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Hangzhou China Day 1

CHINA | Monday, 16 March 2009 | Views [581]

Saturday March 14th, 2009 – China

Of course it’s a given that when you go to another country everything is totally and completely different. So it’s no surprise here that this is also so. I might have my own room at the local youth hostel in the best part of town for about $20 per night but I also have what comes along with that. The bed feels like springs sticking out of a board. But looking on the bright side, which I tend to do, there is a fantastic working heater and a warm hot shower – between the hours of 9am and noon and 5pm to midnight… Oh and the toilet flushes!

China is not at all what I expected, not that I had any idea of what to expect. But I did have some preconceived notions about how I personally would react to being here. Mostly I had a myriad of fears and my fear was not of a healthy nature. Healthy fear keeps you from being attacked and killed by the mountain lion. Unhealthy fear can hold you back from positive changes in life. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get money, understand what people were saying, speak to anyone, read the street signs, know or learn my way around and the list goes on.

I have only been here for one day and as any good traveler knows I can’t base my first day on my entire experience but it does set a tone and the tone it has set is a very very good one. My friend Jessika and I landed, dazed and confused yesterday in the Hangzhou airport, which is a wonderful airport to land in for a first entry to China. It is quiet and crowd-less. It is small and easy to find your way around. After exchanging money… and this might help others – we went to the first money exchange in the airport on the floor that you get off when you arrive and the exchange rate was terrible. We asked the woman if there was another place in the airport where we could exchange money and she actually directed us upstairs (to the departure area) to the Bank of China, where the exchange rate was fantastic. This woman earned super good karma points!

We also ran into a guy who wanted to offer us a cab-ride inside the airport. We declined and later read in our guide book that those are often black market cab drivers with no meter who drive you round and round.

After getting a different cab to our hostel, Mingtown, right on West Lake and checking in we went exploring, looking for food. We were leery and went walking round and round until we finally decided on Tao Café and boy were we glad we did! The food was really good and of course the prices reasonable. The best part though was the tea and that the waitress let us sit and talk, on couches – which they have instead of chairs – for hours. She just kept refilling my tea leaf filled cup with hot water and refilling Jessika’s teapot. We realized right away that we couldn’t actually speak to her at all. Part of the menu was in English and we pointed to what we wanted but we both have gluton and dairy sensitivities/allergies and it was quite a challenge to tell her that. After massive searching in our phrasebook we found the right words in Chinese. Now if we could only learn to pronounce them properly. Nothing is quite as frustrating as when you finally find the right words and you say them as you’ve been taught in school and the native speaker looks at you with confusion and shakes their head.  This is where I began going back to my days of pantomime, and it worked. It worked so well that I pantomimed my way through the rest of the day.

One of the things that has been more than difficult for me this trip is that I got sick 2 days before I left. This in itself would be challenging but this particular illness has turned into the worst dry hacking cough I have ever had. The cough, apart from ravaging my throat and voice, kept everyone on the 16 hours of air flight awake and has also kept me awake for more than 3 nights. Last night I coughed for 3 hours straight in bed before I finally fell asleep. This morning I woke with an even greater inflamed throat, and the cough is quickly becoming my closest friend as it refuses to leave my lungs. It has not gotten better, it has not gotten worse. But as I truly need my sleep to heal and haven’t been able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time I wonder where this will lead and how it will all play out. Today my other classmates arrive and tomorrow we go to school and begin touring acupuncture clinics. I doubt I will be welcome in such places if I can’t control my coughing.

After lunch we embarked on a treasure hunt. There were staples we knew we would need before sleep. These included but were not limited to: A large bottled water for each of us to make tea in our rooms and brush our teeth, ibuprofin for Jessika’s headache and my sore back, throat lozenges for Jessika and my sore throats, local honey to build up our immune systems and acclimate us to local allergens and cough medicine. We realized our order was tall but we were determined. After wandering aimlessly down the street our hostel is on and looking for anything resembling a store and not finding one I remembered that hotels are our friends. We walked into the first one we found and asked them where the nearest market was. And as foreigners will often do, we assumed that things here were like things at home – translating to – there would be one big supermarket that would carry everything we needed and we just had to find it and we would be set. And as humbling as it is to discover you’re wrong, it also leads to great adventures. The concierge told us directions to the “super market” we inquired about and we went along our merry, though painful way (me with my aching back and endless cough, Jessika wearing her massive headache and inflamed throat). But our discomfort did not stop us from giggling with delight at each and every turn. Instead our pain egged us on, we had a mission and we were not going back to our hotel to rest until we had accomplished it.

We walked for long city blocks until we came to what looked like an AM/PM type place. And as Jessika pointed out, the colors and design of such places are similar to the colors and designs of such places in the States so we immediately recognize the “universal look” of – “we are a mini mart” without being able to read the Chinese characters. We wandered in looking for what we needed but instead we got lost in the myriad of fun Chinese packaged goodies. We tried to decipher things and finally figured out some stuff, like a package of Da Zao though we had no idea how it was prepared. We were just glad to recognize the picture on the front. With most other goodies we were not as knowledgeable but they brought fits of giggles and delight. There are few things funner than colorful packaged, undiscernible food in a foreign land. Here we noted that the only thing they had on our treasure hunt were large waters. We moved forth. Next we came to a store/kiosk that said boasted mobile phone stuff and I entered looking to buy a local mobile phone. I did not let the language barrier prevent me from pantomiming my needs to the saleswoman who brought out a SIM card as I sadly shook my head no and muttered one of the only things I can remember in Chinese, “xie xie” = thank you.

We kept walking. Eventually we were herded down a side street since there are barriers preventing you from crossing the main street. This is when we discovered jaywalking. Jaywalking in Hangzhou was the first thing that made me feel like I was home. And even though jaywalking in Hangzhou is very different from jaywalking in San Francisco, there are still the same basic principles – don’t get hit by a car. At first we walked to the intersections that were marked with lines on the streets, which in the States says to the oncoming traffic – stop here for the pedestrians to cross or you will get a ticket. In Hangzhou however those lines don’t seem to mean the same thing. As a matter of fact I’m not sure what they are there for at all, except maybe to delineate another side street. At first we looked around for a traffic light, we went a couple of blocks looking but there were none to be found. When we noticed something across the street that looked like a 7-11 we decided to follow some locals for our first crossing. This is where I learned that most people in vehicles and on bikes and scooters don’t stop for pedestrians. We followed the locals closely, weaving in and out of traffic gaps. The flow of traffic was not fast and it is more fun than scary to cross, though I did get the image of a salmon swimming upstream.

Entering the Chinese kind of 7-11 we got lost in the myriad of brightly packaged foods again. I found sweetened pickled roses which I had a really hard time not buying but I tried to remain focused on our mission. I walked to a saleswoman and pointed to my throat and coughed, then looked around wildly before looking back at her with a question mark in my eyes. She walked to a shelf and handed me, what have now proved to be, hands down, the best throat and cough lozenges I have ever had! They are called “Golden” and I agree with the name as they have become so to me. On the back there is a photo of a spring and it says “quiet clear spring”. I don’t know what’s in them but there is a slight numbing agent that rids the pain and they keep me from coughing for 5-10 minutes at a time. I then pointed to my back and made a pain face and then a question mark face. She shook her head no and I raised my eyebrows and pointed down the street making a “where?” face. She pointed down the street and held up 1 finger to indicate we could find a pharmacy 1 block from here. We went on our merry way, cough drops in mouth.

On our way Jessika noticed as we passed a honey/bee store and we ran in to purchase some local royal jelly, which Tania had suggested we do as soon as we arrive. The choices were endless. There was loquat honey, royal jelly, propolis and even propolis face washing soap! It was really hard not to buy every single thing in the store but I held back and we just bought the royal jelly. Royal jelly in SF is extremely expensive, I’ve paid over $20 for a very tiny jar. But to my delight more than 12 ounces here is a mere $7.

The next place we came to was colorful and bright and sold fruit. We had passed through a few other such fruit stores along the way and had gone in to explore but this one was different. This one had loud rocking music and a back wall with little packages that beckoned to me. As we danced our way through I was overcome with delight to find fresh mangosteen, durian and long yan rou. There was some fruit I had only heard about in dreams and then others I have never known of. We looked, picked, prodded and laughed hysterically. And the whole time, from one end of the store to the other, we danced. I suppose that I should have expected the dancing alone to bring us more attention but at this point I was used to be looked at.

Here I break off into another tangent – I have always been told that to be the minority somewhere is very different than being the same as everyone else and I’ve always understood that to be true yet experiencing it is very different. And as Jessika pointed out, it doesn’t seem weird to us to be surrounded by 99% Chinese faces because we go to Chinese Medicine school and our teachers and many fellow students are Chinese. What ended up standing out for me is the way they react to us. We are stared at, openly. People stop walking in the streets to turn around and watch us pass. In some places they tap each other and point to us until everyone is staring our way. Walking down the street one guy was speaking with his friends in Mandarin but when he saw us he stopped and said “hello, hello!!” eyebrows raised. Hahahaha At the restaurant a little boy of 2 ran up to the window and pressed himself against the glass with his jaw open to look at me. His parents were embarrassed and tried to pull him away but I turned, saw him, smiled and waved and then his parents began smiling and he began jumping up and down a bit in delight that even though I look different from what he is used to seeing, this alien is still nice. So by this point in our adventure I was getting used to being gawked at.

We made our way to the end of the store that had things in packages and bins. We started picking up the little plastic packaged foods in the bins and discovered they were fish. Tiny packages, smaller than my hand, of perhaps pickled octopus and such. We were in absolute heaven. I had to take photos of these as well which brought us more attention but who could pass up such a unique opportunity? Jessika discovered sugar cane in the back and we ended up gawking at the food choices just as much as the people were gawking at us.

That’s when Jessika looked across the side street and saw the pharmacy. It seemed like a castle looming up out of the concrete to welcome us. Inside we found slightly familiar names, pinyin of herbs we recognized and we instantly felt at home. We spent the next three quarters of an hour pantomiming with the pharmacist, both her and us breaking into fits of laughter. We pantomimed needing medicine for my cough, her throat, my back, her headache and we led around the store from one colorful package of drugs to the next. We found the ibuprofin. She gave me some chuan bei mu cough medicine and Jessika some pang da hai tea that also has a myriad of other herbs like mai men dong. Jessika looked up in the phrasebook so we could say pain and ask if the remedies she was pointing out were herbal or western. She gave me Chinese herbs for my back which I did not discover until later are those tiny little delicious tincture bottles that you drink. In the end I spent $10 and got a bag full of packaged herbs for all my ailments and ibuprofin. The treasure hunt was complete and now I had to pee so we headed back.

On our way we passed a fancy hotel and I remembered that in SF or other places in the US whenever I have to go to the bathroom I turn into a fancy hotel or a hospital because the bathrooms are always on the main floor and more often than not they are very nice. This was the case here as well and it was nice to relieve myself so I wouldn’t be complainy for the rest of the walk home.

This also gave us more time to wander about. On our way back I could see West Lake peeking through an alley about a block from our hotel and Jessika asked me if I wanted to go there now. I did! We jaywalked, zigzagging with a local between buses, cars, bikes and mopeds. We had now learned that even at a crosswalk with a light the traffic does not stop. Pedestrians are on their own here and we saw cars narrowly missing bikers and moped riders as the mishmash of traffic somehow, against all odds, seems to work. The other thing we noticed in the main area is the lack of congestion we had expected. We had heard that big cities have wall to wall people but not where we are in Hangzhou. There were less people on the street, on a Saturday, than there are in downtown SF on a crowded weekday, significantly less. This was welcomed.

As we headed down the side street toward West Lake my breath left my chest and my heart began to race. I have never, in my life, seen anything so breathtaking. It was dusk and the sun was just about to set over the vast lake. The lights on all sides were twinkling and the trees, which look like willow trees dipped in and out of the magic of twilight. I quickly dubbed this “fairytaleland”. The quiet and peaceful water. The old, weathered stones along the alley and causeway. The lights playing music and dancing along the water’s edge. Captivating, awe inspiring, sheer and complete magic. This is when Jessika and I began thanking Kenan for recommending we stay at this hostel in this area.

It’s funny because when I first walked into my room at the hostel I thought, there is NO WAY I can stay here for a month and now, less than 24 hours later I feel like I could stay here forever. I have always likened traveling to being home. For me that’s what it’s always felt like. I should reiterate by saying that I LOVE home, especially my home, where I live now in Sausalito, which I call “magic land”. I love it there!! I have a very large one bedroom with a sunroom all to myself. I have a magical garden and a view of the bay. But there has always been something familiar to me about traveling. I am not sure what it is exactly but when I’m “on the road” I am comfortable. I can do things or stay at places that I might otherwise have turned my nose up at and they seem perfectly wonderful to me. Even in hard conditions, like at burning man, I feel like I’m home. I feel like this is where I’ve always been and this is where I’m meant to be. I feel that way in Europe, and now I can add China to my list. I feel like I’ve come home here too, like this is in my blood, buried somewhere deep in my DNA. And I can’t explain it anymore than that.

Seeing West Lake for the first time drove that “home” for me again. Jessika and I were already loving it here but seeing the lake brought tears to my eyes and filled my heart with a joy that I never knew was missing until it was there. We wandered along the edge and crossed a bridge. There are no railings here. Everything is open and free and we could only surmise that it must be because the Chinese are not litigious. Regardless it made everything seem more real and raw yet it also made us a bit uncomfortable as our safety net had been removed. Wow, they actually trust that we’re not going to fall or be pushed into the water here! What a concept!

As we strolled along the most romantic area I’ve ever seen, together watching the last remnants of the sun fade behind the mountains of Hangzhou, I felt so good, better than I’ve felt in the past few days of travel and sickness. Knowing that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, without a doubt. And all my fear and worry and angst and anxiety has completely melted away.

Tags: china, food, hangzhou, west lake

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