An day trip to charming Hangzhou
Hangzhou is one of the most famous Chinese cities, known for being sort of enchanting and very recently, the meeting point for the G20 summit. From ancient times the emperors used to spend the summers in this place, famous for its lakes, scenery, tea and subtle cuisine. For the G20 the host went all in with the preparations and made the already cozy city especially welcoming to the foreign dignitaries, while trying to give the locals a break (and plenty of incentive’s to take a holiday out of town).
For me, Hangzhou was one of those cities that can be easily traveled to from Shanghai in the fast train, paying a fee that could vary from 10-12 USD (around 60 to 76 rmb) but at the time I was so hung up on Shanghai’s charms that I never bothered to actually make the trek until a job offer paved the way. I found myself visiting the city at the end of April, sweating profusely while walking (in high heels) the sunny streets of Hangzhou to attend an interview.
My good friend and neighbor Nicholas (who is a local) gave me my first introduction to the city, and from arranging an affordable hotel (about 25 USD a night) that was utterly charming and close to the famous West Lake area, we also feasted in a restaurant around the lake and while we over ordered (we tend to do that), we were surprised to receive a bill that barely reached the total amount of 30 USD – Shanghai with its high prices made us realize that the prices in Hangzhou are what one usually expect when visiting China.
That very same night we walked around the lake and what I remember the most was the fright I got when walking in the dark and almost stumbling over the edge, all because there was no fence/protective barrier to prevent distracted tourist (like me) from falling into the water. I assume this has to do with having a clean line of sight for pictures, or possibly to prevent crowds sit down at the edge, thus blocking the view for the rest of the visitors (this fact may be one of the Hangzhou mysteries I haven’t uncovered yet). The next day we planned to leave the city after the interview and a nice meal, but the return to Shanghai turned out to be a sort of exodus that would train me for the following few months I did the commute from city to city.
A few weeks later I got the job that I interviewed for and started doing a commute from Shanghai to Hangzhou during the weekends (so I would still spend Friday night, Saturday and Sunday in Shanghai), but unfortunately the job was not the correct match and I left it after the probation period was done. Overall the experience with the company was a bit stressful but I didn’t want to leave feeling at odds with the city so I gave it a last glance before leaving, heading down again to the West Lake area.
It was on a Thursday afternoon and the weather was kind enough for picture taking and for leisure strolling (after the G20 most of the factories around the are restarted activities and the pollution has increased again to its previous levels). Expect to find a lot of families who will try to sneak pictures of you, of old Chinese couples that are very welcoming and will nod when you walk next to them, and a bunch of bugs emerging once the light starts to dim off. At 7 pm there’s a water and light show that will draw massive crowds (so expect your view to be blocked by tons of mobile phones and tables screens), but what made me come out from that experience with a wide smile in my face was the fact that Celine Dions “I am your lady” was the music to the dancing waters. After that I stopped by one of the famous restaurants called “Grandmas kitchen” and enjoying a whole chicken poached in tea, along with other local delicacies, I decided that the town is very charming indeed but mostly for a weekend trip.
Another recommended side tour is the 1000 islands that are nearby and where a tour guide/driver come in handy.
Travel tips to Hangzhou:
In my personal experience, trains are the most reliable way of getting to a place usually on time (airports in China aren’t very punctual). Here a simplified guide and tips:
There are two main train stations in Hangzhou: the one in the city center (that will be called “Hangzhou” or 杭州南站 in the apps/websites) that is older, smaller, but right in the center of the city. Trains from Shanghai to this station tend to be slower (over an hour) and less frequent. It has a metro station and two stops down you find yourself in the West Lake area (the metro ticket is about 2 rmb per ride). The ticket hall is outside the main area (to the right), and the ticket ladies maybe able to communicate in basic English). The taxi service here is easy enough, especially if you arrive in the middle of the week in the afternoon; on a Monday morning this is a different story.
The second station is the Hangzhou East Train Station (杭州火车东站), which is the newer, bigger, brighter and modern one. Trains from Shanghai Hongqiao are very frequent (at least because Hangzhou is on route to other destinations) so it’s possible to find trains leaving every 20 to 30 minutes. The usual travel time can go from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 10 minutes, depending on the trains. This station is also connected by metro to the rest of the city but it’s a longer trek. Taxis from this station to the West Lake would cost about 30 to 35 rmb or less, and the taxi queue is usually short and fast.
The Hangzhou Xiaoshan International airport is a on the smaller side but this assures that the flights are more on time than the big Shanghai airports. Also means that the international arrivals are somehow faster (because of the volume of passengers) to be processed. A taxi ride from the airport to downtown will cost about 100 to 120 rmb, including the airport parking fee (which is about 10 rmb).
- As a foreigner, you can’t use the machines at the train station to get your tickets (you need to scan your ID and passports aren’t part of those ID’s). You have to go to the windows and with your passport on hand get your tickets. Usually the ladies selling tickets will know the basics in English of: where to, how much, when, etc so communication is not a big problem here. Also beware that usually there will be a long queue to get the tickets, between foreigners and local Chinese that because of their ID’s aren’t able to get tickets at the automatic machines, so be ready to wait in line.
- Be also ready to see how some people will try to cut in line in front of you (or they will go directly to the window as if the long line didn’t exist). I have seen shouting and a bit of pulling (especially on the weekends) when people are tired and just want to leave— the local security comes right away to stop it but it happens.
- If you are planning to leave Hangzhou on a Friday, book your train tickets beforehand (buy them once you arrive, or via ctrip app and then pick them up at the train station); this will prevent what happened to us that first Friday when we could only get tickets on one of the later trains. Depending on the season, the tickets to Shanghai may get sold out by 5-6 pm.
- Most of the train stations will have the ticket office outside the main area, and once you enter the halls there will be security checking: they will ask for your ID and ticket, and your bags/stuff will have to go through Xrays. Again, prepare some time for this process. (At the Shanghai Hongqiao train station the ticket offices are inside the main hall, so you need to go through security first then the ticket booth, if you arrive by taxi. If you arrive by metro, get your tickets in the basement windows first then head up to the main hall).
Best websites/apps for traveling in China:
- Ctrip: visit the website or download the app to your phone. You can book plane and train tickets, as well as hotels. The hotel offer is quite extensive (and cheaper sometimes than other booking sites).