Hundreds and hundreds of people congregated around the very congested Hong Train Train Station, impatiently pushing and shoving to the front of the queue. I wandered around, trying to find some official looking person to inquire when we would be boarding the twenty-hour overnight night to Shanghai, and more importantly, were we even in the right waiting area for that train.
Suddenly, a train official came upon the scene with a tinny megaphone and started working his way through the crowd, loudly announcing in a mechanical sounding voice, what I presumed to be destinations and times, not a word of which I understood. Suddenly, his loud, constant, fast-paced stream of Chinese announcements was broken up, without interruption, in perfect English. Without missing a beat, I heard him say at full volume - ‘Shanghai, it will be leaving at that gate over there in 10 minutes’ – before effortlessly reverting back to his blaring Chinese pronouncements.
Laughing to myself and shaking my head, I quickly surmised that my dear wife had shamelessly interrupted him during his official broadcasts to ask about our train, since we were certainly the only Westerners in the station. More often than not in China, you just need to butt in and be direct to get any kind of information.
We had left wonderful Hong Kong on the non-stop 20-hour first class deluxe train to Shanghai (the T100), with a private toilet, plug for my laptop, nice overhead lighting, fine linen, and very comfortable beds - at a cost of $115/person. These brand new trains are the most modern in China’s railway system, and are great for long distances, with the first class cabin definitely worth the extra $30/person.
Since we came from Hong Kong (technically not part of China), we needed to clear customs before boarding our train to Huangzhou, about a 90 minute train ride away. Towards the end of June, we planned to circle back into Shanghai and spend more time, but first we would explore some of the rural areas and other notable towns in this province. Getting this far north in China also puts us within striking range of Beijing, a sixteen-hour train ride away.
Like Tahoe, Huangzhou is famous for its defining West Lake, set on the northern side of the town and preserved as a scenic area, with many temples, parks, hikes, museums, and other cultural attractions. We jumped on a golf cart for a one-hour circle tour of the lake the first day, and, although we were the only passengers and he spoke Chinese, we did comprehend his pointing to the various sites of interest, and gauged their popularity and importance by the energy of his pantomime. We were a little tired from all the walking and hiking we did while in Hong Kong, and marveled at the well-designed and beautiful aspects of the park. Even though there were tons of tourists, it did not feel that crowded, as it takes a good four hours to walk around the entire lake, with quite a few stops to linger over along the way.
Originally a marsh, back in the 8th century it was dredged into a lake (which would be quite a feat even today), and over the years, islands and temples were added, causeways were designed, and elaborate seasonal gardens were developed. Near one of the bridges is a mausoleum (Su Xianoxiao), which contains the tomb of a 5th century merchant, while further up is the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei, a military figure of note from the 11th century.
Sprinkled around the entire circumference of the lake are historic architecture and structures, including many beautiful pagodas, and you could easily spend quite a few days visiting everything. Unfortunately, like quite a few places in China, there is a charge for every temple, for every museum, and for every scenic attraction ranging from $1-$5. If you are not careful, you are quickly out $40-$50 bucks, and in China that’s a lot of money, so it’s not practical to see everything – you really need to pick and choose.
The scenic sites are named to provoke an image in your mind - ‘Orioles Singing in The Willows’, ‘Three Pools Mirroring the Moon’, ‘Autumn Moon Over Calm Lake’, ‘’Nine Creeks Meandering Through Misty Forest’, ‘Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge’, ‘Precious Stone Hill Floating in the Rosy Cloud’. Perhaps sometime in the distant past, they had contests to come up with most evocative descriptions, all of which I found to be clever and certainly inspiring.
The most interesting part is the Lingyin Scenic Area west of the lake. Here lays the astounding Lingyin Temple complex, built into the hill on six layers. Escalating up the side of the mountain, each successive temple complex is older than the one below, with the highest being the oldest – built in 326 AD. We were astounded at the scale of some of the statues, especially the humongous and unbelievable montage carving of deities ascending into heaven, carved from a single block of wood. Close by are 1000-year-old Buddhist figures chiseled into the riverbanks, hillsides, and caves, all easily accessed using well-defined pathways.
Up the road, is Meijawu Tea Culture Village, home to the famous Longjing (Dragon) tea, with acres and acres of bright green tea bushes ripening in the rolling hills, and actually looking a lot like the vineyards of Sonoma County. Further up is the Bamboo-lined Path at Yungi, a short walk through an old growth of black and purple bamboo to another old temple. We thought this part of the West Lake district was the most interesting although, again, you’ll get nickel and dimed every time you get to a new attraction.
China continues to intrigue and baffle on a number of levels. We’re amazed that we don’t see ANY other Westerners in our travels, other than the business people we run into at the hotels. Everywhere you look, the Chinese are pouring concrete, yet I haven’t seen one inch of rebar. Tall, brand new skyscrapers are built in every city we’ve visited yet we cannot figure out whom these are for. Construction sites abound, yet most of the work is done by hand using primitive tools. English is so rarely spoken despite it being taught in local schools.
We went to a bookstore one day and asked about English books. Directed upstairs, we discovered an extensive selection of English texts. Upon closer inspection, they were mostly old classics (Dickens, Austen, and Hardy) and a lot of Shakespeare. Now, I thought, I could not get through the first chapter of Othello if my life depended on it, so why are these books here? Do the Chinese who are learning English really purchase these books? Very odd choice of books we thought.
The business people we talk to say the manufacturing centers on the outskirts of town employ cheap labor, imported from the northern and western province rural areas where former farmers struggle to survive. Separated from their families for fifty weeks of the year, they sleep in large dormitories next to the factory, and are paid 40-60 cents an hour while working 10-12 hours a day. For Chinese New Year’s, everyone get two weeks off and they scramble home as best they can. In 2007, cold weather closed down much of the nation’s transport system, and people rioted because they could not return to their families for the holidays.
Local transport has been our primary, and we would say, most entertaining form of travel during our trip. Hopping on the cheap little bemos in Indonesia, or riding the crazy Chinese buses with their 200-decibel air horns, it’s the best way to get out and see the real side of these countries. People seem to be surprised whenever the two tall Westerners get on their buses, but everyone is always very courteous and helpful when we point to where we need to go. Not to mention, it’s very economical, frequent, and comfortable.
We’re headed east to the town of Ningbo after Huangzhou, the gateway town to the Buddhist island of Putuoshan, where we would like to spend a few days. Then, we plan to head south for two or three weeks to Huang Shan, famous for its sacred mountains and ancient villages, before circling back to Nanjing and Shanghai. It’s an ambitious month with much of it off the typical tourist path, before sliding into Beijing and unto the train for our trip across Russia.
Huangzhou itself is not too shabby and worth a couple of days as a stopover. In fact, centuries ago Marco Polo said it was the loveliest city in China, although I would not go quite that far, not for all the tea in China.