How do you call a city with 7 million inhabitants that you’ve never heard of? Yes, Hangzhou (Just realised I spelled it’s name wrong in the previous part, sorry). Yet, this has quickly become one with some of the most vivid memories in my humble little life. For starters I’ve never thought I’ll hang out in the emergency ward in a Chinese hospital, and it definitely wasn’t the plan when we jumped on the bus in Suzhou, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When starting out, I have to admit I kind of knew it would be special, since this was about to be the first time in my entire existence when I’m not spending the Christmas in Budapest with the family, and admittedly it felt a bit weird when rolling up in the bus station to think of Hangzhou being the city where I’m hanging out on these holy days. But at least I got to spend it with some of the greatest people who ever graced the earth, so no complaints.
And Hangzhou is nice, even though the first thing I’ve seen of it was a run-down industrial, and Twist Oliver-like twin of Suzhou. No offence, but it seems the industrial revolution (which is still running wild for over a 100 years) is concentrating all it’s supernatural power on some of this city’s districts. That was of course when I was yet to see the green area with the gorgeous lake as the central part of it. That’s called the West Lake, and honestly, if I ever get old, I’ll wish I was living there while I sit on the sofa in my Budapest home, watching re-runs of How I Met Your Mother. And I haven’t even mentioned the lovely Tibetan-themed hostel we lived in. I’d give you the name, but, with most hostels on this trip, it’s easier if I just tell you to look up the cheapest possible place on one of those booking sites, and you’ll see where we lived. Having said that, I have to emphasise that there was not one place I didn’t like, owners, receptionists, and everyone else treated us very well, and were incredibly nice. There were no dead hookers under beds or in wardrobes either. Positive or negative, I’ll leave that up to you.
Before I get into the stories and other shit, let’s have a few words about the timeless greatness that is Hangzhou. What you absolutely have to know, is that this was the capital of China for some time, even as early as the 10th century, and was one of the mystifically named Seven Ancient Capitals of China. Also nods go out to the equally exciting ’Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period’, although during that time Hangzhou was ’only’ capital of the Wuyue Kingdom, but that’s still something. Without going into too much detail, the city has a long standing history of prosperity, and they just keep building and building, and although not the first city us Westerners think of when China comes up as a topic, I’m sure if these guys could get a week’s free pass, they’d just start working like mental, and expand all over Asia, and claim neverending kickass-hood. This is all quite huge considering there were severe fires almost every other week up until the 13th century, due to the too densely populated neighborhood blocks built from wood. Around that time, Mongols also ran amok around here, and Kublai Khan used this as his weekend getaway with all his mistresses, while lying to his wife about business trips, and obligatory company team building retreats (Might not be historically correct). One more notable mention in terms of damaging and causing massive insurance headaches go out to, you’ll never guess, the Taiping fellas. Those guys were just not quite right in the head. And yes, that place is immensely huge as well, which nowadays is not a big deal anymore, but Hangzhou was quite the giant even several hundred years ago, even Marco Polo mentioned that in his diaries.
Here comes the point where I have to mention that what I wrote earlier about Hangzhou not looking exactly blindingly gorgeus, was pretty inaccurate. After a 6 and a half hours taxi drive, we arrived in the green area around the Lake, where our hostel was, and it was stunning. There’s some real beauty to this place. Nothing extraordinary or anything, it’s just simply amazing, and very calming as well, which is something that comes really handy when you’re backpacking with people whom you are actually quite prone to end up in a heated argument with. And the worst part is that we weren’t even intoxicated, so it really was a little timebomb waiting to explode. But the hostel was just simply so cool we forgot all that. Well at least by the time we found it, because again, we fell victim to the unorthodox address system in China, and went around the little village-like neighborhood on the hills for about ages, looking like complete tossers, much to the amusement of locals, who made sure to let us know that they actually enjoy this. One restaurant owner guy also vehemently pointed at his ’English’ menu, which basically means he had pictures of all sorts of animals and vegetables chopped and tortured and displayed in the most gory and vicious ways possible. Lots of people call it food, but I didn’t know if I can trust him. Anyway, finally found the hostel with the Tibet thing going on. Which was a little weird, we asked about it, as if they were relly Tibetan people, turns out they’re not, and are about to tear that whole thing down and change the design. So it was a little awkward, but not as awkward as the battered ski-coat I was wearing though. Just had to write it down because I was sitting here for 20 minutes without any idea how to continue.
So, the next day was probably the best one through the whole trip. Hard to pick, but it definitely made the All-Star line-up. First of all, the awesomness was ensured by a great friend joining us, who happens to be Chinese actually, just living in Hungary. It’s the cruel irony of life, that on probably our only visit to his country, even though he’s visiting home at the same time, we could only hang out with him for just a day. But what a day! And anyway, I can’t blame anyone for not leaving their families behind to roll with this crew. First, we hung around in a little Old Town area, of which I don’t know the name of, but to me walking streets and old buildings are all Old Town or Old City, or some variation of the two, and maybe sometimes I drop the word ’ancient’ as well, but I don’t want anyone to confuse this with a time travelling blog. Maybe next year. There was a supercool ancient pharmacy (still present day), that were selling a lot of these herbs and other stuff that probably cures you, and the good thing is, you can’t even mess up the dosage or anything, ’cause basically all of it is good for something, probably that’s why a lot of these people live for about a 100 thousand years, and still raising crops like super-efficient power-workers, grow titanium-strenght Miyagi-style beards, and refuse to collect their pensions. A visit to the local museum (that’s probably not the most precise name, but let’s just go with it now) is also notable, with lots of Buddha sculptures again, and sitting in the throne of some emperor who’s probably a little pissed off at having tourists use his ruler-chair, but that’s what you get for not eating enough of those herbs to live forever.
Now, finally off to West Lake. Yes, that’s probably the most important bit, because that is basically the most famous part of Hangzhou, and perhaps the whole area (except the Lake of Thousand Islands but I didn’t get to go there, so let’s pretend it doesn’t exist). What I feel compelled to mention is that this place is considered to be the incarnation of one of the Four Great Beuaties of Ancient China, namely Xi Shi, and the inscription says (and I’m not making this up) she’s so gorgeous that fishes forget how to swim when she’s having a stroll around. Impressive, I mean you have to be incredibly hot (like 27 out of 10 on the traditional scale) to turn into three mountains and a lake when you die, and creatures around still get mind-erasing megaboners by your sight. The area was always an important part of the city, not only for touristic purposes, but for the local water supplies and fishing too, so most dynasties did their best to maintain it, especially the Tang Dynasty, from AD 785. The then-governor, former poet Bai Juyi (It was really a thing at the time for heroes of literature to pursue a political career once they’re out of rhymes), realised it’s pretty important to do some workaround with the lake, and the city can thank a lot to him in having this place done up all nice and well, and now to this day a lot of tourists come here in stupid T-shirts spending their cash on ice cream here. Yea, and also the water supply and fishing and whatever else there is. So that’s where we spent the rest of the day before Christmas Eve, on rented bikes, which obviously had to turn into a race and then a particularly rough, testosterone fuelled demolition derby. So apart from the fight to the death, it was all chill and a great experience, which made me hate bikers slightly less.
And then an amazing dinner, for which I thank Tian once again, he treated us to an fantastic meal in a pretty nice and fancy restaurant, which is something we didn’t do all that much while there to be completely honest, what with being cheap Easter-Europeans. This event was a prime example, by the way, on how little I actually know about dining in China. The way they eat out, is by ordering a miriad of all kinds of food, have them delivered to their table one by one, and everyone has everything, and at the end it looks like nobody really ate any of it, just transformed the food into an endless mess over something they once knew as a table. Also, this was the occasion where I finally learned just how much Chinese people are into bones. My impression at first was when you look through the menu, and read entries like duck, or chicken, you don’t actually order the meat of that particular animal. Those are just the flavors you want to have on your bones. Just so you know. I will also never understand the way chicken is prepared either. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect KFC-style chicken strips, but it was a little weird to see that the poor thing was actually cooked/boiled, and then just chopped up with a meat cleaver by a local cook who I really hope didn’t have one of those extra-long goaties, hanging into all the stuff he makes. And yes, the head was on the plate as well. Nothing ever goes to waste here. Just don’t know why, I mean you can lick it and get some taste, but apart from that? You want to look the poor bastard in the eye one last time? Why not having a boiled egg first, making the chicken watch? But, at least I finally met my favourite ever Chinese dish, tofu in meatsauce. I think that’s what it was called, was too busy stuffing all of it into myself before the others realise what’s going on and start questioning my manners. After dinner, once we finally managed to lift ourselves from the chairs, and managed to stay on our feet for over 2 minutes, it was party-time. And, well, you can’t ever be full enough to not find some space for a little bit of Baijio. By a little bit I mean bottles.
It was Christmas Eve afterall, and the very first time I spent it away from my family. Obviously I don’t do pub-crawls with the grandmother back home, but also didn’t feel like staying in and watching Home Alone (Which is by far the most popular Christmas ritual in Hungarian households). Only problem is, I really don’t remember specifics now, in terms of bar and club names, and don’t even ask about locations. For the first two parts, I was just too lazy to look them up, but this time I’m genuinely clueless, and we also got lost about 47 times before finding our new Chinese friends in that bar we were invited to. And again, this city is mindboggingly huge, so maybe it wasn’t the case, and it really just took ages to get to the bar. But it was worth it, the local group of young students we contacted through Couchsurfing took us to a real gem. The place didn’t look anything like the bars we’ve been to before, actually had a little ruin pub vibe to it, which was certainly surprising. The rest is just normal, usual drinks, just like anywhere else. Except for the loud ’Happy Birthday, Jesus’ war cries, which the locals really started to embrace after a while. To close off the night, the gang ended up in a super-fancy club, at least that was my impression. If you walk into a 5 star hotel with canned beers, just to have people tell you that they’re not kidding, the club really is here, there’s not much else to think. So the club was on the first floor of the Hangzhou equivalent of Waldorf Astoria. Let that sink in. And here was the most embarrassing bit as well. See, the thing is, before coming to this country, we heard people saying that there are certain clubs everywhere, where they actually let westerners drink for free, because it raises the value and hipness of any venue if there are expats and other people from the western world. And the moment came for us too, or so I thought. Of course, that wouldn’t be my life. So the guys got us tons of beers, fruits, crisps, and even fried squids, the table looked like the wet dream of any overweight Roman emperor, and this rockstar treatment really took the already elevated spirits to a whole new level. You know, this ’we made it’ moment, the feeling of finally becoming a cool kid. Just to see it all burn away when the fellas come back and ask you to chip in, you know, you’re a nice fella, but this is expensive shit. Well, at least I had it for an hour. Best hour of my life.
Well the next morning was definitely not the one for the highlight-reel…Without going into details, one of our crew had a bit of a nasty incident on the bus the next morning, so the next few hours were spent in a hospital. There’s a lot of things you want to see when you go to Asia, the emergency ward is not one of them. Fortunately, there were a few factors helping us out in this dire situation. First, this super-generous lad managed to injure himself right next to a hospital, so we didn’t have to drag him across town, and eventually leave him somewhere in peace. Also, I absolutely must mention here that the locals were just super mega out-of-this-world awesome, and tried to help any way they could. There was one fella in particular, who came up, took us to the hospital and stuck around long enough to talk to doctors, tell us what to do, where to go, and took care of everything, so apart from our buddy’s wellbeing, we were only concerned about our massive hangovers. So, Chinese Dude, I don’t know your name, and you probably don’t read this, but wherever you are, you’re an amazing human being, God bless.
One man down, the rest of the days in Hangzhou were a little bleak, although there was another funny story with a taxi driver, going to the airport to pick a friend up, playing the „oh fuck I need to buy a ticket first before we head to the arrivals gate, you don’t mind leaving the clock running while I do it, right?” game. Well, he was fabulously offended when we didn’t pick him for the ride back, never seen such a small man stomping the ground with such intensity.
So that’s it for Hangzhou, we’ll go on with the Yellow Mountains in the next chapter, with some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my whole life. And a bit of night-train shenanigans too. And a cliffhanger. And pictures of cats.
Here, have a panda: