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Saturday, 01 May 2021

Hangzhou & Shanghai, China

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Part 3 of Fortunate Cookies: A Father-Daughter Adventure in China

 

Hanging Out in Hangzhou

 

When Marco Polo wrote about his visit to Hangzhou in the 1400’s, he described it as “the city of heaven” and “beyond dispute the finest and noblest in the world.” With its lush gardens, peaceful West Lake, and arguably the best tea in the world, it’s easy to understand why. About seven million residents call Hangzhou home today, and it remains a serene heaven on earth.

 

After a filling dinner in the private room of a local restaurant, we went to our hotel and saw a beautiful lake and garden from our hotel’s room. The Crown Plaza Hangzhou Xanadu Resort is a destination in itself. In the lobby, a magnificent stone (with a multitude of landscape and seascape scenes carved into it) centered the room and drew our attention. It must have been nine feet tall, and every inch of it depicted an intricate scene, the images winding back and forth from top to bottom.

 

We went outside for an evening stroll and saw the garden lit up at night. After a short walk, taking in the fresh, cool lakeside air, we returned to our rooms for some sleep. The peaceful sounds of nature drifted in from our open window and put us into serene slumber.

 

 

All lakes, big and small

After breakfast, we took in the beautiful lake and garden by the light of the sunrise through morning mist. Locals come to this lakeside resort for vacation the way westerners might go to a beach resort. We could see mansions on the other side of the lake, beyond an ornate bridge. A pagoda hovered in the background. The landscape—with misty mountains, the lake, willow trees, boulders, streams and waterfalls—was beautiful. As it turns out, this, the West Lake area, is the second most popular tourist destination for the Chinese people, Beijing being number one.

 

We met up with our guide and went toward the old city center for a tour of Hangzhou’s most famous attraction: West Lake. The man-made lake is about nine miles in circumference and features three bridges across the lake and islands. The most visited of these is the Su Causeway, built by the poet Su Dongpo in the late 1000’s. The lake itself has been the inspiration for art and literature going back more than 2,000 years.

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During our own stroll around parts of West Lake, through the gardens, and across the lake by boat, we took in the breeze and tranquility and sights. We spotted the City God Temple, the Six Harmonies Pagoda, and a home located on an island that is privately owned.

 

It was easy to see why this place has been so inspiring to poets and artists. Like these words by the poet Ouyang Xiu (1007 to 1072):

 

The lovely Spring breeze has come

Back to the Lake of the West

The Spring waters are so clear and

Green they might be freshly painted.

The clouds of perfume are sweeter

Than can be imagined. In the

Gentle East wind the petals

Fall like grains of rice.

 

We recognized the three little pagodas in the water, as depicted on the One Yuan banknotes in our pockets. Right in the water of the lake, the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon is a scenic spot with three miniature stone pagodas, about 2 meters high, that are like beacons. The stone pillars in the water were built about 800 years ago. At the mid-autumn festival, candles are lit in these pagodas, casting reflections on the water as the moon shines down.

 

After enjoying the West Lake, we strolled through the surrounding area, taking in the refreshing gardens and accompanying statuary. Our next destination: another sort of refreshment.

 


Emperor’s Dragon

China is renowned for its production (and consumption) of high-quality green tea. As we left Hangzhou’s West Lake and drove about twenty minutes into the mountains, we were about to discover the best tea in the country: Longjing Tea, or “Dragon Well Tea.”

 

The hillsides of the Longjing region were covered in green tea bushes, and within the rows we could make out the pointed yellow hats first, then the people under them. We saw hundreds of men and women in traditional straw hats, wide brimmed and pointed at the top, in the fields with their bags, picking the tea leaves. Attired in what looked, from a distance, almost like formal kimonos, a small army picked tea in the fields. Going from West Lake and the surrounding gardens into this mountainous area, we’d just driven from one paradise to another. We’d entered China’s “capital of tea.” Then we got a closer look by entering the rows of tea bushes and picking some for ourselves.

 

Longjing or “dragon well” green tea is the most exclusive in China—and perhaps the most exclusive green tea in the world. The workers on the tea plantation only pick the smallest, most tender top two leaves on each section. Longjing tea used to be harvested and produced solely for the Emperor himself. During Imperial China, nobody enjoyed the exclusive Longjing tea except the Emperor and his elite guests.

 

We just happened to be here in late March, during the annual tea harvest—one of the area’s most anticipated events and a must-experience for tea drinkers. It was the perfect time to visit, the tea leaves ripe for the picking—and at their freshest and tastiest. Right off the bush, the leaves tasted sweet and succulent.

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After we picked and tasted some of the freshly picked tea leaves, we went to an area of large metal woks and saw how the tea leaves were lightly roasted—immediately after picking, so the green leaves wouldn’t oxidize or ferment. We tasted them again; after roasting, the leaves were slightly crunchy and tasted something like a delicate sunflower seed. We watched the tea leaves go from bush to bag to wok, then we went into a ceremonial tearoom for a taste of tea as it is intended.

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In our tearoom at the Longjing Tea Plantation, we came to know why Longjing is considered by many to be the best green tea in the world. A green tea professional (a women with a PhD in tea) lectured us about the Dragon Well Tea as we drank. She suggested drinking eight to twenty cups of green tea each day not only for taste, but for health purposes. Good green works as a natural detox, helps with weight control, and is good for general health. (Not to mention how healthy such prescriptions are for the local tea economy.) The tea was so fragrant and tasty that, after making several cups with the same leaves, we could eat the wet tea leaves and they tasted great. This green sold itself.

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After our tea experience, we went to a local market and restaurant that served the plantation workers and community and ate lunch. As usual, many dishes shared on a lazy Susan. Chinese beer was served, but in this location, everyone opted for the freshly picked and roasted Imperial green tea. And with good reason.

 

With an earthy, sweet fragrance and taste, we agreed that the fresh Longjing “dragon well” tea was the best tea we’d tasted . . . even if perhaps elevated by our unique experience.

 

Between the West Lake, the surrounding gardens, and the tea plantation harvest and ceremony, it’s safe to say that Hangzhou left a pleasing taste in our mouths.

 


 

Bazar Shanghai Bazaar

Twilight greeted us as we approached the dense city, but Shanghai was already lit up before us. We didn’t waste time checking into our hotel yet—we went right into the sights and sounds and smells of the city.

 

The sheer density of Shanghai sort of hits you in the face as you drive into it. Some say the city is literally sinking under the weight of it’s own development—physically and financially. It is also said that half of the cranes working in the world are in China—and most of them are right here in Shanghai. At night, when the sky is dark and the spectacular buildings are lit, you don’t notice the cranes. You see the one of the greatest and most diverse living architectural museums in the world. Sure, it may get old on the daily grind, but getting caught in a traffic jam here can be a joy, and can give you time to examine just how many different and unique skyscrapers and buildings exist in one city.

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Our first stop in Shanghai: the Yu Gardens and Bazaar. The hustle and bustle of this old-style street market can be overwhelming, where stores and vendors peddle everything from medicine to jewelry. Street performers did acrobatics and played music on traditional instruments. The City God Temple within the labyrinth of commerce dates back to the Ming dynasty and featured large statues, incense burning before them.

 

At the center of the Yu area is the charming Huxinting Teahouse, dating back to 1784. We crossed the bridge of nine zigzags over the water to get to the iconic palace of tea. After enjoying a cup of tea in the tea room, we decided to purchase a canister as a gift. We perused the selection, and what did we decide on?

 

Look! They have Longjing Dragon Well Tea!”

 

Inspired by the earlier visit to the plantation, we bought another canister here from Huxingting Teahouse before zigzagging across the opposite bridge back to the market streets.

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The gardens that make up a good portion of the Yu area were beautiful, but paled in comparison to the gardens we’d enjoyed in Hangzhou and Suzhou. Aside from the huge rockery (one of the largest) it felt a little like we were perusing a flea market after shopping at a Macy’s.

 

Shopkeepers yelled out into the streets about their sales and best prices. More street performers were spinning plates and doing acrobatics. Store agents, looking suspiciously like beggars, shadowed us and other foreigners, offering us whatever our hearts desired: “Do you want pearls? Jade? Shoes? Clothes? Diamonds? I take you. Best deal.”

 

We enjoyed a tea ceremony at one of the state-run pearl shops at Yu Market. There we found many displays of freshwater pearls much like the ones we viewed in Beijing. We found a pair of the “mutant” pearls, a unique necklace that featured pearls that had mutated together into larger, irregular clumps.

 

I’ll bet Mom would love this.”

 

I’ll bet she would.”

 

It looked very much like the one in the museum display case at the state show we’d visited in Beijing. That one, priced in the thousands, was fifty percent off. This one was a fraction of the price—being a place that sells to locals as well as tourists. Still a state-run shop, the prices were lower here, but the quality appeared to be just as high. After some negotiation, we walked out with the unique necklace—and some matching earrings and a bracelet to boot.

 

Perhaps more chaotic than touristy, the most interesting part of the bazaar itself was the “underground” one. Our guide gave the password at a big, black, iron gate, and it screeched open to admit us into Shanghai’s “black market.” There, you could find everything from Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Polo to Ray Ban and Rolex and Mont Blanc.

 

It was explained to us more than once on the trip, by guides and hosts, that it is not recommended to buy knock offs on the street, but that when you go to the right place, Chinese experts can make copies that surpass the originals in quality. Knock offs that are better than what they’re knocking off. It was an interesting concept, and a tempting one to buy into, if somewhat self-serving since our guides were showing us the best places to buy. When it came time for some members of our party to pay for their goods, our group was escorted to another shop to pay and then back to the black market to take the goods. Money did transfer directly from the seller to the buyer. A donation in one store, a gift in another. A profitable coincidence.

 

When we finished exploring the infamous black market, we went back through the sea of street venders to the bus and headed through the night’s lit-up architecture.


 

The Bund and Pudong

Our driver took us to the most iconic night scene that Shanghai has to offer. At the river’s edge, in the area known as the Bund, we could see the older buildings from the European colonial era on one side, and the modern marvels on the futuristic side known as the Pudong. The Pudong looked like something out of a science fiction movie.

 

The Bund dates back to the mid 1800s, when the British colonized the area. Towering along the river are stately buildings that seem to stand as symbols of Westernization. Among them are the Customs House, Palace Hotel, Bank of China, and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, once considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Asia.

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Turn around, and the sights on the other side of the river paint an entirely different picture: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with it’s space-aged spheres, Shanghai World Financial Center, Jinmao Tower, and the recently completed Shanghai Tower. We would return by day, but this was certainly something that needed to be viewed at night.

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Exhausted by the sights and sensations of the day, we finally arrived late at night to our hotel, the Crowne Plaza Shanghai, and hit our beds.

 

 

Shanghai Sights in the Fast Lane

We began our first full day in Shanghai with a breakfast fit for an Emperor—eastern and western foods providing both comfort food and the exotic we can’t find back home.

 

Our first destination of the day was Shanghai’s Maglev. The Maglev, or magnetically levitated train, is the only train in the world that levitates and has no wheels at all. During our short excursion, the Maglev took us to speeds as high as 431 kilometers per hour! That’s almost 240 miles per hour! The scenery outside our window sped by fast, but the ride was even smoother than the average commuter train. Except for when the other Maglev came passing us from the other direction. Even when we counted down, knowing exactly when it was going to happen, the swift pass made everyone on the train jump!

 

From Fastest to Tallest

After taking the fastest ground transportation in the world, we went to the top of the JinMao Tower for a 360-degree panoramic view of Shanghai’s cityscape. We were on the 88th floor, and it was exhilarating to view Shanghai from above. And to see, up close, the construction of what later became the second tallest building in the world. Shanghai Tower was still under construction, so we could see parts of the twisted building complete and others still open to the elements, not covered by glass. With 121 stories, it stands over 2,000 feet tall.

 

Jade, Gold, Wood

Grounded after some time in Shanghai’s skyscrapers, we visited the Jade Buddha Temple to see, hear, smell, and experience the services. It happened to be an ancestral holiday, so it was quite busy and loud—making it a more exciting visit than the usual tour.

 

The two Jade Buddha statues in question were brought to China from Burma in the 1800’s. The temple was originally built in 1882 to house the statues, but a fire in 1918 damaged the house. Now, three main halls are connected by two courts, and we were able to see a number of interesting statues, including golden ones, wooden ones that were painted a multitude of colors, and the two original statues of jade: one of a large reclining Buddha and the other a jewel-encrusted seated Buddha that was carved out of a single piece of jade.

 

Outside, many visitors and monks were burning offerings, singing, and dancing around the center temple. It provided great background music for our visit, and our exit.

 

Park to the People

Our next stop: the People’s Park and People’s Square. At the center of Shanghai, and a popular meeting place, the People’s Park and Square offered a vast area for strolling—sort of a smaller version of Central Park in New York or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Some of the features of the park we got to see include the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai Art Museum, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (which shows a vision of the city as it should look in the near future—as though the current view wasn’t futuristic enough).

 

The highlight of our visit to the People’s Park was the Shanghai Museum. Shaped like a Shang-dynasty bronze ding pot, the museum includes more than 120,000 items dating as far back as 5,000 years. We enjoyed the ancient Chinese landscape and calligraphy paintings, jade sculptures, pottery figures, ceramics, coins, bronzes, and more. It was an interesting museum and had three floors full of art and antiquity.

 


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Where’s the Soup?

For lunch, we enjoyed a sort of Chinese fast food, highly recommended by our guide: Yang’s Dumplings. These “soup dumplings” were fried with soup inside the dumplings. Piping hot, they were tasty, but very sticky from the dough.

 

Our guide laughed as we tried to eat. “You have to take a small bite from the top to open it, then slurp the soup out before you eat the dumpling!” We did as instructed, and the soup dumplings were delicious.

 

Fortified by Yang’s Dumplings, as well as some sweets from the mall-like arcade, we went to the French Concession to explore the twisted side streets of old Shanghai.

 

Crowded with tourists and foreigners, it probably wasn’t much unlike China of 100 years ago, still filled with westerners looking for drinks, food, fun, and exotic goods. Yang’s Dumplings, being a modern chain, was not to be found in this traditional neighborhood. However, there were plenty of cafes and restaurants that sold soup, along with everything from duck to dumplings, ice cream to ice-cold beer. It’s easy to see how people get lost in these twisted side streets. I imagined the opening scenes of an Indiana Jones movie.

 

When we passed the location of Shanghai’s World Expo, our guide, somewhat in jest but seemingly serious, told us that even though most World Expos are intended for the nations of the world to showcase new technologies and innovations, when it was held in Shanghai, no countries wanted to bring their latest and greatest for fear that China would duplicate knock-offs overnight. Most displays at the Shanghai World Expo were focused on nature and tourism, not new innovations. A World Expo like no other.

 

 

Cirque de China

We spent our evening at the theater watching Chinese acrobatics and stunts. We went to see the ERA Intersection of Time show. We wouldn’t go as far as to say “miss it and you miss shanghai,” as their marketing copy claims, but it was certainly a worthwhile show with intense moments and dangerous stunts. In addition to illusions and impressive lighting tricks, the show featured jar juggling from the Han Dynasty, human sculptures and contortionists, hoop diving, performers climbing and soaring through the air on silk ribbons, even eight motorcycles racing inside one “ball of death” at the same time! It provided a flashy Shanghai end to a flashy Shanghai day.

 

After the show, we went back to the hotel to rest. Our adventures in China were coming to an end, and although we’d seen and experience so much, we felt as though we had so much more to do and see. It would take a troupe of Chinese acrobats to cover all the ground we wanted to cover in two weeks. We were tempted to dart out into the dense city of Shanghai. But being a daughter and father—a teen and a forty-something—we decided to brew a pot of green tea and talk about all we’d seen and experienced in China so far as we prepared for the coming day. As we sipped and talked, we spent some time repacking so we wouldn’t have to worry about it on our last day. After a long and exiting day, we went to sleep, ready for out final day exploring China.

 

 

Beijing Bookends

During our last drive through Shanghai, on the way to the airport, we took in the futuristic scenery and the historic architecture one last time.

 

The first leg of our long journey home would take us from Shanghai to Beijing, with one last overnight in the capitol city. Beijing ended up being the bookends to our China experience in more ways than one. We even stayed at the same hotel as our first night in China: the Four Points by Sheraton.

 

We decided to end our adventure the way we began it—with a trip to Tiananmen Square.

 

The last time we visited, it was bright and sunny, even a little hot. Now, the square was lit up and very pretty at night. We walked around the whole square and down some streets. Guards stood at attention in spots around the square, riot gear ceremoniously placed within reach at their feet. Although the Forbidden City was closed for the night, we could still see its beautiful buildings from the outside wall, where Mao looked down us in the night. We spent an hour or so walking around the world’s largest public square. Then, it was time to return home.

 

We had more trouble finding a taxi home, asking driver after driver and receiving only refusals. But we finally found one for double the usual price. Sometimes, even a short experience like a final look at Beijing at night is worth double the usual price. We arrived back home around midnight, ending our China tour where we began. Beijing bookends.

 

 

Experiences and Imaginations

We had an early flight out of China, waking at 5 a.m. to make it. Too early to take advantage of the bountiful buffet breakfast we’d become accustomed to, we instead were treated to a bagged breakfast (egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, boiled eggs, apples, pastries, and bread). Early wake up, brown-bag meals in hand—it was feeling more like home with every passing detail. Once we boarded our plane we had a long time on it: fourteen hours. We spent that time reminiscing about our experiences, looking at books and magazines about the places we’d seen, watching Chinese movies and listening to Chinese folk music, extracting every bit of the Chinese experience before it subsided with our arrival in America.

 

 

China was all we anticipated and more. The best, well-planned trips to new places end with a completely different understanding of the place you thought you’d already learned about, and that’s a good thing.

 

That’s the evolution of going from a place imagined to a place experienced: what we plan for the world transformed into what the world plans for us.

 

We’re like the farmers who discovered the terracotta army while digging a well—one of whom we met. We looked at the calligraphy-brush autographed book we purchased about that amazing find, the farmers in awe of a discovery so enormous, they didn’t quite understand it. Likewise, our two weeks in China revealed much, but we know we have only scratched the surface of what awaits future exploration.

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©Eric D. Goodman with help from Nicole Goodman

 

 

Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, son, daughter, and Weimaraner. He is author of the new literary thriller, The Color of Jadeite, set in China. His other books include Setting the Family Free, Womb: a novel in utero, Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. More than a hundred of his works of short fiction, travel stories, and articles about writing have been published in literary journals, magazines, and periodicals. When he’s not writing, Eric loves traveling, and most of the settings in his most recent novel, The Color of Jadeite, are places he has visited. Founder and curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit and Art Reading Series, Eric can be found at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman, www.Twitter.com/Edgewrite, and www.EricDGoodman.com.

 

Nicole Goodman, daughter of the author, helped with the notetaking and daily journaling for this travel story. Sixteen at the time of the travels, she is now a graduate of Towson University’s Honors College and enrolled in Towson’s graduate program for school psychology.

 

 

Last modified on Saturday, 01 May 2021