Posted by: Alex MacGregor | April 1, 2013

Hazy Hangzhou

Making my towards the place where I was working, I decided to stop off for a night in Hangzhou.

Hangzhou (pronounced “Hong-Joe”) is a great example of a huge city that, in almost any other country, would be pretty well-known globally. But in a huge county like China, Hangzhou doesn’t really stand out.

hz view

With about 7 million people, Hangzhou is often the destination for jobs and industries that have been priced out of booming Shanghai. It’s far more working class and less international (read: basically nobody speaks any English).

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Hangzhou’s city center is clean and pleasant, if lacking in character.

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Shops in the center of town.

hz center stores

Hangzhou felt a bit isolating to this foreigner. I’ve been to plenty of places where I don’t speak the language, but normally I have some clue as to what a particular business sells at a glance. No so in China. The success rate for a business actually selling something you want is vanishingly small.

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One neat thing about Hangzhou is the prevalence of biking.

hz center bikes

Bikers and mopeds have their own little road network, which is actually a bit scary to deal with as a pedestrian!

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A market across the street from my hotel.

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The meat section was a bit much, I must say.

After wandering around and grabbing some lunch, I hopped on a bus to Hangzhou’s premier tourist attraction: West Lake.

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The lake abuts the city’s downtown and is ringed on three sides with pagoda-topped hills. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site–in other words, a pretty big deal.

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I’m sure it would have been lovely if I could actually have seen it. Instead, a haze reminiscent of Lake Tana in Ethiopia shrouded everything.

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Given the lack of sweeping vistas the lake is known for, I had to mainly just enjoy the ambiance.

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I was still on the tail end of the Chinese New Year holiday and thus the place was mobbed by Chinese tourists. A nice enough place to walk around, but given the fog and crowds I decided it might be more pleasant to head up the nearest hill and try to stumble upon some temples and pagodas.

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Stumbling upon stuff is more of a necessity than a choice. These signposts don’t really throw foreigners a bone (although occasionally a fork in the road would have an English sign, too).

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The lower part of the trail had a bunch of stalls selling basic stuff. No hassle whatsoever, in stark contrast to so many places we have visited before. There was an exotic quality to the place that made these among the better knick-knack and  snack stalls I’ve seen.

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The first pagoda comes into view, in the upper right.

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The pagoda was fenced-off and thus not quite so stimulating. Sort of a “Well, I guess this is it!” kind of place.

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Most of the interest to me was just wandering around in the picturesque hill, which definitely has an enchanting feel in the haze.

I noticed, eventually, that lots of signposts were pointing towards the Baopu Taoist Temple, so I decided it must be worth seeing. After another period of wandering around on the mountain, I finally found it:

hz temple

Built into a limestone hillside and only reachable by foot, this was much more worth the hike than the pagoda (although less-visited).

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I took a few minutes to wander around and enjoy the distinctive Chinese architecture.

The place is very old, like lots of stuff in China. But despite being very old, nothing in China seems to be tied to an exact date: this was originally built about 1,000-1,500 years ago and rebuilt roughly 400-600 years ago. So, yeah, we’ll just say the temple is old and leave it at that.

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No photography was allowed inside the temple, and I decided to respect the rule (I find the more unfamiliar I am with the culture, the more likely I am to obey “no photography” signs). But the outside was very pleasant.

Unfortunately, as I was wandering around it started to rain. Being a 20 minute walk from the road with just a mediocre rain jacket, I found the rain worrying enough that I didn’t linger long at the temple. The rain was pretty light, although it has the tendency to get bad and stay that way for hours; I didn’t want to risk it.

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Once at the road, I realized I was in a predicament. The throngs of tourists were also worrying about the rain, and scrambling to get any sort of transport they could. Buses, taxis–everything was completely jam-packed going in the direction of downtown, and that was before they arrived at the hordes of which I was a part.

I just decided to walk back to the city center in the rain and grab a bus to my hotel from there.

One thing that started to settle in during my time in Hangzhou was the reality of Chinese food. Shanghai was pretty westernized and thus not so bad; Hangzhou was much more difficult to navigate as a foreigner.

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My first meal in Hangzhou was this beef (I think) in a zesty sauce. I could do without the bones, but it was actually pretty good. I just went into a restaurant and pointed at something someone else was having; this “hot pot” was given to me.

The second place I went was another matter entirely. I walked for at least half an hour, going in all different directions from the hotel until I would lose hope and chose another direction (I was quite tired of walking by this point), and finally stumbled upon a quasi-modern looking place with a chicken in its logo, a sign in English that said “Over 100 Locations in China”, and mainly a younger clientele inside. I figured this must be something passable.

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Not so. Basically you are given a bowl of semi-murky water that is brought to a boil, then they bring a raw whole chicken that has been (rather crudely) chopped into bits and dump it in the water. Then you order vegetables and they bring them to you and you cook them yourself in the boiling chicken-mixture.

The vegetables were the only part I really found edible. The chicken was extremely difficult to eat (I’m not talking about drumsticks and breasts, folks), and completely without flavor. And seeing the chicken feet float around in the soup wasn’t very appealing. Some people I asked later about it told me they should have brought seasoning for me to add to the chicken-mixture; but alas, they did not.

I left wishing I had just stopped at one of the many KFCs around town.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. The photos were so big and interesting, the clean streets, the vehicles, the foods, the hill where you toured…..Patty

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