Friday, August 6, 2010

Shanghai to Hangzhou: Day 4

Shanghai South Railway Station
Today we would commence the second major part of our trip: departing Shanghai and heading southwest to Hangzhou. For the trip we'd reserved seats on a bullet train, but we had to get to the station on our own. Feeling confident in our urban navigation skills we lugged our bags in the general direction of the metro, only to confront the realities of walking in a city where the drivers of motorcycles, cars, and buses tend to view pedestrians as minor irritants. Given the wide, congested streets, we found that jaywalking - though dangerous enough to be stupid - is almost a requirement for getting anywhere. Most vehicles don't care about red lights anyway. Under the gray drizzle we dragged our gear over cracked sidewalks until the metro revealed itself amidst a construction zone.

A short hop later, we entered the world's first circular train station, Shanghai South. It really is a remarkable place, something like a circus tent or a UFO made of glass. Gates line the edges, each shooting off like sun rays, while the vast interior is flooded by natural diffused light. I was fascinated by the scene, though Jenny concentrated more on the growing line near the door. We knew that lines don't necessarily mean much in China, that the most determined folks will push their ways to the front anyway. Fortunately we'd secured seats. A very good idea, since many people were forced to stand for the roughly 1 1/2-hour ride. In fact, during an unsuccessful search for a dining car, I found that each car appeared to be filled with more and more crowds of folks who, lacking chairs, bounced abruptly with every shake and shimmy of the train.

Joining Jenny (sort of - while our seats were numerically adjacent, we were in different rows) I settled into leisurely appreciation of the view, watching another face of China roll by. Junks plying the rivers, tumble-down shacks, and communal gardens vied with occasional sprouts of newly built houses that could fit into any exurb in the U.S., signs of a nation growing in fits and starts. I sipped tangerine juice and flipped through pictures we'd taken at the world's fair. Truthfully much of my planning and enthusiasm had been focused on the Shanghai Expo; I had thought little about these next stages of our trip. Now we would begin to see a city that existed, to my mind, only as a vague idea: something about a lake, some pagodas, and perhaps a bit of quiet detachment from the megalopolis we'd just left. How big can Hangzhou be anyway?

Yeah, I'd failed to even consider how we'd make our way from the station to our hotel. Sure enough, once we departed the train (inspired to quicken our pace by the English reminder, "Please get out fast") I felt overwhelmed. The Hangzhou station is quite a bit different from Shanghai's: darker, crowded, and louder. Immediately, thanks to our bags and clueless looks, we were surrounded by touts offering taxi services. They looked friendly enough, and all were intent on convincing us they could take us anywhere in the city, cheaply and quickly. But I felt uncomfortable, facing insistent strangers on all sides. Jenny looked at me expectedly (a variation of "you did have a plan, didn't you, honey?") and I decided: we'd buy a city map and step out of the station to collect our bearings.

The heat was, if possible, even more fierce than in Shanghai. Sweat poured from our faces as we bumbled around outside. Jenny then spotted a large bus map, which we could compare to the smaller version we got at a newsstand. Comparing landmarks and Chinese characters, Jenny managed to get a fix on our position. And I began to think that we must be fairly close to our hotel. We'll walk, I said. We should take a cab, Jenny replied. I looked back at the teeming station and just couldn't imagine returning. It'd almost seem like an admission of failure. We'd mastered a fair amount of Shanghai over the past couple days. Surely we could figure a path to our hotel. And a little bit of walking would do us good. Heck, it'd be an adventure!

We started walking.

I figured that we might see a taxi heading our way; we'd flag one of those. I always prefer selecting a cab rather than feeling pressured by a driver. We had no luck, though. Those few taxis we saw were already packed. Jenny, gently at first but with increasing firmness, assured me that we should return to the station. But I was determined. We had a general idea of our hotel's location - really, it was just a few blocks by my reckoning - every step would bring us closer to the reality that taking a cab was for suckers.

After two or three blocks, the wheels on my bag began to melt. It really was that hot. Then when I tried to be gentlemanly about the whole mess, carrying Jenny's stuff while scrapping my own beat-up bag along the sidewalk, I got exhausted. We stopped here and there, glaring at each other. Jenny would search for directions and I would insist we keep walking (once I regained my strength). We weren't lost really. We simply had no clue where we were going. The so-called "general direction" quickly became a large section of a city that stretched way beyond my limited mental geography. "How big can Hangzhou be?" Pretty damned big, actually.

West Lake, Hangzhou
We stopped again, yelled at each other in frustration, and then Jenny began to cry. Right then I remembered another trip, years earlier. We were driving somewhere north of Los Angeles when Jenny mentioned that she'd like to stop and sing karaoke. I'm not usually up for that sort of stuff, but I agreed. We found a place, parked the car, and started through the door of a local club. Promptly we were told that we couldn't get in; our clothes weren't sufficiently fancy for this joint. Staring into the smug, merciless face of a gatekeeper I wouldn't employ to wash my car, I decided I couldn't care less about singing karaoke. Jenny, however, was mortified to the point of tears. That, I could not stand.

I didn't know what to do until I remembered something I'd read in one of my favorite books, John Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic: at virtually every Holiday Inn there's sure to be a party, reception, or crowded bar filled with mingling strangers and locals out for a good time. We'd find some karaoke there! Jenny wasn't buying it, but I pushed on: "We will go to the nearest Holiday Inn and, as God is my witness, we will sing tonight." Within an hour, we had joined a karaoke queue (which included some dude who insisted on doing a rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" - all of it) and I felt like a hero.

Melting in Hangzhou, with Jenny frustrated at my failure to plan our pathway, I remembered that night in California and I knew: We would find the nearby Holiday Inn (there must be one… yep, there it is on the map) and get help, at least a cab. Heck, I don't even like staying in Holiday Inns since the chain abandoned its family-friendly pricing. But I trust the brand in a pinch. 15 trudging minutes later we were met by a doorman who looked at us like we were insane. "You shouldn't be carrying all that stuff in the heat," he advised. "Come inside!" We explained our situation and he called us a cab. That's when we discovered that I'd entirely misread our small map. Our hotel was actually miles away.

Jenny and I overtipped the cabby obnoxiously (we were so grateful for a ride in air-conditioned civility) and finally made it to our hotel, some place called the Hangzhou Lily. With all the buttons and knobs in our room, and all that dingy carpet and those long, dark hallways, the place looked like it was teleported from 1964. But it was close to West Lake, Hangzhou's centuries-old tourist attraction. We were exhausted, and our spirits were dampened further by continual soft rain. Nonetheless Jenny and I made a brief hike along the shore, pausing under pagodas and taking pictures of lotus flowers. We saw one spot that rented boats, but the place was closed.

Somewhat guiltily we settled for dinner back at the hotel. We felt fairly confident in our abilities to understand the menu, but for some reason an economics professor who works at a nearby university took it upon himself to advise us on our dining options, even recommending a garlic version of snow peas that I couldn't spot on the menu. Afterward he came over from time to time and we discussed his speciality: the present economic relationship between our two countries. I felt a little strange about the conversation, being unsure about whether I was merely sharing my own ideas or was somehow being seen as a representative for the American perspective. Still, our chat was pleasant and illuminating. If he represented anything about his country's perspective, it is this: China is increasingly sure of its imminent dominance in global affairs. I think the professor almost pitied me.

Stormy weather over Hangzhou
Back in the room, Jenny and I tried to watch a bit of television. We were drawn especially to a game show that pitted a single contestant against a group of judges. While we couldn't guess the details, it appeared that the guy was tasked with telling a story at length. From time to time the camera would study the judges' reactions. Sometimes they were supporting; sometimes they were critical. Following a countdown, the player would wrap up his story, whereupon the judges would evaluate his performance. Judges who liked his story would conclude their explanations by turning a ship's wheel (why, I don't know). Other judges would rebuke him or otherwise explain why his story failed to move them. The player would listen empathetically and then he would bow deeply. Jenny and I had no idea what it all meant, and we were too tired to watch more. Our beds felt stiff as wooden boards, but we took no time falling asleep.

Day 3 | Day 5

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