When we got on the train for Hangzhou, I had that feeling in the back of my throat that lets me know I'm coming down with a cold. But I was determined not to let it ruin our trip!
It's slightly farther away than Suzhou, about an hour and a half by train southwest of Shanghai. It's the other city mentioned in that saying: "In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou."
It's famous mainly for West Lake (Xihu), said to be the most beautiful lake in China; and for tea production, and for a very cool legend which I'll get to in a little while.
...although in the last few years Hangzhou has also started to be known as a center for the emerging Chinese animation industry. Here's a billboard for an animation convention.
A rickety wooden trolley/bus that we took from the train station to our hostel.
Hangzhou's super-modern downtown.
This Spongebob doll seemed slightly out of place hanging from the ornately carved wooden rafters in the office of the hostel.
A lot of places around West Lake had these very poetic and grandiose names, like "Orioles Singing in the Willows".
Map of the ferry lines, bridges, causeways, and interesting points around West Lake.
Sushu in a pubic garden.
We rode one of these ferries out to an island.
Looking back towards the city skyline.
Sushu told me that the design of classic aristocratic Chinese gardens is largely inspired by a desire to recreate Xihu in miniature in one's backyard.
It is quite photogenic.
That's Leifeng Pagoda over there. It has a cool story to it. We'll get there later.
The island was very crowded with Chinese tourist families. Hangzhou is one of those places that may not be very well known outside China (at least, I had never heard of it) but is very popular with Chinese people.
The island was full of lagoons and the lagoons were criss-crossed with bridges (all zig-zags, of course).
Those cranes are actually part of the window frame.
Cool rock formation & lily pads
Feedin' the ducks.
This is one of three stone lanterns rising from the waters of the lake. In the autumn festival they row out and light all three of them. This area is known, poetically, as "Three Pools Reflecting the Moon".
Here's all three of the lanterns (left, middle, right).
They're kind of dinky, but they're also super famous so everybody has to go see them.
Sushu likes to remind me that I overpaid for this fan, because I didn't haggle and I paid almost three whole dollars for it.
I don't care. It's awesome. I used it every day for fanning as well as for blocking the sun off my face and for fidgeting with in class.
Our lunch after getting back from the island.
My cold was getting worse by this time, so I was grateful for a hot meal and some fluids. Then I took a nap in the hotel room for a couple of hours. After that I felt well enough again to go out on some afternoon adventures.
Not sure what this golden bull statue is doing in the lake. Sushu says it's "some kind of Daoist bull" or maybe "just a tourist attraction".
Found this sign in the youth hostel.
Refuse to synthetic drugs! You and I were involved!
(It really says something like 'refusing synthetic drugs takes everyone's participation')
The tiny deformed skeletons cavorting among the poppies are an especially nice touch.
After some confusion about times, places, and prices, we managed to rent a couple of bicycles for an afternoon ride.
The bicycles were kind of crappy - rickety, with loose seats and poor steering. Mine made a horrible ear-piercing screech every time I hit the brakes to avoid crashing into a pedestrian, a motorcycle, or another bicycle going the opposite way on the sidewalk. The traffic was quite terrifying.
One of the readings in my Chinese textbook called China the "Kingdom of Bicycles", but I would have to spend a long time acclimating to the traffic patterns before I would feel comfortable biking there.
Our destination was the pagoda that we saw earlier from the boat - the Leifeng Pagoda. Here we have parked the bicycles and are crossing a sort of moat on our way there.
A souvenir shop selling portraits and pictures of the pagoda... wait, is that Obama? What is he doing there?
"Pagoda" is a weird word. Did you ever wonder why we call them that?
It's not a Chinese word at all. It's Portuguese. (As is the word "Mandarin"). Portuguese got it either from the Persian word for "temple", or possibly from Dravidian.
In Chinese these buildings are just called "ta" (3), which means "tower". This is Leifengta, "Thunder Peak Tower".
It's not much of a "peak", but still, who wants to climb all those stairs? Thus, escalator.
Leifeng pagoda is famous because of its role in Hangzhou's most famous folk story, the Legend of the White Snake (No, not that Whitesnake). A scholar named Xu Xian meet a beautiful woman Bai Suzhen on the bridge over West Lake. Xu is unaware that Bai is actually a white snake who transformed herself into a human using Daoist magic. They fall in love and get married. The bad guy is a monk named Fahai who wants to ruin their love because he thinks Bai is an evil demon. He tricks her into revealing her true form, which causes Xu to die of fright. (He gets better.) Then Fahai imprisons Bai in Leifeng pagoda. A bunch of other stuff happens that depends on what version of the story you're following. Sometimes Bai has a sidekick, a green snake named Qing who also turns into a woman. Sometimes there's reincarnation involved. In some versions she gets rescued from Leifeng, in other versions she's imprisoned there forever.
This story originated in the Tang or Song dynasty as oral tradition, was written down during the Ming dynasty, and has been adapted into many operas and movies.
The current pagoda is a reconstruction built in 2002. The original one was built in 975, in the Song dynasty. It survived being attacked by Wukou (Japanese pirates), but its structure was seriously weakened because so many pilgrims wanted to carry away pieces of its walls as good-luck charms. It was almost a thousand years old when it collapsed in 1923.
In the basement of the new one you can see the remnants of the original foundation. There's a glass case to discourage any more collecting of good-luck charms, so people have to be satisfied with tossing coins inside.
Pagodas are a descendant of Indian stupas (domes built to house Buddhist relics), crossbred with traditional Chinese architecture.
They're supposed to always have an odd number of storeys.
Just a cool railing detail.
Inside the pagoda: The line for the elevator.
Thanks to the lake breeze, Hangzhou was not as hot as Shanghai, but we were still sweating plenty.
Views from the top storey of Leifengta. To the south: more of the temple complex.
What's that cool fortress-looking building on the hill over there???
I checked my map and asked a bunch of people but nobody seemed to know what it was.
Turns out it's just a modern hotel/restaurant done in an antique style. Not a Song-dynasty castle. :-(
The ceiling is covered with countless golden Arhats (Buddhas' disciples).
Here's us trying to get a self-shot, not very well.
On the second floor of the pagoda was a series of amazing three-dimensional woodcarvings showing scenes from the White Snake story.
Here's Bai and Xu meeting for the first time.
The forced perspective in these is really something. For instance, that umbrella is not a circle.
The gathering of immortals...
Bai Suzhen flees to the mortal world.
Check out the craftsmanship here - the delicate cranes and wisps of cloud, the sense of depth when looking "down" at the lake below.
She reverts to her original snake form on the day of the Dragon Boat festival...
She steals a magic herb from Kunlun Mountain (in order to bring Xu back to life). Some epic martial arts action going on here.
Imprisoned in the pagoda by Fahai...
Causing the lake to flood with her magic, in order to lead an army of aquatic creatures to attack Fa Hai. (I guess this is after she escaped or got rescued from her imprisonment?)
No, seriously, check out how awesome this is. She's leading an army of clam soldiers...
and shrimp soldiers. So cool!
A slightly better picture of us...
When we left it was that special time of late afternoon when the light is golden and everything looks amazing, tempting amateur photographers to go crazy. Check out the way the light hits those beasties on the corner of the roof.
On our way back, we stopped at this Indian restaurant for dinner. Not sure what the deal is with the Muppet-eyes on this lion statue outside.
The kitchen had glass walls, so you could see the chefs working from inside or outside the restaurant. I think they were trying to show off how authentically Indian their chefs are. Like "Look! We got real Indian chefs! We put them in this box for you to look at!" It was kind of weird.
The food was overpriced and not that great, plus they were playing weird techno music. But I was still battling a cold and the food made me feel alive again.
Our next stop was the north end of the lake, to take a stroll on the causeway. A series of bridges and dams stretches most of the way across the lake. One of the bridges here is the one where Bai and Xu supposedly met.
It was quite nice, if crowded. It was soon too dark to photograph. There were patches of lotuses and floating restaurants docked nearby.
We also encountered a colony of bats, swooping and diving to catch the evening gnat swarms.
Contrary to everything video games have taught me, the bats did not try to kill us by knocking us off the bridge into the water. They didn't even fly in sine waves!
Getting back to our hostel was harder than we imagined. We tried to catch a taxi on one side of the street; they told us they weren't going that way. We tried the other side of the street; they told us they weren't going that way either. Hangzhou has weird traffic patterns!
We did finally get a taxi, but it took a lot of negotiation.
The next morning we got together with Sushu's aunt, uncle, and cousin, who took us to Longjing tea plantation, in the hills west of Xihu.
Longjing ("Dragon well") tea is fairly famous.
Here's some rows of tea bushes growing on a hillside.
The just-sprouted new leaves at the tips of the branches are the ones you collect to make tea out of. The older leaves are much too bitter.
The best quality tea comes from leaves harvested in the spring, when they're very tender. It's the summer, so tea-harvesting season was already over.
Mostly it was just nice to take a walk through the hills by the river.
My cold was getting worse at this point. Sushu's uncle kept trying to have a conversation with me but it took all my energy just to keep walking.
Another hillside covered with tea bushes.
This stream keeps snaking back and forth, so the path crosses it nine times.
We saw a lot of Chinese families camping in tents by the riverside; kids shooting each other with squirt guns, etc.
We stopped at a small tea-house for a lunch of vegetable dishes and chicken soup.
This is how you enjoy tea in the Chinese countryside: sitting on a shady porch, eating sunflower seeds. They don't strain the leaves out of your teacup so you just have to carefully sip around them. And the tea is always hot, no matter how hot the weather is. Drinking cold liquids is bad for you, in Chinese medicine.
I was feeling pretty sick by this point. Day 2 of a cold is usually the day when I have to blow my nose constantly, so I was carrying tissues everywhere.
More tea plantation.
The entrance of the Hangzhou Tea Museum.
(Character: "cha", meaning tea, of course.)
Tea grinding wheel
They had all these exhibits on the origins of tea and the history of tea culture through various dynasties. Here's a Tang dynasty silver tea set.
The original tea plant was actually a large tree that grew wild in the mountains of Yunnan province. Centuries of selective breeding turned it into the small bushes we saw earlier.
Wax-people diorama of Song dynasty tea market.
Massive hand-driven tea-rolling machine. The circular motion forms the tea leaves into little balls, which you'll sometimes see if you buy fancy dried whole-leaf (not powdered) tea.
Proportion of Chinese Tea Output.
You can make green tea, black tea, white tea, oolong tea, etc. all from the same plant, just by following different steps of fermenting/roasting/drying/grinding.
Some HUGE tea cakes. (Processed and dried tea leaves pressed into bricks for storage and long-distance trade).
I think I was making this dorky pose because I saw one of the wax-museum guys doing it earlier and I was joking about what an unnatural pose it is.
As always, KFC is everywhere. It's thoroughly integrated into modern Chinese life. Has to be one of the biggest corporate localization success stories ever.
One last look back at West Lake on our way to the train station. In the background is the famous bridge from the White Snake story.
As soon as we got back to the apartment in Shanghai, I succumbed fully to the cold that I had been fighting all weekend, and collapsed in bed. Sushu brought my dinner to me. <3