RL Travel Log: Hangzhou, China – arrival and impressions

Hangzhou is probably the biggest city you’ve never heard of. Wikipedia lists the population in the urban area at 7 million, but it’s dwarfed by the close Shanghai with its 24 million. Whenever i’m asked where my wife is from, i’ll say she’s coming from the Shanghai area. As you might imagine, the people living there don’t like that very much- Hangzhou is very different to Shanghai, much more “chinese”, i’d say. That title picture is breakfast, by the way.

When i go out with our son, there’s a difference between these two cities: in Hangzhou, many people will stop and take a look at him because he’s the child of a foreigner and a chinese woman- they want to look at him, get a sense in regards to his resembling more like his father or his mother. In Hangzhou, when i go into a supermarket and spit out some of my hard-learned-and-yet-so-basic chinese, they’ll commend me on my good chinese. With those few sentences i have, they’ll even sometimes assume i can really speak mandarin chinese and talk normally to me.

In Shanghai, no one cares.

So nobody knows about Hangzhou, despite Marco Polo calling it paradise on earth when he visited and it actually being quite big and, for its size, quite beautiful. This might change, however, come september, when the G-20 summit takes place there. The G-20 summit cast its shadow on our visit to the city, as well.

I've found a good coffee shop, again
I’ve found a good coffee shop, again

Construction sites. Or, to be more accurate, Hangzhou was simply one big construction site while we were there. Now, it’s China, there’s always some suburb as big as big german cities simply growing out of the soil, to accomodate all these people coming into town. While i have to wonder how a “normal” chinese person can afford housing prices ranging from 13000 to 33000 Yuan (2000 to 5000$) per square meter (or 186 to 465$ per square foot), there’s always some “little place” built- or tens of them, in fact.

But this year, construction topped all of that- whenever we went outside, there were buildings under construction / renovation by the street. Sometimes there would be scaffoldings as far as you could see along a road and many roads themselves were being re-constructed. From hearsay, i was told Hangzhou is spending 7 billion Yuan (~1.1billion $) to beautify the city for the G-20. I’m totally convinced that, when we go there next year, the whole city will look different than this year.

There are downsides, however. See, there’s this really nice apartement hotel very close to the homes of my wife’s grandparents. We stayed there in 2014, i think, and it was all good- to reach both of these families, we’d have to walk for either 5 or 10 minutes. Unfortunately, when we arrived there, the receptionist told us we couldn’t stay- and this after a 45-minute-drive, 12 hour flight and 5 hour transit from the plane to that apartement hotel. Why? Because foreigners weren’t allowed to stay there. We didn’t know why and we didn’t find out exactly why, but we guessed that probably, there have been some “standards” set for hotels who want to take in foreigners in the wake of the G-20 summit. It is something i can believe, as the housing standard varies a lot in that city. But the last time we were there, i couldn’t find anything wrong with the apartement. And of course, i was upset. At least we aren’t real tourists, so we could have found a place to sleep, but it was still annoying to find another apartement after 24 hours of travel with a three-year-old kid. In the end, we found something in a different area.

*cough* yeah, that's the one person of our family i'm willing to show here.
*cough* yeah, that’s the one person in our family i’m willing to show here.

The new apartement hotel was situated in a nice area with lots of different restaurants- from the small ones that serve great breakfast up to multiple japanese restaurants, a market right in front of the door, bus stops close by and actually not that very far at least from one couple of great-grandparents, it was suboptimal, mainly because i couldn’t figure out directions from there (i know the area of that first apartement hotel very well) and there was this huge elevated road/street between us and them. It would also take 15-20 minutes to walk to them and about 25-40 to the other great-grandparent, so we often took the bus or a cab to visit either.

I was able to find a good coffee shop, once again. Coffee, free wi-fi, loneliness (they’re usually not well-visited as they’re also expensive- a cup of coffee coming in at around 8$). Actually, this year i noticed that cheaper coffee shows itself on the street- i was able to get a normal cup of coffee for about 1.50$ – it’s getting easier to have some coffee from year to year- in my first visit, i had to drink iced coffee from bottles, this year, there was never a coffee shortage, because those shops sprout up everywhere.

This year also marked something noteworthy: it was the first time i didn’t feel like a visitor, at all- i felt as if i were “coming home”- well, a second home, but still- it felt like home. Slowly, i know the city, i know how things look in China, i know what to look for when i’m searching something (a recharge cable, for instance). While i still can’t read chinese letters and am still far away from talking, it’s getting better year-over-year, as well.

There’s a lot more , as we visited some nice places in the city, but that tale will have to wait for another time. I’m sorry to say i didn’t make it to Jingci temple this year- but i hadn’t had the drive after seeing it was under construction, as well.

 

 

Travel Log: China (overview)

Yesterday we’ve returned from our annual trip to China. This year was good for a lot of reasons: everybody was doing quite ok, nobody was in hospital and we have actually done some interesting things like seeing a “Venice-like” village, visiting a bamboo forest, taking a boat trip on the West Lake, Hangzhou and went to Shanghai for a night. The downsides were the air quality- Hangzhou is preparing for the G20 summit that happens in september and i think they’re quite literally rebuilding the whole city for that event, so there were a lot- and i do mean a lot- construction sites that, aided the usual traffic chaos in terms of dusty air. But that was all, really- everything else was great.

In fact, it was so interesting that i decided to do more than one post on the subject- but i wanted to get something quick out while recovering from the jetlag. As an appetizer, here are a few pictures i took while being in China. I’ll get to everything in more detail soon ™.

Five things i’m looking forward to in China

On tuesday, we’ll go to Hangzhou, China. It’s the home town of my wife, so it’s a family visit more than a travel occasion. While i am not a big-city-type and it’s quite hard for me to be there in summer because of the temperature and humidity, i’m really looking forward to go.

Family

In germany, we have no family. When my mom died in 2011, that was my family. In China, we have lots and lots of family. My father-in-law has three brothers and his father is 90 and it’s a joy to be around him (he laughs a lot) while my mother-in-law has two sisters and both her parents are also still alive. Then there are my wife’s cousins and their children, friends of the family and so on. If we were to put them all in the same room, it would easily amount to 30 people. We can’t, because her parents also divorced, so it’s basically divided in two parts.

Street close to Great-grandfather's home
Street close to Great-grandfather’s home

Our chinese family is really easy to be with. Family can be very needy and quite complicated, but i’ve never felt that way in china. I have felt some pressure last year, when we were with a cousin’s family for three weeks and they were trying to be nice and didn’t want me to go out by myself. That lead to three weeks of company for a person like me who needs to be alone to recharge batteries. It was stressful. And also, quite far away. We had to ride the bus for an hour to reach the rest of the family. So this time, we’re back into an appartement hotel, we’ll have privacy and we’ll be very close to large parts of the family.

It’s also great for our son, of course, because he gets to see how family life should be. His grandmother is also doing ok now and isn’t in hospital anymore (she was the last time we were there), so he and she will get to spend some quality time together, which is great.

And our son can hear more chinese and will hopefully begin speaking it, as well. He understands everything, but to him, chinese is “english” and german is “correct”. And maybe, i can improve my chinese at least a little bit.

Food

Now there’s a reason to love China. The food is so diverse and so good that it alone would be reason enough for me to go. I really can’t tell you how good it is. I guess in the US, you are probably lucky enough to have more authentic chinese restaurants, but here in germany, there aren’t many. Authentic, that is. Chinese restaurants, there are a lot. But they serve germanized chinese food.

I like almost everything, although sometimes, a little bit of caution is advised to at least ask what kind of meat something is. I’m not very eager to eat cow stomach, chicken feet or something like that, but i’ll try it nonetheless. Still, it’s difficult to share favourites, but one thing you can make almost everywhere are Jiao-Zi.

A more normal view on the city.
A more normal view on the city.

Food experience is made even greater with the fact that we are able to eat in almost every conceivable way- at home (all parts of the family have a different way of cooking and eating), in small, “normal” restaurants that resemble cantinas more than what we’re used to see as restaurants (they’re great and i often like the food here more than in the more expensive restaurants), even chains or more expensive restaurants up to foreign food (japanese, korean etc.)

Jingci Temple

I’m not a religious person. However, i feel close to buddhism, albeit in a quite shallow way, as i haven’t made the effort yet to really dive deeper here. Belief is all about world-view, in my opinion. Everyone should follow the faith he or she deems right and, well…believes in. While i know the basic “philosophy” of buddhism and find it strangely close to my own world-view, i haven’t really made a connection to the religious part. In Hangzhou, there are a few buddhist temples, of course, but in the end, Jingci is the one i prefer to visit- and i’m making a point in visiting it each year.

In a city full of people, here's some much-needed calm.
In a city full of people, here’s some much-needed calm.

Jingci is more than that, though. It’s positioned right besides the West Lake, a tourist attraction in a city counting 6 million people. The city is loud and alive, in summer it’s hot and humid. There are many, many people in chinese cities and the West Lake area in particular, because the tourists go there. And then, enter Jingci. This temple is not a tourist attraction- there are a few dozen people, but you’ll have plenty of room. It’s peaceful and quiet- to be honest, it’s the most calm place i’ve found in the city yet, with the exception of a particular coffee shop.

City life

Despite me really not being a city person, i do like what they have to offer- all the more in China, because, while the cities in China are not particularly diverse in their architecture, they aren’t the homogenic cities we know; in germany, there are all these chains in the city- you mostly know what kinds of shops there are in a city. While China has, of course, its own chains, i don’t know them very well yet. There’s a supermarket chain i deem “trustworthy” and that’s it. There are more, of course- restaurant chains i don’t recognize and there is McDonald’s and KFC, sometimes Starbucks. They are vastly outnumbered by all the small shops, restaurants, supermarkets. Mom-and-pop shops are still a thing in Hangzhou.

Around the corner from my favourite coffeeshop
Around the corner from my favourite coffeeshop

Another reason the city feels so alive is that the people are actually quite positive- you can see they’re expecting their financial and personal situation to improve in the coming years, something that is not as apparent in germany.

Taking a break

No PC, no active work, no MMO gaming for two weeks. Well, “no PC” isn’t entirely correct, of course we’ll take a notebook. But it’s different. In these last years, it have always been trips to China where i am able to take a step back and think about the life i’m living vs. the life i’d like to live. What kind of person am i? How can i change a few things up professionally? For once, there’s not always something to do- and it’s helped by the fact that we’re not alone in looking after our son. Now, we stay with him all the time, but it’s still a great relief knowing that other people have an eye on him while we’re visiting relatives.

So, if you don’t hear anything from me after tomorrow in the coming two weeks, it’s because i’m enjoying my time taking a breather.