Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 3: Dinner and Nightlife

Driving through Hangzhou at night, almost every building was covered bright lighted signs, making it look like a Times Square that ran on for blocks. The building where we were stopping at for dinner was no exception. The awning over the entrance was lit with Xs and Os, the front pillars were wrapped in Christmas lights, and there were signs everywhere, with flashing lights.

The restaurant we were eating at was called Zhangshengji. It looked a bit more luxurious than the restaurants we had eaten in so far. The walls were covered in marble, and it seemed to epitomize the look of things that were high end in the early 90's, (in a good way, mind you.)

We were led to a private dining room, of which there were many in the restaurant. I learned it was actually quite common for people to rent out private dining rooms in China. The food was excellent, but it definitely strayed off the beaten path of what I thought of as "Chinese food." The flavors were familiar, but the dishes looked unlike anything we had come across yet on the trip, or for that matter that I had come across at any Chinese restaurant in the US.

Granted, I suppose most Chinese food in the US is presented in a way to emphasize its "Chinese-ness," whereas here it was being presented in a way that emphasized its gourmet nature. As was par for the course, I had no idea what any of the dishes were called, and could only deduce which was chicken, beef, fish, etc.

On our tables were several bottles of beer, for us to enjoy with dinner. At first glance, the label appeared to be for a brand of beer called "MONS." The name was written sideways, and as English is generally read top to bottom, and most of the other English text was written top to bottom, it was the logical assumption.

However, somebody eventually picked up on the fact that the label had a big snowflake on it, and had a picture of a snowy mountain. Upon closer inspection, next to "MONS" was written "BEER" in smaller letters, sideways, but bottom to top. So, it turned out, that the brand of beer was actually called "SNOW."

We headed back to the hotel after dinner. Outside of my hotel room, there was a loudspeaker somewhere that was blasting what sounded like traditional Chinese music. Upon playing closer attention to the song, it was actually being sung to the melody of "Scarborough Fair." Meanwhile, in the window across the alley, several floors below me, there appeared to be some sort of casino in operation. The combination of the two brought to mind some outdated, seedier version of China from a film noir era, and I found myself lingering by the window, taking it all in. I might have just stayed there for as long as the music was playing, but my friends did have plans to venture out into Hangzhou for a bit.

Thankfully, the mysterious music seemed to play at about the same time every night.

I met with Dhruv, Dan, Charles, Steve and Sarah S in the lounge in the fourth floor atrium. The atrium had the noticeable bite of cigarette smoke in the air. We grabbed a beer and kicked around plans for the night. I wanted to do karaoke again, but with five guys and one woman it didn't seem like the optimal mix. Fortunately, Kathy said she'd meet us in the lobby to help us find some kind of bar to go to.

As we walked around town, we found ourselves drifting towards the sound of a thumping bass beat. Eventually, we found the source of the sound, a nightclub covered in neon lights. The sign on above the door read "DAD," as did the one written vertically on the building.

We figured it was as good a spot as any, and Kathy bid us farewell, leading Steve to take the lead from there on out. The club turned out to be a bust. The doorman lead us to a booth, allowing us to look out over an empty club with blaring music. If five guys and one woman wasn't the ideal mix for karaoke, it definitely wasn't the ideal mix for a dance party.

And it was too loud for us to hear each other.

And they wanted the six of us to buy a minimum of 24 beers.

So, we ducked out of the club, and went over to a nearby convenience store where we bought considerably fewer beers. I also snagged a few boxes of Pocky, because I wasn't about to pass up having my favorite Asian snack, while in Asia.

We took our purchases back to the hotel, and lacking a better place to hang out, we ended up having our beers and snacks in the second floor lounge, overlooking the lobby. This lounge also had a bar which was open at the time. We sheepishly asked if it was okay if we could have the beers there, and the bartender said it was fine.

View of the hotel's front sign from the second floor lobby.

On the way back to our room, I noticed some of the signage around the hotel, and realized we were staying in the "Pleasure Tower." Perhaps not the best choice of translations.

Blanka? Time for some Street Fighter!
Next: The Hi-Tech Development Zone

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 2: Dragon Well Tea and the Lingyin Temple

One of the troubles about traveling to China is that it isn't always easy to just Google location names and come up with an exact answer. For that reason, I'm a bit fuzzy on what the name of our next stop was.

We were taken to a tea shop at one of the tea plantations. I snapped a photo of the sign at the door which said "Welcome to Meijiawu." The problem is, when I later Googled "Meijiawu," the search results either suggested it was the name of the shop we visited, the name of the plantation, or the name of the village.

I suppose it's possible that it's all three, and that we visited the tourist shop at the plantation, which shares the name of the village around it. The itinerary from the Asia Institute was surprisingly useless on this front, as it merely says "Dragon-Well Tea Culture Visit."

Tea set out to dry
We first had lunch on the ground floor of the tea shop, then we were led upstairs to the tea room. We were seated around tables, each with a Lazy Susan in the center, which had bowls of sunflower seeds resting on them.

Our guide for the day explained how they had various grades Dragon Well tea, the finest being Emperor grade, which we were going to try that afternoon. He then described the proper way of preparing it, which was to first let the water sit for about five minutes after boiling it, so it cools back down to the ideal temperature. (This being a much easier method than trying to turn off the heat just before the water boils.) Then, you take two pinches of tea leaves and drop them directly into the cup before pouring the water over it. They didn't use strainers or tea bags.

As he spoke, somebody from the tea shop started placing glasses of tea in front of us already prepared. Yes, glasses, not ceramic cups. Our guide told us that when tea is brought to you, the proper way of saying thank you is to tap the table three times, instead of saying "thank you" out loud. He also pointed out, the tapping three times only applies to tea. If you're drinking beer, apparently that means, "I want more beer."

While we waited for the tea to steep, the guide told us that people commonly refresh themselves by holding their eyes open above the steam from the cup. I assume that's more of a formal tea ceremony thing, and not an everyday tea drinking thing, because of the numerous times we were offered tea on the rest of the trip, I didn't see any of the locals do that. Nevertheless, we all held our eyes over our glasses of tea.

The tea was indeed quite good, although it did take some getting used to the fact that the tea leaves were freely floating about the cup, and it was inevitable that I would drink some down on the first few sips. After we finished our first glass, the tea shop hostess poured more hot water into everybody's glass. As we waited for it to steep, our guide told us that many people find the second cup tastes better than the first because some of the bitterness has already been diluted out.

Downstairs, they of course had tea for sale. We could pick between regular and emperor grade, and if you bought the larger size they threw in a metal tin for free. I hesitated on buying, as I was increasingly becoming concerned about how much space I had in my luggage, especially since there was still plenty of the trip left to do. I did end up buying a larger bag of regular tea, as I knew I would later regret it if I didn't bring back tea from China right from the source. Also, I liked the tin.

I sat in the bus, while I waited on some of my fellow classmates to finish their purchases. I noticed that a strange sense of calm and revitalization began to wash over me. I felt focused, and awake, but not jittery. I looked to my classmates who had joined me back on the bus, and they agreed that they too felt the same sensation of being relaxed, yet energized. That tea was definitely something unique, and I felt confident that buying the bag was a good choice.

Fields of the tea plantation
Our next stop was the Lingyin Temple, which is one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. When I heard we were going to a temple, I was picturing a single building. In actuality, the temple was more of a complex of buildings surrounded by a park.

As we walked through the park, we were led to a hillside where scores of statues of Buddha and his disciples were carved into the rock. I admit, I'm not familiar enough with Buddhism to understand the meanings of the various depictions of him, but there was a wide variety of statues. Some showed the seated Buddha, while others showed the laughing Buddha. There were so many carved into rock surfaces that we even saw Buddhas where nothing had been carved out of the rock at all. The guide pointed to something in a cave we had walked through, which I thought was a Buddha high up and tucked away, but was in fact just a natural rock formation.

Not actually a Buddha carving. I just looked like one from the ground.
We left the park and went into the temple itself. At the gate we were given three sticks of incense, and were told to light them, bow once facing each of the cardinal directions, then place them in a massive censer that stood in the main courtyard.

The temple itself was a magnificent collection of brightly colored buildings, each at the center of a winding path of stairs, terraces, and gardens. Throughout the various buildings were scores of statues, either cast in metal or carved from wood. In some rooms there were several individual statues grouped together. However, at the back of the main hall was an enormous sculpture depicting a scene that may have actually had hundreds of carved statues as part of it.

I honestly have no idea where I got the umbrella from...

While we were exploring, the monks were at their late afternoon prayers. The harmonious sound of their chanting and ringing of chimes permeated throughout the temple, drawing you in towards the main hall. Yes, I did take plenty of pictures as I walked about the temple, but I also took the time to put away my camera, and just take in the moment.

It really is hard to convey just how tranquil an environment the temple was, as the monks chanted. Just being immersed in the sound of their harmony washed a sense of peace and relaxation over me. You can feel the sound of their chant deep within you, physically echoing through your body.

When they finished with their prayers, the absence of their chanting left a void in the air.

There were a surprisingly high amount of dogs wandering about the temple. I'm not sure if they were pets (either belonging to visitors or the monks,) or just an abundance of well trained stray dogs.

We still had some extra time to spare once we left the temple, so we were given a half hour to wander about. TJ, Nate, and I decided to explore the hills in the park, with the Buddha carvings. There were signs indicating the various routes we could take, but the paths turned out to not be as well laid out as we expected. Some of the paths turned out to be blocked off in parts, either because work was being done on the path, or trees had fallen down in the way. Other times, the path just seemed to disappear into rocks and vegetation.

We worked our way towards the top of the hill, expecting that we might find some sort of shrine or pagoda, but instead came across some sort of encampment. Nobody was there at the moment, but it was clear that somebody was, or at least had been, using this part of the hill as a home. It was starting to get dark anyway, so we decided it was a good time to head back and rejoin the group.

Next: Dinner and nightlife.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 1: West Lake

New Century Hotel, where we were staying, turned out to be much less of an international hotel than our one in Beijing. For example, they allowed smoking in common areas, which was something I forgot hotels ever even did. Another notable thing was what was served for breakfast. In Beijing, the breakfast buffet was pretty standard Western fare (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.) with a few traditionally Chinese options, like hard boiled eggs soaked in tea and soy sauce. (Look up the recipe and try them out. They're fantastic.)

My first morning in Hangzhou, I woke up quite early for some reason. So early, that I was on the front end of when they were serving breakfast. They had only started putting out the Chinese food options. I saw some hard boiled eggs, next to various dishes of unknown meat and vegetable combinations. Not being one to experiment with food when it comes to breakfast, I just took the eggs.

I bit into one, and it was like biting into pure salt. Dr. Wu later explained to me that you're supposed to eat it with the side dishes. Not knowing that at the time, and not seeing any other options, I ate those salty, salty eggs, and waited around hoping something more normal might show up at the buffet, which it eventually did.

In daylight, Hangzhou looked absolutely beautiful. It was a garden city, full of tree lined streets and parks. Everything seemed so lush and verdant compared to what we saw in Beijing. The sky was overcast, but it just added to the beauty.

The bus took us out to the West Lake District, a region known for its gardens and historical sites. Our first stop was at Qinghefang Street, a market that was a mix of street vendors and store fronts. On the bus, Kathy mentioned that they might have scorpions for sale... to eat. Somehow despite not wanting to be experimental with breakfast, I felt the urge to be experimental with a mid-morning snack. Actually, most of the guys did. Sadly, we did not find any scorpion snacks for sale.

While some of the vendors still wanted to barter, most of the ones with storefronts had set prices. After bartering for a few items, I was relieved to be able to buy some of the nicer souvenirs right away, not having to go through the routine of going back and forth until we reached something resembling a reasonable price.

I found a chopstick shop, which turned out to be the same company as where I bought the chopstick set at the Beijing train station. I decided to take my time and look for a nicer set, not getting one just for the sake of having a souvenir. I had apparently also forgotten that my family hosted two Japanese exchange students while my sister was in high school, so my parents already had more than a few sets of nice chopsticks. Not remembering this, I bought another to add to their collection.

I had wandered into the store on my own, but a few of my classmates had caught up with me, also eager to buy some chopsticks. As I waited around in the store, looked at more of the sets they had for sale, and bought yet more chopsticks. This time, just a single pair, not a set. They were engraved with a dog, which is my year in the Chinese Zodiac.

We hopped on the bus again, and traveled through town towards our next destination. I began to have some idea of just how affluent an area the West Lake District was by the number of high end car dealerships we passed. We passed Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Maserati dealerships, and saw a few high end cars on the streets too.

Our next stop was the Yang Gong Causeway, a garden at the edge of the lake, with several bridges crossing over the water. It was one of those quintessential views of China. The landscaping highlighted both the plant life and the rock formations. Small pagodas dotted the park. Fleets of small fishing boats were lined up along the water's edge. Temples sat off in the far distance on the other side of the lake.

Had I been relying on my film camera, I would have burned through a few rolls that morning, just walking through the garden. I did have a film camera with me, a Holga, but I was using that sparingly on the trip in general.

Again, more souvenirs were purchased, although this time it was the cheap variety that kids tend to buy on field trips. I'm pretty sure every one of the guys on the trip bought one of those little slide whistles that sounds like a bird, when used correctly. We probably spent a good half hour blowing them incessantly. The women were not amused.

Next: Dragon Well Tea and the Lingyin Temple.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Beijing Pt 7: Lunch and the Bullet Train

Now that we were back in our civilian clothes, we headed off to another restaurant for lunch. The bus parked on a main street, as it was apparent that our bus was not going to be able to park on any of the side streets near the restaurant.

We passed by various shops and restaurants along the way, until we reached ours. Unfortunately, I didn't get the name of it, but the decor of the place was definitely geared towards paying homage to the country's history. In the main room, there were street signs on the wall, along with plaques indicating the location of the street as well as historically significant facts about it.

Along the side streets
Inside the restaurant

On a stage at one end of the room was a guzheng, a Chinese zither-like instrument that most westerners probably heavily associate with the sound of Chinese music. Kathy jumped on the stool and did an impromptu jam session (for lack of a better description,) then invited us to give it a go. Naturally, I could not refuse.

The restaurant had a Cultural Organizer, who took us on a tour of the various dining rooms. Each one was decorated in the style of a room from various decades in the past century. For example, one had a TV on a shelf a by the wall, whereas another had a radio and a sewing machine.

Our dining room, was the Mao Room. Sure enough, it was larger than the other rooms, and had a shrine to Chairman Mao off to the side. He indicated the shrine and suggested that I take a picture of it.

Now we were definitely going deeper into Chinese cuisine with this lunch. The dishes were certainly delicious, but many of them were unrecognizable as anything I'd ever seen in a Chinese restaurant, such as a dish that resembled a sort of fried vegetable cake, or one that was a sort of black rice cake that was then set on fire.

I know I need to come up with better descriptions of food other than "a sort of cake," but those were the two dishes from the meals that seemed most unique.

After lunch, the Cultural Organizer returned asking us to rate the meal and provide feedback. That was more or less the phrasing he used. The food was excellent but it did feel a bit strange being asked so directly what we thought of it, especially since I'm so used to giving feedback anonymously through survey websites found at the bottom of receipts.

I'm not sure how honest his request for feedback was, but I offered one suggestion anyway. (One of my classmates told me doing so seemed rude, but I think he generally wanted advice for how to make guests' experience better.) My advice was this: Have somebody explain what the meals were as they were brought out. With every restaurant we visited, the dishes were increasingly delicious, and it was becoming increasingly frustrating not knowing what some of these dishes were called. I may never see them on an American Chinese restaurant menu, but I wanted to entertain the idea that I may some day come across these dishes again without having to buy a ticket to China.

Or, if I ever did find myself in China again, I'd like to remember what to order.

After lunch , we made our way to the train station, where we would catch the bullet train to Hangzhou. By now the smog was practically palpable. I could feel it as grime clinging to my face. Some of my friends had brought surgical masks with them on the trip, and were now starting to wear them, without a trace of irony or humor. I did have one that I had bought at a grocery store when I first arrived, but I opted not to use it, as it looked somewhat fancy and I had bought it as a souvenir.

So much smog

We had a bit of downtime at the train station, so I did some impulse souvenir shopping, out of some weird concern that we wouldn't get many opportunities to do so over the next few days. I wound up buying a Chinese copy of GQ, and a colorful set of chopsticks.

My friends also bought a decent amount of beer, which made sense since the G-Train, despite traveling between 150-250 mph, was still going to take five hours to get to Hangzhou. We were also told we could buy food to take with us on the train, but as we had just had lunch, I wasn't in the mindset to buy fast food. I figured I'd just get something on the train. That turned out to be a disappointing decision, but I'll get to that later.

We also stocked up on one of my favorite things about shopping for snacks in Asian countries: exotic flavors of familiar snacks, like kebab flavored Lays chips.

Exotic flavors of potato chips

When we boarded the G-Train, I made sure to grab a seat by the window. I felt the way I remembered feeling the first time I can recall boarding an airplane. As an American, the idea of high speed rail, feels novel and futuristic. Hell, living in the midwest, the idea of any sort of rail infrastructure feels novel. The only passenger trains that pass through my city do so at odd hours of the morning, when the tracks aren't in use by the freight lines. For a region as densely populated as the northeast quadrant of the USA is, it's bizarre that the only true passenger rail infrastructure is along the east coast.

The train took off, and the city of Beijing zipped by. Soon the buildings gave way to the countryside, but the smog persisted. It was like that scene from The Mist where they drive on, hoping to drive far enough until they make it out of the fog, but it just never seems to end. The sky did clear up for us eventually. For a while, the landscape was just rocky mountains, but eventually it gave way to lush greenscapes.

The novelty of being on a bullet train soon wore off, and it soon felt like being on an airplane again, except it was quieter, and we could freely move about at all times. Apparently, entire rows of seats could be rotated to face each other, so a few of us re-arranged our rows. Sure, our knees were now bunched up together, but at least we could have a proper conversation instead of trying to talk down a row.

We were told that there would be food available on the train, and there was, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. In my head I was picturing a proper dining car, like in a spy movie, with little tables where you can order a full dinner. Realistically, I was even prepared for something closer to airline food. In reality, the dining car options consisted of various snacks. The most filling options were a bowl of noodles (the microwave kind,) or a plate of pork buns.

Actually, "pork buns" was what my friend Steve told me they were. He spoke Chinese, and I didn't. He described the dinner options as the noodle bowl or the pork buns, but he gave me a sort of quizzical look when he mentioned the pork buns. I took the pork buns, because I had some earlier on the trip, and they were delicious, and it sounded more filling than the noodle bowl.

I was given a tray with six pork buns that, like the noodles, appeared to have been microwaved. I bit into the first one, and was very confused. The contents of the bun were clearly not pork. In fact, it wasn't even meat. It was some sort of seaweed, vegetable filling.

I asked Steve if she was sure the woman in the dining car said it was pork buns. He said that maybe she just said it included pork buns. I took a bite of the next bun, and it had some sort of almost gelatinous purple filling, which was probably vegetable again, and definitely wasn't pork. Finally I took a bite of the third one, which actually turned out to be pork. The other three buns were the same combination of fillings: green vegetable, purple gelatinous vegetable, and pork. So at least there was some pork.

We arrived in Hangzhou Station, which I was told was one of the biggest train stations in China. It felt more like an airport than a train station, both in terms of size and architecture.

It was night when we arrived in the city, but from what I could see in the dark, it looked like a much more open city. Maybe Hangzhou was actually a cleaner city, or maybe it just didn't have an international reputation for being polluted, but the air felt fresher. The city also looked much more vibrant and lively than Beijing, but again, we didn't really get out and explore much of Beijing, so it wasn't a fair comparison.

Hangzhou at night

We checked into our hotel, the New Century Hotel Xiaoshan, then were given a brief layout of the area, just in case we wanted to get a late meal. As it was very late, our options were Kentucky Fried Chicken, or McDonald's. While I've heard that KFC is wildly popular in Asia, (possibly more than it is in the US,) I opted for McDonald's. It's my default travel food.

Having McDonald's, or visiting a Hard Rock Cafe, are two things I generally do when traveling abroad. No matter how great the cuisine is wherever I go, I've found that I occasionally need a break from being a tourist, and need something comfortable and familiar. Hence, McDonald's. It's like doing a soft reset for my system. If I have at least one Big Mac part way through the trip, I know I'm not going to be days into the trip, surrounded by fantastic cuisine I'll never see again, and thinking "I'm really craving some American fast food right now."

Also, there's the academic reason for wanting to visit McDonald's. As I mentioned before, localization of international products is something we've studied repeatedly as part of the MBA program at Xavier. I know that McDonald's more or less uses the same menu around the world, but they also have regional dishes, depending on the country.

My first Chinese McDonald's did not disappoint. Among the menu items were some sort of chicken and rice platter, and something called the Double German Sausage Patty, which was two sausage links drizzled in mustard, on top of two beef patties, served in a pretzel bun.

The Double German Sausage Patty is on the left.

When we approached the counter, the cashier handed us a menu with pictures of all the dishes available, and more or less communicated to us that we should order by pointing at what we wanted. I opted for a Big Mac, but it turned out to be one of the sparsest Big Mac's I'd ever seen. It might have been a regional thing, or maybe they did a bad job of preparing it. Either way, it was close enough to leave me comfortably settled in for my first night in Hangzhou, a city I new almost nothing about.

Underwhelming Big Mac

Next: The West Lake Area