If you’re up on Chinese geography, history or culture, you’ve heard of Hangzhou. If you’re like the rest of us mere mortals, there’s only room in your brain for, like, five Chinese cities and those spots are already taken.
There’s no geography shaming over here on this slice of the internet.
Here are some reasons the city of Hangzhou may be familiar to you:
- It’s the tea capital of China (longjing tea is from here)
- The G20 summit was held here in 2016
- The city was the capital of two of the Chinese dynasties (Song, Tang) back before Mongol invasion
- Global tech giant Alibaba is headquartered in Hangzhou
If those little factoids don’t ring a bell, no worries, because today we’re going for a little adventure in Hangzhou.
I went to Hangzhou for work and these days, it’s why lots of people come here, for meetings or conferences with one of the many tech companies popping up near the hallowed streets of Alibaba. But Hangzhou is also known as a weekend getaway from Shanghai (just an hour away by train), and it attracts all kinds of travelers from around the country.
If you’re not in town for work, the big attraction is West Lake. The lake is actually man-made, but it was created to appeal to the Chinese love for parks and gardens. Covering a few square miles, you can bike the full way around the lake, or base yourself in the old part of town and just walk on portions of the walkways, which extend nearly the entire way around.
In the height of the summer, when the temperature in Hangzhou borders on that of a lava field, the lake is most active at night.
When the sun sets, families take to the streets. Kids bounce around the paths, and splash in the water. A combination of leisurely walkers and bikers somehow make room for each other on the paths. The trees, decorated with lights, illuminate the city at night and make for a magical experience.
During the heat of the day, the shallow creeks and tributaries that surround the lake are brimming with families, keeping cool in the shade. I make it sound idyllic but it’s honestly nuts. There are so many kids screaming and going nuts with water guns. Oh and don’t forget the cars, which somehow crowd in on roads that really feel like they should be walking paths.
My visit to Hangzhou was short, but started with a visit to a local tech company (located next door to one of Alibaba’s buildings, as if the success will rub off). Our group of sixty people then moved to our hotel for the night, where my company had organized some team building activities.
I was all worried about trust falls and color wars, but in China, team building mostly means PowerPoint presentations and big meals.
Those out of the way, small groups split away to explore West Lake at night. I really enjoyed walking on the pedestrian path in the middle of the lake, with the trees sparkling. Despite the late hour, vacationing families seemed in no hurry to leave. My group got bikes from the city bike share program to pedal around for a bit, and then we stopped for a break where any self-respecting American would – McDonald’s.
We just really needed ice cream, okay?
The next day our huge group took a hike, walking up a long trail to the village of Longjing (home to the famous tea). It’s about ‘halfway up the mountain’ from the lake, although from the village you can’t actually see water. The little river/creek running parallel to the path told us we weren’t far away from the lake, but I was too hot to ask any more pressing questions. After another huge meal, with dish after dish spinning in the center of the table, it was time to head back to our home cities.
And this is where things took a turn for the weird.
Our group from Shenzhen all flew to Hangzhou, and we went back to the airport together. The other seven were on one flight and I was on another. No big deal – they were scheduled to leave just ten minutes apart. Thanks to air traffic issues, most of the flights out of Hangzhou were delayed that day, and my colleagues left an hour late. My flight, delayed and delayed some more, was eventually cancelled.
It being late in the evening, the airline took us to a nearby hotel for the night, and worked out how to reschedule the flight for the next day. While waiting in the hotel lobby for my room assignment, the manager came over and told me (well, he told a guy I befriended in line who spoke perfect English) that the hotel didn’t have a license to host foreigners.
No problem, they said, we’ll just put you in a room and not register your name.
Eventually it came out that they were actually expecting a police inspection that night, so an elaborate scheme was devised to help me stay hidden. My new friend would get a phone call when the police were in the building and he would call me. Then we would both sneak down the back stairs and around the back of the hotel until the police left.
At this point I was tired and frustrated and nearly eight hours into the ordeal. Add on the language barrier that is usually navigable but in this situation seemed impenetrable, and I was frankly ready to just get the night over with. So I went to my room.
Sure enough, the phone soon rang and the two English speakers made for the stairs. At the bottom, the manager waited for us to get into the hotel van. We drove around the block and parked until the police left.
And that was it. I went back to my room, went back to the airport the next morning and flew home.
I’m aware that this whole situation is questionable on many levels, from why are there hotels that can’t accept foreigners to the issue of the dumb girl who got into a strange van late at night. My English-speaking partner in crime has been in touch with me since, saying he’s relayed the story to various friends and colleagues and they’re pretty convinced the whole thing was a scam.
A scam for what? Your guess is as good as mine.
So, yeah. It was quite the adventure in Hangzhou. I feel like it deserves another chance from me. The lake really is special, man-made or not, and the sparkly trees and beautiful Chinese bridges and gazebos are romantic and historic. I really understand why people in Shanghai come here to get away from it all. It has that vibe, for sure.
That said, next time I’ll do Hangzhou differently. I won’t go in the middle of summer, and I’ll make sure to base myself at a hotel directly on the lake (our digs were decidedly budget, and were also nearly 30 minutes from the water).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will fly to Hangzhou and back first thing in the morning. China is notorious for delayed domestic flights and things get worse and worse later in the day. No more airport hotels for this girl. And no more getting in weird cars, either.