Hot and hazy in Hangzhou

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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…

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Peaceful Pokhara

I’ve never minded early starts and they’re much easier when I can have a quick hot shower to wake up. I turned mine on and the water filtered through like a drink through a straw. It was ‘great’ start to the day. I made my way to the bus stop and boarded a tourist bus to Pokhara. Not a public bus. I didn’t fancy my chances on the roof.

Five minutes after we set off, the bus stopped abruptly. The driver didn’t explain anything and just left us for around thirty minutes. He returned and then pulled into a petrol station. It turns out we were in a queue to fill up. I’ve mentioned the fuel crisis before and I really counted myself lucky that I was able to make this journey in the first place. As expected, it was a bumpy ride. But that was quickly forgotten along the way. We headed up into the Gods along the winding and narrow roads with spectacular views of various peaks and lakes along the way. Seven-and-a-half hours later, I’d reached Pokhara. It was already warmer and sunnier than Kathmandu. I could walk without a jacket on!

I’d arranged a transfer from the bus station to my hostel beforehand. As I got off the bus and looked for a name card, a rather burly-looking chap shouted “CHOUDHURY!” He took my bags and I was expecting to walk over to a Suzuki. Instead, he walked over to his moped. I looked at him and he looked at me. How did he think this was going to work? I had my large backpack and a small one, and then there’s him, Suman is his name by the way. He’d clearly done this before. He placed a bag between his feet and I strapped the large one on my back. I was worried we were going to topple over. Thankfully it was just a short journey.

Upon arrival, it turned out Suman was my host too. He checked my details for my booking and then said in an American accent: “I’ve got to be honest buddy, I really fucked up your booking!” I was calm and waited for him to finish. I wasn’t annoyed yet. The main reason I was in Pokhara was to paraglide. Suman soon became the bearer of bad news. He told me that there was a pilots strike over disagreements with their license fees, meaning all paragliding activities are cancelled. Pokhara has a reputation as one of the top places in the world for paragliding. Now I was getting irritated. Then I was shown my room. It was damp, there was stench from drain in the bathroom, a hole in the wall and mosquitoes scattered across the bathroom tiles. And now I was angry. He assured me that he’d refund me for my room. I was starting to get flashbacks to a similar situation I experienced once in Vietnam, where there was a room mix-up. I just dropped my bags and went for a walk to clear my head, which turned out to be a good decision.

After getting onto the main road I could see the beautiful lakeside. It was a gorgeous turquoise colour and so peaceful. I could no longer feel the pollution of Kathmandu and could breathe much easier. I became familiar with the streets and there were many bars and restaurants scattered along the main strip. It felt like a tourist resort in parts, it wasn’t tightly squeezed and noisy like Kathmandu.

Now that the paragliding was off, I needed a plan B for the next day. I woke up the next day feeling positive and arranged a hike to the World Peace Pagoda with four other tourists from my hostel. Our guide Yogendra arrived and took us along the lakeside to begin our walk. I’m not one for awkward silences, so I got the ball rolling on introductions. Luckily everyone spoke English. It was really warm morning too and I already knew this going to be hard work. Along our trip we stopped off to see a waterfall, Devi’s Falls also known as David’s Falls. Named after a Swiss tourist who plunged into the water and drowned with his girlfriend. We walked down into the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave too. It was even hotter down there. We got back on our trail and two buses whizzed past with people singing and dancing loudly. It is clearly wedding season in Nepal!

We walked high up into the forests. Wearing battered Nike Air Max’s was always going to be a risk and quite possibly a stupid idea. There were a few near-misses but no catastrophes thankfully. After a few hours of sweating, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. After refuelling we plodded along and made it to the top.


We reached the summit and there were stunning views of the city, lakeside, hills and in the distance you could see the Himalayan peaks. At the top of the summit was the World Peace Pagoda, a pristine Buddhist temple. It was very calm and respectfully we all kept quiet. We made our way back down a different way, which was much quicker and got into small colourful wooden boats. I tried my hand at rowing too. It’s bloody hard work! After an hour we reached back to our side of the lake and I returned to the hostel to brave a shower. I wish I had a peg for my nose!

I’d arranged to meet my fellow IVHQ volunteers who I began the programme with in Kathmandu. Nikki, Lauren, Lily and Kristina met me at a local restaurant. It was great to see them and felt like old friends catching up and we kicked off by discussing our placements. We smoked some shisha and listened to the house band, who played some familiar sounds. They laughed at our requests for tracks by Beyoncé and R. Kelly. The lead singer created a morbid atmosphere with his sad face. To make up for it, Lauren and Lily treated us to Nicki Minaj’s verse on Monster, they didn’t miss a single bar! It was a good end to the day after the initial disappointment when I arrived.

We were all quite excited too because there was a possibility we’d be paragliding the following day. I was a little nervous about it but it’s something I really wanted to do. I woke up hopeful, but the strike continued. During this strike, no one wins.

Now I was left with a free day. I didn’t feel like doing anything and that’s ok because I came here to relax. I sat by the lakeside and started to read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. It’s been recommended to me so I wanted to see what the hype was about. I walked for a few hours to explore Central Pokhara. I found a cute little cafe, which is also a makeshift yoga and meditation studio. I treated myself to a burger. I needed some junk. All of this dhaalbhat had turned my insides into a bag of lentils.

  

Whilst walking back through the main strip I became a target for the street sellers. Everything’s for sale and I mean everything! One man walked with me for around five minutes and in the end gave me a business card. He’s allegedly a paragliding agent, but he was working in an industry with a different kind of high. Their persistence and humorous pitches can be quite entertaining.

I arranged to meet the IVHQ ladies again for one last meal. They were all due to paraglide the next day, just my luck! I could’ve extended my stay, but that would mean I wouldn’t be able to visit the kids again in Kathmandu. It wasn’t a difficult decision and I stuck with the reason I came to this country. I said my farewells and wished the ladies well for the remainder of their trip. The great thing about this experience is you can genuinely make friends and I hope to meet them again soon one day.

I will visit SERC one more time to present some gifts to the children before I move onto my next destination. Pokhara as a whole represented a mixed bag for me, naturally beautiful and on the other hand very frustrating. Suman, the hostel host refunded most of my money too for the room so there was no hard feelings. I had a lot of time to think in my three days there. I’ll make up for the paragliding disappointment somewhere along the way. Next stop – back to Kathmandu!

Ps. You can find more photos here now that I have a better connection.