Friday, March 30, 2018

Hangzhou Revisited. West Lake.

On our boat ride on West Lake.

It was a really long day today but unfortunately, most of it was spent going from one place to another....either on a train or by car.

I came to Hangzhou on my 2009 visit to China and it was a full day visit.   I also spent at least 2 full days visiting water villages located nearby Shanghai.  When I planned this trip, I knew we would be short on time in Shanghai so there was no opportunity to allocate separate days to visit Hangzhou and a water village or two.  So, I went in search of a tour that would take us to both places in one day.  Since I had already been to some of the more popular water villages, I wanted to find a tour that would take us to Hangzhou and one of the lesser known water villages.  It wasn't easy finding anything and in hindsight, that should have been a clue.  But still, I was so excited to find a tour from a small, local tour agency called Miki Tours that offered a full day tour, out of Shanghai to Hangzhou and a water village called Xitang.  Xitang is known as being one of the location sites for one of the Mission Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise.  The tour description sounded good so I reached out to them and signed the three of us up for the full day tour.

The owner, Miki, reached out to me from the start and with the help of her assistant, made all the necessary arrangements.  We were assigned a guide, named Melody, and all the train ticket purchases were made in advance.  In addition, our meals were fully covered.  Miki and her team were extremely responsive and Melody turned out to be a wonderful guide who took very good care of us.

Our day began very early.  Even though the tour description indicates pickup at 8:30a, we actually had to meet up with Melody at 7:30a so breakfast had to be a quick affair.  No easier thing to do than to pop into the same restaurant that we ate at yesterday.  As I did yesterday, I took a photo of the congee that Bro wanted and showed it to the guy taking our order.  Thank God for photos!

She looks a bit grumpy but she was fine, just a bit tired and hungry.

We pretty much finished eating at 7:30a and the moment we stepped outside the restaurant, I saw a thin, lanky woman with a baseball cap on, standing out front of our apartment building.  I approached her and asked, "Melody?"  The grin on her face told me the answer.  We greeted each other and did a round of introductions.   As we walked to the East Nanjing Road metro station, Melody gave us a brief run down of our day.  I was looking forward to a fun day.

Since our tour covered all costs, Melody bought the metro tickets for us.   It was about a 45 minute ride to Hongqiao station and that timing was important to note because our flight to Beijing leaves from Hongqiao airport so it was good to know how long to factor in for the metro ride to the airport.

Hongqiao seems to be a major transportation hub.  The place is huge!  Luckily, we had Melody to shuttle us around the station because it would have been a challenge for us to figure out how to navigate inside this place even though the signage is in both Chinese and English.

As we made our way through the station, the two things that immediately struck me....other than its size were just how modern this station is and just how spotlessly clean it was.

This station is so modern that there is signage outside the toilet facilities to tell you which stalls are available and which are in use - it's obvious just based on the red and green color scheme.  Bet you haven't seen this in any other train station!

Considering the volume of people that make their way through the station every hour of every day, the floors were if they had just been recently washed and polished.

The departure gates for the high speed trains were on an upper floor.  

Unlike the other Chinese train stations that I've been to, this one does not have a separate lounge for the trains.  Instead, like an airport, there's one large lounge area and the departure gates are off to the sides. 

We were waiting for the G7351 train which departs at 10:08a.  As we stood in line, we watched a man run up to the gate to try and board his train which had yet to depart.  But here, boarding closes exactly 5 minutes before the actual departure time so the gate actually locks and you can't get past it.  You can try and convince the guard to let you through but this guard was not about to do that.  The man had no choice but to turn around and walk away.  He did not make any fuss about missing the train.  If this scenario had played out in the US, the man would be arguing with the guard and then most likely walking away in a huff.  Chinese have long learned to abide by the absolute rule of authority.  Thankfully, we were not in his position!

Ticket reads carriage 3, seat 15A

There were another set of departure gates on the opposite side of the waiting hall.  So, depending on which carriage your seat is in, you select which gate to enter through.  This is how the station in Linxia as well - Sallyanne had to board the same train through a different gate because her seat was not in the same carriage as Yim, Sal and I were seated in.

Boarding began about 10 minutes before departure.  No one in China enters anything single file.  Everyone just rushes forward en masse so the moment someone moves, I push my way along.  Not that I can do anything otherwise because someone is pushing me from behind.

So, we get down to the platform and there's no train.  Makes you wonder why everyone was in such a rush.

Standing on the platform, you realize just how modern the train system is in China.   As I stood on the platform, I looked across the tracks to a pair of high speed trains. We have no such trains like this in the US.  Not one and I doubt we ever will.  That is truly sad.  Again, it was hard to not notice just how clean the station here.  Even the platform gleams.

Our train pulled into the station and I am guessing that it arrived not even a second late.  I think the Chinese are determined to run their rail system with the same degree of efficiency as the Japanese are known to do.  It's no wonder rail travel is so popular here!

Boarding is always a breeze as the carriages are all marked with numbers.  It's just then a matter of finding your seat.

Not a second after 10:08 and the train pulled out of the station.   The high speed train ride is smooth and quiet.  There is no clickety, clackety sound as the train makes its away along the tracks and whatever you put on your tray table stays there - it does not vibrate off!  I know it was Bro's first time on a Chinese high speed train but with nothing else for him to compare it to, I don't know that he appreciated just how good a ride it is!

There was not much to see in terms of scenery so we all just kicked back and chatted to bide the time.

Less than 40 minutes after we boarded our train in Hongqiao, we arrived in Hangzhou.  We had traveled a distance of approximately 165 km in about 38 minutes.  If we had this train in the US, Hangzhou would easily be considered a bedroom community of Shanghai as people could easily commute to work in less than an hour.  That's incredible to think about!

The moment we stepped out of the railway station in Hangzhou and our driver was there to greet us.  We piled into the van and were immediately whisked off to West Lake, undoubtedly the most famous spot in all of Hangzhou.

West Lake is noted for its natural beauty and it's surrounded by numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, and artificial islands within the lake. Over the centuries, the lake has been a source of inspiration for Chinese painters, poets and garden designers. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. Sadly, today as was the case in 2009, it was such a hazy day that it's really hard to appreciate the beauty of the lake. I suspect the haze is really due to air pollution😧

Even so, the place was absolutely crowded with people.  You can see the throng of people on the bridge and walkway .

The picture below is of Broken Bridge, the most famous of the bridges in West Lake.  Sadly, this was as close as we got to the bridge.  It would've have been nice to walk over it and get a different perspective of the lake.

Going on a boat ride is a very popular tourist thing to do so I was not surprised when Melody negotiated with boat captain to take us on one.  I did the same thing back in 2009 but I floated about on a different section of the lake. 

A cup of the green tea that Hangzhou is famous for.  It's the captain's cup.

Once we were seated, the captain pushed the boat off the dock and rowed the oar to get us out into the lake.  In no time, we could see the skyline of modern day Hangzhou.

Our boat captain.

It really was a very hazy day and as much as it was nice to see the skyline of the city, I really wanted to the green landscape on the other side of the lake because that's where the temples and pagodas are.

On my 2009 boat ride,  the boat ride took me past the famed section known as Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, or Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon,  one of the most important and famous spots in Hangzhou.  Three small pagodas mark the site.  Listed as one of the “Top Ten Scenic Spots of Hangzhou” by Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty, the site appears on the RMB 1 bill as a representative of scenic sites in China.  Today, our boat ride did not take us there though I think we were close by as I remember seeing Leifang Temple (that's the temple in the photo below) as we were in  Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon.

West Lake is home to several man made islands.  Our captain took us by one of those and he told us that this particular island is home to one of the park's rangers.

It was nice to catch a glimpse of some wildlife that call the lake their home.

After navigating us on a ride around the small man made island, our boat captain took us back to shore.  In all, it was less than a half hour boat ride.  Not enough of a ride to even begin to appreciate the beauty of the lake.  All in all, it was a tad disappointing.

I guess it was planned that we do the boat ride from this spot because directly across the street from where we disembarked from the boat was a small museum that showcases the ancient Chinese art of seal engraving.

Seal engraving is common in many countries around the world, but only in China has it become a fine art in itself.

Seals first appeared in China in the Shang Dynasty (about 1600-1046 BC), when they were used mainly in government offices as a sign of authority.  For centuries, seal engraving has been deemed as one of the four traditional Chinese arts, along with painting, calligraphy and poetry.

In 2009, Chinese seal engraving was added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, described as “a cornerstone of Chinese fine arts".

There are many art organizations in China that are dedicated to the preservation of the art of seal engraving.  One of the most prominent ones is the century-old Xiling Seal Art Society which is based in Hangzhou.  It is their museum that we visited.

The museum is housed inside a very small complex with some pavilions and a pond.  It's pretty little space.

The little pavilion on the left is described below.

Housed inside the pavilion are larger than life size images of the seals.  None of the three of us knew how to appreciate the art of the seals.  I will have to do a bit of studying on the art form so the next time I see such images, I will know how to admire them.  Today, we all strolled by the images in a matter of seconds.

We hadn't done much sightseeing so far and it was already time for lunch.  We piled back into the van for a short drive to a restaurant serving up local specialties.

We entered in to a very inviting dining room.  Lots of cute and charm art displayed everywhere.  I felt like I was in someone's home about to have a nice meal.

If you just saw the photo, without the context of this post, you might think you were in some homey restaurant in the US.

We had no idea what to order so we relied on Melody to do so.  Of course, she wanted to showcase local specialties so we ended up with the classic Beggar's Chicken which I have tried to make at home but have yet to be successful. The version we had today was absolutely delicious.  I could taste the wine that was used to marinate the chicken and the meat was full flavored and very tender.  Chicken tastes so much better anywhere outside the US so even if I get the same ingredients and the the technique of making Beggar's Chicken down, the taste will not be the same.

We had a simple stir fry of Chinese cauliflower flavored with salted fish.  I just recently discovered Chinese cauliflower in my supermarket and it has become my latest veggie obsession.  Kale, move aside!

We also got a dish of Hangzhou style braised pork belly aka dong po rou.  Not something SK would eat because the dish has sweet tones to it but I had a craving for it.  Pork belly, cooked up any style, makes me happy!

Sadly, this photo of fresh bamboo shoots did not come out well.  Spring is the time to eat the fresh shoots so we had to go with this.  This was a true treat and they were delicious!  The shoots are very subtle in flavor but they were tender and sweet.

We washed our meal down with glasses of sour plum juice.  This was something I had on my 2009 trip and I really enjoyed the tangy flavor.  If you love cranberry or pomegranate juice, you would enjoy this and it's best cold.....very refreshing drink.

All in all, it was a very simple lunch but a very satisfying one.  I would describe what we had as classic Chinese home style cooking.  It's exactly the kind of food that makes me happy!

It was a very nice, relaxing lunch and we got to know Melody a little better over our meal. She has turned out to be a very thoughtful and considerate person.  We really enjoyed her company.

After lunch, Melody showed us how mobile payment works in China.  When we placed our order, the waitress entered the information into an app on her smartphone.  Yes, she took our order using a phone.  Then a short while later, she placed a small slip of paper on the edge of our table.  It was our order.  As each dish was delivered to our table, the server would cross off the item on the piece of paper.  That way, everyone would know if an ordered dish was missing from the table.  When it came time to paying, all that Melody had to do was Alipay (Wechat Pay is also accepted), scan the QR code to see and review the itemized meal order on her phone.  To make this work, there payment system had automatically associated our order with the QR code number displayed on the small plaque on our table. 

When she was ready to pay, Melody literally just clicked the Pay button.  We never had to call the server over to the table to have them bring the bill to us.  We never had to pull out our credit cards and hand them over to the server.  We never had to wait for the credit card invoice to come back for us to sign.  None of that.  Just zap the QR code and click Pay.  Done!

If you thought China was a developing country and the US a developed country, you might want to think again.  China is far more advanced than many people wrongly assume!  Time for the world to realize that a sleeping dragon is beginning to awaken!

With our bellies nicely filled with Chinese comfort food, we ventured out for a bit more sightseeing in Hangzhou.  The afternoon would turn out better than the morning.