Traveling is easier when you live in a major city. I’d call that a major plus to city life, one that doesn’t require waking up before the crack of dawn, driving a couple hours to a minor city (leaving plenty of time to account for traffic, bad weather, flat tires, or other acts of nature), and then waiting a couple more hours before you board a plane or train that, in an hour or two, will get you to a major city where you will wait a couple extra hours to board another plane or train that, in a couple additional hours, will take you to your final destination. I’d be tick, tick, ticking off so many more of the places I want to go in China if didn’t live in Haiyang, which requires lots of extra steps in addition to the usual hassles (see above). Steps like having someone who speaks adequate Mandarin (I’m not quite there yet…woshuodebuhao!) call around to local drivers to find out who is available and how much they’ll charge and what type of car they’ll provide and are they willing to take the much faster highway even though it costs more as we will really, truly pay the 50RMB toll ($8.26)?!
All of this is to explain the fact that if I lived in, say, Shanghai, where there is not one but two airports, and where bullet trains rush into and out of Hongqiao Station at all hours of the day, I’d be on the go a hell of a lot more. For example, during our holiday trip in Shanghai, we hopped on one of those convenient trains and headed out of the city for a three-day side trip. In just over an hour, we arrived at our first stop, Hangzhou, and met our guide who took us around what he deemed the “small city” of only six million people.
Hangzhou is best known for its beautiful, serene West Lake. Given our rushed visit of one day, we chose to check out only a handful of West Lake’s “Ten Poetically Named Scenic Places.” China seems to have a fascination with numbered lists, which makes me wonder if they are to blame for all the top (insert number here) lists currently plastered all over the internet that shout out in their bold, bubbly typeface “Top 10 Ways to Lose 10lbs!” or “Top 7 Places to Visit THIS Year!” or…blah, blah, blah. Enough with the lists! They are annoying and especially so if you have to click your way through them. Oh wait, I just participated in a writing contest that involved lists, but that was so last year. 2014 will be the year of no lists for me. Mark my words. Now, back to West Lake.
Our first stop was Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge, a famous section of the equally famous Bai Causeway that dates back to the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty. Before I even stepped foot on the bridge, I felt the majesty of West Lake in the air, thanks in part to the dozen plus older couples who were waltzing nearby, as if it were no big deal. Just one of those things one does on a regular basis.
Our brisk stroll across Bai Causeway took us to Solitary Hill, which felt like the flattest piece of land my feet have ever touched, yet, at 38 meters above sea level, is the biggest hill on West Lake. Okay, if you say so, guide. I would have enjoyed a visit to Zhejiang Provincial Library and Zhejiang Muesum, which are located on Solitary Hill, but there wasn’t enough time. It was on to another section of the lake to visit Su Causeway, the longest of the three causeways that divide West Lake. Built during the Southern Song Dynasty, it has six bridges and legend has it that lovers who walk its entire 2.6km length will be together forever.*
Next, we took an electric ferry over to Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, which is one of three man-made islets in West Lake. Our guide explained that the three small stone pagodas rising out of the water were the “three pools” — replicas of three famous islands in the Yellow Sea, just off Qingdao. This made me feel a bit like an ignorant idiot considering I’ve spent the past year living near Qingdao, having never known about this significant geographic feature (a quick Google search once back home hasn’t enlightened me further). Each pagoda stands at two meters high. Together, the three form a triangle with 62 meters in between each. There are five small, circular holes in each pagoda that hold candles. During the moon festival (aka Mid-Autumn Festival) you can see 33 moons here: 15 moons shine from inside the pagodas + their 15 moon-like reflections in the water + the moon (as in that big one up in the sky) + its reflection in the water + the mooncake that would obviously be resting in your hands (which sadly has no reflection) = 33 moons.
As we rode back across the lake on the ferry, it became easy to imagine how, way back when, West Lake inspired many an ancient Chinese poet and artist with its placid waters and lush greenery. Iggy and I briefly had visions of returning in the spring or summer. We’d come for a long weekend, Iggy suggested, and we’d rent bikes to explore the lake and surrounding hills on our own. Ah, sounds delightful, I concurred, picturing us pedaling along the roads on single-speed cruisers in t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers, not a care in the world. The shockingly loud, explosive sound of a group tour guide’s voice scratchily blaring through her PA system brought us back to reality. Who were we kidding? West Lake is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning it would surely be a zoo in warmer months, swarming with tour groups full of hundreds of people, each group wearing bright matching t-shirts and hats and badges, their guides apathetically blurting off their facts for anyone and everyone hear. The whole reason we chose to visit one of the most visited spots in China in frigid December was to avoid these groups.
Thankfully, we crossed paths with the tour group just as we were leaving West Lake and heading to Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple whose name literally means the “temple of soul’s retreat.” It was named by its founder, Huili, an Indian monk, and is similar in layout to other temples we’ve visited in China — sort of like how one Catholic church resembles all the others in Italy or Ireland. The god, a god, or some gods might strike me dead, but cross my heart and hope to…er, anyways, it’s true. As fascinating as I find houses of worship, I just as easily forget their distinguishing features the moment I leave them. Our guide told us that Lingyin Temple’s main hall houses the largest sitting, indoor Buddha in China. It is over 20 meters high and was built using twenty-four camphor trees. As impressive as this Buddha is, it was more interesting to watch the little girl pictured below learn how to pray by mimicking her proud, doting parents.
The pathway that leads up to the temple is eye-catching in its own right. Three hundred thirty-eight Buddhist-related carvings can be seen if you look to your left as you make the uphill walk. The figures are carved into the limestone mountainside and are collectively known as Fei Lai Feng or Peak Flown From Afar. The oldest carving is 900-1000 years old, while the newest is 300-400, according to our guide. It’s amazing that they’ve survived for so long, especially considering that some of the carvings and parts of Lingyin Temple were damaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, intervened to protect these sites, showing just how significant they are in China.
Our second to last stop of the day was a brief and forgettable pit stop at the Longjingshan Tea Plantation. Okay, so yes, I knew this would be a tourist trap, but have you ever been to a tea plantation? Do you know much about how tea is grown or harvested? Right. Me neither. Much to Iggy’s amazement, I let my curiosity get the better of me and our wallet…we left with $50 worth of high-quality (or so we were told) green tea. I don’t even like green tea, but was amazed by the sales woman’s demonstration that “proved” the magical, antioxidant powers of the tea. Yes, Iggy, I can say “sucker!” and I do every time I force a gulp of the stuff down my uncooperative throat.
Our guide dropped us off at the final stop of our tour, A Bamboo-Lined Path at Yunqi, just a short drive down the road from the tea plantation. The path led us through another picturesque and peaceful spot that reminded us of Haiyang’s Tiger Mountain.
The air here was fresh and seemingly clean — a great contrast in comparison to the rest of Hangzhou. In fact, that’s probably another reason why we won’t go back anytime soon. As much as we enjoyed West Lake and the rest of Hangzhou’s sites, the sfmog that hovered above and all around us was disturbing. You wouldn’t know it, but the city skyline of Hangzhou is hidden beneath the sfmog in the photo below.
The pollution was incredibly bad on the day we visited — not surprising considering the record levels of pollution this winter, yet still worrying when we’re spending full days outside in “hazardous” conditions.
But this is part of life in China. We’re grudgingly coming to accept it and trying not to let it ruin our once-in-a-lifetime trips to some pretty amazing places, like Huangshan where we headed after Hangzhou. That’s another post in itself, so until next time…
*Legend be damned! Iggy and I didn’t walk the entire Su Causeway, but if we can make it in rural China for four years, I’m pretty confident we’ll be together forever. For eternity? Well, that’s debatable.