A Chinese Birthday

The last few years I’ve celebrated my birthday with fireworks. For the entire weekend or three days in a week, Matt and I go firework hunting, driving to all neighboring towns – even a two hour drive and a sleep over at my sister Sara’s house to the best fireworks in the state in Greenfield. Now that I am in the birthplace of fireworks, I can’t get them on the second-third-and-fourth of July – fireworks are only easy for foreigners to buy around Chinese New Year, though there are often random displays at night.

In addition, a lot of our friends are away on vacation this week as we cover their breaks, so there’s no opportunity for getting a KTV group together. So instead of a big party, Matt and I had a romantic birthday weekend away to Hangzhou, a city Marco Polo called “the finest and most splendid city in the world”.

Before leaving Nanjing, after class and a run to the gym on Friday, we went to Baker’s Pizza on Walking Street. Walking Street, or Lion Gate Street, is a stone-lined street where cars and bikes are not allowed, with tons of restaurants, food vendors, and all the pretty neon lights of a little Hong Kong. Baker’s Pizza has cheap, decent-for-China deep dish pizza, 20 RMB each, and really excellent chocolate mousse cake. We bought a bottle of decent-for-China red wine from a convenience store, which the waitress uncorked and gave us two mugs for without batting an eyelash, and ordered a Garden Veggie Pizza (surprisingly with no corn!) and a canned-peach-and-maraschino-cherry pizza (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it).

After ice cream cones from McDonald’s and blowing out my number 0 candle in a cup of HandiSnacks pudding, we went to bed early so that we could get up for our 8 AM bus to Hangzhou. (I’m proud to say that I bought the tickets myself in Chinese, asking the lady how long the bus took compared to the train and how much each was. I’ll never stop being grateful to all the Chinese people who speak slowly and clearly to me, as if I was a hard-of-hearing child.) Fulvio recommended we take the bus instead of the train because it was shorter and cheaper, but it didn’t end up being shorter, and though it was cheaper, the train station is in the center of the Hangzhou while the bus station is a 40 RMB cab ride away, about an hour in traffic, so we didn’t save any time or money in the end.

Hot and tired, eager to see the sights in our short trip, we went to the first and cheapest hostel in the Lonely Planet, but they only had 4 person dorm rooms available. I think I’m getting too old for hostel dorms shared with strangers – when we walked in, the beds were all a mess and there were clothes all over the floor, wet towels hanging from the stairs of the bunks. To boot, our roommates had also taken the lower bunks, though we were assigned them, even though there were signs every where saying to take your assigned bunk. I ended up having to climb up the towel-strewn steps to the hot stuffy bunk. Seeing the mess, without seeing our roommates, and seeing the tiny doll-sized shoes, I had assumed we were sharing space with a young Chinese girl, perhaps someone who was living there over the summer. I was surprised, when we returned home, to see that we were sharing space with a British couple our age on vacation, who never did clean up their mess.

After washing up, we went to a temple to eat at their vegetarian restaurant. They provided versions of local specialties – I successfully asked the waitress what was the best dish and she told me the fake fish. We also had fake shrimp that looked very life like, and asparagus with some kind of fake sausage. After, we went for a walk near the lake and rented a tiny, very slow, motor boat to putter around a small signed-off area of the lake while the sun set. The one nice thing about the pollution in China is that the sun starts to get all orangey early, so you have a nice long sunset. (I used my Chinese again to rent the boat, because the signs were all in Chinese, though it was a little tricky because the word for ten and the word for four (and hence forty) sound kind of identical to me in Hangzhou-ese.)

At night, we did some shopping at stalls and in a very pretty old-Chinese looking area and even saw a heated debate (not a fight – no bunches thrown) widely attended by on-lookers. After a long day in the sun, we slept really well to wake up at seven AM the next morning.

On Sunday, we looked to rent bicycles. Hangzhou has a fantastic public bicycle system. You put a 300 RMB deposit down for a card, and then you can get a bike from any of these public bike stalls by swiping the card to unlock the bike. The first hour is free, and then it starts to take money off of your card like a metro card. The only problem is, it’s mostly for long-term visitors or locals. To get your 300 RMB deposit back, you have to wait ten days. So instead, we rented bikes from a convenience store stall guy (his place had no door and was smaller that my studio in Foggy Bottom). The bikes were only 40 RMB for two, for the whole day. (I asked “For how many hours?” a new phrase I’ve learned, and he shook his head and said something I didn’t understand, so I said “dou tian?” which is definitely not how you say “all day,” but the best I could come up with, and he nodded vigorously. Our receipt for the 500 RMB deposit was written on the back of some paperboard container.)

We biked around a part of the lake before turning on to Longjing Road. Longjing means “Dragon Well” and Hangzhou is famous for Dragon Well Tea. We biked through fields and terraces of tea shrubs along the mountain sides, past shiny pools of water lined with willows and flowers and other pretty plants. Eventually, the slope became too steep, as the bikes had no gears and very little thrust behind one pedal, so that I couldn’t bike up the mountain, so I pushed it up the rest of the way in the hot sun. (You would think going to the gym everyday, I would at least be able to keep up with my husband in a bike ride, but I was hot, sweaty, and my heart was pounding in my throat as I pushed that bike up mountain curve after mountain curve.)

We took a rest at a tea house (really, someone’s house where they serve tea), ordered two glasses of longjing tea to recuperate. I asked directions in Chinese for the village and, more importantly, understood the directions. (When I talk to older Chinese people, especially if they are from areas other than Nanjing, the conversation often goes like this:

Chinese person: Oh, it’s not too far, maybe a kilometre
Me: Is it far?
Chinese person: No. It. Is. Not. Far.
Me: How many kilometeres?

Chinese Person: Boats are 140 yuan for one hour.
Me: How much is the boat?
Chinese Person. One. Hundred. Forty. Yuan.
Me: For how many hours? Etc.

I’m often not able to understand what they are saying unless I can predict it – that is, by asking the question. But this time, I was able to understand what they were saying even if I hadn’t asked the question previously – a big step for me!)

The tea village was atop the mountains, over looking the terraced rice fields. The houses were very, very nice, with shiny wood roofs and marble floors. Apparently Long Jing Tea is good money! I asked one restaurant owner if I could drinks some tea, eat something, and look at the fields – he had windows overlooking the terraces. He said “Mei you difan zuo,” no place to do. I asked again, and again he said there was no place to do. So I left. We went to a place with a balcony instead, had yet more tea (they bring you a giant thermos of hot water so you can keep refilling your cup) and rice and tomato and eggs.

The ride back down the mountain was a breeze, speeding through all of the tea fields. Our brakes were terrible, so we were often going too fast, and we made what had been an entire morning’s journey up in about three minutes down. We stopped at the tea museum, which has beautiful tea shrubs and lovely wandering gardens – I really recommend it – in addition to an exhibition hall, where you learn all about the history of tea and the process of making it. They’re also building a new hall about the appreciation for the tasting of tea, which likes like it’s going to be multi-media.

When you think about it, tea tells a lot about a society. It’s not intoxicating, and it’s not a necessity – there are no calories, so it is a real luxury commodity. Tibetans would trade horses for tea, and local people would pay taxes to the royals in tea. Think about what that means about the prosperity of an area, if you’re willing to trade your horse for tea. There were texts written on teas about how to brew them and the proper ceremony – very early technical writing pieces. The Chinese thought about tea in the way we think about wine – there were scholars who devote their lives to the proper appreciation of it. It was even considered a sort of mental activity. Often, the museum talked about brilliant Chinese people who, it seemed to say kindly, couldn’t reach their potential because of the times (I imagine the politics), so they set themselves to studying tea. The museum also talked about the decline of the quality of Chinese tea production when Western countries started barging in, and showed the gold medals given to the men who helped to rescue the tea industry with modern procedures.

After the tea museum, we biked around the rest of the lake before heading to the bus station. On the other side of the lake were beautiful buildings, museums and universities I guess. The lotus garden had big pink flowers that, if I could stand on water, would probably reach my chin. Hangzhou is a really classy city, a beautiful place to spend a mini-vacation for a birthday.


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