Every now and then, we at China Travel and Intern Diaries, a series of China escapades as seen through the eyes of the newest kids in town. Nicole gives the skinny on her recent weekend trip. My second week in China, second week in Shanghai, and second weekend to explore... a weekend trip away seemed in order. Hangzhou, capital of the Zhejiang province, is a second-tier city with a population of merely 8.7 million people. That's a million more than London or San Francisco, folks. That being said, Hangzhou, and in particular the West Lake area, have become popular getaway areas for many of the Shanghai elite, and, surprisingly, it really is a lot more peaceful than the hustle and bustle of Shanghai's city center. Read on for more... We followed the tourist trail and ended up at a fantastic little hostel, West Lake National Park. This charming and quirky hostel is well worth a recommendation. Everything about this place screams backpackers welcome! with its open areas filled with squashy mismatched sofas, happy travelers smiling down from the collages of photos all over the walls, the rickety old barbeques for anyone to use and the staff, who were simply kind, helpful and up for laugh. Outside, we found Pirate Café (in the shape of a ship), Living Bar (whatever that means) and a building that seemed to come straight from Alice in Wonderland covered in bright mosaics, with teapots and tea cups sticking out of the curvy roof. Dinner was a huge table of marinated meats, ready to be thrown onto sticks and roasted off into skewers. The serious spiciness of the food was nothing compared to when I asked a member of staff what meat I had just eaten. His answer: "I believe... uh... the testicle of the sheep." Oh dear. Of course, we were quick to take advantage of the three-for-two cocktail deal (it was rude not to), which turned out to be a double shot of brandy with a double shot of rum set alight. No mixer? Of course not! Note to anyone drinking this cocktail—do NOT play the drinking game of dice (chuīniú, 吹牛), it will end badly. West Lake itself is a massive, beautiful lake, supposedly created by a phoenix and a dragon dropping a pearl into the land. Next to the brilliant sign "Ticket Office for Pleasure Boats", we boarded an old but sturdy boat, rowed by a cheery man who chattered away to the other men in Mandarin about the number of beautiful women he sees this time of year, happily oblivious to the fact that we foreign ladies could both hear and understand him. We sailed out to the exact spot pictured on the one Yuan note, with its three stone pagodas sticking out of the water; the story goes that when the pagodas are lit with candles, they mix with the light of the moon to ward off evil spirits. The value of the note does serious injustice to this spot, which is just stunning. The rest of the day was spent walking the nearby the streets and markets of Hangzhou, including a visit to the Huqingyu Tang Chinese Medicine Museum where hundreds of plants and flowers were being shaken around and changed into all sorts of different remedies. We also tried all sorts of strange snacks, like dragon beard (lóngxū táng, 龙须酥), a rectangular-shaped candy made of what looks like white hair, with a mixture of sweetened nuts and sesame seeds inside. This delicious sweet is actually made from sugar, spun until it looks like thread, but the name is brilliant and I'm going to stubbornly believe that we ate actual dragon beard hair—that's just way more exciting. A view from the sixth floor of a giant pagoda showed us a magnificent view of West Lake, and a not-so-magnificent view of Hangzhou itself. Although with significantly less skyscrapers, Hangzhou's city center lacks the exciting colors and shimmering lights of Shanghai.
Mogan Shan madness
Sunday took us to Mogan Shan, or "Mount Mogan," a more rural part of China but also an up-and-coming tourist area. Rice fields stretched out in all directions, the hills and landscapes such a contrast to my week in the big world of Shanghai. This area characterized the inequalities in China perfectly. Big, custom built mansions stand next to rickety shacks, while BMWs drive past people rattling metal pans for extra money.
We decided to take a hike in the afternoon. Do you think an hour-long hike sounds easy? You would be wrong. The 35°C (95°F) humid heat certainly made this walk just a tad more tiring, and turned all 30 of us into sweaty, panting, bright red twits in shorts... but what a sweet, sweet sight it was when we turned the final corner and found ourselves at the bluest lagoon I've ever seen! The scramble to dive into this deep lake turned into an hour floating on bamboo canes, lazily swimming on our backs and looking out over the remarkable view of Mogan Shan. The perfect end to a weekend came in the form of a local lodge, Prodigy [Qíjì Hùwài Jīdì, 骑迹户外基地, (86 021) 6471 8853], in Houwu Village (Hòuwù Cūn, 后坞村). This beautiful lodge is a tough climb up what seems like hundreds of steps, but makes up for it with a spectacular view over the hilltops. The staff and lodgers were ridiculously friendly, and played host to a number of locals popping over for a drink, including what has to be the cutest little boy I've ever seen, giggling away and playing with his dog for over an hour. This second weekend has brought me sunshine, lakes, views, landscapes, dragon beards, crazy cocktails, teacups on roofs, cans of Red Bull labeled "a Vitamin Functional Drink," sheep testicles and so much more. The madness continues!