Getting to China was challenging. Issues with flights and connections, various security checks and endless queues , etc., it made me wonder whether I was actually going to get here. But after nearly a day of travelling, I landed in the desert heat of Hangzhou, in eastern China. It’s a short bullet train away from Shanghai and previously an ancient capital of China. I’ve visited Hong Kong and Macau before, but this was my first trip to mainland China – the world’s most populous state.
The forecast for the week ahead was 38-39C. Even landing in darkness, I felt like I was tanning. My taxi driver was a multi-tacker – he watched a video on his phone and proceeded to weave in and out of traffic. As soon as I reached my hotel room, I nodded off.
Similar to Tokyo, breakfast was overwhelming. There were many items to choose from and heavy going for first thing. I don’t know how the locals do it, let alone where they put it. I picked up a yoghurt pot and asked for a spoon. But I was given a straw to drink it. I thought we were lost in translation. But when I looked around, it appeared to be the norm.
Armed with my wish list of places to see, I stepped out to brave the heat. You couldn’t see a blue sky from all of the heat and haze and not a cloud in sight. It felt like being in an outdoor sauna. I tapped Google Maps to work out my next steps, but this was a rookie error. Google, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat , etc., are all blocked in China. Plan ahead and download a reliable VPN client. That I didn’t. But I did have maps.me thanks to my friend Gavin. A game changing app which allows you to download an offline map when you’re on wifi. I had a close call with a few electric scooters passing by. They have their own lane, but approach silently. So you have to be alert at all times.
I headed towards the subway to chance the Hangzhou metro. Lucky for me, there’s an English option on the ticket machine and also translated station names. To be honest, it made me appreciate how accommodating some parts of the world are where English is used so widely on transport. I’d be in no mans land otherwise. Before passing the ticket barriers, there is a security check and if you have any bags, you have to place it through an X-ray machine. It took a matter of seconds and didn’t disturb my journey. Imagine such a thing in London? One thing you’ll notice on the trains in China, the stations and trains are well-staffed. You have the ticket staff, security guards, platform helpers, who bizarrely wear a beauty pageant-style ribbon. Then there’s personnel enforcing order on the train carriage itself, which I saw firsthand. A man was slouching and outstretched. He was asked to stop twice and given a talking to. The security guard and I exchanged a brief stare and giggle. Again, imagine this on the Tube?
Like other parts of Asia, the carriages are spacious and kitted out with TVs. The journey is obviously signposted in English and Chinese, so you can’t go wrong. Journeys for me cost around 60p – cheap, efficient and pleasant. There’s also moving adverts being played through the windows in tunnels, which at first scared the hell out of me when I saw Usain Bolt keeping pace with me.
My first pit stop was the Six Harmonies Pagoda. I’ve previously stated my appreciation for pagodas, so typically this was a peaceful setting. Near mountainous regions, it was clearly a historic site and surprisingly kept cool. There were many steps to climb and I reached the top,albeit drenched in sweat. The views were stunning. On one side you could see lakes and the city in the distance and on the other, you could forests and mountains in the distance. Hangzhou is a very green city.
The nearby Leifeng Pagoda was next up. Quite similar in structure, but clearly more majestic, maintained and very busy. The interior is filled with beautiful Chinese art, explaining various dynasties. From the top, you can see the renown tea plantations and the famous West Lake. I tested out my amateur photography skills here. Many of locals were interested in either my lens or intrigued by my appearance, clearly different to them.
Tired from the climb and bothered by the weather, I tried to hail a cab. It wasn’t easy. A few refused to take me. One chap howled with laughter. I’m not sure why. After a while, with my broken ‘Chinglish’ and my map, I was successful. I took a few hours to recharge and also grabbed a bite to eat. I went to a place by my hotel. I chose it on purpose because the menu had pictures and eventually, after pointing and gesturing, your order registers! This occasion aside, I couldn’t tell you what I’d eaten most of the time. But I did discover the tasty sweet potato faro balls for the first time.
At night, I highly recommend the Hefang Street area. It’s a typical night market – busy, noisy and decorative. Walking through the crowds, I heard chanting from the traders, came across some unique individuals and saw some stomach curdling food. I was traumatised by some of the items I saw. If something can kill me, then I don’t think I should be eating it.
I love going to night markets in Asia. I found a man selling bread, but it seemed like he wanted to inflict pain on himself and hop on one leg (see below).
There was also some chaps battering a peanut pastry with mallets, whilst chanting and I wasn’t sure if it was something symbolic (see below).
As I kept wandering, I came across a group of old ladies who were going through a dance routine, similar to a flash mob but with little emotion (see below).
There’s always a police presence on the streets, so you feel safe at all times. I’m not sure if this was due to the upcoming G20 Summit which takes place here soon. Security is one thing, but cicadas are another. You can hear these creepy little bugs making sounds all throughout the day and night. Initially, it can be unnerving and you often see them littered across the pavements. It’s just not something I’m used to seeing.
Speaking of unnerving, going to a Chinese gym can be a unique experience too. I’m used to hearing the odd grunt and men dropping weights heroically. But one day, I was in the company of a man who was chanting like he was in the military in between his workout. It became stranger when he approached me when I was using the bench press. He muttered to me in Chinese. I assumed he wanted to know how many sets I had left, but then after some confusion I thought he wanted to join me. But after he jumped onto the bench, he kept the bench to himself. I guess this was gym etiquette…
Interacting with locals it became apparent that not many people speak English, a challenge I relished. It was comical when ordering food. I had to grunt like a pig to indicate that I didn’t want pork on occasions. And I also had my pre-written peanut allergy spiel to avoid death. But it’s a game of patience. Being encountered by a Chinese family was also intriguing. A mother and her kids approached a friend and I. Clearly, we looked different to them. But that didn’t stop them from requesting individual and family photos. Somewhere in China, we’re trending! Ordering taxis can also pose challenges. Majority of the drivers cannot read the English map, but after repeating the address in Chinese a few times, it eventually registers. On one occasion when I was using my offline map, a few females distracted me. We got talking, but then we were faced by a frustrating language barrier. Through the translators on their phone I’d established that this was the first time they’d seen or interacted with a foreigner. Fast forward four hours and we’re sitting in a local cafe/bar having the most unique conversation through a translation app. American sitcoms and Justin Bieber gave us some common ground and it made me wonder where we’d be without technology.
Hangzhou is known for its tea, so it’s a good idea to grab a cuppa wherever you can. The green tea is refreshing, but like my other Asian escapades you can’t go wrong with a lemon iced tea. The city was known for being the ancient capital of China during the Songcheng dynasty. To find out more about its past I went to the ‘Big Show’ at Songcheng Park. Typically it was very extravagant and OTT. It was a romantic musical explaining Hangzhou’s history and at times mirrored Game of Thrones during the fight scenes (including real horses on stage). There were acrobats, dancers, the stage moved, the audience’s seating moved too, and it was all very unpredictable.
The West Lake, one of Hangzhou’s natural beauties is heavily promoted across the city. I went to check it out during sunset. It’s a scene of tranquility and beauty. In the distance, you can see pagodas on either side, the occasional tourist boat floats past and there’s a bed of lotus flowers. It’s a very picturesque sight and a photographers dream.
Given Hangzhou’s location, it seemed silly not to visit Shanghai. I took the bullet train and wisely booked first class, which is very reasonably priced. I made a hit list of sights for my day trip. However, I made another rookie mistake. I forgot to download my offline map for beforehand. Luckily, I’d noted the metro stations that I needed, but the rest was down to me. It was equally warm and there was an earth shattering thunderstorm during the dat, but without any rain thankfully. It was extremely hazy, so visibility at The Bund wasn’t great. I think it was a mixture of pollution and unpredictable weather. Nonetheless, the cityscape is pretty spectacular. Whilst taking pictures I had to evade a swarm of dragonflies. They were like toy helicopters!
Shanghai is busy and it felt more international with many more tourists, huge malls and Western influences. I checked out the traditional area of Yuyuan. It was overcrowded but contains great architecture and there were a lot of dragons! The markets and the main square reminded me of Covent Garden a little. Next on my list was the French Concessions. I only learned about the French heritage 24-hours prior to my visit. It felt very different to other parts of the city. There were palm trees in places, but the buildings looked very European and there were many French shops. After walking around aimlessly for a while I stopped off at an intriguing cafe – Blue Car Coffee. The walls were cleverly decorated with chalk drawn cars and it was the only place I could use reliable wifi.
Before heading back to the station, which is the size of a Heathrow terminal, I did some more walking. Similar to Hangzhou, there are some scooter-only lanes, however in Shanghai they ride across the pavement too! I know Shanghai has a lot more to offer, but I had little time to see more.
As my mini Chinese adventure draws to a close, I’ve learnt that I need to learn more of the language to get by. As difficult as some situations were, it’s inspired me to add Chinese to my list of languages to learn. My chopstick ‘tekkers’ needs to improve further. The day I can eat rice with them, is the day I know that I’ve made it. I will make sure that I’m better prepared so that I’m not cut off from the western world in the future. When taking connecting flights internally, I’d advise you all to be patient and prepare for multiple passport and security checks, even though it feels unnecessary. Also, it’s worth noting that there is no queuing culture – it’s a free for all at all times! I respect it. They just don’t give a s*** here! Try to download the Didi app (Chinese Uber equivalent) beforehand so that taxis don’t prove to be an issue. Be prepared to sweat, the heat is unforgiving.
The country is so big, there is a lot to see. One day I hope to tread across the Great Wall of China, it still remains on my bucket list. And maybe just maybe, I’ll be more daring with the street cuisine…