By Jennifer Cleaver
Hangzhou (population 8,700,000) is described by Chinahighlights.com as “a large and relatively wealthy port city on the Yangtze River near the sea. It has long been an imperial capital or a provincial capital”. Arriving by train into complex station, no English was spoken or written. It later became apparent that although I could produce my final destination in the local written language to the driver this did not necessarily mean they could read it, or read at all. This was a recurring problem for a non-Chinese speaker trying to communicate without any understanding of a non-phonetic language. Nothing seemed to work unless you befriend a local to translate for you, and they are not always easy to find.
I visited Hangzhou as an escape from the big city and to enjoy the” tranquillity” of the west lake, to hire a bike and breath in the fresh air ….easier said than done. Hangzhou encouragingly does have the largest “Boris bike” system in the world with over 2700 bike stations across the city. I hired a bike for 8 hours and it cost me no more than £2.50. It was definitely a great, cheap and independent way to travel, yet having been a pedestrian and a passenger in the Chinese traffic system this still did not fully prepare me for running the gauntlet and surviving the death run of being a cyclist. I’m no stranger to assertive cycling but this experience increased my levels of alertness and simultaneously decreased my lifespan.
The tranquil bike ride across traffic free causeways offered a new challenge, whilst there may have been no cars there were hoards of people. All of them glued to their smart phones, completely unaware of their surroundings and none of them looking upwards or forwards. Others walking, running, cycling, meandering, getting on and off boat trips, or stopping suddenly to take photos or visit a street vendor. In addition, there are the tourist buses that shout over a megaphone that they are approaching yet still will not stop and you could become collateral damage if you don’t move to the side, even if that means you plough into a group of elderly local tourists eating deep fried chicken feet snacks. Hangzhou made me think of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Nothing is as it seems, the delicate bird song is actually piped music with speakers hidden in fake bird nests, the vines creeping up the trees are the electric cables, the hills are purpose built, the foliage is manufactured. It is a fake place, not just in Tony Hilfiger and Louise Vuitton clothing and handbags but in the Disney style world it’s designed. Having said that I liked it, even after I realized it wasn’t real, it was nicer to have than not to have.