Friday, October 06, 2006

International Feel

Past Innermix, we come upon an entrance that does not look like an entrance exactly, or at least it does not look like the entrance to a hostel. Yes, there is a door open but the door leads into an industrial kitchen where Chinese kitchen workers are sweating and working. This seems to be an odd entrance for the hostel. We then look right. We see the youth hostel sign again hanging above the entrance into a courtyard.

We breathe a sigh of relief once we walk into the courtyard. Two collies lazily lay in the mid-afternoon shade. The courtyard is substantial enough to accommodate several sets of tables and chairs for dining. We are actually surprised at how nice it is. Along the wall where we walked into the courtyard, there is a concrete goldfish pond that runs down the length of the courtyard. At the far end of the courtyard, at the opposite end of the entrance into the building is a steel circular stair case that leads up to a second floor terrace with potted plants, roses mainly. Limbs and foliage hang over the railing.

Relieved, we walk into the hostel to the front desk which has a cooler of soft drinks on one side and a few steps on the other side which lead into a lounge area with a big television in one corner. In between the front desk area and the lounge area is a bulletin board overflowing with notices written in a plethora of languages.

Really, this is my introduction to youth hostels. Back in 1982, I almost stayed at a youth hostel off of Hyde Park in London but then once I realized I would be sharing the room with strangers I quickly declined. Now several years later, I am fine with a stranger or two.

At the front desk, we enquire about a room, we, as in Andrea, enquire about a room. The rooms are 50 yuan a night. Andrea immediately books us a room for two nights. We had not discussed whether we would stay more than one night. Nevertheless, we each dig into our pockets for 100 yuan. The desk clerk gives Andrea the card key and a locker keys for each of us. The lockers are in the room.

A menu is on the counter; the page is open to the Spanish breakfast for 18 yuan, an omelet, fruit salad, French bread, and tea or coffee. The three of us readily agree that we will have breakfast at the hostel in the morning.

As we wind our way up to our room – 204, I mention that I cannot believe how nice the hostel is. This is not what I expected at all. I was expecting something much more with an institutional feel to it, not an international feel.

I swear something lies
in your ears and your eyes
'Cause there's More
You hear and you see yet you do not believe
That there's always More

We open the door to our room. Yes, the room is bare bones with bunk beds – Andrea and I volunteer to take top bunks; Sarah thanks us for this – but, it has a view of the courtyard, a table, and a window seat. This is much nicer than I expected. The room is not huge but not as small as the claustrophobia inducing room on the boat when I floated down the Yangtze River. Yes, this is actually nice. We are so happy that we did not pay over twice as much for the hotels at which we stopped to enquire about rooms.

We throw our packs in our lockers and head out to look at the lake. This trip is turning out good. The three of us are well suited traveling companions for one another. This, I know from years of experience, is a rarity.

Andrea, not because she is pushy because she is not pushy, is our leader by default. We let her lead us down a wide sidewalk. Even though the sidewalk is crowded, we do not let this ruin our good time.

Hangzhuo is one surprise after the other. Up until now, I have been on quite a few weekend trips in China and one extended trip. However, Hangzhou, by far, is becoming my favorite city. We all agree there is something magical about the place. And, overall, so far, Hangzhou is the cleanest most modern city that I have visited during the eight months that I have been here.

There is just something indescribable about it. It reminds me of what I love about the West Coast in the United States or rather what I loved about the West Coast in the United States in the 1970s. Hangzhou has this pureness to it. Many of the places that I have been in China, although they are nice, most of the time the garbage distracts from this. So far, I have seen no garbage here in Hangzhou.

We slowly make our way around the lake. Since, by now, we had lunch a few hours ago, we stop at a tea house on the lake and try different teas. While we wait for our tea, we talk about our parents and our parents’ views toward drinking and drugs, mainly drugs. My mom always equated reefer with heroin.

Andrea tells me that she had several friends in high school that got strung out on heroin in Frankfurt. These friends started smoking pot and then in fact went on to become strung out on heroin. Although, I do not exactly agree with her, I think her logic is refreshing. She does not say it as an alarmist exclamation but as a fact, as something that happened in her life. I tell her that at one time in my life I was a wake and bake guy.

Sarah says she had some in a cake and that it made her so crazy that she has not had any since. I agreed with her. That was the first time I thought I was losing my mind when I had some in some cookies – prepared by Joe - in the basement on Jenkins (741?) in Norman.

Our tea arrives. Sarah ordered a hot fruit tea which has sliced fruit floating in a teapot. Andrea ordered a hot anemone with what I imagine to be the center of the said flower floating in her teapot. As a Middle American, I order iced red tea in a tea pot. We try each others’. We agree that Sarah has the tastiest tea. It tastes like a hot fruit drink which is actually very satisfying. My red tea is good but criminally boring.

Rested, refreshed, and re-hydrated, we set off again to explore more of the lake. Still we are amazed by what a modern city Hangzhou surprisingly is. We are stunned and pleased.

As we are walking – this is after we stop and admire some lotus that are no longer blooming, there bare stalks stick naked in the air; Sarah suggests we take a boat out on the lake. Out on the lake, there are many boats with men on one end rowing the passengers. Yes, this sounds like fun.

We find an oarsman idle at his boat. He tells Andrea 80 yuan. This seems fair. We climb into his boat which is a bit longer than your average row boat. Andrea and Sarah sit on a bench on one side with a table in the middle. I sit on the other side. The oarsman sits behind Andrea and Sarah with his oar and he rows. The top of the boat is covered. We look as if we are floating on the lake in a canopy bed from Pier One or the Bombay Company. Small mountains dotted with pagodas and new and ancient architecture surround the lake.

Time flies. Before we know it, the oarsman has docked the boat. We get out of the boat. As we are walking away, we realize we have been ripped off. We were in the boat for fifteen minutes at the most. The ride should have been at least half an hour. This does not faze us. We are still in jolly moods. We continue our walk around the lake. On the other side of the street that runs along the lake, we notice an upscale shopping plaza with an Armani and a Zegna store, and, of course, a Starbucks.

We wander past a monument which represents the troops that held back Japanese aggressors. Boyfriends take pictures of their girlfriends next to it.

We keep walking. Andrea tells me that the candied skewered fruit on a stick is worth trying. I buy a stick for a pocket full of coins which is all I show the vendor. He patiently watches as I dig through my pockets for what change I have. He takes it even though I know I am a few coins short.

I eat the candied cherry tomato first which is surprisingly good. It tastes like a non-flavored sugary blow-pop with a tomato center. Yum. Kiwi and melon accompany said cherry tomato.

Soon we have reached another section of the lake. In the dusk, we walk down a lane flanked by water on both sides. We stop at the water and watch the boats. We turn around to see a few of the skyline’s buildings’ lights lit.

As we are walking, we start talking about supper. Yes, we should have a Hangzhou specialty. However, we did have the fish for lunch which was a specialty. In the local magazine that Sarah picked up at the hostel, she saw an advert for a Mexican restaurant. Earlier, when we were looking for the hostel, we walked past an Indian restaurant. Here, I say that I would really like to have Mexican food. In the last 8 months, I have had Mexican food once. In America, I eat it several times a week.

My two companions have sympathy. We can eat Indian food tomorrow night. Tonight we will have Mexican. We turn around again to take in the now fully lit skyline which glows behind us in the distance. As we continue walking, we look at a map of the lake. Once we are upon a secluded restaurant, we know where we are. Supposedly, this is the nicest restaurant on the lake.

The main road is up ahead. After we admire more lotuses which are no longer blooming, we hit the main road. This is one of those winding roads where traffic speeds along at such a clip that it is hard to navigate our way across the road. Once we have crossed the road, we look for a vacant taxi. We wait and we wait. We wait some more. Andrea goes back across the road.

Suddenly, I seem to smell Mexican food. Up the road is a sign. I walk that way to make sure we are not standing right by the restaurant. No, the sign is for a big luxury hotel. Why I feel as if I am in Monaco, I do not know.

You hear and you see yet you do not believe
That there's always More
There is More, International Feel
And there's More, Interplanetary Deals
But there's More, Interstellar Appeal
Still there's More, Universal Ideal
Still there's More, International Feel.

When I get back to the spot where we were standing, Andrea is still across road. She tells us to come back over because it may be easier to hail a taxi. Sarah and I look both ways up and down the curvy road, the road where our possible dismemberment or death may wait.

Finally, we make a mad dash across the road. Narrowly escaping being clipped by a taxi, I make it all the way across the road. Sarah only makes it halfway across the road. At the encouragement and urging of Andrea and me, she runs on across the road. When she reaches us, she is a bit shaken.

All of the taxis are speeding past to drop off the passengers at the restaurant which we walked by earlier. We walk back to the restaurant. At this point, we still have difficulty because the restaurant doormen are hailing cabs for patrons. This is discouraging. Sarah goes and stands by a parked taxi with a driver in it but no passengers. Andrea and I agree that this is ingenious of Sarah. However, when the taxi rolls away with Sarah standing beside it, we are not as impressed with her ingenuity.

The taxis that drop off passengers pick up new passengers from the restaurant. Other taxis seem to be idle, not interested in passengers. And, still, other taxis pass by with no passengers and do not stop to pick us up.

Finally, we spot a taxi minivan. The woman driver tells Andrea in Chinese it will be 60 yuan. Of course, this seems a bit steep - it should be 11 yuan. We are desperate. We get into the van. We head off to the restaurant. Soon, I will be supping on Mexican food. My stomach loves me.


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