hotel reward points I’d accumulated through business travel. I explored the park a bit, which had some nice cherry blossom trees, and then tried to catch the metro to Pudong. This was challenging as the station under the park makes the maze under Kings Cross seem petite and easily navigable by comparison. I’m not joking: the metro station extends the full length of the park!
Pudong is a vast new area of skyscrapers on the other side of the river to Shanghai-proper. It’s amazing to think this was mostly swamp 20 or 30 years ago. The main attraction of the area is surely the Oriental Pearl Tower. Like their comrades in eastern Europe, the Chinese certainly know how to build an excellent TV tower. I didn’t go up it in the end: the weather had become quite hazy so I thought it probably wasn’t worth the exorbitant entrance price.
In the evening I went to this place called “Tea City”. It’s advertised as a sort of tea supermarket, which sounds fun, but is actually more of a tea shopping centre. With literally hundreds of tiny independent shops selling confusingly similar products. I wandered around slightly bemused for a bit and bought some Pu’er tea from a store chosen at random with a friendly if slightly strange shopkeeper. Seemed to be more of a place for people in the tea trade to be honest.
April 21st, 2016
On Good Friday I was done with work but instead of going home like everyone else I stayed in China for a few more days. There’s loads of day trip opportunities around Suzhou, including one of China’s largest lakes, but that will have to wait for another time because I instead picked one of several historic “canal towns” nearby. This one is called 同里 “TongLi”: the characters mean “with” and “inside” but I’ve no idea what the etymology is. It’s about an hour from Suzhou by long distance bus. The “long distance” bit is an important distinction as it means it departs from a totally different bus station to regular buses and boarding one involves a tortuously complex ticket buying and queuing system. Riding it was an interesting experience. Let’s just say I’ve been on cleaner coaches. But on the way back I made friends with a fellow passenger and got to practice my Chinese a bit, so overall it was a positive experience.
Modern Tongli has about 30 thousand inhabitants but the old town core is incredibly well preserved, perhaps due to a fee-charging tourism zone. The town is criss-crossed with canals, miles of them, to the extent that it has hardly any real roads. Apparently Suzhou was like this too once, but most of it was concreted over in the 20th century.
With a single “town pass” you get access to a myriad of old buildings and gardens. I ambled around so many beautiful traditional gardens that they all blended into one and I can’t recall what was the significance of each.
Anyway it all made for a nice relaxed atmosphere. All the guides I read cautioned that it would be heaving with tourists as it’s a popular day trip from Shanghai, for local Chinese at least. But I think I got lucky by visiting on a weekday. I ate lunch outside the house of an old lady who had set up some tables by the canal side. It was very… homely. But no sign of food poisoning and the tea was lovely so an excellent choice.
The evening light was fantastic so I snapped a few photos of the colourful waterfront houses before hopping on the bus back to Suzhou.
April 9th, 2016
Sunday morning I’d mostly got over my jet lag so it was time to go on a proper adventure. Nanjing, about 140 miles along the Yangtze from Suzhou, was my day trip destination. However, when I got up the world was blanketed by a suspiciously unnatural looking yellow cloud. Hmm. Anyway it soon moved on its merry way and I headed out to the train station.
Now, ordinarily back in England 140 miles is way beyond my normal day trip range but in China they have Advanced Train Technology which travels the distance in around one hour and only about £11 each way. Look at the nose on this thing! In the carriage there’s a handy speed display which hits about 270 km/h.
南京 “Nanjing” literally means “south capital”. That’s because it was the capital of China at various times in history. Most recently as the capital of the Republic of China until the revolution in 1949. All this means Nanjing is full of historical attractions. The most obvious being the massive city walls. There’s over 25km of surviving wall which makes it the longest intact city wall in the world. I first encountered it walking around the lake from the train station.
When the wall was being built in the Ming dynasty around 600 years ago, the emperor had a really great idea. He required all the towns and villages in China to send a quota of bricks for the walls, but each brick had to be marked with who made it and where it came from. So makers of defective bricks could be identified and punished. You can still see (and read!) the markings to this day!
You could spend a day walking along the walls. Sadly I didn’t have a whole day to spare so I just did a select section from the station into the town with a small detour onto a very crowded island in the middle of the lake. You can see from the mountains in the background how different the scenery is from Suzhou and the southern half of Jiangsu which is almost entirely flat.
After coming down from the wall I wandered around the huge Jiming temple. Jiming is 鸡鸣 “cry of chicken”. Lost in translation perhaps. Then I started to get a bit peckish. What to eat? Two Chinese people I know had independently suggested I try 鸭血粉汤 when I said I was planning to visit Nanjing. So I picked one of those “local” canteens on the street, which is always a bit of a gamble but seemed popular with the locals.
What is 鸭血粉汤? Well it translates as “duck blood soup” but it’s a lot tastier than it sounds. 超级好吃! In the bottom is some odd looking dried been curd strips which were quite fun to eat.
After lunch I caught the metro to another local attraction, the massive mausoleum of the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. Here’s a useful bit of trivia: he’s the guy on all the Taiwanese bank notes; the PRC ones all have chairman Mao. If you’re the sort of person who stuffs all their Chinese-looking money in the same drawer, knowing this can help to avoid those embarrassing situations where you try to use the wrong money. Not that that would ever happen to me. Nuh-uh.
As you can see there is rather a lot of steps leading up to the mausoleum. It’s actually on the side of a mountain that looms above the city. There are several other interesting attractions on the mountain including a temple and a hike up to the summit, which I didn’t have time to do. There’s lots of pretty woodland too, which you can see in the photo below along with, unfortunately, the return of the smoggy cloud.
In a very random encounter on the way down I bumped into some of my colleagues from Taiwan who had also spontaneously decided to come out here for the day. A good opportunity for dinner, but it curtailed my maximal sightseeing strategy somewhat. I reckon there’s enough remaining attractions here to fill a weekend, so definitely worth another visit in the future!