It took almost an entire day to arrive at Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. We left Nanjing early in the morning, but as the average speed of Chinese trains was 60 – 70 km/hr in those days, we arrived in Shanghai 6 hours later. There we boarded another train that brought us to Hangzhou. When we arrived, it was already late in the afternoon.
While Nanjing was more like another Beijing in terms of general outlook of the city, Hangzhou was a pleasant surprise.
. . . Hangzhou is one of the most scenic of provincial capitals in China and its most famous spot is the West Lake. We were put up in the West Lake Hotel, as you can guess named so, because it was located on the banks of that lake.
The scenic character of Hangzhou is reflected in the schedule of our days in that city in my diary, reproducing the staccato introduction of the next local professor cum students who had been assigned to us as guides. Half of each of the three days in Hangzhou was reserved for visiting ‘scenic spots’. Even some of the other activities, like the boat trip on the West Lake in reality was visiting a . . . scenic spot. That itinerary finally sounded like a holiday. . .
The West Lake Hotel is now managed by Four Seasons and probably out of reach for most foreign students’ budgets.
The most interesting activity that day, and probably one of the highlights of that trip, was the party that a few of us spontaneously organized in our rooms.
In that respect, we had been behaving quite decently so far during this trip. Everything was new, so a lot of attention was needed to digest all those impressions. We were also tired by the long train rides and demanding visiting schedules.
In Hangzhou we visited parks and ancient buildings and we made a boat trip over the lake, which was much more relaxing than visiting a chemical fibre plant.
That day, I had purchased silk house coat.
. . . It was not even in the Hangzhou Friendship Store, but as soon as my eyes were caught by a red silk housecoat, with black hems, I intuitively knew that it was made for me.
It had a dragon embroidered with gold thread against the red background. It fitted me perfectly. Once I had put it on in the shop, I felt like one of the landlords as depicted in the cultural revolutionary films. They say that fine feathers make fine birds. Well, those feathers made me a landlord. The coat was expensive for Chinese measures of that time, but I have worn it for many years. . .
. . . Now back to our party in the West Lake Hotel. After a few drinks, I obviously wanted to show off my new possession. Few of my companions were thrilled. It was not a garment that young Westerners would wear in those days. Although it was Chinese and we were students of Chinese culture, this did not mean that we would wear nothing but Chinese clothes, or eat three Chinese meals a day.
At some moment, probably after more than a few drinks, someone dared me to go out for stroll along the lake, dressed up as a landlord in my newly acquired coat. That was a fabulous idea, which I would probably have taken up even without the assistance of alcohol. . .
. . . Outside, in the dark, there were actually not that many people joining us on our stroll. I remember that I was using something as a walking stick, either from the hotel, or maybe a branch that I picked up in park that formed the embankment of the West Lake. Landlords in Chinese films usually wore silk coats and walked with a stick as a symbol of their superiority and to beat up a poor proletarian now and then. Fortunately for me, my liquid courage was not strong enough to make me venture to emulate that part of a landlord’s behavior. I was not ready to study the inside of a Chinese police station.
We returned to the hotel soon. There were too few people for me to impress or annoy. Regarding the latter, most Chinese reacted in a similar way as the hotel staff: they laughed. I simply did not strike them as evil, or even as imitating an evil person. . .
The next day was another one with many memorable events. We first visited a house in which Mao Zedong had lived for a few days.
. . . the most bizarre object in that small shed was, or better had been, animate: a rat. A stuffed dead rat was sitting on the floor near the table. We were obviously especially curious about the provenance and the symbolic value of the stuffed rodent. The caretaker solemnly stated that the rat had lived in the shed during Mao’s sojourn there.
It had been made part of the scene to show that the living conditions still left much to be desired that time and to stress that Mao, despite being the Number One of China, had remained an ordinary person who did not shrink from living a proletarian life style. When he needed to stay somewhere, he lived like the locals lived, tolerating the occasional rat. . .
I also switched gender that day.
Our local guides took us to a common household. We were divided into smaller groups of about 5 –6 students and a teacher, and each group was dragged to another house in the same neighborhood.
. . . Of all people living in the house I visited, only the lady of the house was present. She gave us the familiar introduction about the composition of her family, the jobs of her and her husband, their more precious possessions, like TV or sewing machine. . .
. . . Then suddenly her son came back from school. I estimated that he was about 6 –7 years old. Junior clearly had not been let in on the foreign visit, as he was genuinely startled by seeing so many foreigners in the family living room. His mother wooed him by reminding him that he should greet the guests with the words: ‘say hello to the uncles and aunties!’
Uncle and aunty are often used by Chinese children to address unfamiliar men women. The boy could have made a collective greeting by shouting that very expression aloud, but he seemed to find it more polite to greet us one by one. As I was positioned closest to him, he approached me first saying: ‘Hello Aunty!’ That was a real roar for all people, foreign and Chinese, present at the scene. . .
The boy felt extremely embarrassed, but he could actually not be blamed. Like many young Western men of that time, I let my hair grow down to my shoulders. The boy, however, had probably never seen a man with such long hair, thus automatically mistook me for a woman.
A trip to Hangzhou leg is not complete without visiting a tea farm. After silk, tea is another major product of the region; particularly a green tea called Longjing (Dragon Well).
. . . We were then taken to a field of tea shrubs, where several women were picking tea, exactly as we had seen so often on pictures in books on China. It is always comforting to get something that you know from the books confirmed in practice.
However, there was a small problem there as well, and again in the details. A few among us noted that February is extremely early to start picking tea. You can start picking fresh tealeaves in spring and continue doing so until the fall. Mid February; however, is definitely too early. It seems that the commune people wanted us to have a real ‘Chinese tea experience’ and had therefore assigned a few people to pick tea for a while during our visit. . .
Other places we saw in Hangzhou included the Botanical Garden, the Liuhe Pagoda, a temple dedicated to the memory of the heroic general Yue Fei (a 12th Century hero). We also climbed around in a grotto.
. . . It was not a huge grotto, formed by ages of underground water flow or human digging, but a more modest one. Even when entering, I had to bow my head little, and it became worse quickly. Suddenly, we spotted a circle of light in one of the tunnels leading away from the entrance. It proved to be an alternative exit on the top of the hill in which the grotto was located.
A few of us, including me, tried to exit the grotto from there. We succeeded, but it required some exertion. We had to lend a helping hand to some of our comrades, which we were happy to do. Chris joined the ones who preferred to exit through the ‘official’ entrance. . .
The bonus of the latter activity was that we finally got some exercise to get rid of part of the calories we were taking in during the three heavy meals we were fed during the trip.