And not just any local! The lovely Qing, my classmate at Pitt. Hangzhou is her hometown, and it used to be part of her job to show people her city. So I knew I was in good hands. I had visited Hangzhou for a couple days in March 2009, but it was rainy and difficult to get around. Hangzhou is a big city, but it’s not as tourist-friendly with public transportation or pedestrian options as other Chinese cities. This time, with Qing as my guide, I had an air-conditioned car to protect me from the 95 degree heat and blazing sun. For me, the second time in Hangzhou was a charm.
I felt welcome as soon as I got to Hangzhou. When I got to the baggage claim area, I noticed a lot of people pointing and whispering. But this time, they weren’t pointing at me! I weren’t sure who they were looking at, so I just forgot about it. But as we approached the public area of the airport, I saw even more commotion. Hundreds of people with posters, flowers and flashing cameras were chanting something. The closer I got to the door, the louder they got. Eventually I noticed that the girl walking directly next to me was wearing huge sunglasses and surrounded by body guards (body guards in China are not the same size as body guards in America). I was standing next to one of the most famous female singers in the country. The cameras flashed and the crowd moved in as we walked through the door, so I’m hoping I am on some Chinese gossip blogs as the sleepy, sloppy looking American walking next to their pop princess.
From the airport we went straight to the main attraction of the city. Hangzhou is famous for its West Lake (Xi Hu) which has been the setting of many paintings, poems, stories and songs. Qing first took me to the huge pagoda at the lake, site of a famous love story featuring a snake, her man husband, and a battle of sea creatures. Chinese literature never lets me down! Neither does the level of familiarity the average Chinese has with these stories. They heard them as children, read about them in school, and now they see them depicted on television. The amount of poems and stories Chinese kids have to memorize is mind-blowing, and it may explain why the Chinese have so much love and pride for their history.
Another perk of having a Hangzhou native as my guide was learning about local cuisine. Chinese food is extremely diverse from province to province, city to city, so Qing made sure to give me a taste of Hangzhou seafood, dumplings, and dessert. Without Qing, I would have never known that Hangzhou cuisine is much sweeter and less spicy than the rest of China. I ate shrimp dumplings that felt like silk, homemade breakfast at her grandmother’s home, and eel, jellyfish and frog eggs with her extended family. If you ever find yourself in Hangzhou, order the steamed papaya with frog eggs and honey. Trust me.
My second day in Hangzhou was spent at the Wetlands Park, an area where non-Chinese rarely visit. All of the tours are in Chinese, and the main attraction of the place is that it was the site of a well-known romantic comedy. I’ll try to get the comedy with English subtitles; Qing promises me that it really is a good flick. Anyway, the wetlands were really cool because it’s basically a group of islands where people lived as fishermen and silk producers. As the area modernized, most of the people left their island homes for the urban space. But some people still live there, completely isolated from the rest of Hangzhou. The only way to get around the wetlands is by boat. Tourists go there to take a boat ride and learn about what life was like 200 years ago in the wetlands. I was particularly impressed with the boats turned into dining room tables and the pygmy ducks, which I unfortunately did not get a proper photo of.
With my limited Chinese and the challenge of the Hangzhou dialect, I didn’t get to really converse with all of Qing’s family that I met. But nonetheless, they made me feel extremely welcome and encouraged me to return as soon as I can. Even though my visit to Hangzhou was so short, it reminded me how valuable it is to spend time with people in their homes, with their families, seeing what it is that keeps them coming back.