If I was going to set up home somewhere in China I would probably choose Hangzhou, one of China’s most attractive and livable cities. The West Lake, upon whose shores the city sits, is one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, especially now that it only takes only 40 minutes on the bullet train from Shanghai. It’s a very wealthy area with the highest GDP in China.
It’s very pleasant to take an early morning walk through Yongjin Park by the lake early in the morning where you can see groups of locals practising Tai Chi with fans or swords. Close dancing seems a popular way to start the day too. You can walk around the entire lake (it took me about 2 hours 15 minutes at a brisk walk via the causeways) or hop on a passing buggy if you feel tired. Pleasure boats cross the lake from all sides too.
Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang, has an ancient and venerable history with successive emperors choosing it as their playground. Little remains in the way of old buildings but Hefang St has been reconstructed to give you a feel of what it must have been like in the past. This is a fun area to come at night as there are lots of street stalls and shops selling take home trinkets. The parallel Gaoyin St has lots of restaurants. There is also a night market at Huixing Rd, 5 minutes from the Friendship Hotel.
The local cuisine is known as Zhejiang Cuisine, one of China’s eight famous cuisines, and has a reputation for using fresh ingredients in subtle dishes. Famous local Hangzhou delicacies include Beggar’s Chicken, West Lake Sour Fish (xi hu cu yu), Steamed Dumplings (xiao long bao), Dongpo Pork, Longjing Shrimp Meat, Jiaohua Young Chicken, Steamed Rice Flower with Pork wrapped in Lotus Leaves, Lotus Root Powder Soup and Braised Bamboo Shoots.
The city is a centre for some of the best silk and tea in China, perfect items for the homeward suitcase. For silk, go to Jiankang West Rd, which is between Fengqi Lu and Tiyuchang Lu. It’s a long pedestrian street lined with at least 100 silk stalls, with more off side the streets. I bought Pashmina scarves here for 18 RMB, and a silk dressing gown for 100 RMB. Fans are a famous product too; Wang Xingji on Hefang St is the best shop for these.
There are tea shops all over town selling the famous local brew, Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea. The best stuff comes from Xi Hu, a village near Hangzhou. There are five grades, rated according to date of harvest, position on the branch etc. Ming Chien and Yu Chien are the best, Yu Hou, San Chun, Si Chun less so. Prices are usually on the jars but you should ask which grade is which, and then proffer the amount you would like to spend. I paid 100RMB for 250g of Yu Chien, which seemed reasonable.
The biggest downside to life here is the traffic, as any local will tell you, but hopefully this will change when the new subway system is finished. Getting a taxi during rush hour is a major task, as bizarrely this is also when all the drivers change shifts and many will refuse your custom if you’re not on their way to the garage. Expect to wait on the street for at least 20 minutes if you’re trying to get a cab between 3.00 and 6.00. A fair few private cars will offer you a lift but at least double the price.
I’ve stayed twice at the four star Friendship Hotel which has become a little dingier over the years. The rooms are pleasant enough, although the bathrooms are a bit poky, and most have great views of the lake (remember to specify you want one with a good vista). The only English TV channel I managed to get was the local CCTV. There’s internet but most things I wanted were blocked. There is a gym with a couple of serviceable running machines, although the rest of the equipment is a bit clunky. The extensive breakfast buffet is in the revolving restaurant on the top floor. Although the views are great, I’m not a fan of eating while slowly turning in a circle. Although you can barely feel the movement, except for the occasional shudder, I always leave with a faint feeling of motion sickness. It got too much once so I tried to leave with a piece of fruit to eat elsewhere, only to be told by the banana police that I had to eat it in the restaurant. I tried the food up here in the evening too a couple of years back but wasn’t too impressed.
The most famous and supposedly oldest restaurant in town is Lou Wai Lou, at 30 Gushan Rd on Solitary Island. Walk along the Bai Causeway on the lake and it’s about the fourth building on the right as you come on to the island. This is perhaps the best place to taste many local delicacies, including my choice, Beggars’ Chicken.
Legend has it that a beggar had a chicken but didn’t know what to do with it so he wrapped it in a lotus leaf and buried it in mud. On another day, when one of his friends was starving, he dug it up and threw it on the fire, still covered in mud, with apparently delicious results. These days it’s slightly more sophisticated with more flavour added by a marinade of local Shaoxing wine. The bird is smashed into small pieces with a hammer and the wrappings (newspaper, plastic and finally the lotus leaf) are cut with scissors and the bird revealed for you to pick through. It was an experience but I could only give it a B, too many bone fragments and not sure what the beef was doing in there.
There is a great noodle bar near the hotel called Kui Yuan Guang, famous in Hangzhou since 1867 although the building is pretty new. (Turn right out of the Friendship hotel, immediate right and turn third left onto Jiefang Rd, it’s about 3 blocks down on the left). They do an excellent (A-), if slightly oily, pork chilli noodle soup for 12 RMB, which goes great with a cold beer. There are 17 noodle soups on offer in all, in three different sizes, all with English translations. Remember to slurp your noodles as the extra oxygen adds to the taste, as well as cooling them down. People will think you are strange if you don’t!
There’s another famous noodle bar on picturesque Hefang St called Zhuan Gyauan Guan which serves Shaanxi style noodles. They have a picture menu but I needed my dictionary and some help from an English speaking waitress to work out what everything was. In the end I plumped for beef noodle soup with green chillies, which was delicious (B+) but needed a few dollops of chilli sauce to bring it up to my heat level. The menu is pretty scary; one noodle soup seemed to be topped with a whole turtle! There are other non-noodle dishes too.
Another supposedly old restaurant (since 1738) in an ersatz building on Hefang St is Wan Grun Xing. The carved wooden interior is quite nice and it looks like it should be a good place. However, I got the worst service I’ve had so far in China from a gaggle of rude and lazy staff who were too busy chatting and shouting at each other to do any work. I was shown to a bare table with rubbish strewn on the floor around it. All the tables in the rest of the place were beautifully laid out but I just got a plate with bare chopsticks shoved onto mine. I don’t mind if people don’t understand me but kind of resented the fits of giggles that attended my presence as all the waiters tried to get out of serving me and get their mates to do it instead. I nearly walked out at this point but my beer arrived so I stayed and got my camera out and started taking pictures and writing notes, which seemed to change their behaviour. Or at least the manager realised what I was doing and started to get the others into line a bit. I wanted to try the house speciality ‘Fishhead Bean Curd’ but my appetite went when I saw the bulbous opaque eyes staring back at me from the vivid picture menu. Also I’d forgotten to get their other special ‘Door Board Rice’ written in kanji so didn’t get that either. Instead I played it safe again and got spare ribs in a chilli and sugar sauce and a plate of steamed pak choi with small shitake mushrooms. The ribs didn’t look anything like the picture, small and without the fancy garnishing and just splattered onto the plate, as if the chef was making the least possible effort. Everything tasted good however and with rice and two beers, only came to 77 RMB. Never going back though.
Also on Hefang St there is a shop selling Lotus Root Powder Soup, another famous local product. It tastes of nothing but is famed for it’s health giving qualities. I didn’t get the name of the place but look out for a huge teapot with a dragon spout. The guy who does the pouring is quite a character.
Just over the road from the Friendship Hotel, on the first floor of the Marco Polo Hotel, is an all-you-can-eat-and-drink Japanese restaurant (which is like a red rag to a bull to me). They give you two hours for a set price of 140RMB. The food isn’t great but no worse than a very cheap Izakaya in Japan, and you can’t argue with the price. I like to go here just to have fun with the waitresses as we practice our rudimentary Japanese on each other.
I was working evenings but didn’t get time to try any of the local bars. However my friend, and Hangzhou native, Xin Shu recommends a reggae bar called Gen Jiu Ba at 131 Xueyan Road, near Wen’er Rd (Tel 86575749).
Xin Shu also took me to a great little restaurant somewhere on the West shore of the West Lake. You need a car to get there and everything was written in kanji so I don’t know the name but we had some great food; bamboo shoots. ‘duck down’ pak choi, carp in soya sauce and rice wine and my favourite, chicken and spring onions. The pudding was made from water buffalo milk and bean paste, a new combination on me and very healthy. It was a bit chilly but the secluded location and bamboo and wood decor made it a lovely place to be, and some of the best food I had in Hangzhou. Xin Shu, if you read this, please share the name and contact details!
Other famous places I didn’t get time to try this time are Shan Wai Shan at 8 Yuquan Rd (Tel. 8798 6621) and Zhi Wei Guan at 83 Renhe Rd (Tel. 8706 5871). Here’s a useful local website with a list of restaurants.