I’ve been fortunate enough to fulfill some of my dream of wanting to travel the world. I mentioned last week that I felt it was a crime to not share some of the incredible journeys I’ve taken, especially since I probably hadn’t even heard the word blog at the time I took the trips. I also asked some of you where in the world I should start.
Luckily, a lot of you asked about my trip to China and I’m only more than happy to comply. The only problem is that China is a big country and my trip was a big trip. To make the most of it, I’m going to do an Armchair Traveler post every Friday. I’ve got four planned for China. And I think they’ll be fun. Because who wants to hear another version of somebody else’s vacation? If you love travel like me, you want to know all the really cool and fun stuff. So I’ll tell you.
But today, I’ve got to start with the tourist’s view of China.
My brother lives in China and has for almost a decade. It’s a long story and one that I would love to write a book about someday (Note to Publishers – call me, I’m available). He’s married to a lovely Chinese woman and together they have two children. WHAT?!? Yes, they have two children. It’s allowed. Just expensive.
My brother is in the import/export business in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, about 3 hours south of Shanghai. Even the Chinese think it’s a beautiful city. It’s a tourist spot in their own country, primarily known for the main attraction, West Lake. We got a crazy hair one day and decided to go visit him.
We had scheduled a flight to take us from Baltimore to Chicago to Shanghai. Again, a long story, but we made a mad dash to Washington Dulles instead and had an unexpected stopover in Japan. At least I can say I’ve been there.
Before I really show you what China is all about, I need to get a few answers out of the way to anticipated questions…
Yes, it’s a reallllly long flight.
Yes, jetlag is a bitch (I should know as this self-confessed night owl was wide awake at 5am).
No, they don’t all ride bicycles.
Yes, they do spit in public and also fart with no shame.
Yes, they eat unimaginable things (don’t worry, I have an entire post planned to cover this).
Now, let’s get on with it, shall we?
The China I saw was crowded but not overly so. They were bicycles and cars (often colliding). Many of the cars were Buicks. Odd, isn’t it? Chinese food is not what I thought it would be. The roads are horrible. The air is polluted. You can buy really, really cheap pirated DVDs and junk at the open air markets (prepare to bargain – it is an art form). But the biggest standout for me was the people. Or as I like to call them, the Haves and Have-Nots. I saw no middle class. You were either The Man, or working for The Man.
In our case, my brother is The Man. We got to see the pretty side of China. We were chauffeured around in cars and taken to the most beautiful tourist destinations. Today, that’s what I want to share with you. But I promise to show you the other side another day.
My brother arranged for our hotel. When given the choice between the modern luxury Hyatt in Hangzhou or the more traditional Shangri-La Hotel just across from the West Lake. It was where President Richard Nixon stayed during his famous trip to China in 1972. I figured if it was good enough for Tricky Dick, we could stay there too.
Obviously we made the right choice because right across from our hotel, we were able to walk on the grounds of the West Lake and see breathtaking views like this. Even in the moment, I just felt like it was quintessential China.
Walking the pathways and gardens that intersected the lake was always a spectator’s haven. Especially in the early mornings. You would always see the most ancient people walking and walking and walking. Others were sweeping the pathways with the most primitive and obviously handmade brooms. And others were slowly but carefully practicing tai chi. On one of our walks, we found this writing on the walkway. I found it pretty captivating.
We didn’t catch the lotus flowers in bloom but I thought they still made quite the spectacle in the gardens on the edge of the lake.
Across the lake, we visited the site of an ancient pagoda. I was disappointed to learn that this beautiful structure was not the ancient pagoda but rather housed the crumbling remains of the base of the original. Still was pretty and still enjoyed the beautiful view from the top.
Next stop was a Buddhist temple. This really was ancient. I thought we were going to see a tourist attraction but clearly this is a sacred site for many people. Even though China is a communist country, we were able to find lots of practicing Buddhists. In fact, in this scene, it was hard to breathe from all the incense burning.
The temple carvings were beautiful, intricate and ornate.
The view from the successively higher temples built on a mountain was breathtaking.
But none of that could top what I like to call “Blue Velvet Buddha.”
We headed out to the country for a little tourist fun on the outskirts. It was my first experience with water buffalo. In the water. They were cooling off after pulling our wagon to get to our river cruise.
This was our river cruise. And by river cruise, I mean a bunch of bamboo tied together and some bamboo benches gently resting on top for all cruise passengers. We wore life jackets and big hats and hoped the man with the big stick knew what he was doing.
We accompanied my brother on a few business calls. We stopped by his office where I pretended to be a Chinese businessman. I fooled no one. We did quite enjoy sipping on green tea and admiring the view from his building’s rooftop.
We went to many shopping areas and restaurants and saw beautiful sites like this.
We went to the city center to do some serious shopping. Mall shopping. It was filled with bicycles and it was expensive. I demanded to be taken to the cheap vendors where I could haggle.
We always created a spectacle in the markets. Apparently we were their tourist attraction. My younger brother was asked to pose for a picture with two young Chinese girls. We all kind of dug the celebrity treatment.
We spent the last night of our trip in Shanghai doing the usual. Eating, shopping, haggling. Yes, I got some serious bargains. And designer fakes (shhhhh).
It was an incredible trip. We even got to stand in the circle of happiness which promised us a long and happy life. That was over 5 years ago so I guess we’re doing something right. But was it all magical? Is this was China is really like? Is communism really that bad? And will they ever learn to translate to English properly?
These questions and more will be answered as to stay tuned to the Armchair Traveler…