Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The “Real” China

Hangzhou is famous in China for having hosted Marco Polo, who pronounced the city the most beautiful place in the world. So Pipi and I arranged to spend several days here, somehow overlooking the fact that we were going on 800-year-old information.

Hangzhou is only about two hours from Shanghai by train, but it’s a very different place. We left from Shanghai’s brand-new South Station, a sparkling modernistic glass-and-chrome dome of a building that looks like something out of the Jetsons. You expect to leave it by hovercraft, not by train. We arrived in a grimy, crumbling Hangzhou station full of dark corridors clogged with touts trying to hustle people into taking their over-priced minivans into the city center. Hangzhou is a city of about five million people, but it still doesn’t have the cosmopolitan feeling that Shanghai does. English is not widely spoken, and hotels and restaurants don’t have the polish that you’ll find in bigger cities. Wai guo ren--foreigners—are still a little bit of a novelty. It’s not like we’re the first white people anyone has seen, but teenagers still bark, “Hello” when they see us, something that hasn’t happened to me since 1992. It’s kind of cute, but it reminds me of the way I’m often moved to moo when I drive past a dairy farm, and I don’t really like the attention.

It’s a hard place to get around, too. I’m reminded of how much infrastructure and order we take for granted in the United States. I went for a 45-minute walk in town two days ago while Pipi was at a meeting (her company has an office here), and never did find what I was looking for: the large urban lake that is Hangzhou’s claim to fame. This is sort of like being dropped off in mid-town Manhattan and failing to find Central Park, but in my defense, it was very hot, the blocks were very long and torn up by construction, and the street I started on wasn’t on the map I consulted before heading out. I know I was quite close when I gave up, but I was too tired and dehydrated to be enthusiastic about walking more, so I took a cab back to the hotel. As it turns out, I fared better than Pipi, who was not able to flag down a cab at all, and had to hike several miles home in business attire.

(Actually, she says several cabs stopped for her, nicely explained something she didn’t understand a word of, and then drove off empty without her. This also seemed to be happening to a lot of businessmen around her, so we really don’t know what the story was there.)

A lot of people dislike Shanghai. They find it too maniacally entrepreneurial and Western-influenced, and don’t consider it the “real” China. I think these things make it an incredibly exciting place, and even detractors concede that it’s what my friend John calls gaijin-friendly—easy to navigate. I miss it!

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