Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hangzhou: A Side I Didn’t Know

In spite of having visited there 3 times already, there was much in Hangzhou that I had not seen. True, Gary had taken me to West Lake before but it was so crowded we could not find a place to park the car, so we drove around it, and then on to other places. I was quite satisfied with that small glimpse. A lake is a lake is a lake, right?

Wrong! And it took my lovely friend Vanessa to prove it.

I was apprehensive of our meeting at first. The visiting was wonderful but, so far, this trip and activities had been less than enjoyable. Now the rain threatened what Vanessa had planned for our outing: an afternoon at West Lake. I was wary of what was sure to be a travel demon who had been plaguing my plans and thwarting my every move till now. However, as I've mentioned before: when in China, do as your host instructs. I'm sure Vanessa's iron will, and the fact that she is Chinese will be enough to vanquish my imp. True enough: the rain subsided and we frolicked.

Vanessa took  me to a park by the lake. It was a monastery/temple grounds, now open to the public. Because of the inclement weather, visitors were few. We got to linger over attractions without being pushed out of the way or having to push our way through hordes to glimpse anything worthwhile. What a bonus!

A cable car took us to the mountain top. From the gondola and atop the mountain we could see the monastery layout, exact in its precision. Immediately outside the cloister walls were rows upon rows of tea plants. As with many  regions, Hangzhou boasts its own type/brand of tea. Later we snacked on bean curd patties that had been simmered in the local tea: quite tasty!

The longer we spent together, the more Vanessa relaxed. Initially she was nervous about being able to show her guest a good time, a common idiosyncrasy of Chinese hosts. She took responsibility for the bad weather, the traffic around the lake... everything that she had no control over, apologizing profusely. That all changed when we spied the cable car trundling up the mountain. We giggled like the young woman she is and raced to buy tickets. I wasn't allowed to whip out my wallet.

However, everyone was grateful I when I whipped out bottles of water: after the rainfall it got quite muggy. 

I have to comment again on how maddening it can be that the proper Chinese host pays for everything: it is all about 'face'. Over the top entertainment, fine dining, everything above and beyond what any visitor should expect. In objection, I contend: my young friends are just barely making their way in the world. They don't make enough money for their daily living, let alone lavish entertainment. I can't help but feel my visiting poses a strain on their finances.

You would think that, when they come to visit in Wuhan, that I would be the one to treat. NOPE! Here my advanced age, and perhaps that I am a foreigner prevails, in spite of my having been here so long.

When Lancy came through last month she turned down the invitation to stay at my house, stating that I need my privacy. She only allowed me to pay for myself when visiting Mme. Toussaud's because the tickets were frightfully expensive. She grudgingly allowed me to treat the coffee and dinner because I played the foreigner card: Starbucks' and Grandma's Kitchen were foreigner restaurants, therefore the foreigner must pay. It worked, but I could see her squirming, just as I squirm when my young friends spend their hard earned money entertaining me.

I would have been just as happy seeing where Vanessa works and lives, sharing conversation  on some park bench and enjoying a nice dinner,  but I didn't say a word. Still ruing my experience in Shanghai – talking Zhanny out of costly activities, thereby causing her to feel inadequate as a hostess, I made sure to not dissent in any way in Vanessa's company. I didn't even offer to pay for anything.  

Besides the cable car ride, the drop dead gorgeous collection of Buddha statues carved into the mountainside and in caves thrilled me. A small stream (of startlingly clear water!) separated the  paved walkway we were on from the base of a mountain opposite of the one we cable-car'ed to. We noticed several people crossing the stream via a series of flat-topped boulders and wondered what they gained, being on that other footpath. Soon we learned that there was another temple atop the mountain, apparently a spectacular one.

I didn't say a word. Vanessa was wearing high heels. Not only would it have been difficult for her to cross the boulders and climb the rough trail up the mountain, I was sure she must be in agony after all the walking we did. Had I expressed any desire to climb, I'm sure she would have done her utmost to accede to my wishes. I made a mental note to revisit Hangzhou, West Lake and this temple on my own.

That snack of simmered bean curd served to remind Vanessa that she hadn't eaten since breakfast, and was now ravenous. That, coupled with my concern for her no doubt aching feet ended our stroll at the park. We dined in the monastery restaurant. It was amusing to watch the uber-composed Vanessa practically drool over the pictorial menu. Together we made several selections and she asked our waitress to please bring the food quickly.

I have to pause and think of how dear she is to me. I'm trying – unsuccessfully, I fear, to communicate how natural our relationship is. It is perhaps my fault that the visit with Zhanny was so strained, I realize now. I think I didn't do enough to put Zhanny at ease. Once Vanessa abandoned the idea of being the perfect Chinese hostess and I made no demands outside what she had planned we enjoyed an unfettered, good time.

After dinner we walked around the lake until we were all weary. I thought we could walk all around and end up where we started but that was not the case: we had to double back. I'm not sure how Vanessa managed to walk so far in those shoes after the walking we had already done. Apparently my concerns were valid: we rode a cab back to where the car was parked. I  was surprised at how far we had roamed.

Back in our car and on the way to drop me off at Gary's, we laughed at how well we'd no doubt sleep. One thing we did not express was how short the visit was. I guess that is the perfect way to get together with my Chinese friends: one afternoon at a time.

As I tell you about my good time with Vanessa, again I think of how Zhanny and my visit did not quite hit the mark. Now restored to balance after being home for a few days, I think...

I know my way around Shanghai a bit – at least, how to find my  friends. Why not pay a surprise visit? I can arrive unannounced, check myself into the same hotel near Zhanny's dorm, and this time we can go to KTV, to walk around downtown... all the things that Zhanny might have preferred to do.

In consideration of her life and schedule, I sent her a short message: “be prepared for a surprise visit, my dear.” To which she replied: “Welcome! Be sure to let me know when you're coming so I can arrange everything!”

I can't win for trying!         

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