Wednesday, April 26, 2006

OK, so the final diary entry for the big trip now, I promise. We were just drawing to the end of the Shanghai stay heading onto the final destination.


Though trains are the transport of choice for most of the traveling Chinese population it was only at this point in my stay here that I took my maiden voyage. This was the mid morning Shanghai to Hangzhou train and was our first real view of the density of people in the big cities. Upwards of 4000 people sat in one of the many departure lounges and jabbered loudly, sitting wherever there was an inch of space to occupy. At the appointed time, 1000 people rose and went through the small departure gate in remarkably unriotous fashion. All 1000 people were through the gate and seated on the train within five minutes and shortly after this the train pulled away. I've been reading and speaking to people about ridiculous train journeys where they've had to stand up for two days or been sat on a hard seat for 72 hours (Chengdu to Urumqi in the 90s) but our journey I'm afraid was not nearly as exciting. Extremely comfortable, reasonable leg room, a constant supply of beer and pot noodle on offer and onboard TVs rather put Mr Branson to shame. At some point in the next few years however this same journey which for us took a little over two hours will take 20 minutes as a maglev is installed hurtling the businessfolk at 450 km/h across the East China countryside. It's some truly exorbitant cost but I guess this means that big business goes on between the two cities and quick access is required.

We pulled into a grey and rainy Hangzhou, not yet showing us the beauty for which it is renowned. A half hour wait for taxis left us saturated and ravenous and the busy streets bustling with sleek cars together with cattle on flatbed trucks simply prolonged our foodless states. Eventually we pulled into the Hangzhou Shangri La, described as one of the grandest hotels in all of China (only an uncle in the travel business and not the heavy wallets wielded by many a guest made such a stay possible).

With some delays we lunched and spent the rest of the day staying out of the drizzle and enjoying the luxurious hotel facilities, the gym again balancing conscience versus calories temporarily while others soaked in the pool.

Having stayed in dirty hostels for the majority of my traveling experiences, to be in a bed so wide that I couldn't touch both sides looking over Hangzhou lake was not to be sniffed at.

I decided to have a day on my own the following morning in order to collect my thoughts and take my own pace to explore the famous West Lake and surrounding mountains, museums and temples. Unfortunately I've never been terribly good at regulating myself so after five hours of almost constant walking and another hour in the gym I'd managed to damage the tendons in my feet (due to my pancake-like soles).

During the 20km stroll I walked a good deal of the lake and foothills getting more stares than I've ever had anywhere in China. It's a very very popular tourist destination for Chinese tourists though in five hours of walking I only saw two other Westerners. Almost every group (of which there were many thousands that day) that I walked past would comment on my height (in Chinese) and giggle and gawp. Some took photos and some videos of this freak of nature! Often I would greet them in Chinese and agree with their comments on my height, which seemed to please them a lot.

The huge crowds for whom I was an object of fascination:

A couple of the views of the West Lake:

My first aim was to get to the national tea museum which is set in the tea plantations between the lake and the mountains and is complete with its own tea institute. The museum charts the 3000 years of tea history from its beginnings as a curative for a medicine man who would get poisoned 72 times a day testing herbal concoctions to the 20th century revolution in tea studies in modern day China. In the maze of buildings and outhouses I missed the tasting room though had a fine cuppa with a quick lunch.

Tea pickers picking tea:

and one of the tea gardens in the area:

After this I walked round a good deal of the lake that I'd missed before, getting some snaps of my own and popping into some of the temples along the way.

Another window shot from one of the mini-museums:

Rejoining the others for dinner we tried two of Hangzhou's celebrated dishes, vinegared grass carp and mud baked chicken, both of which are superb and definitely worth sampling if you're in the area.

The final day (day 11) and we went en famille to the traditional Chinese medicine museum which is in a stunning 400 year old traditional pharmacy and though the displays are interesting there's not a great deal in the way of information about properties of the multitude of concoctions. The pharmacy joining the museum had everything from dried seahorses and frogs to fungal monstrosities and single roots of ginseng for 20,000 pounds a pop!

So, the final group meal on one of the lake's islands complete with complementary looks of confusion and it was time to bid farewell to my four traveling companions who'd been wonderful company. Prior to the trip I'd been slightly apprehensive at how the dynamic of the group would work but it turned into a superb couple of weeks of sightseeing and chatting over fine food in fascinating locations. I now look forward to my next exoBeijing excursion wherever that may take me.

[Writing in Hangzhou airport]

As my flight is delayed further and further I hope that the trip has given the braincells some time to recuperate and reorganise into a pattern which will be conducive to getting back into the research life.


Braincell update - braincells rearranged nicely though dimming steadily once more.

So, there it is - JMTA is complete and with that I shall once again head to bed having just had a two hour Chinese lesson making both my voice and eyes a little jaded.

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