Thursday, July 05, 2007

Trains and Hangzhou

We spent our final day in China, traveling by train to Hangzhou to visit West Lake and to enjoy a meal at a famous restaurant by the lake. Ray’s office had purchased one way tickets for us, and we were instructed to purchase the return tickets when we arrived at the Hangzhou station. It apparently is not possible to purchase the return portion at your point of origin. We chose to take the late morning train, even though we were told the morning train is cleaner and faster.
Less clean and less fast it was – a bit warm, somewhat dingy, and a little rickety.
We arrived in Hangzhou to 90% humidity and temperatures in the high 80’s. The sky was quite hazy and the moisture in the air looked like it was raining. The 5 of us negotiated our way down the wrong hallway, looking for the ticket office. Railroad personnel hastily pointed in the direction we needed to be, not wanting to be bothered to help. It reminded me of being at the train station 12 years ago, looking for our train and no employees or travelers would take the time to help us. Here we were, 12 years later, and people were still behaving in the same rude manner. We found our way to the main ticket hall where thousands of people were standing in lines, in front of 20 some ticket windows. Some had agents there, others not. It was packed and hot, not a pleasant place at all. We stood in the shortest line. I asked someone which was the right place to buy “soft seat tickets” and he said, “anywhere in this room”. I tried to ask a girl why this line was the shortest and she said, “I don’t know.” Turns out some of the windows were closed for lunch and the hours of operation were posted on big boards above them. I then walked to the schedule boards to try and figure out what the return times were. I asked 5 people to explain the boards, some ignored me, one told me to ask at the window, and one told me to read the board! At this point, Robert and Julia discovered a small room off in the corner where people were better dressed and looked like they had more money. Thank goodness, it was the higher priced first class ticket office. The travelers were so much kinder and more helpful. By then, we had figured out how to read the schedule, had found our train time and the transaction went smoothly. I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten better treatment had I been a blond, instead of being just a regular Chinese person. Perhaps, this goes along with Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs, and since ones basic needs need to be fulfilled before one can be generous in spirit, these common Chinese had not reached a level where they could be helpful to others. It puzzles me!

We spent much of the day in a very interesting silk museum, located in Hangzhou because it is historically considered the main site of silk manufacturing. In one room was an enormous loom that was used to demonstrate the art of weaving silk. Ray spent a lot of time trying ot figure out this loom, which consisted of many ropes and bundles of thread, the pattern of which was controlled by a man sitting at the very top, about 12 feet high. The colors and weaving was done by the woman seated in front of the loom. Looking in the mirror below her work, you could see the face of the fabric, a beautiful design of dragons and flowers. They say that the loom and process was developed by a Frenchman named Jacquard and follows patterns of light and dark, the forerunner to the earliest computers. We learned about the silkworm and the process of degumming the cocoon and removing the threads of silk. The large map on the wall indicated the 3 earliest silk trade routes-the northern route through Shandung, the more commonly remembered one from X'ian to the middle east, and the maritime one.

Leaving the museum, we walked to West Lake. I felt so sticky, I was ready to peel my clothes off, and regretted wearing waterproof pants and hiking boots. I was all prepared for rains, but it didn’t rain and I was hot! As we walked around the lake, we were harassed by a driver trying to get us to ride in his private car. He followed us down the path until Jen turned around and yelled at him in Chinese. Hurray Jen! He was so taken aback and muttered, “so fierce.” We laughed so hard at his reaction and Jen’s boldness!

We had dinner as planned at Louwailou, a restaurant that is over 200 years old. Their specialty is beggar's chicken, cooked in an oven for 5-6 hours, wrapped in lotus leaves, plastic wrap, more lotus leaves, and finally encased in mud. It is broken open with a mallet and the layers are cut open to reveal a tender and flavorful chicken.


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