Archive for Hangzhou

A village visit

After my interview with the Fuyang Ribao reporter, I finally headed to what had been my intended destination for the day–Longmen (Dragon Gate) Village–an ancient town 10 kilometers outside the city. The town is in a state of stunning decay, Ming and Qing dynasty buildings and archways with faded characters crumble over narrow streets, populated by well kempt cats, scraggly dogs, pig-tailed children, and weathered grandparents, hunched over on stools stringing plastic badminton racquets with neon strings–the local cottage industry, I guess.

One familial clan dominates, the descendants of a man named Sun Quan, who was a king during the Wuyue Kingdom. Around 95% of the town’s population even today bears his surname, Sun, and a line of descent parallel to that running through Longmen Village was responsible for the production of China’s Republican hero, Sun Zhongshan, better known to English speakers as Sun Yatsen. One of the town’s own favorite sons was Sun Kun, who isn’t that interesting except for the fact that he built ships for one of the most intriguing characters in Chinese history–and my own personal favorite–Zheng He, the eunuch from Xinjiang who captained a fleet of Ming Dynasty treasure ships throughout Southeast Asia all the way to India.

Despite its semi-illustrious history, Longmen Village today is a shell of its past, albeit a beautiful one. In open courtyards, 400-year-old furniture sits under overhangs, unpreserved and unprotected against the bottoms of overexcited tourists, inquisitive youngsters, and jaded locals. My guide to the town, a young, bored Sun descendant, seemed both excessively proud of his family’s long and distinguished narrative and untouched by the splendor and ruin (and the splendor of the ruins) that surround him. The only thing that really lit him up was when he mentioned a number of Chinese TV shows that have been filmed in the town.

Still, walking through this town was an almost mystical experience, especially after all my time in big-city China, a classification under which even this current interlude in (relatively) green, moist, Hangzhou falls. Husked corn dried on the side of a pond, men eating cloud-like dumplings in a small shop called out an invitation for me to try some, the setting sun cast the town into stunning shadow. In all, it was well worth the strangeness of the events that came before it to visit this place, as it is now, and witness such spectacular living ruin.

Posted by on November 26th, 2005

Making (the daily) paper

The other day I hired a driver to head out to a city about an hour south of Hangzhou called Fuyang. L. had arranged for me to be met by a representative from that city of 620,000 people’s tourism office, Mr. Chang, who tailed me for the rest of the day, paid for lunch, and failed to say more than three or four words the entire time. After lunch, however, which was surprisingly delicious (the best dishes were xihongshi xiaren guoba, crispy rice cakes in a sort of tomato sauce, congyouguiyua large white fish with fresh scallions and no gloopy sauce, shanyao jue, purple Chinese mountain yams wrapped in crispy rolls of something lightly fried, and jiwei xia, steamed shrimp netted from the Fuchun River, gorgeous with bright red and white stripes–I apologize that words have to suffice alone here: I was a bit embarrassed to photograph the lazy susan in front of a number of city officials whom I didn’t know and whom didn’t speak English) he had a reporter from the daily paper, the Fuyang Ribao, intercept us at a park overlooking the river in order to write a story on me. She took photos of me enjoying the scenery, gazing pensively, and taking my own photos of schoolchildren and local women practicing for an upcoming group exercise contest. She asked me a bunch of inane questions about things like my impressions of the city (I had been there for about five minutes), how I thought it compared to other small cities in China, and others of that ilk. I tried to be both obsequious and humorous, quipping (via an interpreter) that if Fuyang were in the States it wouldn’t be such a small city at all. Hysterical, I know. What’s actually hysterical is the fact that my presence as a foreigner in this city of more than half a million people is so unusual as to be newsworthy. It’s not like they thought I was writing a book about Fuyang–I told them it would have a page or two in the book on Hangzhou (which is probably a stretch too). It really just is the boondocks, I guess, even though since it, like Hangzhou, is in Zhejiang Province, China’s wealthiest, it’s a pretty nice second- or third-tier city.

Before lunch, I had the chance to visit an “ancient papermaking village,” which in reality was actually more like a factory in old buildings using manual labor and old-fashioned techniques. I saw the men pulling bamboo frames through a freezing cold suspension of wood pulp and water, crafting perfect sheets of paper with each draw. I saw women printing classic tomes with wooden blocks on loan from a local museum. I got to try both of these things, and they were surprisingly harder than they looked–I guess these skills are actually hard to master. When I asked the man in this photo how long he had worked in the job, I found out that he had studied and apprenticed for three years first, followed by over twenty years of experience at this factory. The site was worth a short visit, especially for someone like me who’s more than mildly interested in/obsessed with paper, notebooks, and the other paraphernalia associated with writing.

Posted by on November 25th, 2005

Street food in Hangzhou

Today I happened upon what can only be described as a “snack street” here in Hangzhou. It was off of Hefang Lu, otherwise known as “History Street,” a pedestrian shopping area where old, probably restored, buildings line the street, housing souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. I’m still a bit amazed that the city can be full of tourists without there being more than a couple of other foreigners walking around–they’re just all Chinese. There are so many of them (as if I could ever forget that fact of demography)!

The snack street clearly caters to their tastes, while at the same time highlighting the ghastly specialities for which Hangzhou is famous. I saw giant snails, fried sea creatures on a stick (with their shells still attached below the tempura-like crust), chicken feet, pigs’ feet, unidentifiable feet, duck heads complete with bills, skewered giant silkworm pupae, scary stews and porridges, and some more appealing treats (to my tastes, anyway) like black sesame candy, naan-like bread stuffed with pineapple, rou chuan(r)–the Chinese take on shish kebab–and pancakes with noodles and vegetables inside.

I was actually still full from lunch and looking ahead to dinner with L., so I managed not to eat anything myself, although I did buy some of the sesame candy for my room, and I’m sure I’ll return to snack street at least once before I leave. I mean, who could resist?

Posted by on November 21st, 2005

An enlightening day

This afternoon I decided to head out to the opposite side of the lake and up a hill to a string of temples called by the name of the small winding street on which they’re located–Tianzhu Road, which I later learned is actually the archaic Chinese name for India, which makes sense since Buddhism first came to China over the Himalayas. I called the monastery on my cell phone so the taxi driver could get more specific directions than just the name of the street and the street number, which never seems to be enough information to satisfy cabbies in Beijing either.

Finally I arrived at the gates of the topmost temple, where one of the women who always sit outside temple entrances selling incense convinced me (without having to try too hard, certainly) to buy some pink sticks to burn inside. The people working at the temple were really friendly–they all wanted to know whether I was in Hangzhou to visit or to work, and were excited when I lit the incense and knew what to do with it. There were only two or three other visitors to the temple (which seemed to be a monastery from all the monks walking around but which I had read was actually a nunnery), and they passed me as I walked down the hill on the side of the road toward the next of the three temples.

I was content to take my time and revel in the calm greenery that surrounded me. A stream ran alongside me, and dogs ran from tree to tree next to it. I said hello to all the dogs, but they were all kind of scared of me. I was only scared of the chickens I passed crossing the road and wandering around outside the houses. It brought real clarity to my vision of the impossibility of what the Chinese government proposed yesterday–to vaccinate all the 4-5 billion chickens in the country against bird flu–after the first three confirmed cases of human bird flu in China were announced.

The next two temples were a bit larger but still beautiful and interesting, which is much more than could be said of my final stop of the day, the (supposedly) famous Lingyin Temple. The book I bought described it as one of ten temples of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist sect in China, but it was possibly the least zen place I’ve ever been. Gigantic tour groups with guides herding them with instructions shouted into blaring loudspeakers are not exactly my idea of tranquil. It was a disappointing end to a day of reflection and insight. Still, it was probably equally enlightening.

Posted by on November 17th, 2005

Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow

The title of this post is also the official name of one of the enumerated “Ten Views of West Lake” that appear in every Chinese-published English-language guidebook to this city currently in print. Most of the views (which are accompanied by “Ten New Views of West Lake”) don’t seem that special, but, as a fan of “evening glow,” I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to time my first visit to the Leifeng Pagoda on the southwest shore of the lake to coincide with that golden time of day. As these photos show, it probably wasn’t a bad decision. Leifeng Pagoda was originally built to house what the posted signs called “relics of Sakyamuni,” or Buddhist holy objects of some kind, but it was destroyed in the 1920s. The current structure, which stands seven pagoda-storeys high on the summit of a hill, was built of steel over the ruins in 2001. What makes it hysterical, though, is the fact that you can go from the level of the lake to the top of the tower without climbing more than ten or fifteen steps–the rest of the journey is made by a combination of two escalators and two elevators. That was great for all the elderly tourists I ran into at the top, but seems strange after climbing so many stairs at other ancient towers, both in China and around the world. I had not expected to rest my weary feet by getting to the top of a pagoda.

Posted by on November 17th, 2005

Welcome to West Lake

West Lake is considered the traditional (and official) heart of Hangzhou, and I figured I’d head there first in my attempt to wrap my head around this city as quickly and thoroughly as possible. I had not at all imagined that it would actually be as beautiful as it proved today: I spent over five hours walking around it, interspersed with stops at cafes and visits to just two of the dozens of peripheral sites that surround it. In that time, I only made it halfway around–I think the perimeter is probably about eight or nine miles, if not more. In all the statistics I’ve gathered so far, I’ve only found the area of the lake in square kilometers, which I don’t remember and I’m not about to look up again right now.

I was surprised by the large percentage of the people gathered around the lake who seemed like locals–although it is the middle of November and a weekday to boot. I was one of very few foreign faces in the crowd, certainly, but many of the Chinese just seemed to be living out their daily lives on the lakeshore, and not snapping pictures with goofy expressions and amusing poses like they’d most likely be doing if they were not Hangzhouren.

I’ve posted only my favorites of the many, many photos I took today. With a digital camera, it meant nothing to take over 140 pictures in the course of six or seven hours, and I know that as I spend more time here, I’ll become innoculated to the splendor of this city. I wanted to make sure to capture my original impressions of awe, as I’ve failed to do in most of the places in which I’ve spent long amounts of time (Beijing, and Madrid, and Cuzco, and Salamanca–basically every foreign city in which I’ve spent a month or more).

Posted by on November 16th, 2005

Adventures with L.

After I had disembarked the Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 at Hangzhou airport and grabbed my suitcase from the carousel, I passed through the doorway into the meeting area and a young, skinny, well dressed (not as in a suit and tie but more like not wearing the shitty sorts of casual clothes in which a Chinese 28-year-old might be liable to show up) guy called my name. It took a second to realize that my boss had asked me to send her a photo last week–I hadn’t thought it was so that L. could recognize me when I arrived. It’s a much better method than the usual tacky sign that I’d expected. L.’s boss had made him bring one of those anyway, in case he didn’t recognize me, but he showed me how he’d folded it up and stuffed it in his back pocket. He’d only gotten his driver’s license two months ago, so, since my plane landed at night, he had been uncertain of his ability to drive the long distance to the airport on the highway; instead, he had a company driver, Mr. Chang, as he was introduced to me shuttle us both in a white minivan. The ride into town took about a half hour, and we passed some of the futuristic houses the wealthy farmers of Zhejiang province like to build, though it was too dark to get a decent photo.

We went first to my hotel, so I could check in and drop off my bags, and then the three of us headed toward a Korean barbecue place, since L. was excited about the chance to eat there. He promised that we’d have plenty of chances to eat Hangzhou food together, and I think he was even a bit disappointed that his chosen cuisine wasn’t new to me. I told him how I eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant in New York whenever my brother can convince us to shell out the cash (at home it’s really overpriced, which I guess it tends to be in China too, although the “prices” are so low here that “over” is hard to calculate), which usually happens only on or around his birthday. On our way over to the restaurant, L. called ahead to reserve a table and found out that the kitchen was out of lettuce with which to wrap the barbecued meat. He and Mr. Chang were so disappointed that they asked me if it would be alright to stop at the supermarket before dinner so we could buy our own! Of course I said okay. That moment marked a most auspicious beginning for this journey. Dinner was delicious, we had lamb, beef, and squid to cook on our table-top grill, as well as scallion pancake, shiguo banfan (better known to Americans by its wonderful Korean name: bibimbap), and my first taste of Hangzhou’s favorite beer: Siwo, which seems to be an attempt at non-pinyin transliteration of its Chinese name, which is, unsurprisingly, Xihu Pijiu, or West Lake Beer. It was at that very lake that I would end up spending most of today.

Posted by on November 16th, 2005