Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hangzhou: Another Vacation

October 1st marks the PRC's National Day--equivalent to the 4th of July for Americans. Unlike Americans, however, Chinese get an entire week off. If I recall correctly, we get one day.

For our week of freedom, to relax the tensions of work and life, Cherry and I took a couple days in the midst of the week to visit Hangzhou. Hangzhou is an ancient city, a very wealthy city filled with 'Chuppies' by the handful. According to its advertisements the last couple years (and changed this year), Hangzhou is "the most beautiful city in China".

I beg to differ.

Hangzhou is not a bad city, don't get me wrong. It's certainly not an ugly city. Numerous parks, upscale establishments, ritzy condo high-rises, and 'California-styled' suburbs riddle the city proper. The air, compared to other cities of similar size, is fairly fresh. Perhaps that's because Hanzhou's main money makers tend to be software and animation--relatively pollutant-free industrial activities. But Hangzhou is not Shangri-la, is not that gem of the orient Hongkong, and in terms of beauty doesn't even stack up against Kangding--a town nestled in the Kham Tibetan highlands, and perhaps 1/100th the size of Hangzhou--because wealth and culture aside, it's just not a showcase of anything special.

West Lake (which we largely avoided, due to the millions of tourists descending upon it during the vacation week) is Hangzhou's main and pretty much only tourist draw. The lake isn't really very large (especially to someone coming from the Great Lakes region of the US), and is surrounded by mountains. But I have visited at least three or four lakes just in China that beat it for beauty, one of which is in the mountains directly above the aforementioned Kangding. And why? Because the mountains aren't terribly high, and the shore is awfully over-developed. Nature, not man, is the source of divine artistry, but the locals don't seem to have learned that lesson.

Looking through the Lonely Planet guide, aside from the lake there really isn't much else listed for Hangzhou. Which doesn't mean there aren't some hidden gems--there should be, a city that size--but does mean that Hanzhou is really a second-tier Chinese city as far as beauty and fascination go. The new advertisement for Hangzhou, by the way, says, "Come to Hangzhou, discover the mysteries of China" which is a pretty weak line, by my reckoning. China's mysteries aren't readily found in any of the major cities; in my experience, you have to walk about a hundred miles off the beaten track to see any of those, and preferably deep into the wild mountains, deserts, and jungles of the western 2/3rds of the country. I'm sorry, Hangzhou, but wealth, industriousness, and first-world living style doesn't necessarily translate into a truly Chinese sense of either beauty or mystery. If clean streets and proper parks were my cup of tea, I'd take my vacation in Paris or Vienna or somesuch.

Now all that said, our vacation in Hangzhou was actually quite pleasant. We weren't looking for major tourist draws, mystery, outstanding beauty, or any of that shtick. We were visiting some of Cherry's relatives in the countryside outside the city proper. Delicious homecooked meals of river crabs and other crustaceans were duly enjoyed. We visited a small factory (located in a tiny village-let among the rice fields) owned by Cherry's cousin. The point of the factory, apparently, was to create little cylindrical, hollow, plastic doohickies spooled with copper wire on the outside and containing a roll of unnamed metallic alloy on the inside. The cousin claimed that this new alloy was more environmentally friendly than competitive types, which is an interesting claim even if it isn't true, because it is somewhat unexpected that environmental sensitivity would be trickling this far down the business chain. But I guess that just shows how rapidly environmental qualifications are being coopted by big business as an essential product quality--now that the writing is on the ozone.

Biking among the rice paddies brought back pleasant memories. Stealing cotton pods split open in the heat from the farmer's fields; visiting a local food fair which was offering Turkish-style doner (meat from an upright revolving spit); climbing up to a functioning (as opposed to touristic) Buddhist monastery/temple on the ridge behind our hosts' house; and playing with our hosts' baby. There was quite a bit of fun to be had, and little of it was conventional tourist fare.

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