Trip to Hangzhou and Ningbo, China

A few years ago, I wrote up a mini-travelogue of our trip to Japan. It turned out to be rather popular, so I decided to write on our recent trip to Hangzhou and Ningbo. As with my report on the Japan trip, my only camera was a cell phone. Apologies for less-than-National Geographic photo quality.

My wife and I of course have been to China a number of times, visiting relatives and universities. But we had never been to Hangzhou and Ningbo, two major cities within 100 miles of Shanghai. Hangzhou is famous for the beautiful West Lake, while Ningbo is a major seaport. United Airlines now has direct flights to Hangzhou from SFO, and even nicer, the plane used is the new Dreamliner. Hangzhou is on the high-speed rail line from Ningbo to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, it rained every day during the entire trip (late October), but still highly enjoyable. Part of the enjoyment was due to our fun traveling companions, one of my wife's elder sisters and the sister's friend.

So, let's get started. One of the nice things about many Chinese hotels is a delicious buffet breakfast.

We went to the Hangzhou East train station to book tickets for Ningbo later in the week. Huge place! Unfortunately, even though locals can buy tickets by computer, not so for us foreigners. We were in line for about half an hour.

We had taken the subway to the train station. On the subway, an older man struck up a conversation with me in Chinese, and kept asking me to tell him how old I am. "I want to know!", he insisted when I waved him off. Then he started singing, in English ("Edelweiss"), and he asked if his singing was good. Actually it was, but the whole exchange was a little creepy.

Of course, we went to West Lake as soon as we could. Again, rather dreary weather, but still quite a place.

Since it was rainy, we dropped by the Silk Museum on the lake. Very modern, interesting exhibits, and free of charge! There was a nice cafe'/bookshop there too.

In my many trips to China, I know that the locals like to compliment foreigners on their Chinese speaking ability, regardless of whether the person speaks well or not. In Shanghai, one man complimented me for merely saying "Ni hao"! But the true test is whether one can make oneself understood. I asked an elderly gardener outside the museum where the bus stop was, but he heard my phrase for "bus," 公共气车, as "restroom," 公共厕所!

There is a lot of linguistic variation in China, so much so that linguists refer to the local tongues as languages rather than dialects. The ones in this region are referred to as the Wu family, but even within this family there is quite a bit of variation. The three cities described here, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Ningbo, all are considered part of the Wu family. Being married to a Shanghainese woman, I of course have been hearing Shanghainese for many years and can follow it somewhat well, but my comprehension goes down a few notches in, say, Ningbo. Of course the younger people speak Mandarin, the official national language, with good pronunciation, but less so for many of the older ones. At any rate, I am a big fan of the regional languages, and hope that they are maintained.

We never did find the bus, and walked back, stopping along the way for a tasty snack.

And rain or no rain, the lake was a pretty spot for newlyweds.

Actually, I spotted one couple who I also believe are newlyweds. No wedding attire, but the man was dressed in a nice suit and the woman in a formal dress. I think they had just gotten married. They were highly enjoying each other's company, playfully tossing a ball back and forth, and who else but newlyweds would dress so nicely for a walk at the lake? They appeared to be in their 50s or 60s, likely the second marriage for both.

Hangzhou has a bustling night market.

We went back to the lake the next day, taking a ride on a little green golf-cart like vehicle. It was still rainy, but the pictures, taken from my seat at the back of the golf cart, show how pleasant the walkway is along the lake.

We took the high-speed train from Hangzhou to Ningbo. A little silly, since it's so close, but we had bought our tickets at the wrong train station, so there we were on the "gao tie."

Now pay close attention to the sign on the platform. The train would arrive at 15:25 and leave at 15:27 -- just 2 minutes allotted for hundreds of passengers to board and find space to stow their heavy, bulky luggage! Now that's efficiency!

Some years ago, I, my daughter and her cousin boarded a local city bus in Shanghai. My daughter and her cousin sat together, and I took a set across the aisle. Well, every time someone boarded the bus, they avoiding sitting next to me, the Foreigner! So on the high-speed train from Hangzhou, I was very sensitive to what happened when I took a seat next to a 20-something young woman. The minute I sat down, she said, "不好意思," which has no good English translation but roughly means, "Excuse me, but I am going to say something you don't like." I braced for her next sentence, which I feared would be that she doesn't want to sit next to a Foreigner. But fortunately, she just wanted to trade seats with me, as she was alighting at the next stop. :-)

After each stop, a recording came on, warning passengers not to smoke. That's good, especially in China, but it stated, in English, "Violators will be punished by the railroad station police." Not "fined," but "punished," rather menacing language.

The trains and stations were clean (including the restrooms) and well organized, and the ride was very smooth.

Now in Ningbo. The blue sign says, "Backup style parking place," meaning that in leaving, one must back up out of the space and then drive down a long, narrow alley in reverse. I wonder whether California drivers could do this!

Our plan was to go to my wife's grandfather's grave. The cemetery was on another lake, oddly called "East Money Lake." My sister-in-law's other friend, a local, hired a driver and car to take us there.

It turned out that the cemetery was extremely hard to find. For one thing, it doesn't look like its Web picture at all. The latter showed a peninsula jutting out into the lake, with the cemetery at the end. Well, no. But worse, we just couldn't find it, driving back and forth for about half an hour. After asking a number of people, we found that we had to go through a group of farming houses, and then walk along some farm land. But we got there in the end.

Oddly, that little farming community was next door to a country club, and there was to be a concert there that evening, featuring a famous Chinese rock band. At midday, some fans were already lining up to ensure a good seat, and there were several dozen police officers lining the road to maintain order. While we were in the cemetery, the band was practicing, loudly. The contrast was surreal; here we are walking along the farm fields, in ancient scenery, while the modern rock band music was blaring.

After the cemetery, we went back into town, and strolled through a historical area that has been rebuilt into a lane of food stands. This one was for sesame oil and similar products. We had a sesame ball/soup snack there.

Ever generous, my sister-in-law's friend and his adult son invited us to an upscale restaurant for dinner that evening. In many such restaurants in China, there is no menu. Instead, you go into a room where the various "catches of the day" (not just fish, but you see what I mean) are displayed. You choose some, then sit down at your table while the food is cooked. Great food and great conversation about China and the U.S., quite spirited and loud. Though we had a private room, I'm sure that the entire floor heard us.

We were only in Ningbo a couple of days, then back to Shanghai, familiar ground. Not many pictures, but I'll share a few with a food theme.

At lunchtime one day, we went to an upscale (but not touristy) part of the city, to meet still more friends of my sister-in-law and her friend who had been traveling with us. While, waiting, I noticed a branch of Dunkin' Donuts, complete with Halloween decorations. The whole block of stores in the area actually had a Halloween theme. No, Chinese kids don't go trick-or-treating, but I do think the spirit of Halloween (pun intended) fits Chinese culture well.

The last day before we left, we had lunch with yet another group of friends of my sister-in-law, in a rather recently developed section of Shanghai, formerly farm fields. There was a food court in a large mall, and an interesting stand selling nothing but jerky products.

The restaurant, named 和纪小菜, also in the mall, was first-rate, one of the best Chinese meals I've ever had. The dishes were standard, e.g. hot and sour soup and baked taro, but the implementation was wonderful. And they are a chain, thus all the more remarkable that the quality is maintained.

Well, there you have it, highly recommended cities to visit in Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces.