Riding the Waves to Eternity

Hangin' with the Cosmic Surfer

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Hangzhou 6 – 14 Feb 2013

The flight to Hangzhou was entertaining in its own way – uncontrolled children without seatbelts will do that for you – but the transition from 23° in HK to 6° in Hangzhou was a shock, albeit one lessened somewhat by the excellent beef noodle soup at one of Amy’s local eateries. And we were tired.

Innovative rainhat

Innovative rainhat

The first night was quite difficult as Kirstin had picked up a bug and she stayed in the room for most of our first full day while Amy and I went off by ourselves. It started with a really, really good hot and sour soup for breakfast after which we made our way through a cold rain to Hefang Jie (Qing Hefang) Old Street which has been designed for tourists – though not primarily western tourists. It was a nice walk even though the weather was Baltic and I didn’t actually buy anything except some skewered meat and steamed dumplings.

Having invoked Judge Dredd in Hong Kong, it was Bladerunner that struck me in Hangzhou in the sense that I started to see where Ridley Scott got some of his design ideas from. Either Scott predicted modern China or China influenced Ridley Scott. This sense was heightened by the loudpeakers on the outside of the buses announcing (I think) destinations. I would not have been in the least surprised if the translation was “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies: a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure…”

And then it started to snow.

Thankfully Kirstin was on the mend and after an excellent night’s sleep we woke up to a winterscape of rooftops on Day 2.

Pavilion

Chenghuang Pavilion

We walked back to Hefang Jie in the cold and made our way up to the Chenghuang Pavilion on Wushan Hill from where we should have had a lovely view of the West Lake if not for the mist and the light snow falling. We took shelter in a restaurant which served good food but it became clear after a while that they were in a hurry for us to leave so that they could close up for the afternoon. As we were only paying around £10 for a meal for three it was hard to complain but it left us a little grumpy. And the snow was getting heavier so we went back to the hotel.

Amy took us to a Korean restaurant which specialises in a mixture of hot pot and a barbecue at your table. This was really, really good food. Sadly the local beer wasn’t to the same standard. Afterwards we walked down to the West Lake in time to catch the fountain and light show.

Crowds

Crowds

Kirstin and I spent most of Saturday walking around the West Lake. The West Lake is the main tourist site in Hangzhou and one of the top tourist destinations in China, outside of Beijing and Xi’an, and famed for its serene beauty. We were there at Chinese New Year and it was anything but serene as masses of people also decided to walk round it at the same time. Having said that it was nice in the snow and on a few occasions the crowds against the snowscape reminded me of an LS Lowry painting.

West Lake in Winter

West Lake in Winter

We were almost the only westerners there and it was odd to be in the minority. There was no racism but we did feel a little like exotic curiosities on display. Many people said “Hi” or “Hello” which may have been about the extent of their English and did so with a smile on their face. And I did have my photo taken with a couple of people for no obvious reason except that I was a westerner (“Please could I take your photo as you hug my girlfriend”?  OK then)

Despite the number of people who visit, the Lake is a haven for birdlife and the trees were full of species which I did not recognise. The lake itself has a large population of cormorants and waterfowl which blithely ignored the tourist boats puttering backwards and forwards.

West Lake

West Lake

We went back to the dancing fountains for the New Year’s Eve show at 21.00 which I caught on a video camera. The second piece of music was Pavarotti belting out Puccini’s Nissan Micra, at the end of which a tall water spout collapsed dramatically. It also showered me and the camera so the third piece of music was filmed through a haze of drizzle on the end.

Here is the full video (or alternatively view it
HERE)

New Year Fireworks

New Year Fireworks

The City had already been shuddering to the sound of firecrackers and fireworks but New Year triggered an almighty barrage of fireworks which flashed and echoed around the buildings well into the early hours. Even with the hotel windows closed the smell of cordite was pervasive. The “displays” were far more informal than those which we usually get here and to be honest I didn’t know there were so many fireworks in the world let alone in Hangzhou.

After giving up on going to sleep for a while I made the effort to try and read a couple of separate translations of the Tao Te Ching of Lao-Tzu but I’m afraid I was disappointed. I hope I am just the victim of a couple of poor translations. I’m fairly open minded about the material but much of it seemed to me to be an incoherent compendium of unrelated sayings and aphorisms which gave an impression of gibberish. I suspect the translations are the issue because the text didn’t ‘flow’ as it should if translated by someone who was looking behind the words.

We awoke on Sunday to the continuing sound of massed fireworks. We had some japanese noodles and mango juice for brunch before making for the Lingyin Temple complex for the afternoon.

The tranquility of Lingyin Temple...

The tranquility of Lingyin Temple…

The Lingyin Temple complex is large and encompasses a number of features including a grove in which monks have, over the years, sculpted statues of the Buddha from and into the rocks along the riverbank. The place was packed for New Year’s Day although the crowds lessened the further into the complex (and the further uphill) and into the Tianzhu Temples.

It was easy to see why the valley was attractive to the original monks. A river flows through a beautifully wooded valley and from higher up the views are outstanding. If you wanted a place quietly to meditate then it would have been ideal. The site has been in use for a long time – one monument dates to 980AD and the original Lingyin Temple was built in 326 AD. I would very much like to go back on a better occasion, perhaps in the autumn when the leaves were turning.

Little Buddha is Watching Me

Little Buddha is Watching Me

I do have a small carved Buddha now above my desk in the man-shed, bought there to remind me a little of the site and what it originally represented, before the modern age of mass tourism and part-time monks driving to the temple in expensive cars. The life of poverty and survival exclusively on alms is long gone I think (to the extent that it ever actually existed).

By the time we got back to a cold Hangxhou the restaurants were either closed or packed and eventually we gave into the inevitable and went to Pizza Hut. Kirstin and Amy were happy enough but I would have prefered a hot and sour soup and some noodles. The lasagne was filling but not in any respect satisfying. I didn’t sleep well either and I suspect that had something to do with the cheese in the lasagne. No matter: we were up early anyway to take a train to Shanghai.

We took the bullet train which was stylish and fast. It wasn’t pokey like the Pendolinos or scabby like East Coast trains: it had loads of leg room and the carriage was quite broad with seats arranged in rows of three and two with a broad aisle between. Unfortunately speeds have been restricted of late so it only hit a maximum of 306kph (ca 180mph) rather than the designed top speed.

The Bund, Shanghai

The Bund, Shanghai

Outside of the window China whizzed by. This was no bucolic vision of a rural China but a seemingly everlasting suburb with new-builds of varying quality and roads everywhere – most of them unused. Like modern suburbs everywhere in the world they looked soulless and inorganic. This was, in every respect, a long way from Tai-O. Between the cookie-cutter housing, though, there were still a lot of big polytunnels and plenty of irrigation across the flat landscape.

Aaaarrrgh!

Aaaarrrgh!

Shanghai: the very name is redolent of the exotic East, a distant destination holding out vague promises of international intrigue. The city itself was, I confess, something of a disappointment although we probably weren’t there long enough to appreciate it. The Bund and the waterfront were impressive enough but we made the mistake of visiting Old Town Shanghai. I suspect that even a couple of years ago it might have been a decent place to visit but during the new year holiday it was the earthly manifestation of one of Dante’s Inner Circles of Hell.

It is not enough to say it was jammed with people, it was like we’d all been sucked in as if by one of those machines that vacuum pack your luggage. There was no pleasure to be had from trying to navigate around the enclosed spaces and I was happy to be out of it, especially as we found some decent street food.

Art, Shanghai Museum

Art, Shanghai Museum

We took a longer than expected walk to the Shanghai Museum and then had to queue to get in only to discover that it would be closing early. We didn’t really have time to appreciate it although contained some lovely art which we zipped around faster than was ideal. We did find that it had an excellent shop, though, one of the best museum shops I’ve been in and happily devoid, for the most part, of tat. I bought quite a nice set of cufflinks and a translation of the classic “Journey to the West”.

We found a good evening meal, Hunan style, which I was told was obviously good because my tongue went numb.

By the time we got home I had quite a bad headache which wasn’t helped by the taxis deciding not to pick us up and having to walk quite some distance. By the time we got back to the hotel I was happy to swallow a couple of Paracetamol and go to bed.

I slept very well and would have slept even longer had it not been for more early morning fireworks! I lay in bed happily browsing the internet on my Nexus 7. One of my few disappointments was the absence of places to buy traditional Chinese music, something I noticed the whole time we were there. I did the sensible thing and ordered some up from Amazon to be waiting for me when I got home. I checked out the BBC and Guardian websites to see what was going on and sent a couple of emails. It was as nice to catch up as it was not to be “always on”.

I reflected for a while on my impressions of China so far. It is hard to avoid seeming to ‘judge’ against what you already know and are used to but you have to. You need to take things on their own terms. In a way a sense of ‘alien-ness’ helped. Hangzhou makes few concessions to English and why should it? I remember reading something someone – possibly James Cameron or Alexander Cockburn – wrote about the British reaction to the coronation of an African Emperor and the excesses of the ceremony. The writer commented that it looked so grotesque to us because it exaggerated our own failings and gave a hint as to how others see us since the ceremony was so obviously modelled on British practice.

Street Sign, Hangzhou

Street Sign, Hangzhou

I think a lot of my reaction to China has to be seen in this light: the things that have made me uncomfortable have tended to be where China is changing in ways which are modelled on “Western” culture. I had a strong dose of this on the bullet train coming back from Shanghai. The TV in the carriage was showing clips of a gig by some manufactured boyband throwing poses for their adoring teenage fans. Mercifully the sound was turned down. It was a straight lift from the atrocities perpetrated on popular culture by the likes of Simon Cowell. Whatever else it was it wasn’t Eddie Cochrane and it wasn’t Dr. Feelgood, but then neither is the rubbish served up as light entertainment in the West.

Similarly when we were in restaurants in which everyone was glued to the screens of their phones rather than actually talking to each other. It was like looking into a distorting mirror.

It is a cliché but true that China is very obviously a culture in transition, a culture in which Prada sits alongside back-street noodle bars. I couldn’t help but think that the culture was heading in the wrong way. My thinking on this changed and I’ll say more later but I did wonder, for example, at what point several millennia of Chinese art was replaced by infantilised cartoons. Much is maintained in museums and archives but, just as in Scotland, an archive is not a community.

Of course I am not presuming to suggest that Chinese society should remain stuck in some timewarped simulacra of itself any more than Scotland should be tied to the nonsenses of the faux Braveheart image. I am uncomfortable, though, that the elements of the West that are most obviously being adopted – at least on the surface – are those which are the most superficial and absurd. It is a stylisation of form without substance which, given the riches of Chinese culture, is a shame.

Following my earlier thoughts, it became clear to me that what I was really reacting to was not Chinese society but the things that I like least about the West being reflected back at me.

We visited some more places – Amy’s University, the fascinating house of Hu Xueyan and the disappointing silk street (ie a street full of shops selling silk items which was enlivened only by a shopkeeper having a full scale meltdown at someone).

Garden Water Feature!

Garden Water Feature!

Hu Xueyan’s house was fascinating though and I really enjoyed it. The fellow obviously lived in opulent luxury and most of that luxury was ill-gotten. He was a public official and was creaming off the top. Be that as it may the chap obviously had good taste and the house complex with its own ornamental lake was quite beautiful and also quite recently restored. Interestingly the local press has been reflecting a lot of popular discontent at current corruption by Communist party officials and it struck me that not that much had changed, a view that was reinforced later in Beijing and then later at home when reading Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio”.

On our last day, after a breakfast accompanied by music that was way too loud, we made for the West Lake again. I was delighted to spot a man in the street busking with an Erhu, playing traditional music and representing an oasis of beauty in the arid streets.

Erhu player

Erhu player

We took one of the tourist boats out to an island on the Lake where we thought to spend some time at what the Lonely Planet guide describes as “dreamy … panoramas and fabulously green and hilly environs”. Sadly, several thousand other people had the same idea. Even worse many of them were children whose parents had bought them whistles which, after a short time, I would gladly have invited the vendors to shove where a monkey shoves its nuts. It was quite a nice boat ride though.

I don’t mean to belittle the West Lake which is a lovely place and has been recognised as such for centuries. Perhaps we were unlucky in our timing. This is something which is only getting worse with tourism – the very things that made somewhere worth visiting are damaged by the fact that so many people visit.

Amy, with food!

Amy, with food!

We went back to Hefang Jie and spent the evening buying trinkets and gifts and just enjoying being there.

Later still we visited a night market and returned for another Korean hotpot/barbecue to round off the day.

The local beer hadn’t got any better.

Comments

Comment from Amy
Time June 27, 2013 at 9:11 am

Nice to finally read it! It’s a shame, but I’m glad how much you enjoyed it even at the very worst time to visit! Crowds of whistle-armed children everywhere, few restaurants open and pretty miserable weather… Looking forward to your thoughts on Beijing!

Comment from Kirstin Burdon
Time June 27, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Agree with Amy. But good to read this and remind myself of some of the details. Would love to return sometime when the weather is warmer and the crowds smaller!