Reflections on a day in Hangzhou, China

This wasn’t a particularly good day or bad day, nor did I see any famous touristy sites but I thought it could be helpful to see a day in the life of a traveler.

I didn’t set an alarm. I didn’t put my iPhone on silent either. Why would I?
a) I knew nobody would call me on my Chinese phone number
b) I had no WiFi signal
c) I had run out of data on my Chinese SIM card.

Nothing was going to wake me up except the rustling of young Chinese tourists staying in the room next to us through the paper thin walls.

Amber was still not feeling well from getting food poisoning the day before so I had the day to myself. I got out of bed, barely avoiding hitting my head on the slanted ceiling of our top floor attic room that was large enough for a queen size mattress thrown on the floor, a small nightstand and an area for our two backpacks.

It was a cool morning in Hangzhou, China, a moderate city of 8 million a few hours southwest of Shanghai. I heated up some water with our kettle in the room and ate some plain oatmeal out of a mug with a banana. I then rinsed the mug and had some instant coffee while sitting on the tile floor of our attic room. Looking back at these words, it seems like a terrible start to the morning, but I was happy. Perfectly content as I had the whole day to do whatever the hell I wanted to do.

With Amber recovering from food poisoning, we needed to get her on the BRAT diet so my first venture of the day was to take a jog to the grocery store to get her some food. I strapped on my iPhone exercise armband (purchased for $3 in Shanghai) as well as my knockoff Beats headphones (purchased for $20 in Bangkok), grabbed my bookbag and I was off for a 2km jog to the grocery store.

I ran through the cobblestone streets dodging the mass of Chinese tourists who were visiting Hangzhou for the Qingming festival. I got plenty of stares since I was the only one running in the streets and one of the only wàiguórén (‘outlander’ in Mandarin). Some people took out their cameras to even take a picture of me! I can see it now – the photographer posting a picture of me on there censored Chinese social media site with the caption “crazy crazy foreigner run Hangzhou street.” Will anybody find that picture interesting?

streets of HangzhouAt the grocery store, I was on a mission for apple sauce (couldn’t find it until I went to the baby section), bananas, and some simple soups. I found most of what I was looking for as well as the usual suspects in a Chinese grocery store that you don’t see at home – frogs, turtles, eels, intestines of every animal, coagulated pigs blood, etc. When I was wandering through the snack aisle, I spotted some Cheetos and splurged the $0.60 for the bag (later I would find out that they were “Japanese steak flavored” Cheetos – terribly disappointing. Why do the Chinese love meat flavored snacks so much!). At the checkout, the cashier asked me some questions in Mandarin, I responded in English by saying “I don’t understand.” She then continued to speak to me in Mandarin and told me the final bill in the mother tongue. I handed her 100 yuan hoping that would be enough. She gave me some change and I left hoping I was charged the right amount.

I got back home around 12:30pm and proceeded to make soup for Amber which consisted of a few noodles microwaved in some Swanson’s chicken broth – gourmet! She needed a simple soup and I failed the night before when I got Ma Lai Tong soup that was way too flavorful and spicy. One of the staff members at our hostel even helped me by writing “soup, only vegetable, no meat, Thank you” in Chinese letters since virtually nobody on the streets of Hangzhou speak or read a lick of English.

Amber rested the remainder of the afternoon and I wandered the pedestrian-only streets of Hangzhou and found a fancy coffee shop with the owner speaking a few words of English! All their coffees were made with a siphon brewer and they roasted their own beans. They even had a coffee menu with 15 different types of beans to pick from: ranging from $2 to $10 per cup. I chose…the $2 cup of a local Yunan coffee. It was a great cup of coffee and a far departure from the instant coffee I drank in the morning. I did feel bad that I was spending $2 on coffee (I am going to have a rude awakening when I land in Paris in 2 weeks…)

coffee shopAt the coffee shop, I listened to some music and settled into the cafe. I felt at home in this coffee shop. Back in the states, I did my best work and thinking over a cup of joe at a local shop (what I would do for an Americano from Peregrine right now). The internet at the shop (and everywhere in China) is god awful. For those who don’t know, China basically has a massive firewall censoring everything that comes in/out of the country. They purposely slow down everything Google, and all social media and blogs are blocked. No Facebook, no Twitter, no blogging and slow Google. I sipped my coffee patiently as I attempted to load my email. I even have a VPN to mask my IP address as if I was in the USA. This is a good trick to get Facebook, etc. working but everything is still just s-l-o-w. I got some more stares in the coffee shop as I talked on the phone with T-mobile customer service demanding a refund (anybody surprised?), finished up some emails, paid my 15 Yuan for the coffee and walked back to our hostel.

That evening, I sat around the hostel lounge reading when I overhead a few younger Chinese friends practicing English. I asked if they needed any help and they excitedly agreed. All of them worked at the hostel and their English was already darn good so I taught them some advanced words like “dialect” and “infrequently” as well as some slang terms like “no worries.” We had casual conversations about America and China and they were surprised to hear that Americans eat a lot of rice too! They also had no idea that we eat a lot of Chinese food back at home (which I told them is nothing like Chinese food in China) but they were still impressed. One of the students, Sky (English name), was studying to take an English exam so he could work in New Zealand for a year. Sky was so passionate about learning English and it was a real joy to help him. Later in the evening, I was going out to grab some food but was thwarted by Sky and we ended up chatting for another 30 minutes, my stomach rumbling.

hangzhou_david4Around 8pm, I left the hostel and made my way down to the street side vendors selling everything from fresh whole fish and pigs blood to what I can only describe as – rotting tofu. I smell this tofu throughout Hangzhou and I have to hold my breathe everytime I walk by. I ended up going back to my “grilled vegetable guy” where you pick skewers of various foods and they grill it for you fresh. I spent $3.50 on a dinner of grilled bok choy, cauliflower, mushrooms, and chicken (I was in the mood for some chicken that night.) I took the food back to the hostel because it was too cold to eat outside and ate silently downstairs before heading back up to the attic room to settle into my book River Town before falling asleep around 11:00pm.

my grilled vegetable guyLooking back on the day, everything felt so normal and expected. Nothing felt strange or out of place. Traveling does that to you. You are put in so many uncomfortable, different situations that you learn to go with the flow and adapt very quickly.

It is hard to fully put into words what we are learning from our travels. There is this resilience/adaptability muscle that gets strengthened but you don’t feel it on a day-to-day basis. I am sure it will make more sense in the future. I have a rational trust in what Steve Jobs said during the 2005 Stanford Commencement speech – “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking back.”


One thought on “Reflections on a day in Hangzhou, China

  1. so glad I finally read this, David. 🙂 I really enjoy your insight/reflection and I’m so glad you shared this. What I’m not so happy about is the Gator backpack on the couch in your hostel. 😉 hehehe

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