Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hangzhou - Even us backpackers need a bit of a relaxing holiday

Those of you back home doing the day to day grind, you are probably going to want to ring my neck when I say this, but even backpackers sometimes feel like a little bit of rest and relaxation. Before you throw your hands up in disgust and stop reading this article, let me explain.

Although Jenni and I are not experiencing the day to day stress of work that we used to experience back home in Perth, we are instead now under a different kind of day to day stress due to the challenges that we face each day while travelling in a foreign country. Making sure that we have a place to sleep each night, trying to find accomodation that is in an easy to access area, trying to figure out how to get from city to city, figuring out where to go to buy tickets for transportation, making sure we don't miss our transportation, trying to find our accomodation once getting there and most importantly, making sure that we have a clean pair of underpants to wear the next day can really burn you out. Even finding somewhere to eat for lunch can be stressful as we need to walk around the streets looking for somewhere that is reasonably priced, having either an English menu or at least pictures of the dishes so we can point to them to order and is clean enough looking inside so that we can eat food that will not get us sick.

Our toughest tasks are always trying to get to some of the more out of the way places which we travel to on our day trips. Planning to go on one of these usually involves a good couple of hours scouring through travel guides and internet pages to gather the most clear set of directions on how to get there. Once we set off there are always further complications along the way, like the directions not being particularly clear on where to go to get a connecting bus or train and signing on bus stands and ticket booths not being written with English characters so we have no idea where to go. Even once we finally figure out how to get there, the stress doesn't completely go away as we are always conscious that we need to be able to get back to our accomodation for the night and need to make sure that we don't miss the last trains or buses because if we did, we would find ourselves stranded a very long way away from our beds.

When we read about Hangzhou's tranquil west lake area, we decided that even though there wasn't many big sights, we would allow ourselves a good amount of time there to just unwind and forget about the whole backpacking thing for a couple of days.

Our hostel was located right next the the south side of the lake. We made quite an entrance the night that we arrived. Our train arrived rather late to the city and as we were about to alight from the bus that dropped us off near our hostel in the dark, the heavens opened. We got soaked to the bone in a matter of minutes before we managed to get our wet weather gear on over ourselves as well as our packs. Fortunately we didn't need to keep it on for too long as the directions given to us by the hostel were excellent and we managed to find it in a matter of minutes. The front door of the hostel was stuck and Jenni had to give it a mighty heave to make it crash open. We clambered in completely soaked with the thunder and lightning from outside announcing our entrance. 

Fortunately the weather cleared up the next day and we were treated to fantastic clear weather for the rest of our stay. We spent most of our days in Hangzhou wandering around the lake. It is rather contrasting in comparison to the busy and grubby Chinese cities we have been visiting over the past few weeks. Along the lake there are beautiful clean walkways through sculpted gardens with little bridges connecting the land on each side of little ponds. Many times we found ourselves being greeted by whole classes of little school kids out for excursions around the lake, all jumping at the opportunity to practice their English by crying out in unison "hello"! Each day we would make a regular stop at the local French bakery for a coffee and cake while spending an hour or two reading our books on the couches in the upstairs seating area.

On the day before we left, we decided to stop being lazy and actually take a hike around the whole lake. It is about 15km around the perimeter. On the east side of the lake we were entertained by the local squirrels running around in the trees. We extended our hike to go through the hills on the north side of the lake to give us fantastic views of the entire lake and city on the other side of the hills. Along the hike we ventured through a set of boulders which some local mad man were using as a rock climbing playground. The guys were obviously very experienced as they quite easily scaled the vertical walls of the rocks, showing off by leaping from one ledge to the other and hanging on by only the fingertips of a single hand, but it was one of the most dangerous things we have ever seen. They didn't use any safety gear or harnesses at all and were at times hanging over high ledges with over 15m drops right over rocks. One mistake and they would have found themselves plummeting to their deaths. Other highlights included sunrise point (a lookout at the very peak of the hills that is the best vantage point to see the sun rise) and the northern hills pagoda. After finishing our hike through the northern hills, we stopped off for some lunch where we tried 'beggar's chicken', a dish that was recommended to us by another traveller, before heading back along the lake during twilight to get some snapshots of the southern pagoda which was illuminated by lights on the way back to our hostel.

Our last day in Hangzhou was short as we had to get to the airport to catch a flight to Xiamen. Our taxi driver arrived with ample time to get us there, but was determined to drive like he was competing in the World Rally Championship. The guy was an absolute lunatic, weaving in and out of cars at 110km an hour, overtaking cars in the emergency stopping lane and at one stage, slamming on the brakes to avoid crashing into the car in front, resulting in the wheels of our van locking up and us fish-tailing down the highway before he managed to get it back under control. By the time we reached the airport our legs were like jelly and we were grateful that we managed to get there alive. The only damaged caused by the taxi driver from hell was to the front leg of my jeans, due to a massive pee stain :)

Jenni and I are sad to leave Hangzhou as we have enjoyed this place more than any of the other places we have visited in China so far. Although it doesn't have the big sights like Beijing and Xi'an, we would highly recommend it to anyone visiting here in the future.

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