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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hangzhou and West Lake, China

Travel Date 31st March - 1st April 2012.
Click on any picture to see a large version.

After my interlude in Myanmar it is time to catch up on several past trips while the memories are still fresh.

I visited China a year ago in the month of April 2012. It was a special trip for me because my wife, who finds travel difficult for health reasons, for the first time since 2006 after solo trips to many countries decided to accompany me again.

The itinerary was:

Sleep Nights Transport
29-Mar-12 Hong Kong 2 Qantas
31-Mar-12 Hangzhou 2 China Eastern
2-Apr-12 Shanghai 3 G Train
5-Apr-12 Suzhou 3 K train
8-Apr-12 Beijing 7 G Train
15-Apr-12 Zhengzhou 2 D Train
17-Apr-12 Xian 4 G Train
21-Apr-12 Guilin 1 China Southern
22-Apr-12 Yangshou 3 Boat
25-Apr-12 Guilin 1 Bus
26-Apr-12 Kuala Lumpur 2 Air Asia
28-Apr-12 Brisbane 1 Malaysia Air

We flew to Hong Kong on one of the first Qantas A380 flights from Sydney. I suppose I have become blasé about flights by now because I look back on it as uneventful despite being transported thousands of air miles in a massive modern marvel of engineering and flight technology. 

The most enduring memory of that day is the Sydney airport officious security moron. After waiting patiently for my carry-on items to appear from the machine I eventually became concerned when they did not. I checked with the supervisor and he pointed to my goods being carefully checked in the background. After five minutes I was told that my brand new sealed tube of Colgate toothpaste was 115gm and only 100ml was allowed. I asked if I could squeeze out more than 15gm. I was told that was illegal. My potentially exploding toothpaste was confiscated. I hope the inspecting officer's family's teeth appreciated my contribution to their health.

As I have previously written about Hong Kong I will skip straight to Hangzhou. The China Eastern flight was uneventful but getting to the hotel from the airport looked a bit unlikely for a while. Arrival at the airport was after 7pm. That was when I discovered that neither my two visa cards nor my AMEX card worked in the ATM, that I had less than 100 RMB (~$15) in cash, which I had converted from Hong Kong dollars as I left, and the cheapest taxi fare being quoted from the airport to West Lake was 200 RMB. None of the drivers would accept any currency other than RMB, nor would they accept cards. After a long discussion in mutually incomprehensible languages with several drivers I managed to get one to take me on trust, hoping that we could find an ATM en-route that I could use or that the hotel would help on arrival. 

We did not find any ATMs. After a long discussion with the hotel receptionist we managed to convince her to begrudgingly exchange my spare Aussie dollars for RMB. That gave us just enough to keep the patiently waiting driver happy. I found that only the major bank ATMs accepted my cards when I went for a walk next morning, so I loaded up with more RMB that my usual three days supply when I found a working ATM.

The first thing I noticed that morning was that there are far more motor-scooters and light motorbikes on the road in China than cars. I also noticed that almost all of them are electric. That can be very disconcerting when you are walking down narrow streets and one of them zooms silently past you from behind. You do not hear them coming and need to be very alert for them at all times. I also noticed many with this attachment to the handlebars; an indication that it can get very cold in China in winter.

We stayed two nights at the Victoria Regal Hotel Zhejiang. A comment from my Tripadvisor review is worth repeating for intending travellers. This was our first experience of the disconcerting practice in China of demanding deposits greater than the hotel bill in advance, in this case a credit card deposit of 1800 yuan for a stay of two days booked on cTrip for 1186 yuan. Note that Renminbi and Yuan are interchangeable terms in China tfor their currency. We were astonished, but arriving late with nowhere else to sleep we presented the card.

I later found this to be standard practice in China. Be aware of it, and make sure you get the deposit cancelled or returned (sometimes we used cash) on departure. 

Hangzhou is a large, modern city in the central sections that we visited. Our main reasons for choosing it as our entry to China was beautiful West Lake, the more relaxed atmosphere than we expected to find in Shanghai or Beijing, and, not the least important, cheaper airfares from Hong Kong.

One of my my first activities was a visit to the Hangzhou rail terminal to learn how to buy tickets, as I intended using the rail system for most of my travel on this trip. I learned several lessons that day.

It started with the taxi ride. Cabs in Hangzhou are very cheap. The 3km (2 miles) trip to the station took about twenty minutes in heavy traffic but only cost 10RMB or about $1.50. When we reached the station the car entered an underground cavernous space with hundreds of idling cabs filling it. The air was chokingly blue with exhaust fumes. We left the cab and made our way across several lanes of parked cabs to reach the underground entry to the station, noticing as we walked an odour over the exhaust fumes. There was a space 2m x 1m next to a wall, screened by a simple wall-board panel for privacy, which appeared to be the driver's toilet. There did not seem to be any attached plumbing. On later trips I chose a nearby hotel as the destination for the cab; it was cheaper, faster and did not require a walk through that noisome space.

Upstairs I found the vast ticket office and eventually found the queue for English speakers. Later, in Zhengzhou, I also found an English window. It appears there is one in most major stations. Most of the people in the queue with me appeared to be from India or Pakistan.

The Chinese do not appear to have the same grasp of the concept of waiting your turn in queues that I was brought up with. One of the reasons that it took me over half an hour to progress from last to first in a queue of about 30 was the constant stream of people who walked straight past us to the front of the queue and forcibly muscled in front of the person at the window. The surprising thing was that nobody in the queue objected. They simply patiently accepted this behaviour. It caused quite a stir when I reached the front and pushed them back when they attempted to push in. Oddly, when I did that, although they were very surprised they did not get upset but accepted my response in the same way as those in the queue accepted their behaviour.

After all that I then found that I could not buy a ticket to Shanghai for both of us without my wife's passport. It was with her, waiting outside the ticket hall. Thankfully, second time around the queue was shorter. I am obviously a slow learner because I did exactly the same thing later when I bought tickets to Xi'An in Zhengzhou station, but that time I had to go back to the hotel to get the passport.

China is a mix of very poor and very rich; most of the latter are in the big cities. These are the Bentleys that could not fit in the showroom of the Rolls Royce dealer near our hotel.

West Lake is as beautiful as the travel brochures paint it. We had a relaxed and pleasant day wandering about the lakeside.

We saw many Chinese tourists enjoying West lake, but almost no Westerners. At several spots there were musicians and singers performing.

In one area they were performing dance music. 

This intriguing statue was about 20m from the shore.

This seemed to be a place for parties.
  These are the regular ferries to the islands in the lake. 

The most popular visit is to Lesser Yingzhou islet, which is a circular annulus islet enclosing a smaller lake and yet another islet within it. Click on this picture to see a brief history of the Islet. I'll let the following pictures taken on the islet speak for themselves.

Our next transport learning experience occurred on the way back to the hotel from West Lake. We could have walked but were a little lost and unsure of the distance. There were no cabs in sight as it seemed to be peak hour. An autorickshaw driver appeared and quoted me, I thought, 3 RMB for the trip to the hotel. That seemed right, as a cab would have been less than ten. The seat was so narrow that my wife had to sit on my lap, a novel experience in public for both of us. The construction of the autorickshaw did not seem to include springs and we bounced all over the place for ten minutes as he drove on footpaths and through back alleys to the hotel.

When I paid him five RMB including a tip he exploded and got very angry. It wasn't until a passing hotel guest translated that we found he expected thirty, not three. I paid but I learned from that experience to check the price very carefully in future in China. 
Cheers, Alan

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