A bit of a washout

lingyana

We left for Hangzhou by train one morning at 10. The trip to Hangzhou takes around 70 minutes from Shanghai Hongqiao Station. At the station we hopped on to the Y2 bus and reached the Lingyan temple in about half an hour. We couldn’t possibly miss this, since it is on the flanks of the Feilai mountain, which is supposed to have flown in from India!

You need two separate tickets to visit the temple. One ticket for the mountain (no discounts even for Indian passport holders) and another for the reconstructed temple. We thought it was worth the money. The mountain side is full of birds; there were several species we had never seen before. Unfortunately we were not equipped for birdwatching; we had neither field guides, nor binoculars. The sky was heavily overcast, and every now and then a fat drop of water would plop on to our noses or heads.

The Guardians of the Galaxy
The Guardians of the Galaxy

The temple was spectacular and full of people hedging their bets on the future. After visiting three spectacular halls with the Buddha-in-residence attended to by a host of scowling guardians, we needed a little respite. We had an al fresco lunch at a little temple cafe with a variety of nuts, dried fruits, and green tea. Refreshed, we climbed a little further to some more temples and a little temple museum. It was now well after noon, so we decided to go check into our hotel.

We took a taxi to our hotel. While checking in we discovered that the room we had booked was no longer available due to a mix up. The hotel gave us an upgrade to what they called a king room. Then while trying to pay for it I realized that I had left my phone in the taxi. The concierge immediately took my taxi receipt and called the company, which in turn traced the taxi, found my phone, and agreed to deliver it later in the day. Meanwhile we were shown to our room, which was spectacular: huge and comfortable, with a free minibar, a grand bath, a huge bed, and other luxuries which we thought we would not be able to use, given our tight schedule.

xihi

We dumped our bags and rushed off to Xihu (the West Lake). Our plan was to walk along the Sudi (Su causeway) all the way to the north, and then cross a small island and take the Baidi (Bai causeway) to the east. We had barely gone a hundred meters when a thunderstorm struck. In moments we were drenched. The only way out of the rain was to take a cruise. This took us to one of the smaller islands where we got even more drenched watching beautiful rock sculptures and lotus flowers in a rain-swept lake (see the photo above). We made our way back from this disastrous trip to our hotel, where we had dinner and enjoyed the room.

Hangzhou is pretty and friendly (I did get the phone back), has good cuisine, and probably makes a great holiday within a holiday. But for that you need a little luck. Ours was short this time around.

Deciding without knowing

Eventually it always comes down to this: you decide without sufficient knowledge. The Family and I have six days in China before my meetings start. What should we see?

Since my work is in Beijing, we will have many days and weekends to explore the region around the capital, so we can leave it out of the plan for the crucial six days. Xi’an is an easy weekend hop away from Beijing, so we can leave that out of our plan as well.

We pare away the exotic Gansu, with its silk route connections and the incredible landform of Zangye. Since it is not the core of China, as we imagine it, we will visit it on a future trip. The silk route used to terminate in the old capital city of Chang’an which is modern Xi’an (as I realize in a brief “duh” moment), so we will touch that bit of history.

We subject ourselves to the tyranny of maps and flight schedules. The south, Guangzhou, Guilin, and the Li river are also sacrificed. One day we will add this to a trip through Hong Kong, but that day is not today.

Mongolia and its sea of grass has been a dream destination for me. One day The Family and I will take a train to Ulan Bator and then drive out on a road trip without roads, into a landscape without trees. Are there birds in Mongolia? That dream allows us to let Inner Mongolia and other northern parts of China slip out of this trip.

Shanghai, Ma'anshan, Huangshan

We are left with Shanghai and Anhui province. I tell myself that city people like us can handle Shanghai in a couple of days (even though we have zero Putonghua), then spend a lazy couple of days walking around Xihu in Hangzhou and visiting tea gardens and still have a two days left over for other things.

The Family and I were keen on visiting Huangshan in May, the season of azaleas. Manon also recommended this in an earlier comment on a different post. I look at the details. It seems that the bus trip from Hangzhou to Tunxi would take three and a half hours, and then you would have to get to Huangshan: not too far away, but the hours start to mount. A cable car up and down, and the bus back would eat up the rest of the day. Is it worth the dash? Or should one spend the night on the mountain and watch the sunrise before coming down. The area also has a couple of reputedly beautiful villages (Xidi and Hongcun where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot), which we could try to squeeze in. The bus from Tunxi takes 1 hour to Xidi and another half hour to Hongcun. Perhaps Huangshan, Xidi/Hongcun can be done in a couple of days, but a large part of it will be on buses. We discussed this with one of my Chinese colleagues, The Prosperous, who said it could be complicated if you only speak English.

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
(Li Bai)

What else can one do in two days? Ma’anshan, where Li Bai died, is not so far from Shanghai. But it is in the middle of the mining area. Wikipedia says the town “is not as polluted as other major Chinese steelmaking cities”. But I’m not so sure that 14 centuries after Li Bai drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the the river, the Yangtze will be the quiet place he wrote about. We will give this a pass for now.

Other options are the villages of Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Wuzhen, Nanxun. The pictures we see and the descriptions we read are nice. Perhaps we don’t need to plan in greater detail.

Maybe we don’t need to plan in greater detail. We will touch Shanghai and Hangzhou, and do as much travelling around parts of Anhui and Jiangsu as seems possible.

Preparing the mind

The first thing I need to check about China is the exchange rate. These days using a quick conversion of INR 10 to RMB 1 is good. This resonates strangely well with the idea one hears now and then: that a new-rupee which is worth INR 10 would be useful (for example, new-rupee coins might become feasible).

Numbeo has a great idea; it puts together the current cost of lots of different things. Interestingly the cost of one kilo of rice is RMB 6.60. Basic mobile tariffs are RMB 0.50 for one minute of voice call. Rice, tomatoes, beer, apples (and yes, even oranges) are priced similar to India; mobile rates, bus tickets, wine and bottled water cost a little more. It seems that China is a little costlier than India. [But see Manon’s cautionary comment below].

Hard beds on chinese trains

How should one travel in China? Google knows all. It directs me to Beijing Travel‘s website, from which I find that one can fly from Beijing to Xian in 2 hours. The flights cost around RMB 750 in the early morning or evening, but climb to RMB 1000 or above during the day. The fast train takes about 5 hours and a 2nd class seat costs RMB 516. If we plan to get away to Xian on a weekend, then flying seems to be the better option. I should cross check this.

Manon has a wonderful blog post about the nitty-gritty of travel by train in China (it is good to know that you need to arrive early to check in your baggage). There are slow night trains, which seem to be roughly like Indian trains in speed. The interiors look like Indian trains as well. I do want to travel by train at least once. With my time constraints, it looks like I can only do the Shanghai-Hangzhou stretch by train. The web site of China train guide informs me that it takes about 2 hours by the slower K train and half as long by the G or D trains. The prices are about RMB 25 (K train), RMB 50 (D train) and RMB 75 (G train).

Beijing-Shanghai bullet train: 2nd class seats

Bejing to Shanghai by bullet train may take about 5 hours zuǒyòu (I’m proud of my first word in Chinese: it means approximately), and costs RMB 555 by 2nd class seater. The price gradation is steep: 1st class seaters on the same stretch cost RMB 933, and you need to pay RMB 1748 for “Business class”! Then there are sleeper trains which take 15 hours and cost RMB 150 zuǒyòu. The “hard sleeper” interiors look like Indian 3-tier coaches. The equivalent of Indian 2-tier coaches are called “soft sleeper”. I guess the names also have something to do with the padding. Beijing-Shanghai flights seem to be comparatively cheaper, ranging from RMB 350 to 800. Flying always seems to be an option.

The land of tea and oranges

I finally proposed, and the answer is yes. The Family loves the idea of a trip to China.

Now the slog begins. We will go to Beijing, so the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are definitely on. We can’t miss Shanghai, after all one of its landmarks is named in Hindi: the Bund. We must see Xian, with its terracotta warriors from the early days of unified China, and its Chinese muslim street food.

On a first trip to China we will probably not try to cram in Xinjiang and Tibet. In any case, Tibet may involve special diffficulties for an Indian. The trouble with pragmatism is that the dream of taking the Beijing-Lhasa train remains a dream.

The rest is hard to decide on. Should we see the limestone mountains and the cormorant fishing in the Li river? The West Lake near Hangzhou sounds really nice, and there seem to be interesting villages to visit nearby. Huangshan, the yellow mountain, sounds attractive; specially since azaleas will bloom there in May. The painted hills of Zangye look beautiful, and Gansu has the added attraction of being on the old Silk route.

How expensive is flying in China? How long do trains take? Can we do all of these? With no knowledge of any Chinese language or dialect and no ability to read the script, can we travel on our own? China has been added to the list of countries for which Indian visas can be obtained electronically, and stamped on arrival. Does that mean a Chinese visa is also simple to get?

Decisions! Decisions!