So, instead of pondering my first holiday season away from home, I'm going to write about this semester's holidays in China.
There is a saying in China (at least one of my students told me there is) that says "上有天堂，下有苏杭” meaning 'Up in the sky there is heaven, here on Earth we have Suzhou and Hangzhou." The beauty and landscapes found around the two small cities, both only a short trip outside Shanghai, have been objects of admiration by China's people for thousands of years. With Suzhou having gardens praised across the country and Hangzhou being home to one of the most famous lakes in China both were celebrated for centuries. So, for our first school holiday of the semester, Tom, Brandie and I decided to take a short trip to the latter.
Both Hangzhou and Suzhou and very near Shanghai, making the trip a surprisingly simple one compared to past excursions. With a train ride lasting barely an hour we were quickly swept from one bustling city to another. However, that was where we started to struggle. We had known going in that the city would be crowded even compared to Shanghai, home to more than 14 million people. However, even during the hunt for a cab we ran into problems. In general cabbies prefer not to pick up foreigners, simply to avoid the communication difficulties that often arise between locals and tourists who never learned any of the language. However it was rarely THIS difficult. Usually after striking up a conversation with the driver in Chinese about where we wanted ago we could reassure them and be off but for some reason this time, nobody seemed to want to take us to where our hostel was. All we knew was that it was outside the inner-city area, near the lake we had come to see. After an hour of waving like lunatics on the corner, trying to catch the attention of any passing taxi, we got one, crammed our duffels into the back and quickly found out why everyone seemed unwilling to take us to that part of town.
The traffic was insanity. We sat, squished in the back of the crowded car for nearly an hour in a half in stop and go traffic on the single lane road bordering the lake, tourists flooding the sidewalks and into the streets making traffic that much more hectic. Finally we made it to our hostel, after what felt like a torturously long time wondering if we had come to the city at the wrong time of the year. However, at the sight of the stuffy little international hostel our moods lifted.
Tom, Brandie and I do not travel stylishly. We often pack one set of clothes in small duffels for weekend trips (rather than cart around multiple outfit choices), choose the cheapest and often least comfortable form of travel, and stay in grungy youth hostels rather than nice hotels. The 4 Eyes Youth Hostel in Hangzhou was right up out alley, and at 30元 a night (about $5) how could we resist. Our room was something out of an heiress's nightmare. 5 bunks lining the walls separated by small stacked lockers in which we could put our belongings when we were out so that our 7 roommates couldn't have access to them. The bathroom was small, a shower with sink and toilet right in it and warranted the wearing of shower sandals whenever you went in.
After dumping our duffels into the rickety lockers we made our way out to explore the common area, which is what really appealed to us about the place. Our room opened directly into a patio-like courtyard outside, complete with turtle pond in the center. Plush couches covered in pillows filled a sunlit, window-lined bar area with filled with rickety wooden tables, a pool table, fooseball, pingpong, and plenty of novels to keep you occupied if a lazy day was what you were looking for. There was a massive projector screen that pulled down in the outside courtyard for nighttime movie viewings, free for those staying in the hostel and at least 10 bikes to rent for those who wanted to explore the surrounding parks and around the lake on wheels rather than foot. It was cozy, homey and the perfect place for us to spend a quiet, simple vacation outside the city.
And so we continued, knowing we had only an hour or two of light left in the day but unwilling to turn back to the Hostel quite yet.
The lake was massive. surrounded by parks and fields covered in stone pathways, forested areas and small streams we wandered around for the rest of the daylight, marveling at the first natural beauty we had seen in months, reveling the quiet we hadn't realized we missed in the city. We found smooth ponds disturbed only by rippling koi fish the length of my arm sliding beneath the surface and lantern-lit restaurants tucked into the woods at the lakes edge. We jumped from rock to rock over crystal clear streams weaving through wooded groves. Wooden stalls sold bottled flower crowns and glow-sticks to passersby as the light dimmed and we eventually found ourselves sitting on the edge of a massive portion of the lake, filled with boats each lit by a single lantern, gliding around the surface. The three of us sat on a bench at the end staring at the gigantic lit pagoda built on a hill directly opposite us across the water. I can't imagine a more peaceful place than that.