Like so high it’s possible I was on drugs.
Well, I can’t say much of that has happened.
What have I done?
To be honest, aside from my quick trip to Xi’an, I’m not entirely sure. I vaguely remember watching lots of reality TV. I broke in my new toaster oven by using it to bake lots of cookies. And, judging from the butt-shaped dent in my couch cushion, it’s possible I slipped into a coma at some point and just sat there for about ten days straight. Sadly, none of these things were goals I’d actually set out to achieve this summer. (Especially the couch dent. I mean, how does one go about undenting one’s sofa?)The other week I was feeling a bit down about my lack of success this summer, so I thought I would perk myself up with one last summer trip.
And what better way to cheer myself up then to go to the happiest place in China – Hangzhou! Yep, that’s right, according to a recent survey, Hangzhou, which is about three hours away from Wuxi by fast train, is the happiest place in all of the Middle Kingdom.
Of course, I had heard about Hangzhou long before the survey. You see, people have been gushing about that place for years. Poets have written poems about it. Artists have painted paintings of it. In the Thirteenth Century, Marco Polo described Hangzhou as “the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world.” (And this was coming from a man who’d seen a few places in his day, you know.) Pick up any map or tourist brochure for the city, and you’re sure to see Hangzhou described as everything from an “Earthly Paradise” to “Heaven on Earth.” Even Lonely Planet, which is none too effusive with its praise, dubs Hangzhou’s West Lake “a true beauty in the midst of a concrete jungle.” (Meanwhile, Lonely Planet calls my home of Wuxi “smoggy and characterless.” Well, gee, shucks, Lonely Planet, way to make a city feel special.)Frankly, I was a little bit dubious of all the claims made about Hangzhou. The same survey that had ranked Hangzhou as the happiest place in China had also ranked Shanghai as the most miserable metropolis in the country.
Now, I’ve been to Shanghai quite a bit, and I’ve really enjoyed my time there — mostly because my visits usually include drinking lots of cocktails and eating nacho platters. (Both of which I’m pretty sure are local customs in that city so stop looking at me like that.)
I’m not really religious or anything, but if I was going to come up with a definition of heaven on Earth, it would have to include cocktails and nacho platters.
Plus, I don’t think the people who took that survey have seen my couch.
As far as I’m concerned, my couch is the happiest place in China. It’s located conveniently under an air conditioner, is within walking distance from my fridge and is completely pants-optional!
I don’t really know how Hangzhou can beat that, do you?
But I figured I’d give it a try anyway — even if it meant leaving my beloved sofa for a few days.
So was Hangzhou everything it’s cracked up to be?
How about if I let you decide?
1. My hotelI booked my hotel kind of at the last minute as I decided to take my trip kind of at the last minute. Seeing as Hangzhou is a popular tourist destination, especially during the summer, there weren’t a lot of options still available to me.
Okay, so, sure, I could have booked a bed in one of the many hostels with shared dormitories, but I don’t usually equate “heaven on Earth” with “sleeping in a room full of thirteen strangers – half of whom are in a state of inappropriate drunkenness or half-nakedness.”
And, really, for any place to qualify as an “Earthly paradise” in my book, it has to come with its own en suite bathroom. That’s just how things are in my version of heaven.
The only place that I could find that was reasonably priced and had a single room still available was something called an “Artistic Inn.” The pictures on the booking site where I reserved the room made it look rather quaint and charming – kind of like a bed and breakfast without the breakfast. (Oh, Asia, I love you. But unless all your hotels realize how important it is for me to have coffee and pancakes in the morning, I really don’t know how much longer our relationship can last.)
When I first arrived at the hotel, I have to say I was quite charmed. The hotel’s café was sun-filled and full of Chinese families happily eating lunch. The walls were decorated with huge paintings and collections of kitschy knick-knacks.
A Dalmation was lying by the check-in counter soaking up the sun and looking like he’d just popped out of a Disney movie.
I had arrived early so my room wasn’t ready, but the staff was very friendly and told me they had upgraded me to a better, more expensive room for free. I was like, “Okay, sure, I guess that’s just how they roll in the promised land!”
When I eventually did check in to my room a few hours later, I discovered that it was a tiny, dark, windowless affair that reeked of mildew.
The bathroom’s ceiling was so low, that it was physically impossible for me to stand up while looking in the mirror.
The walls of my room were decorated with creepy cartoon bunnies, whose blank stares were a clear indicator to me that they were zombies.
If this was an upgraded room, what had they upgraded me from?
The dungeon cage in the basement?
2. The SkyWhen I was a kid, my brothers and sisters and I would play this game we called “Orphanage.” The premise of the game was simple: we would pretend we were orphans who had just escaped from this horrible, evil orphanage where we’d been kept captive our entire lives.
(Please don’t take this as any reflection on my parents. They are lovely people. Really. It’s just that they wouldn’t let us watch much television when we were kids, and they were always telling us to go outside to play. We had to learn how to entertain ourselves. I guess that’s just what happens when you don’t let your kids watch Dukes of Hazzard like all the other kids at school – they pretend they’re escaped orphan slaves. And then they blog about it twenty-some years later. Let that just be a lesson to all you anti-television parents out there.)
The best part of the game was pretending that we didn’t know what anything was since we’d never been outside of the orphanage. We’d walk around pointing at things like trees and go, “I wonder what that thing is over there. That thing with the green stuff on top.”
As you can imagine this provided us with hours of entertainment. Hours, I tell you.
I was reminded of this game while I was in Hangzhou. I’d be walking along and think, “Wow, what’s that thing up there? You know, that blue thing with the puffy white things in it?”
Oh, that’s the sky.
It took me a while to remember that this is what the sky usually looks like in many parts of the world.
As opposed to what the sky usually looks like in my part of the world, which is this:
3. The place namesHangzhou is positively packed with beautiful gardens, temples, museums and other attractions, many of them lining the shores of the picturesque West Lake.
The tourist brochure that I picked up lists thirty must-see destinations including the “Top Ten Scenes of West Lake,” the “New Top Ten Scenes of West Lake” and “The Third Appraisal of Top Ten Scenes of West Lake.”
I visited a handful of these places, and they were all very nice.
But, I have to say, my biggest enjoyment in Hangzhou came from reading the names of the attractions in the brochure or on the street signs. Just to give you a few, there were the “Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake,” “Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge,” “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon,” “Twin Peaks Piercing the Cloud,” and “Sweet Osmanthus Rain at Manjuelong Village.”
I can see why the people in Hangzhou would be so happy, can’t you? I mean, if I lived next to some place called “Precious Stone Hill Floating in the Rosy Cloud” I’d be pretty happy, too.
4. The street foodThe brochure that I picked up also listed a number of what they called “delicacy streets.” I didn’t know what a “delicacy street” was, but judging from the pictures in the brochure, that was where you could buy lots of meat-on-a-stick. And, as it just so happens, meat-on-a-stick is one of my key requirements for being happy. It’s like the city planners of Hangzhou thought of everything!
It didn’t take me too long before I was hightailing it to South Zhongshan Road, one of the most popular and largest “delicacy streets” in town. Sure enough, the first thing I was greeted by was the sight of many vendors selling grilled meat-on-a-stick.
I moseyed up to one vendor where I ordered a couple skewers of grilled lamb and a beer (which turned out to be an entire pitcher of beer – because that’s just the way beer is served in paradise, I guess).
As I sat down on the plastic stool behind my stall of choice, one of the guys working at the stall sat down across from me. He launched into an animated conversation in Chinese that I didn’t understand, while I worked on my skewers of meat and pitcher of beer. I would occasionally nod happily and think to myself how wonderfully friendly the people in Hangzhou were.
Then as I was finishing off the last skewer, the man, realizing that I hadn’t understood a word of what he had been saying to me, resorted to sign language. He pointed at me, then pointed at himself, then made the gesture for sleep, then pointed off into the distance. It slowly dawned on me what this man had been going on about this whole time.
He wasn’t making friendly conversation, after all.
He’d been propositioning me.
Because apparently only hookers eat meat-on-a-stick. And drink pitchers of beer.
Well, this was not exactly the kind of treatment I’d been expecting… you know, in heaven.
Figuring I shouldn’t stick around to finish off the rest of of my beer, I hastily paid my bill and scurried off in the direction of more food stalls.
Shortly afterwards, I came across a stall selling what I’m pretty sure are the best dumplings in all of China. These things were amazing.
And they almost made up for the whole being mistaken for a prostitute thing.
5. This StarbucksOkay, go ahead and judge me all you want, but sometimes a girl just needs a triple, grande iced soy latte – especially after that girl just hiked five miles around a lake in million-degree heat.
Besides, you have to admit, this place looks totally classy, right? I mean, if there are Starbucks in the afterlife (which I certainly hope there are), I’m pretty sure they look like this.
I discovered this Starbucks nestled next to the “Breeze Ruffled Lotus at Quyuan Garden.” (Yes, that is it’s official name. I told you that’s how they name stuff in paradise, okay?) I was exhausted and dehydrated and seriously ready to hurt one of the thousands of tourists that were around me. But then I spotted the green and white sign. I thought it might be a mirage. And when I opened the door to the air-conditioned café, I was pretty sure I could hear angels singing. Or maybe that was just the barista. Whatever. It was a heavenly experience.
And while you’re judging me, I’ll just tell you now that I did go into a McDonald’s while I was in Hangzhou and it looked like this:
Yep, this is where you eat your Big Macs in kingdom come, people.
6. The Lingyin Temple and Peak Flying From AfarLingyin Temple, which is Hangzhou’s most famous temple. It was, of course, very hot out, and the temple, itself, was packed with tons of tourists. But it smelled amazing and very holy-like because everyone was waving around big, thick sticks of incense while they prayed.
I was having a good time walking around, taking lots of pictures and checking out the cool crumbly Buddha statues that dot the side of the nearby mountain, which is poetically called “Peak Flying From Afar.”
Then I made the mistake of climbing up the mountain.
Why did I climb up a muddy mountain in a million degree heat?
Well, wouldn’t you climb up a mountain called “Peak Flying From Afar”?
Besides, a whole bunch of other people were climbing up there, so I was pretty sure there must be some really cool stuff on the top of the mountain which would make the climb totally worth it.
Are you ready for all the cool stuff I saw up there?
Well, there was a vendor selling beverages and prayer beads.
And there was this rock.
Let’s just say I was not the happiest person in Hangzhou at that moment.
After I came down from the mountain, I decided I’d had enough. After three days of tromping through parks, visiting lots of temples, running away from propositioning meat salesmen and hiking up muddy mountains, I was ready to go home. I cut my trip short by a day and left the following morning.
Don’t get me wrong, Hangzhou had been really nice.
But I was ready to return to my couch.
Or, as I am now calling it, “The Precious Lingering at the Pants-optional Loveseat.”