There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 18 November 2016

Hangzhou (1) West Lake, Lingyin Temple and Longjing Tea: Part 6 of South East China

Never Mind
Koetic Spirit
(slogan seen on shirt, Lingyin Temple)
Another of the endless supply of meaningless slogans that adorn Chinese tee-shirts and other garments
(Koetic Friday is a Hong Kong clothing company. What, if anything, 'koetic' means I do not know)

17th of November 2016

We arrived in Hangzhou after dark to be met by D, an enthusiastic young man who was responsible for our transfer. ‘Welcome to the busiest railway station in Asia,’ he said.

We arrived on the high speed train from Suzhou
It was a long ride to our hotel, not in terms of distance but getting anywhere during the Hangzhou rush hour requires patience.

D suggested we eat in the hotel as it was reasonably priced and there was little choice locally. We generally avoid hotel restaurants, but we were tired so we took him at his word.

During the drive he had told us, at length, that Hangzhou is a digital city, the home of Alibaba, the world's largest online retailer and Alipay, a third party on-line payment platform much used locally for payment by smart phone. The hotel restaurant lived up to his digital claim. The menu was on a tablet, an appropriate poke communicated our choices to the kitchen next door. We found the system problematic, searching and sending were not intuitive and the instructions were in Chinese only, as was the list of food categories. And we were not always sure what we were looking at, on a printed picture menu you can scan everything at once but here the pictures popped up devoid of context. The waitress had a device into which she typed Chinese characters and a metallic voice provided an English translation, but it was cumbersome and the translation quality variable. The technology somehow interfered with the human interaction - smiles and gestures work better for us - but we eventually ordered some pork, vegetables, rice and beer. It was good enough and inexpensive but it had been hard work getting it.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and Alipay
A Hangzhou born Hangzhou resident, he is reputedly worth US$30.9billion
18th of November 2016

A different guide, C, picked us up in the morning and she arrived with a woman driver, only the second female professional driver we have encountered in China (the first was a taxi driver in Kunming). She drove us to West Lake. Hangzhou is another huge city with 7.5 million people, but at its western edge the urban sprawl is halted by a lake.

Su Dong Po, West Lake, Hangzhou
We parked by a statue of Su Dong Po (or Su Shi), a Song Dynasty (960-1279) writer, poet, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome, and statesman. Born in Sichuan Province in 1037 he passed the highest level civil service examinations at the age of 19. There followed a long career as an administrator included 18 years (1060-78) in Hangzhou.

Being an able administrator and the most important cultural figure of his century, did not make him immune from government infighting. He endured several periods of exile including 7 years in Huizhou (1093-1100).  Our daughter taught English in Huizhou, 60km north east of Hong Kong, in 2004/5 and we met Su Dongpo on our first Chinese trip in 2004 beside Huizhou’s West Lake (he seems attracted to ‘West Lakes’). For a man who has been dead 1000 years, it is surprising how similar he looks in the two statues!

Su Dong Po, West Lake, Huizhou, July 2004
Odd how they are remarkably similar though nobody can have the least idea what Su Dong Po looked like
On such a damp misty morning we thought we might have the lake to ourselves, but we had reckoned without the indefatigable Chinese tourist. There they were in their thousands being marshalled by tour guides waving flags like regimental banners.

We had plenty of company as we marched along the Su Causeway (built by Su Dong Po) to the dock and were perhaps lucky to grab the last two spaces on a boat leaving immediately.

Heading off into West Lake, Hangzhou
We did grab the last places - but there were plenty of seats once everybody had moved to the observation areas at either end
West Lake was as smooth as rippling silk, but the morning mist meant poor visibility.

Yesterday’s guide had asked how I knew of Hangzhou as so few westerners visit. I was unsure; it is a vast city so I assumed I knew anyway, but I remember its charms being advertised on CNN during a previous visit and then the G20 Summit had been held here in September, though that was after we booked. I could not mention Jun Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Chairman Mao - a character assassination as much as a biography - and unavailable in China, but in it I had learned that Mao had a favourite house by West Lake. I asked about it now. His house, C informed us, had become a hotel and was on the opposite headland below the Leifeng Pagoda. It was the hotel used for the G20 summit so Theresa May had been here before me. I felt truly ambivalent.

The headland opposite with the Leifeng Pagoda lurking in the mist
The boat found its way among the lake’s several islands, some natural some man made, and beside causeways dividing it into different areas. We saw this unusual vessel pottering across on a parallel path....

Unusual looking vessel, West Lake, Hangzhou
 ...and there were rather more basic craft, too.

Traditionally powered craft, West Lake, Hangzhou
After 20 minutes we bumped gently into the other side or perhaps an island (the mist made it impossible to say). The large Chinese tour part departed and were replaced by a smaller group; we set off on the return journey.

On the return journey, West Lake, Hanghou
Our route passed Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, one of those wonderful Chinese names which tell you what you can enjoy and how to enjoy it. The three pools sit inside a circular causeway, like tropical lagoons – though Hangzhou felt far from tropical this morning. Between the pools and the headland, three stone pillars - C described them as pagodas - protrude from the water.

The three 'pagodas' in the misty distance, West Lake, Hangzhou
They are very small protruding from the water between the boat and the right hand end of the causeway
I am not sure what they are,…

A closer view of two of the 'pagodas', West Lake, Hangzhou
…. but they must be important as they feature on the 1 yuan banknote.

Reverse of  the One Yuan banknote with the three West Lake 'pagodas'
We docked beside the interesting craft we had seen earlier. Through the round window we could see a business meeting taking place.

And through the round window....., West Lake, Hangzhou
After what would, in better weather, have been a pleasant stroll along the shore, we re-met our driver and she took us westwards into the countryside - a relief after a week in uncompromisingly urban surroundings.

The Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area is much visited and a settlement has grown up around the entrance containing, among others, a Starbucks, a KFC and a Pizza Hut (though remarkably no Macd's). Why does China, with its vibrant food tradition, insist on importing the worst of western food? Beats me.

According to tradition, Lingyin Monastery was founded in 328AD by an Indian monk given the Chinese name of Huili. His ashes are said to be entombed in the small and weathered Elder Li’s Pagoda. I have found no suggestion as to its age; it is clearly ancient though I doubt it was built very soon after Huili’s death.

Elder Li's Pagoda, Feilai Feng
Behind the pagoda is Feilai Feng (lit: The Peak that Flew Here). It is limestone which is unusual in this area, so obviously it arrived from elsewhere, probably India, whisked through the air by the power of Buddhist philosophy.

Feilai Feng is covered with carvings of the Buddha and his disciples….

Carvings, Feilai Feng
 ….many of them sculpted in the 10th century when Lingyin housed over 3,000 monks.

More Carvings, Feilai Feng
Beyond Felai Feng we entered the main courtyard of the Lingyin Monastery...

Main courtyard, Lingyin Monastery
 ... and, like all visitors, were presented with a bunch of incense sticks. The appropriate procedure is to light them in the brazier...

Lighting the incense stick, Lingyin Monastery
 …bow in the four cardinal directions and then plant the incense sticks in the burner.

Bowing to the north, Lingyin Monastery
Despite the monastery's antiquity most of the current buildings date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). During the Cultural Revolution the monastery was threatened by the Red Guards but it is said to have been saved from destruction, like so many other antiquities, by the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai. Others, notably Chang and Haliday in their biography of Mao, question these claims and find nothing heroic about Zhou.

To the south is the Guardian Hall, where four scary guardians ensure evil spirits are too frightened to enter.

Guardian, Lingyin Monastery
From there we made our way to the main hall and the main Buddha image.

Main Buddha image, Lingyin Monastery
Behind is a wall encrusted with arhats and others.

Arhats and others, Lingyin Monastery
Which I found strangely reminiscent of part of the north façade of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!

North façade, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
It was now time for lunch. We went to none of the previously mentioned junk food outlets but to a large and well-presented Chinese restaurant where we joined a larger number of China's growing middle class.

The picture menu had English as well as Chinese descriptions and advised by C we chose two local specialties. Dong Po pork named after the poet, is a slab of braised pork in a rich brown sauce with slices of steamed dough, described as bread, folded into a fan shape. Agreeably inexpensive it is a starter of sorts, though the Chinese have no concept of courses. I do not rate the ‘bread, but the pork was absolutely delicious, though it does not photograph well.

Delicious if not very photogenic Dong Po Pork, Lingyin
More photogenic, and expensive, though equally delicious were the shrimps cooked in the local longjing tea - a delicate flavour, but one worth savouring.

Prawns cooked in Longjing Tea, Lingyin
Lunch over, we drove on to one of the tea producing villages further into the country where we enjoyed a tasting and were then subjected to a hard sell of tea in tablet form. The woman started by asked what supplements we take. There was a momentary pause when we answered 'none,' her script did not mention that answer.

The home of Longjing tea
Undaunted she set about convincing us that swallowing tea in tablet form was vital to our well-being. Green tea, she told us, is full of anti-oxidants which are essential to counter dangerous free radicals.

To ‘prove’ it she poured some rice into a beaker of water and added a few drops off iodine, colouring everything purple. She gave the beaker a shake and held it up for us to admire the purple stained rice. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘it has been oxidised’. She stirred in a ground up tea tablet and the colour disappeared. ‘Look’ she said again, ‘the rice is no longer oxidised’. There was much more in this vein as she talked about de-detoxing (itself a doubtful concept), her script carefully aligning the 'ox' in toxin with the unrelated 'ox' in oxidation.

I was a bad audience; I have a little scientific knowledge and a healthy degree of scepticism. I am a sceptic, not a cynic – it is those who wrote her script who are the cynics.

The rice had, of course, not been oxidised it had been stained, a physical not a chemical change.  The iodine reacted with the molecules in the tea tablet (oxidised them) and producing a colourless iodate. This has no relevance to human nutrition.

Free radicals are dangerous but they have been around for ever and all animals long ago evolved ways of dealing with them. Free radicals need an extra electron or two, if they take that electron from molecules in your cells (i.e. ‘oxidise’ them – which need not have anything to do with oxygen) they can cause damage, the trick is to have enough molecules floating round which can be harmlessly oxidised and thus mop up the free radicals – such molecules are the so-called ‘anti-oxidants’. Our bodies manufacture these from vitamins A, C and E. A normal balanced diet will provide all the anti-oxidants we need.

But if some are good, would more be better? Do we need to take supplement? ‘Randomized, placebo-controlled trials…offer little support that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, or other single antioxidants provides substantial protection against heart disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions.’ (from Anti-Oxidants Beyond the Hype – Harvard School of Public Health).

Sorry about the science lesson/rant, but the woman annoyed me. We did, however, buy some tea, because we liked it.

Our Longjing Tea
The ride back to Hangzhou started well but became slower as we got into the confines of the city.

In late afternoon we walked south, crossing one of the city’s many canals….

Crossing one of Hangzhou's many canals
….to the nearest supermarket.

The view from the supermarket steps, Hangzhou
(an unusual caption!)
The three storey building was a treasure trove of the mundane and exotic. Chinese snacks include unfamiliar varieties like shredded squid (the strips have a pleasing texture though a mild ketchup flavour drowns out the even milder squid), pork floss (as regrettable as it sounds) and, among the more recognisable peanuts, wasabi peas, and ‘strange flavoured horsebeans’ (Guaiwei, lit: strange flavour, seasoning originates from Sichuan and is pleasantly unusual rather than truly strange.)

We bought some Bai Jiu (lit: white alcohol), which can be distilled from a variety of grains, but ours came from sorghum. At 50% abv it was fiery stuff with a lingering sweet taste (and smell) reminiscent of the odour of decay that settles over afternoon fruit markets in the tropics. As a nightcap it was not unpleasant - and at 10 Yuan (£1.20) for a litre very cheap - but the smell lingered in the room, being particularly noticeable when we returned after breakfast.

Bai Jiu - Sorghum based firewater
Lynne thought dinner unnecessary after our excellent lunch, but I persuaded her into a cheap Chinese fast food restaurant. A set meal of meat, rice and a non-descript sauce came with a thin soup, so Lynne had the soup, I ate the meat and we both watched our youthful fellow diners. The signature dish, served on a sizzler plate, was surrounded by a paper collar so we never saw it, but forks were supplied rather than chopsticks. It was the first time we had seen Chinese people eating with forks in the Han heartland.

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