Crazy Fulbrighters in Hangzhou

Last week, Yiyi (a fellow Fulbrighter) invited me to spend some time with two other Fulbrighters, Sam and Melissa, currently doing a critical language program in Harbin. The next day, they invited me to go to Hangzhou with them for a few days, and completely on a whim (which is very unlike me, who normally plans things months ahead of time) happily agreed to go. It seemed even more attractive since they had arranged to stay with another Fulbrighter, Jacob, who was living in Hangzhou. I knew very little about Hangzhou, other than its famous West Lake which, according to the Lonely Planet, is one of the few places in China that deserves the reputation given to it by exaggerated Chinese travel brochures. But it turned out to be a wonderful few days of relaxing and exploring parts of China far (well relatively far) removed from Shanghai. So that afternoon

It is shockingly easy to get to Hangzhou; it only takes about an hour or so by train. I guess this is shocking to me because Shanghai is about as lively, bustling and 热闹 as Hangzhou is calming and tranquil. Right after we arrived (and stood in line at the train station for a half an hour waiting for a cab) we went to eat some Hangzhou food, which included 东坡肉 (really fatty pork cooked in wine and soy sauce) fried potato cakes, pumpkin, eggplant, and fish. Everything was really delicious. After this meal, we went and walked around the West Lake. The tranquil environment of the lake is exquisitely preserved, and everything from the subtle lighting, the weeping willows draped across the landscape, and even the walkways which were immaculately and included small carvings of flowers and birds, contributed to a feeling of stereotypical "traditional China."

The next morning, I was determined to wake up early and see the sunrise, and (lucky for me) Melissa agreed to go with me. We woke up at 5:15 and, on Jacob's recommendation, went to climb to the top of Wushan (a mountain very close to Jacob's apartment; it had a temple near the top which overlooked the lake) to watch the sunrise. We made it to the temple only to find it locked, so we continued to climb. Eventually, although after the sun had already risen, we made it to another pagoda which went above the tree line and offered a beautiful view, but it was difficult to see the lake due to the thick mist that covered the landscape (see picture to right). Nevertheless, the hike was worth getting up at 5:15 if only to see the town come alive with all of the locals doing their own exercise routines (see next post).

Melissa and I then trudged back to Jacob's apartment just about the time Jacob had to get up for class. I fell back asleep for a couple of hours. By around 9, we were all ready to explore the West Lake area for the day using conveniently located bike rental centers which allow people to rent bikes for about 1 RMB/hour (which, in USD, is about 15 cents an hour). After a bit of confusion as to where to rent the bikes (you have to get a card before you can rent bikes), we set off towards the hills behind West Lake.

Before we set off, however, we took a few moments to get some donuts at Big Apple Donuts, a great place Jacob introduced us to which has handmade donuts and a lot of different flavors. My favorites were the strawberry jam one, the Alien (which was a dark chocolate filled donut that was topped with more dark chocolate and chocolate shavings), and the White Nut (white chocolate on the outside, peanut butter on the inside). We ended up getting these donuts every day we were there, and with no regrets; they were delicious.

Our bike ride around the West Lake was really beautiful. The landscape seemed never ending, and despite some of the more congested roads around parts of the lake, the roads were always lined with green trees, grasses, and smaller bodies of water. Eventually, we made it about halfway around the lake where we came upon the botanical gardens. Sam really wanted to see the Osmanthus flower, which was apparently in bloom, and we had heard that the gardens were supposed to be beautiful, so we decided to take a look around. While the gardens are not as well kept as many of the American botanic gardens are, they are still full of well trimmed natural wildlife. As we looked for the Osmanthus gardens, we stumbled upon a few odd places in the garden. One of our humorous finds near the golf course was a statue of a few people playing golf completely naked; the girl was particularly suggestive as she was bent over waiting to swing her club, although her rear quarters were in a somewhat awkward position in relation to the (also nude) gentleman behind her. Another area of the garden which we stumbled upon had the English name "Watching fish at Yuquan" (one of those funny English translations that has yet to be corrected). When we first arrived, all we saw was a dirty looking lake with itty bitty fish that looked like bugs (see the picture to right, captioned "where are the fish at Yuquan?"). However, as we moved through an arch into the area nearby, we saw the fish we were supposed to be watching; the largest black fish I have ever seen before. After we watched the fish at Yuquan, we found the Osmanthus gardens. Unfortunately, the flowers were no longer in bloom (we had just missed it) but the trees still smelled lovely.

After the botanic gardens, we hopped on our bikes again and headed into the hills. We soon approached the Lingyin temple, but we thought it would be more interesting to go around the scenic areas near the temple and explore the hills nearby. We went through a small town-like area (I'm still not sure what it was, I assume it was built up for tourism surrounding the temple) and then came upon another smaller temple (see picture to left). We went inside and looked around, and were fortunate enough to see people on a retreat chanting, which brought me back to my Foguangshan days. I was quite nostalgic for the beautiful harmonies created by the Chinese Buddhists as they sing their chants, and I really enjoyed listening to that once again.

After exploring the temple, it was nearly 2 in the afternoon and we were quite hungry, so we went to a nearby teahouse for lunch. There was no menu, so the people who owned the restaurant gave us some recommendations, and we ordered some chicken soup, fish, and greenbeans. The fish was my favorite, cooked whole in a lot of soy sauce and other seasonings. The greenbeans were also delicious, they were flavored with some sort of brown vegetable, but I'm not sure what it was. And while I'm not a big fan of whole chicken on the bone cooked in broth, the mushrooms, bamboo, and broth of the chicken soup were very flavorful (see picture to left). And of course, the Longjing tea was quite nice, although I learned a lot more about tea the next day when we went to a tea shop. The bill we accrued was much higher than expected (especially the 20 RMB/person tea which we didn't order), but still delicious and much more reasonable than what we would buy in the states (or Shanghai, for that matter).

The bike ride home was much faster, mainly because it was almost all downhill. We returned back to the entrance to the West Lake where we returned our bikes and went back to Jacob's apartment. Jacob had offered to make us Indian food for dinner, so we all went together to a vegetable market to buy veggies for our dinner, but not before we caught the sunset over the lake. We caught a red sun just as it was setting behind the distant mountains, and it reflected beautifully over the lake. We tossed a frisbee as we headed down towards the edge of the lake, and sat quietly enjoying the scenery for awhile (see above picture and picture to left).

After we bought some vegetables, we all worked together to chop up vegetables, and then Sam and Jacob created some of the most flavorful and delicious veggie dishes I had ever had (and this is from a girl who really doesn't like her vegetables). Sam made a wonderful stir fry with eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, carrots, and tofu, and Jacob made a dish with potatoes, cauliflower, and tomatoes based on an Indian dish called gobi alu (see picture to right).We also made a spinach and mushroom dish (I at least tried the mushrooms, which is quite the accomplishment for me). After we were stuffed full of fantastic food, Jacob taught us all how to make chapati bread. We rolled the dough into thin disks, and then fried them in a wok and then over the fire from the gas stove. We also made chocolate sauce to accompany the bread along with peanut butter and bananas (see picture to left).

However, our wonderful night continued. Jacob had bought a small inflatable raft/boat which he often took down the canal that went through Hangzhou. So full of food, we walked down to the canal, bought some wine and beer, and floated down the river. While the wine was the worst wine I had ever tasted, the evening was calm and peaceful. Only private residences and parks lined the canal, and the trees draped over the water. It was probably one of the few times I was in a public area in China where there were no (or very few) people around. At one point, we attracted some attention as we burst into song. We also floated past a young boy who had seen Jacob before, and he and his mother followed us down the river waving and smiling. We invited him to come, but he had to go to bed. :)

The four of us chatted about a variety of topics, and I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by such amazing people. I was the youngest person there, and also clearly the one with the least life experience. Listening to Melissa's stories about traveling in Europe, Jacob's cooking lessons in India, and Sam's knowledge about growing tea made me want to do more and learn more. I guess that means I should try and travel as much as possible while I am here. It also made me look at how I have always approached my life. I have always been very goal oriented, or to quote Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, "single minded to the point of recklessness." While there are benefits to being extremely goal oriented (I'm pretty happy that I had many grad schools to choose from rather than one, or none) but I may be missing out on other things. At first, this made me feel somewhat inadequate; then another friend pointed out that actually, being the youngest person in a group like this almost puts me at an advantage because of how much I can learn from others. I think this year will be good for me to explore more things about China beyond history, like cooking, religion, art, and minority culture (which, after talking with Melissa, I realize I still have so much to learn). I also hope I will take this into graduate school with me, and perhaps have the opportunity to expand a bit (although I may be a bit too hopeful). Still, life is a long time, as my dad always says. I have my life to explore new things as well. My life doesn't end with graduate school (I hope).

Thus ended our first day in Hangzhou. The next day, we were all so tired that (aside from Jacob, who had to get up for class) we slept in until 10:30. I needed to buy my train ticket back to Shanghai, so Sam and I trekked down to the train station to buy tickets while Melissa went to buy fruit for breakfast. We were pleasantly surprised when we returned to find that Melissa had bought us donuts (see picture to right), so the four of us (Jacob had a break from class) and Jacob's roommate devoured a dozen donuts . After a long breakfast that spilled into lunch, Melissa, Sam and I decided to walk around Qinghefang old street where we wandered into tourist shops, laughed at a giant statue of the laughing Buddha covered in little children (which I thought was not Chinese at all, although my mom has a smaller version of a statue with a similar theme). We also stopped to buy some tea, but before we bought any, we asked to try some. We tried some of the cheaper tea they had for sale and some of the much more expensive kind. While I have never known a lot about tea, I could very clearly taste the difference between the cheaper and more expensive kinds. The cheaper one was what I was used to; much more bitter, almost sour, green tea. The more expensive one was smooth, nutty, and comforting, a kind of tea I could see myself drinking quite often. Apparently, the difference is in the age of the tree, how old the tea leaves are, and where from the tree they are picked (the top leaves are best). I knew very little about tea (I had never even heard of Longjing tea), but I'm glad I got this very small lesson (see tea gardens to left).

We then stumbled across a food market with a lot of very strange, yet delicious food options. We saw things as strange as boiled rabbit heads (we didn't buy any, don't worry) and whole chickens cooked in lotus leaves (which we DID try, it's a Hangzhou specialty called "beggar's chicken”. There is a picture of it on the right). We also tried shrimp cakes (called xiarenbing. We know that "xia" means shrimp, and “bing"means cake, but we don't know what the "ren" is. We assume it doesn't mean people) and rice with pork wrapped in lotus leaves. It was a very lucky find, and I'm sad we didn't try even more.

After our culinary adventure, I had to go to the train station. I know I will be back in Hangzhou at another time, where I hope I can explore more, such as the temples and bamboo forest. I am very glad it is so close to Shanghai, and I think that a few more trips may be necessary to maintain my health (the air made me feel so much better).

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