Hangzhou Memories

It was summer and the humidity hung in droopy browning sheets above the city. We emerged from the cool chrysalis of the Youth Hostel, ducking under the little wooden archway that divided the green oasis-like yard from the city outside.

We were looking for some lunch. We often had different instincts in this regard. Having been in China for six months already, I tended to prefer local fare where my companion was not used to spicy food.

On this day, we turned right, instead of left out of the small alley the entrance to the Youth Hostel was hidden in. The road still followed the general curve of the lake’s edge although the lake itself was totally hidden from view by buildings and parkland. Not far along we came to a short alley which turned out to be the back entrance to a restaurant. The restaurant’s bins sat neatly against a wall and only a few small black plastic bags strayed on the ground. But the asphalt was suspiciously damp and an odour of rotting fish and vegetable matter assailed our nostrils. The fumes instantly drew our hands to our faces and we walked on quickly trying not to breathe too much.

As we walked, I told my friend about a trip I had taken with the other foreign teachers at my place of work. Some of the toilets we had come across had truly tested our delicate constitutions. I remember one of the Japanese teachers coming back from a public toilet in a small clearing on a mountain road. She looked distinctly green. I had always had a phobia of public toilets – even in Australia. But on this trip I found myself squatting over a trough in a cubicle with no door and just dealing with it – the infamous “ni hao” toilets. I can’t claim to have enjoyed the experience but it taught me that as long as you can come out and laugh about it with friends, it’s all just part of the cultural learning curve.

Further along the road, we found a little stall that sold dumplings which we both loved – especially the jiaozi – little pastry crescents with a frilled edge and either fried or steamed. You pick up the neat parcel with your chopsticks and dip it in soy sauce and then risk the steaming-hot interior and take a bite. Meat and herbs with that mysteriously flavoursome clear juice that the Chinese magic up so beautifully. Simply amazing. In Australia you pay $10 for a small take-away pot of these morsels. In China, they were so cheap. In retrospect I can’t help thinking that I should have pigged out more than I did.

We sat outside on the pavement under an awning. The tables were round and white with squat little four-legged plastic stools around them in marbled green. When I sat, my knees were almost on a level with my shoulders. But it proved a useful angle for hovering over bowl and sauce. On the road, many motor scooters zipped by but relatively few cars. The lady making the jiao zi eyed us curiously, as her fingers busily rolled and stuffed, but she made no comment. In the city where I was working, foreigners were far less common and she would’ve likely been astonished that we could order in Chinese, let alone that we were there in the first place.

While we ate, I was still talking. On the same trip with my work colleagues, we had stopped for lunch in a tiny noodle house in a mountain village. My memory is that the whole village was no more than about twenty or thirty buildings. The road dipped down and wound through almost like it was a dell in between steep mountain passes. It was in Sichuan Province – famous for its spicy food. Knowing this, most of us ordered our noodles “bu la” meaning “not spicy” please. But the French teacher decided to take a risk. He requested “yi dian la” (a little bit spicy). We couldn’t help laughing as he took his first mouthfuls. His eyes widened perceptibly and soon he was coughing and asking for more drinks. And although the rest of us had been so conservative in our orders, we all felt we had the breath of dragons.

My friend and I finished our jiao zi lunch and headed back, past the stinky alley, past the Youth Hostel and to the lake shore where we were meeting a friend to catch a boat to the island in the lake which contained a lake within the island.

13 thoughts on “Hangzhou Memories

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip you had there, Despite the stench and the toilet issue. I would have been in trouble with the latter, I cant pee if I can bee seen or hear people close by! Now I know not to go to china – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh if you stick to the cities you will be fine. And actually, that was fifteen years ago. China changed rapidly in the seven years between my first and last trips there. So please don’t rule it out. But do carry toilet paper with you when traveling around. Assuming this aspect hasn’t changed… often public toilets aren’t well stocked – even in airports. China is an amazing place. I would hate for this brief post (that had to contain the word “fumes”) to put anyone off going to such a place. The people are lovely, the food is amazing, the country is spectacular and the rate of change (not my favourite thing) is incredible. We watched a building grow two storeys in just a couple of days on a trip to Chengdu in 2009.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have maybe 5 published books. I did 4 myself. They’re all only on amazon KDP though and I’ve sold 22 books total. Not a success. The Jinn is first I’m really proud off but with no money to promote it wont sell anyway. My big writing failing is the 28 series books I wrote and will never publish.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Don’t be so hard on yourself. I did a writing degree and have zero to show for it. At least you’re putting yourself out there. This blog is the first real attempt at regular writing I have made in 20+ years. I let paid work sap my energy because it’s the bills that set priorities. But paid work got me nowhere financially. Can you publish books online for like $2? I have heard of that sort of thing. Tiny price but huge readership options. I think that’s how music is often sold these days too. I don’t know. I haven’t tried.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks, You can ‘publish’ on KDP for nothing but it’ll be invisible on amazon. If you want a good visible book out there its expensive. You need to pay hundreds for editors, cover designers and illustrators if you need them. You must pay more for book designers to set it out properly and format it correctly. You must pay more to have it somewhere where shops can find and buy it to sell.

        S0 you need about £1200 a book to make it ready to sell. Then you need maybe £2000 a book if not more to pay amazon to make it visible and to promote it Without that you never sell anything.

        So, you see I need about £50k to get my series out. I’ll never have it so it’ll never be read. Not to mention after what happened when I tried with it I’ll never trust editors and publishers again anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How wonderful ! I had a chance to teach in China but one thing led to another — children — and we never did. I know Peter Hessler did something similar to you and writes many wonderful articles for the New Yorker about his experiences. I don’t know whether you’d like China now: it comes across as a rather sinister place

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