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Sunday, January 4, 2015

A new year in a familiar place

With my wife and daughter back in Taiwan preparing for my father-in-law's funeral, and having finally caught up with (most of) my workload by staying late on Friday, I took time off this weekend to get away from Shànghăi 上海 and pay a return visit to Hángzhōu 杭州 (you can read about our first visit here and here). This time, the emphasis was not on seeing West Lake 西湖, but on doing a few things that I didn't get around to doing on our previous trip last November. So after arriving in the city mid-Saturday morning, I made my way over to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum 浙江省博物馆, located on Gūshān Island 孤山 and connected to the mainland by the Bái Causeway 白堤. The museum contains several galleries showcasing beautiful examples of pottery, lacquer ware and landscape paintings (among other genres) from China's rich artistic history, some of them housed in buildings that were once part of the Qīng 清朝 emperor Qiánlóng's 乾隆帝 palace that he had built for himself at the West Lake. Another gallery housed relics discovered when the Léifēng Pagoda 雷峰塔, located on the opposite side of the lake from the museum (and visible in the photograph above), collapsed in 1924. The exquisite craftsmanship behind the works on display makes one wonder why modern-day China struggles to rise above the poor quality products and cheap knockoffs it produces in untold numbers of factories located in nondescript cities and towns:

After spending some time at the museum (admission is free of charge, by the way), I took a stroll along the waterfront...

...and then headed inland, following the lane running next to the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei as it made its way uphill. The road soon stopped, becoming stone steps lined by tall trees. At the thoroughly uninteresting Zĭyún Cave 紫云洞, I took the path the led in the direction of the Bàopŭ Taoist Temple 抱朴道院:

Any naive hopes I had of a quiet stroll in the hills were soon dashed as I arrived at Sunrise Terrace 初阳台, a traditional spot for watching the sun rise in spring over the lake. The days are long gone when West Lake served as a muse for artists and poets. The views are still there (though not easy to photograph through the tree branches and in the early afternoon haze), but now so are the masses:

Baopu Taoist Temple is a small but atmospheric temple surprisingly bypassed by most of the visitors on the trails (it couldn't be the 5 RMB, about 80 cents, admission price, could it?). There are several halls hugging the hillside containing various religious statues (including one of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, sitting under a yin-yang diagram), but photography isn't allowed inside:

A group of old men gamble in a courtyard below the temple. Lots of people, it seemed, go through the trouble of huffing and puffing their way up the hill, only to sit down and play cards once they get there, paying no attention whatsoever to the scenery around them (and the lake down below):

Soon after leaving the temple,  the Băochù Pagoda 保俶塔 came into view:

It was at this point that the trail became something of a challenge, for between the temple and the pagoda the path is carved through a series of large stone boulders, with the footing getting a little perilous at some points. Many people decided that it would be better to simply climb over the boulders, rather than try to squeeze by tourists coming from the opposite direction on the trail. Some of the folks were forcing their children to climb up as well, though some of the kids were clearly scared at the prospect. At least the views looking over West Lake were nice:

A traffic jam developed at one particularly narrow gap (notice the pair of feet standing on top of the boulder in the upper left and the child attempting to climb up the other one in the bottom right). I backtracked and found another path that circled around the gap and joined up with the main trail on the other side. Clever I may be, but I clearly did not do the Done Thing, which is of utmost importance to travelers in East Asia:

The seven-storey Baochu Pagoda was first built during the Song Dynasty 宋朝 (963). Its most recent incarnation is the result of a rebuilding finished in 1933:

From the pagoda, the path led down toward the lake, passing through a decorative arch that was put up during the Republic of China period (1911-1949). Some of the characters had been scratched off during the 1966-69 Cultural Revolution:

Also suffering during the insanity of that area are a series of Ming dynasty 明朝-era Buddhist figures that had been carved out of the side of the cliff. Only two of the effigies managed to survive the vandalism intact:

Back down at lake level, and time for a coffee break:

The paths alongside the lake were packed with sightseers, with a cacophonous din created by many dancing groups practicing their moves to music blaring from boomboxes. As I worked my way toward the southern shore, however, the crowds began to thin, and the views over the water, especially as the sun began to set in the sky, started to live up to the tourist literature hype:

As I was traveling solo this time, I booked myself into a youth hostel, where my dinner companion last night was the owners' cat:

After dinner, I took a walk back toward the lake, where the night lights were stunning in the very cold but crisp nighttime air:

After a couple of Kentucky IPA's at a bar called Eudora Station 亿多瑞站, I staggered back to the youth hostel, which was easy to find as it's right across the street from the Leifeng Pagoda:

The West Lake Youth Hostel 杭州过客青年旅社 is a comfortable, friendly place, though any plans to sleep late would have to compete with the kindergarten right behind it. I had hoped the hostel would be full of young backpackers from various Western countries, who would've gathered around this wizened traveler as he held forth in the lounge, tossing out nuggets of hard-earned wisdom to the eager youth making their way around Asia. Alas, I was the only foreigner staying there last night, and none of the Chinese guests seemed interested in the unique insights I could give on their country and its place in the world:

Almost next door to the youth hostel is the Jìngcí Temple 净慈寺, which I visited after breakfast and checkout. This Chan (Zen) temple was first constructed in 954 and has emerged from the Communist era as an active religious establishment. The various halls are filled with magnificent images, with a massive statue of Sakyamuni in the main hall. Photos weren't allowed inside the buildings, though I did manage to get a shot of the great Buddha's backside:

The temple was very active this morning as groups of worshipers arrived one after the other, with priests keeping everyone in order. The practitioners would enter through the hall containing a statue of Milefo (barely visible through the door in the picture below), then walk through a smoky gauntlet of elderly worshipers as they made their way in small groups to the main hall:

Having had my fill of temples, I caught a bus to the Hangzhou Railway Station (having arrived yesterday at the Hangzhou East Station). After sussing out the station's layout, and with a couple of hours to kill before my train back to Shanghai, I took a walk over to a pedestrian area billed as a "Southern Song Imperial Street". Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the Chinese have discovered the benefits of preserving certain "old towns" for the sake of tourism, even if it means inviting in the likes of Costa Coffee and McDonald's. Just like in Taiwan, it isn't always clear how authentic some of the buildings are, but there were some interesting examples of early 20th-century architecture:

Some of the busiest establishments were traditional Chinese medicine shops, still operating as fully-fledged medical clinics, with waiting rooms and cashier windows:

Doing the Done Thing, which here meant buying something to snack on:

As the street petered out and returned to the modern part of Hangzhou, it was time for me to get back to the station:

Having only experienced China's gleaming, new high speed rail stations, Hangzhou Railway Station was a first for me, seeing up close the vast gulf between those who ride the bullet trains, and those who, with their possessions tied up in large Hefty bags, travel extremely long distances in crowded carriages in order to get home. Hangzhou's station reminded me of a Greyhound bus station in the U.S., only without the danger. The waiting rooms resembled aged high school gyms:

For me, it was good to get away, but I missed being with my family (though my wife wouldn't have stopped complaining about all the walking around). I really could do without being a bachelor again, even if it's just for a couple of weeks.

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