Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hangzhou: An Introduction

At night, they walk. They walk among us. This happens only at night. We see them like visions but they are more than that, touchable ghosts, solid air, recognizable molecules with familiar DNA. They are real. As I was walking, I saw one. He was tall. He looked straight at me as he walked deeper into the dusk.

Somewhere, I had seen him before. As he walked by, I tried to place him, picture him younger. Time, this all has to do with time and the different dimensions within time.

He does not recognize me. I am not sure why he does not recognize me.

Then, I realize, he was taught by a different me, a me with ruddier skin, perhaps, or I was older then than I am now. The Me in his dimension taught him. The Me who has not met this Me that is writing this taught him, knew him, laughed with him. He sees hints of the other me in dreams. I see hints of the other him in dreams.

The argument or the debate does not matter. Without a doubt, I know it was him. This him is now a college graduate. He is not gangly, pimply, or awkward. He walks with the presence of a man, a man in his first position, a man with his first apartment. Yes, as I pass, I know it is him. It is my old friend Bizmark.


At the moment, I am standing in the middle of the highway, the one that leads from Songjiang into Shanghai. Andrea and Sarah are with me. We are standing on a narrow center median with a handful of Chinese people. This is where the bus dropped us, the bus that just brought us back from Hangzhou.

The trains back to Shanghai were sold out. We found the bus. The bus was 16 yuan more than the train. Andrea hates busses. She wants to move around. She hates sitting still. On the bus, Andrea (who can actually speak a bit of Mandarin) found out from a woman sitting in front of us the bus was going to the North station. There are three stations in Shanghai. Two of the stations are in South Shanghai near our apartments. The North station is not.

After we pass through the tollgates coming into Shanghai, a teen with a backpack gets up. Maybe he is getting out here, I tell Andrea. We should get out because I think we may be near the Brilliance South Shopping Mall which is close to our apartments. We get up and make our way to the front. Sarah has a seat at the front. We tell her we should get out. If worse comes to worse, we can grab a taxi from where we are dropped.

That is when we get out of the bus with a handful of other people. Once we are dropped off, we realize we have been dropped off in the middle of the highway. This, I know, sounds like I am being dramatic because, yes, it is so preposterous and so Chinese at its most upside down. We are in the middle of the highway – which we failed to notice when we were being dropped – and the only way to get across the highway, the highway with no shoulder is to run in front of cars going 120 km an hour. We are in the middle of the highway. We try to gauge when we can go across without being smacked by a bus, semi, car, or van.

In America, I always shake my head when I see someone running across the freeway or turnpike. Now, I am one of those people at whom I would shake my head. This is one of the most ridiculous, preposterous, absurd situations that I have had the pleasure to experience to date. At myself and my current predicament, I am shaking my head. This is like some nightmare where you say, I am going to wake up now. The cars keep whizzing by us. Yes, I know this sounds too dramatic and unbelievable but it is happening.

Well, how did I get here?

Three weeks ago – Was it three weeks ago? Was it a year ago? Was it an hour ago? Time, time goes from linear to non-linear from in to out. Time.

Andrea and I were at the park near the school one Sunday. She was saying that she wanted to go to a town nearby for National Holiday, the October 1st celebration of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Andrea thought she might like to go to Suzhou or Hangzhou which sounded good to me. After all, we are in China, no matter where I go more than likely, this will be a place where I have not been.

On that following Monday when we were at dinner with representatives from the British Council, Sarah, one of the said representatives, invited herself along. This was fine with us. Sarah seemed easy- and out-going, when we were at dinner.

As the holiday approached – this is a big travel holiday for the Chinese, we saw headlines in the paper that train and bus tickets were sold out to a lot of destinations. When I heard this, I was not that excited to make the trip; I did not really care if I went anywhere. Fighting the crowds is not my idea of a good time. Staying home and watching movies would be just as relaxing for me, especially now that I have found even a better DVD connection.

The Wednesday before the break, Andrea told me she would go to the train station on Friday to see about tickets to Hangzhou. She has no lessons that day. I told her that sounded fine. She still really wanted to go. She told me we might regret it if we did not go. I appeased her. In my mind, at the time, I did not think I would regret not going. When it comes right down to it, there is not much that I regret.

On Friday, she was able to buy the train tickets for her and Sarah and me. They cost 44 yuan ($5.50) apiece – one way. Once we got to Hangzhou, if we wanted to stay, we we could find a room and then book our return trip the next day or whatever.

Even though, we had decided not to go early in the morning, Andrea booked us for Monday on the 8:30 am train. Compared to my school schedule, this is sleeping in a bit so I did not put up too much of a fuss. And, now that I am sober, I do not have those painful, slow mornings where I have a hard time functioning. This has made a big difference for me.

Monday morning, I meet Andrea at my school gates. We stop at Alldays where I buy a pack of my tried and true chocolate muffins and my favorite can of Café Latte. From there, we walk up the block to meet Sarah in front of her apartment complex. We all walk from there to the new train station which is where I often go to take the subway when I scoot around Shanghai.

The train station is big and modern, more like a sleek new high dollar airport than a train station. When we enter the station, we have to have our bags scanned for bombs. After we do this, which takes no time at all, we make our way through the station down to our platform. Our train is waiting. We go to the first class car and find our seats. The college kids in our seats move to the stairway. The first class cabin has two levels.

Sarah and I sit together. Andrea sits across the aisle. Sarah and I are the same age we discover as we are talking. For many years, Sarah worked freelance for OXFAM. She is a freelance editor. She writes for healthcare magazines. She owns a house in York. She is happy that I do not tell her she is ‘so British’ as a new Canadian friend tends to do. She is very British but in a very good way. We talk and talk and the countryside rolls by.

She gives me a mooncake. Mooncakes are eaten for the National Holiday. On the stairway to the cars second level, as Sarah and I talk, a Chinese college girl with black sunglasses plays Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” on the acoustic guitar. Her boyfriend sings at the choruses. We clap at the end of the song.

Before we know it, the train pulls into Hangzhou. For me, there is always a bit of sadness when the train pulls into the station when I am enjoying the ride and the company and imagining that someone is singing “Time After Time” when in actuality they are not.

We walk from the platform up a flight of stairs to street level. All of us duck into the nice hotel to use the toilet. Once we reconvene, Andrea (who does the communicating for us) asks someone which way to the lake. We walk past taxis and men piloting three wheeled Cushmans offering rides on the bench seat between the back wheels.

We follow the direction into which we have been pointed. We have our backpacks and our curiosity. We are excited to be in Hangzhou. As we walk, we talk.

During our conversation, I learn that my boss did not want the main office (the principal and Percy) to know that Mary did not show up for class on Saturday. She tried to keep it between herself, Andrea and me. This is really cool of her. However, the main office did find out because Andrea had to leave a class to go rouse Mary. Now, Andrea has to make up that class that she missed.

After a few detours, dead-ends and wrong turns, we are at the lake. Andrea has the address for a hostel, 101 is the number. Across the street, we see the address 218. We cross the street because that is where most of the buildings are. The park and a museum and a few restaurants are on the side of the street where we were. Since this is China we do not expect the order of the numbers to be like they are elsewhere in the world.

With our backpacks, we walk and walk. We talk as we walk. After walking for what seems like an hour, we are at the end of the commercial buildings along the lake. A wedding party goes by in a limousine. Flowers are taped to the sides of the limousine. Bride and Groom dolls are mounted as a hood ornament.

After we watch the procession pass, we walk back the way we came. Maybe the hostel is on the other side. We do not look forward to making the walk again but we do. As we are walking back, we see a hotel nestled back off the road. We go and see if there are any vacancies. They have a suite which is 348 Yuan. None of us really want to pay that much. We keep this in mind. We keep looking.

Soon, we pass another hotel which is more expensive. To me, this hotel looks nicer. Andrea does not think it does. The marble stairs are paint splattered. I tell her I do not think you go up the stairs. You go out a backdoor to the rooms. At first, the rooms look like they are nice shuttered rooms that look out onto a courtyard. I then realize this is just a corridor. However, at this point, we see people eating in another courtyard in the back of the hotel. We go back to see if there is a restaurant in back of the hotel.

When we walk up, we assume it is a wedding party because the tables seem to not have any formality. One of the diners speaks English and asks if we need help. I ask her if this is private or if it is a restaurant. She says it is a restaurant. She then tells us we can get four dishes – including a nice sized fish – for 80 yuan. This sounds really great. The three of us are hungry. The young woman barks some orders to the staff. She is quite pleased to help.

Next, a table and some formal dining chairs are brought out and placed under a tree. At the table next to us, a boy tells me hello every 30 seconds or so. His hello is on repeat. Each time he repeats his mantra, I am a sucker, I tell him hello and smile.

Soon, we are brought our courses. Lunch puts the three of us into a jovial mood. The fish is nice. Sarah says she is a bit unnerved because it does seem to stare at her though. I am happy because we are not visited by any sort of dish that is still alive or that was once a shin or a foot. The weather is perfect. Andrea had heard it might rain. This is China at its best.

After the meal, we continue in the direction from which we came. At one point, we stop by the museum. Out in front, there is a booth with student volunteers. They ask if they can help us. We ask about the museum. The girl who helps us tells us it is free. It is big and new. When we have found a room, we tell her we will come back.

We ask her if she knows where 101 might be. She does not. She tells us she will go find out. We stand around for a little bit but she does not reappear. We keep walking. As we are walking, we run into her. She tells us the address is the next building over.

This does not make much sense but we thank her. We come upon a big building which houses a club and some other restaurants. This is across the street from 218. We look up and we see the address 101B. This actually where we started more or less, when we came upon the lake.

There is a driveway in the middle of the complex that goes down what resembles an alley. On a building at the other end of the alley, we see the youth hostel sign. We have found it. Walking down the alley past a club called Innermix, we hope for the best.


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