The 310 Km per hour, bullet-train, silently came to a halt at Hangzhou. We disembarked wearing our rucksacks and trailing our “wheelie” cases. Getting down three flights of steps was a challenge but there was a flat surface at the edge of the steps which we assumed was designed for “wheelies”. As we arrived at the ticket barrier, a commuter train discharged all its passengers, and were suddenly surrounded by many thousands of people – the wheelies kept people from pushing in front. We then had the fun of finding our guide.
Our guide Carl, (not his real name), led us to our awaiting car and driver – please understand that it is extremely well-organized here. We had problems, at first, understanding Carl’s accent but after a short while, we learned that certain words were not what we thought they were and we began to help him with pronunciation, for which he was grateful. He was a really nice guy and we all got on well. English is not widely spoken in China – in fact, even in the large hotels, they have only a few staff designated to Western tourists and they will speak only a little English, so that makes it even more fun!
We quickly unpacked and went for a most wonderful walk on the famous West Lake – this is the only UNESCO Heritage approved lake in China. This area is very popular for weddings and honeymoon couples, due to its romantic atmosphere and the surrounding beauty and tranquillity. It has lots of willow trees and ancient pagodas around the lake. Also, on the half hour, there is a water dancing show on the lake, similar to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, but not quite as grand – however, spectacular in its own right. The lake was extremely busy with Chinese visitors, as well as locals. During the recent national holiday (the first week of October), West Lake had received 1.2 million visitors. Westerners are so rare, that a Swedish lady, with her parents and baby said “hello” and started talking to us – she had an amazing story of having just adopted a Chinese baby that day – next day, we were to see them in our hotel at breakfast! Let us explain that this is a very upmarket area and attracts thousands of wealthy Chinese visitors. Whilst walking along, we noticed the many high quality shops and stores along the banks of the lake, selling luxury goods that would carry a very high luxury goods tax in China, and would only be affordable to the wealthy minority (approximately one million in a population rapidly approaching one and a half billion). In Hangzhou, we noticed the many car showrooms for luxury brands, such as Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, Rolls Royce, Ferrari and, of course, Mercedes-Benz to name but a few – so quite a shopping shock to the system. As we returned to our hotel, we had a look at some factory shops but the prices seemed far too high to interest us.
For us, Hangzhou provided a major contrast to Shanghai, and put into clearer perspective the importance of China’s most wealthy families. However, the beauty of the West Lake, we shall never forgot – this belongs to everybody.