A trip to Hangzhou was on our list of Things To Do before we even arrived in China. (Suzhou, too, which we hope to do this coming weekend.)
Buying train tickets to Hangzhou proved to be more difficult than we had expected, but we eventually found an easy way. I researched prices online. Buying Chinese train tickets from websites in English is a good way to get ripped off. The prices are exhorbitantly higher. One site wanted $40 each way for a high speed train ticket from Shanghai to Hangzhou.
I won’t go into the back and forth, the numerous phone calls to and from my wife’s TAs. It’s not worth the overlong explanation. Ultimately, my wife met up with the TA for one of the other Summer China Program professors at 9:30am on Saturday. She took her to the travel agency near the campus and helped Stephanie buy the tickets we needed.
You know what we paid? I’ll show you.
78 Yuan = less than $13. Our kids cost 39 yuan each for each way. Four round-trip high speed train tickets cost us a grand total of roughly $78. Had we bought them from English travel websites it would have cost us $320.
What’s the lesson?
DO NOT BUY HIGH SPEED TRAIN TICKETS FOR CHINA FROM ENGLISH WEBSITES.
Get tickets from local travel agencies if you can. I’ve also heard that Western hotels (not ours, which is not western style in any way…more on that much much later) will often get the tickets on your behalf for a small charge. You can even buy them at the train station, using broken Mandarin and lots of hand signals. To me, the frustration of communicating with a limited vocabulary is worth the hassle to save a lot of money.
Getting to Hangzhou on Sunday morning required us to get up early and eat a quick breakfast. Our train was scheduled to depart at 9:00am. Which meant we needed to get to the train station by around 8:30am. The night before I had bought some donuts from Mister Donut as an enticement for the kids when we woke them at 6:30am. They’re used to sleeping in until 8am or so.
We managed to get everyone out the door by a quarter after 7am. Then we took a long subway ride to Hongqiao railway station which is in Southwest Shanghai, near Hongqiao airport. It required one line change; from line 3 to line 2.
Once at the gleaming, clean, huge train station, we found our train after a bit of confusion. Us Americans don’t ride trains. We drive or fly. So something as simple as reading a train ticket is cause for confusion. Of course, the train schedules posted at the station are all in Chinese characters.
The train ride itself was fun for us and the kids, and smooth. And so very fast. A display screen at the front of every car posts the current weather conditions and speed. I think the top speed was 304 km/hour, around 190 mph.
In Hangzhou, we waited in line like everyone else for a taxi and had the taxi driver take us to the Hubin Lu pedestrian area next to the lake. Which lake? West Lake (Xi Hu) is what Hangzhou is known for, a lake on the western side of the small (by Chinese standards) city that is surrounded on the North, South, and West sides by rolling mountains. The beauty easily lived up to the hype.
From there we walked around, amid the Chinese Paparazzi, and I found a ferry boat that would take us to the Island of Small Seas. The island was built four hundred years ago by dredging up silt from the lake, forming four small ponds inside the island. That’s right: it’s an island within a lake that contains small lakes. It’s amazing. The island is filled with paths and bridges criss-crossing the four ponds.
Here’s the view of the city of Hangzhou from the Island of Small Seas.
The kids were whiny, partially because they were tired and partially because they were already annoyed by all the photos being taken of them. We only saw one other Western family with small children there. While walking it wasn’t so bad. But if we stopped fro a break, a crowd soon formed around us and the picture-takers commenced.
To appease the kids a bit, we went to a souvenir stand and bought Meredith a small bubble gun and Henry a plastic battle axe. For the rest of the day, these helped amuse them when they were bored (which was often). Meredith would make the bubbles and Henry would cut them with his axe.
(The following morning Meredith broke the axe. Henry was furious. So one of our tasks now is to get Henry a replacement.)
When we were done walking around the island we took the ferry back to the East side of the lake. Our next priority was lunch.
According to the Hangzhou day trip section of the Frommer’s Guide to Shanghai, Xihutiandi, an area with places to eat on the “southeastern side of the lake,” wasn’t far from the pedestrian road. It’s not far if you’re an able-bodied adult. It’s very far when you’re hungry, your kids are hungry, and you’re carrying one of your hungry kids.
We did eventually find Xihutiandi and ate some lunch, and took our time getting up from the table, feeling like resting a bit, and then because we couldn’t hail a member of the waitstaff. It was as if they had disappeared once they had put down the last dish we had ordered.
We did not get a chance to see either the Su Causeway or Bai Causeway. This was not possible with the kids. Unless we could have hired someone to carry them. Before we returned to Shanghai, Stephanie wanted to see one of the many shrines that dot the area around the lake and she chose one: the Tomb and Temple of Yue Fei (Yue Miao).
The temple is located on the Northwestern side of the lake. The only practical way for us to get there was to hail a taxi. The guidebook assured us that taxis were the easiest (and most affordable) way to get around Hangzhou. Did I mention that it was Sunday? The crowds are larger everywhere on Sunday in China. The traffic on the road that rings West Lake alternated moving at a crab crawl to being stone statue still.
The taxis were filled with people. When I finally managed to wave one down, I pointed to the location on the map in my guidebook and said, “Yue Miao.” The driver waved me off, saying, “No. Sorry.”
My wife and I were left wondering what the hell that was about. But we continued to try and hail a taxi, but taxi after taxi was filled with people.
Then a guy came by in a rickshaw (a covered motor scooter fitted with two rear wheels and a bench). He agreed to take us. The four of us jammed ourselves into the back, Stephanie with Meredith on her lap and me with Henry on my lap, his hands firmly gripping his toy axe.
As cramped as the four of us were, the kids thought riding in the rickshaw was awesome. We got to Yue Miao faster than any other legal method. Rickshaw motor scooters can use the scooter/bicycle lanes, cross in pedestrian crossing areas, and drive in regular traffic. Whereas car traffic was at a standstill, the rickshaw kept moving.
When we arrived, the driver told me “Yi Bai” I was like, what!? The taxi ride from the train station to Hubin Lu had been all of 16 Yuan, including tip. 100 Yuan. Yeah, we overpaid. Or at least we thought we had.
We walked around the lovely shrine to Yue Fei, a Chinese general who lived a long time ago. Here’s the building that greets you upon entering the grounds.
Meredith used a part of the steps as a slide.
Later we even posed with a statue of Yue Fei.
On our way out of the temple we ran into some Americans and I said, “Look! White people! Can I take your picture?!”
And one woman replied, “Sure! and your kids have blond hair, so we must take their picture, too!”
We laughed and then we talked for a short bit. Turns out the woman’s husband worked in Beijing and was being visited by family so they were all touring Hangzhou.
Getting back to the train station from the northwestern side of the lake was not as easy as I thought it would be. We tried to hail a taxi amid the slower than a crab crawling traffic. There weren’t many taxis and the handful we saw going by were full.
We decided to keep walking because the traffic was so slow to begin with. But then there were only so many places on that section of the lake to actually hail a cab because there was a black metal protective fence separating the sidewalk from the roadway. We stopped at a KFC to get the kids some French fries because they were hungry. When the kids were sated, we began walking back toward the downtown area. To move faster we each picked up a kid and carried them. Always we kept looking for an open taxi.
Then I spied an open taxi going in the opposite direction, stopped in traffic. I put Meredith down and ran across the street and hailed him. He waved me off, saying “no, no, no!”
Two taxi drivers waved me off. I don’t care what the Frommer’s guidebook says, the only reliable thing about using a taxi to get around Hangzhou is that it’s a pain in the ass. I’m really glad we didn’t hire one to take us to the Tea Museum, which is beyond the West side of the lake. There would have been literally no way or us to get back to the train station other than our legs.
Meanwhile, we didn’t know if it was even possible for us to make it back to the station in order to catch our train back to Shanghai.
The rickshaw driver was beginning to seem like a bargain compared to refused fares or carrying the kids around the lake.
Then who should appear coming from the other direction and see us but the very same rickshaw driver who had taken us to Yue Miao. He turned his scooter around and pulled up to the curb next to us. (I told you scooters can go anywhere.)
I pointed to the train station on the map and asked him how much. He said “one-five” meaning 150 Yuan. Given the circumstances it seemed like a bargain. Once again we crammed into the back and took a chaotic, sometimes bumpy, ride to the train station in a short time. I paid the man 200 Yuan; a 50 Yuan tip. Yes, an obscene amount by the standards of cheap labor in China. But it meant we no longer had to worry about missing our train.
The ride back to Shanghai was uneventful, just as smooth and quick as the trip in the morning. We arrived at the train station and quickly made our way to the Metro. The kids were very tired and a little overwound. I thought, great, we can get on the subway train and the kids can just sit and rest until we have to change trains.
The Hongqiao Railway station is only the second stop on line 2 coming from the West. It was a little after 7pm on a Sunday night. The subway cars pulled into the station and there were no seats available. The cars were already a little more than half-full.
(Welcome to China, where there is no such thing as “empty space” and there is ALWAYS more room, be it inside an elevator, in a train car, or on a street.)
Let’s just say that it took a lot for my wife and I to try and keep the kids (mostly Meredith) from getting on our nerves.
Chinese Paparazzi Count: 87
This is a record. We could have easily racked up more if we’d bothered to sit in one spot more often. Because whenever we would pause to snack, rest, or get our bearings, a crowd would form with some people saying, “loawai!” which means “foreigner!” and taking pictures. Sometimes they would ask. The kids are shy and annoyed by it. I tried to explain to them that this is the first time that these people have seen a living breathing Western child and that we should try to be polite, acting as good ambassadors for our country.
But that doesn’t mean we acquiesce to every demand. On the Island of Small Seas I shoved my hand in front of a man’s camera when he kept taking picture after picture of the kids, walking around us. An older woman pulled Henry, trying to make him pose, and Stephanie and I yelled at her and yanked her hands off of him.
At one point on the Island of Small Seas, Henry said, “I’m really tired of people taking my picture.”
So are we, Henry. So are we.