The West Lake is a wonderful place to get lost in some dramatic hill drenched scenery while the willows rustle in the wind around you. Oh and no doubt you’ll be able to hear traditional Chinese music drifting across the water from somewhere. The time of year that I went meant that the trees were awash with flaming reds, burnt oranges and every shade of yellow in-between, interspersed with greens here and there. Explore towering pines, fields of ferns, bushes and other shrubbery, meander through bamboo and wander through forests of maple type trees bursting with colour. See if you can locate the stones that create a path along a stream and the statues of children playing in the water, locate the zig-zagging bridge that takes you out onto the lake itself, the statues commemorating brave warriors and see if you can find the lover’s seating area hidden on a hill. There’s plenty to try and find!
If you went back in time three years you’d have found me applying for jobs. I was nearly a year out of university and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had at the time, grand ideas of working for a multi-lateral development organisation such as the UN and I was simply saving to potentially do an internship in New York City or similar. It was at this point that a friend messaged me saying there was a job with a small multi-lateral based out of Hangzhou, China; that was in fact under the auspices of UNIDO. I jumped at the opportunity and, as they say the rest is history. I’m sure you can gather from the fact that I’m writing this, that I got the job. So a few months later after getting the go ahead I boarded a plane and headed to Hangzhou around mid November 2013 (it takes quite some time to apply and get all the relevant medical and visa documentation). The job itself was only for a couple of months; but hey I had the choice of living and working in an entirely new country or staying in retail in London. For me this was a no-brainer. So off to the Far East I went.
There was nothing overly special about the flight, there was a decent selection of films, decent food and plentiful drinks; aka beer – I am, as of yet, the only person I’ve found that doesn’t mind aeroplane food and I do actually look forward to the in flight meals. It was at the time the longest flight I’ve ever done and was only superseded by the return flight to the UK. I took off around 11am GMT time from Heathrow and spent the next 11 or so hours flying over Russia and China to Hong Kong. Then it was a quick dash through security to board my connecting flight to Hangzhou. I would be flying into Xiaoshan airport about 30-40 mins from the city. This flight was another 3 hours and I guess it made me realize how truly massive some countries are. After landing it was through customs and immigration. On the other side I was now alone for the first time ever when travelling and aside from printed Chinese directions and a vague idea where I needed to be I had no idea how to get to where I was meant to be going. I had an interesting run in with a local who tried me to get into their friend’s “taxi” while trying to sell me a sim card at the same time. Not so sure it was legit, so I swiftly departed their presence and went to the official taxi rank where I secured a ride to Hangzhou, albeit at a slightly overpriced fare. I distinctly remember laughing to myself during the ride, the roads were chaotic and everything was just a bit mad. It was something I hadn’t really felt since India and Nepal three years prior and it felt good to have that feeling back.
I got there around midday Beijing time and was shown straight to lunch and my room. I cannot recommend any accommodation as the job provided it on site (handy for getting to work!) this is when my passport was taken to be registered at the nearest police station which is a legal requirement. I then passed out as I don’t sleep on planes and I was frankly knackered. I awoke when it was getting dark, I still had no passport (I was getting a little concerned now) and had no supplies, no idea where to get any and no internet connection to find out where I could, oh and all the staff I could ask had headed home for the weekend. My advice if you ever take a job abroad is to ensure you have at least a couple of days in the working week to sort yourself out by asking staff if you need to. Luckily my passport was returned and I bumped into an English speaking colleague who kindly showed me the supermarket, which was nowhere near the “15 minute” walk another told me it would be (it was more like 40), not counting that they told me it was down a different road altogether. By the end of the trip I still hadn’t discovered what supermarket he was talking about. Now I don’t know if anyone has seen the film The Grudge (the American version) where the lady is standing in the supermarket in Japan and has no idea what the products are, she stabs a hole in the top, gives it a sniff and decides based on that that she will buy some and then some more. My first experience shopping in China was very much like that. Though I wasn’t brave enough to start poking holes in the packaging. But I eventually ended up with some food that would tide me over for the evening. I cannot abide shopping here in the UK but I rather enjoyed it in China, as I was never really sure what I was going to get!
Because I wasn’t due to start work until the Monday, I had the next two days off to do as I pleased. I spent most of Saturday asleep and then Sunday I went to explore Nanshan Road and the surrounding West Lake. The Lake is very famous and was described by one of the most esteemed travellers as the closest thing to Heaven on Earth. That traveller was the Venetian Marco Polo and he came across the West Lake during his travels of the ancient Silk Road. The Lake is surrounded by parks that are exceptionally well manicured. Not a leaf is out of place – if you ever visit you’ll no doubt see plenty of sweepers on almost a daily basis. The beauty of these gardens is that they are worth visiting day and night. At night the trees and statues are all lit up. It’s not difficult to see why there is such a huge energy demand in China, every single tree has it’s own light (OK I exaggerate but it’s pretty much every other tree). It does look spectacular though! The walk takes you up Nanshan Road onto the fringes of Downtown Hangzhou where it curves round onto the Broken Bridge. Purportedly when the conditions are correct it makes the bridge looked fractured; before continuing along narrow islands across the lake lined with willows and surrounded by reeds to the other side and finally passing the Leifang Pagoda on the southern shores. All in all it’s about a 3-4 mile walk and can take the best part of two hours to complete at a nice pace. I enjoyed the walk and ended up completing it several times. If you’re going to head there make sure you do explore it – hire a bike, get a boat, walk it, get a taxi round it if you must but it is easily the best part of the city and it’s weird to think that you can find empty solace in the busiest country on the planet; therefore it is a MUST do. Hangzhou has a population of nearly 2.5 million and is considered a secondary city, size wise it is on par with Birmingham in the UK, but Hangzhou is very touristy, so that number swells dramatically and it can feel very crowded. So the West Lake (Xī Hú in Chinese) is a wonderful place to get lost in some dramatic hill drenched scenery while the willows rustle in the wind around you. Oh and no doubt you’ll be able to hear traditional Chinese music drifting across the water from somewhere. The time of year that I went meant that the trees were awash with flaming reds, burnt oranges and every shade of yellow in-between, interspersed with greens here and there. Explore towering pines, fields of ferns, bushes and other shrubbery, meander through bamboo and wander through forests of maple type trees bursting with colour. See if you can locate the stones that create a path along a stream and the statues of children playing in the water, locate the zig-zagging bridge that takes you out onto the lake itself, the statues commemorating brave warriors and see if you can find the lover’s seating area hidden on a hill. There’s plenty to try and find! The other things to check out are the temples, shrines and pagodas that dot the water’s edge and if you have the time take a boat to the islands in the middle of the lake then do so! In addition, near the densely populated portion of the lake near Downtown Hangzhou, check out the water and laser light shows; you’ll know what I mean when you find it. Go at night for the best shows.
West Lake is not in fact one large lake (by body of water yes) but the islands that run through it’s spine essentially separates the lake into two smaller bodies of water, walking around both adds another mile or two to your journey but it’s worth doing. The larger and more popular of them is West Lake and the other smaller, but equally as impressive is Xili Lake. I found this the quainter of the two and while still well managed was also a little rougher round the edges – not quite so tamed as it were. You can walk around here and sit at the covered outlooks that arc out on the lake, feed the seemingly endless amount of Koi Carp fish and enjoy the tourists and locales alike enjoying a rowing boat on the calm waters. Look out for wedding photos being taken, just try not to photobomb any! I found the most popular place was a jetty on the far western side of the lake, where brides and grooms are literally queuing up to have their photo taken. I guess it is the most scenic part of the city after all. Perhaps you may come across an impromptu Tai-Chi session, or a choir of ladies singing to music, or even sit and watch bubbles bounce across the lake as an entertainer enthralls the local children. There is a seemingly endless list of things to do and it is easy to see why Marco Polo loved it so much.
One thing that I came to like about China or at least this very small corner of it was the random placement of densely populated sectors backed up against hills and forest which had the tips of various temples and pagodas just peeking out above the canopy. At night these would be lit up and would look light floating candles against the dark trees. I spent endless days simply wandering, I had no particular aim in mind. I’d set off and then find a path into the wooded hills encased by urban sprawl and see where it took me. I found caves, small waterfalls, pagodas set on hills overlooking the miles of city below, cliffs, stone temples, opportunities to rock scramble and paths leading down to backstreets that gave a feel for the real China, not just the manufactured face that the tourists come to see. It was a pleasure to walk these streets, to take in the sights, sounds and smells. To watch old men playing chess while dogs basked in the small patch of afternoon sun that filtered between the densely packed buildings and endless washing lines that fluttered overhead. In these types of roads the cars were limited so it was much easier to walk along them without fear of getting run down. Though that didn’t stop the bikes or some smaller cars for that matter! The motorcycles were nearly always electric so were super quiet, driven without lights (even in the dark) and on pavements, most of the time you didn’t know they were there until they honked their horns right behind you. But others cycle on push bikes either alone, or on tandem with upwards of four people, though I’m sure I saw six people crammed into one of the (what I called) the “chuckle brothers bikes”. They are basically golf caddies that you cycled. So beware of them as you walk about taking in the sights lest you get your foot run over – repeatedly. It was also good fun to explore different routes through town to the supermarket. I discovered markets with small channelled waterways, highway overpasses and tunnels that were cool for the views and sounds of traffic respectively and some cool public art – you know odd shaped buildings and bikes set into the concrete walls, pretty standard things you’d expect…
Of course when moving to a new country it’s important to get to know new people. There weren’t many expats working with me when I first started. In fact I was the only one for a couple of weeks. I was eventually joined by a very nice Ukrainian lady and we went to events with the English speaking colleague who showed me the supermarket. Over the course of my stay we enjoyed various pub nights that were themed, there was a Belgian beer and French wine and cheese nights to get involved in, as well as a band night that we went too. Where the band was formed of expats who sang in English and then performed some very popular Chinese songs in Mandarin. The crowd went wild for those. We also joined a TED Talk night. I really enjoyed this, we were given a topic (in this case death – yes it’s morbid but I believe it’s important to talk about these things) and we would watch various TED talks about it and then meet up to discuss what we thought about it all. No-one in my group was willing to talk so it was left to me, the assembled bodies found it very amusing to see an English guy getting up to talk about death. I only say this because I was the only person whom they video recorded and took pictures of when talking to the crowd. It was good fun. We had dinner round one of their houses which was a nice experience and was certainly entertaining when we got lost on the bus into town. I also met a Kiwi and American in the expatriate bar on Nanshan road called Eudora Station. I spent so long in there drinking rounds of Glenfidditch Whiskey (12 year old no less!) that I was locked out of accommodation and simply went back for more drinks and ended crashing with the Kiwi as they had a spare bed in their hotel room. This was the first, but by no means the last time I’d get locked out – ah the troubles of staying where you’re working. It is also really important to meet the locales, there was a really nice chap who went by the English name of Jack. He attempted to teach me Chinese (I’m terrible at languages) and I attempted to help him improve his English (I’m terrible at teaching). But it was his generosity that struck me, he invited me to join his wife and son for meals out, he showed me round the city and generally made me feel very welcome in a strange place. I sadly didn’t take note of the restaurants that we went to (they were excellent) but it was because of him that I explored more of the city and more of the Chinese culture here than I would have otherwise and for that I am eternally grateful. I still keep in contact with him today and it’s always nice to receive an email from him letting me know how his life is going. He even taught me the customs of drinking in China. Which is always important to be aware of! Eudora Station became a favourite haunt of mine. It wasn’t the cheapest place around but the crowd there was always good as was the vibe. I heralded in the New Year here with a live band, drinks and balloons falling from the ceiling. Of course I got locked out again!
Although the work was not as exciting as I was hoping (when is work ever exciting really?!) I loved being in China and I am immensely glad that I went. I got to experience (Western) New Years Festivities outside of the UK for the first time ever, met some very cool people and experienced a different kind of generosity that I’m not accustomed to here in the UK. There were of course things that weren’t so great, such as the spitting – it’s a cultural norm in China to spit on the street. But it’s not just the spitting, it’s the hoicking of the spit that got me. The smog was another issue, I later found out that it was the worst smog in Hangzhou in about 15 years when I got there (typical!) and this was due to the government banning all future use of high density coal, as such, all of it was being burnt at once. At least it’s better for the environment in the long run. I guess every smog has a silver lining. See what I did there?! OK yes it was terrible but it made me chuckle. Another is social networking. The Chinese government blocks Facebook and other forms of social media, so be prepared to shell out for a VPN or similar to bypass this. I was there until the end of January so for a total of around 3 months; and for me I didn’t get to see enough of the city, I spent long hours working and two days was not sufficient for me a week to explore everything; at least not how I’d have liked. I’d most certainly go back if I had the chance, though I think I’d make it part of a larger country wide venture as China is very expensive for visas. But the country is truly huge and there is so much to be seen, though the time difference may be a little weird. China apparently only uses one time zone – Beijing’s. Not cool if you’re in the western half of the country! So get yourself over there and explore what it has to offer you and let me know how you get on!
Cover Photo: Warrior Statue at the West Lake, Hangzhou