In which I travel to Hangzhou, celebrate Chanukah and loose something important.
I was tired from my Friday night class that had kept me up long past my eight o’clock bedtime and I still had to get up at five the next morning to catch my train to Hangzhou. It was raining the next day and I was coming down with the sniffles. Feeling not in the best of shape I bravely, or stupidly, blazed on ahead. The ride seemed interminably long, more than three hours, but it was comfortable enough. I bought a map of the city, checked myself into the cheap hotel I had booked and set off to find the famous West Lake. It was rather far from my hotel and I road on the bus for over half an hour to get there. I started to grow worried with it taking so long that I was on the wrong bus and so asked people for confirmation. The small, weasely looking young man next to me woke up from his nap just as I was sending out these queries.
“You’re going to the West lake?” He asked me in strongly southern Mandarin.
“Are you traveling?”
“Yes, from Shanghai. I’m here for two days.”
“I’m not doing anything today, let me show you around.”
This is one of those times where I did something I would never do in the U.S., let a complete stranger be my tour guide, but I didn’t think I had much to fear from this guy. He was a little shorter than I am and delicately built. His mustache was sketchy and his eyes could be described as piggy, but his aura was good. Besides, if he tried anything I could probably pummel him. It’s all the old guys who do martial arts that are to be approached with caution, not the young ones.
His name was Hong Li and he was very pleasant company. He took me all over Hangzhou and even gave me the history of each place we visited. He insisted on paying for lunch and I treated him to an attraction he had already seen and didn’t want to buy a ticket for again. At the end of the day we exchanged phone numbers, both mutually pleased with our jaunt.
I went to the most famous restaurant in the city, Lou Wai Lou, for dinner. It was pricey, but good. The taxi fares combined were as much as the meal, which should tell you how far across town the restaurant was, all in all I spent about 100 kuai. I slept in the next morning, a rare luxury for me. It’s little perks like that which made me really feel like I was on vacation. I rose around seven and went to see a Buddhist monastery, a bagua garden and a turtle pond. Ok, actually, I had gone to see a big pagoda, but refused to pay the entrance fee. It’s not like I needed a closer view, pagodas are huge! The turtle pond in the courtyard was as much an attraction to me as the old Buddhist tower. I think there must have been two dozen turtles in it and I spent a half hour staring at it instead of the pagoda.
I liked the Buddhist monastery. There was a gigantic Buddha statue in it. When I stood under him, I could see that his eyes weren’t half closed in prayer. They were half closed, because he was looking down at me! Finally, my tendency to stand directly under statues paid off. Whereas in the U.S. I usually was rewarded with an unattractive view of founding father gut and crotch for my troubles.
While the giant Buddha was the main attraction of the room, various saints lined the walls. Each of them had a plaque with a name, which meant nothing to me, so I asked a monk there about the statuary. He engaged me in a long conversation about each one and at the end of our nice chat I asked his name. The next thing I knew, not only was he writing that down, but his address and cell number. I was learning that asking a person’s name can carry a lot more weight than, as a Westerner, I would have previously suspected.
My phone vibrated and emitted its annoying cry to be answered while I was looking for an entrance to the bagua garden. It was my new pal Hong Li. He wanted to know if I had time to come meet his girlfriend. Considering that I had spent nearly an hour circling the dusty perimeter of the garden looking for an entrance with no sign of an unlocked gate in sight, I was easily convinced to change my plans. It was still a bit disappointing. The garden had been built in the shape of an octagon and the shrubs inside were supposed to imitate the sacred trigrams that give a bagua its name, but it had been fenced off and the gates stubbornly padlocked shut. All I had succeeded in doing was finding a broken pathway up to another sacred hill and a young lady with a pet bunny rabbit.
Hong Li’s girlfriend, Yang Bo, matched him, being a small person with a delicate build, though her round face and padded bosom gave the illusion of her being chubbier than she really was. She hailed from the same small farming community outside of Ningbo that Hong li grew up in, though she didn’t have the southern accent he sported. In fact, not only was her Mandarin standard, but she spoke English fairly well too.
The three of us took a little putter boat ride around the lake. They were impressed that I knew how to drive a boat and row. Having grown up on the coast, such skills are common place and hardly anything I think of as remarkable. After our jaunt out on the mist filled lake, we promenaded along the banks of the xi hu, went to some old touristy road, and had dinner. Since I was Guest, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything, this is a status that I have always felt a little uncomfortable with. It’s not that I don’t like being treated, I just don’t want them to think I’m willing to take advantage of them. I suppose I shouldn’t have felt too bad, all we had was street food for dinner. They picked all sorts of local delicacies that looked like so much foreign shaped beige flotsam to me, but it was pretty tasty nonetheless. Once our repast was over, they insisted on seeing me off at the train station.