Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hang Zhou

For Gary, this was to be a working vacation. Mostly business with evenings reserved for fun. What time in the evening the fun was to start was debatable being as his business – meeting import/export trade customers, might last till the wee hours.

In China it is common to mix business with pleasure. A leisurely meal, an evening at KTV, maybe even just walking around the city or the business’ facilities all constitute a business meeting. The pace is relaxed and the feeling is convivial. Only the uninitiated would believe that business is not taking place. How one conducts him/herself during such business dealings is as indicative of future business prospects as the dealings themselves. I, having been invited along, was by proxy a part of these business meetings even though I contributed virtually nothing tangible.

Once we arrived in Hang Zhou Gary became all business. Not by changing clothes but by a subtle change in attitude. A voice pitched deeper, and more authoritative. A serious mien, at times deepening to a frown. Phone calls lasted longer, and were more specific in topic. We barely got installed in a hotel before it was off to meet some customers. That was no mean feat, seeing as we got there past 9PM… after driving for twelve hours.  

Hang Zhou is the capital of Zhe Jiang Province with a population approximately the size of Wuhan’s. It is considered a ‘core city’ of the Yangtze Delta because it acts as a hub to various transportation means: overland, by water and rail. It being a more textile driven town, it boasts a large fashion district. That is where we found Gary’s customers.

They immediately treated us to a fine dinner, followed by a night in a club. This was to be my first time in a nightclub, complete with strobing lights, throbbing bass and writhing bodies in… probably twenty years! And, it was to be my first foray into Chinese nightlife beyond the occasional, genteel outing to the local KTV.

Let me tell you: I may be twenty years out of practice but I was still able to totally get my freak on! True that the decibel level was disturbingly high and granted I may well have been the most out of place person in that club, being the only foreigner (and the only female). Nevertheless I attracted the attention of one of the club dancers who, after emitting an appreciative war-whoop made his way across the dance floor to match his gyrations to mine. What a feeling! Letting go, I dropped my arm onto his shoulder, threw my head back and swung my hips in ever wider arcs. The crowds loved it! So did I. 

Coming off the dance floor I was greeted and toasted, not the least by my buddy Gary, who had never seen me cut loose in quite that way.

My excursion onto the dance floor broke the ice. I had felt the weight of the stares before, when we first entered the club but now that I’ve shown myself to be so… ‘with it’? ‘cool’? ‘hip’? not quite sure what to insert here – people had no problem approaching me. Soon I had an entire line of young men waiting to introduce themselves and chat for a few minutes with this dancing queen.

Chatting at such a club is about as possible as sunbathing in Antarctica. Doable, but not easily. Fortunately, smiling and nodding a lot got me the required mileage.

For as fun as this flash back to my youth was, it was time to go. I had been up since 6AM, sat in a car all day, worked to build ‘guang xi’ with Gary’s clients and shaken my ‘groove thang’. Gary was also tired. He rescued me from the long line of courtiers. We went back to the hotel and slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted.  

The next morning, early, he was to head to Shanghai, 180km away. He would be gone overnight, which gave me nearly 2 days to explore the city by myself.

I found Han Zhou (pronounced Hran Joe) to be a pleasant city to walk around, even though the temps were a bit hot and muggy. Adjacent to our hotel was a lovely park, threaded by a canal, where I decided I would picnic for dinner, making do with the last of our road trip food for a meal. Walking further down the main road where our establishment was, I quickly found a bank and replenished my stash of cash, something I had not had time to do before leaving Wuhan. I kept my eye out for a cellphone store where I could reload my phone, my minutes being nearly spent.

I had no luck finding a phone store and the weather was simply too hot to walk around. I resorted to my usual tactic to see a city: ride a public bus. Heading to the nearest bus stop I found bus K355 to be both appealing and nearly empty. I decided that would be the bus I would ride. As luck would have it, the stop I came to was the first stop in the long route that this bus travels: all the better!

The second stop along the way I found a phone store. Isn’t that how it always goes?

Instead of getting off the bus and wasting the entire 2Yuan fare I rode the bus to the end of the line. Good thing I did: it took me to the old part of Hang Zhou, where ‘real life’ happens. Snaky alleys, grocers boasting their wares in the street, vendors pushing their carts, fragrant smells wafting along behind them. Meat hanging in the butcher’s windows. City seniors fanning themselves on shady street corners. Vehicles – buses and trucks - caroming down narrow lanes. Can’t get enough of this China! I was enthralled and overjoyed, both at my dumb luck at having found this area on my first time out and at having spotted a China Mobile cellphone store in this district, just 2 stops away from the end of the line.

Just as I got off the bus and started making my way to that store Gary called to let me know that his friend/business partner had just reloaded my phone, so that I didn’t need to worry about taking care of that small chore. I was to repay that kindness by having dinner with the client that night, while Gary was still in Shanghai. The money would be discreetly reimbursed during dinner.

Now flush with cash and a phone full of minutes I had nothing left to do but enjoy the sights. To be honest, there weren’t that many sights to enjoy, at least not along that particular bus route. This being an industrial town, much like all those others along the southern coast of China, it did not have much in the way of noteworthy architecture or attractions. Still it is quite pleasant, with tree lined boulevards and quiet waterways lacing through the city.

Without much else to do and only an hour and a half before dinner with Gary’s business partners, I made my way back to the hotel. Walking back from the bus stop I spied several people enjoying what I call ‘picker sticker bread’, a type of unleavened bread topped by various herbs and served chopped up in a small brown bag, eaten with stick akin to a toothpick, only longer. Soon enough I came to that vendor’s stall. 

I’ve eaten this type of snack plenty of times before in Wuhan, but never has it been quite so tasty. In Hang Zhou they make this bread with a sweet chili sauce that gives it a mildly spicy yet sweet flavor. Also, they are much more generous with their greens, including large chunks of pepper and leek. I could have made an entire meal out of that snack alone but I was due to meet ‘the clients’ for dinner, so I refrained from getting a larger portion. I did go back the next day for another helping, though. 

The dinner was quite an affair, with the hosts speaking no English to speak of. We were reliant on my limited Chinese speaking ability and one of the dinner companion’s translation software, downloaded to his SmartPhone. Although we did have a few laughs we all agreed the food was not that tasty. Afterward they were headed back to the nightclub we went to last night for a night of dancing but I begged off. They took me to my hotel before tripping the light fantastic.

All’s well that ends well. A long shower and a good night’s sleep awaited me.      

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