Hangzhou is a coastal city with a long history in China. It was twice the Imperial capital, most notably during the Southern Song dyansty, and it's the southern terminus of the Grand Canal. It's also regarded as one of China's Three Paradises, thanks to West Lake. Hangzhou, an West Lake in particular, is one of those places that is incredibly famous within China, with all kinds of cultural legacy and resonance, that is completely unknown in the outside world.
Today, Hangzhou may serve as the prototype of what wealth and modernity could bring to China in the future - in a good way. It really reminds me of Los Angeles, though I can't say why exactly. It's often said that all of China is under construction, and I can certainly attest the truth of that in other areas, but in the rich coastal East, most of that construction seems to be finishing up. Now they're applying the first few layers of polish, and it shows.
Hangzhou is regarded by the Chinese as China's richest city, and in the downtown area, that was really obvious. Cartier, Bentley, and all the other top-end brands were well represented with big, genuine shops. No street vendors were in sight. Expensive imports and fancy supercars were everywhere. A couple of the guides said that Hangzhou was the place where the rich sons of connected industrialists and party bosses go to show off.
On the outskirts of town, we drove past numerous "farmer houses." I'm not quite sure why the guide called them that, as there were no farms nearby. They were three or four stories and a bit narrow, built of brightly colored stone, and all seemed to have a little unique pagoda-like spire on top.
Hangzhou's first subway line will open later this year, with more already under construction. The air quality was incredibly good - pure blue skies and clear sun for the days I was there. The larger streets had the large, dedicated and separated bike paths that are typical to China, but there were many fewer bicycles that I remembered from my trip 8 years ago. Instead, people seem to be upgrading to electric scooters. These are much like the traditional 50cc Hondas or Vespas, except with a silent electric motor. They sometimes sell for quite low prices, with the lowest being not much more than the equivalent of $100.
We took a high-speed train from Hangzhou to Suzhou, which ran well in excess of 200 kph at times.
Suzhou is a much smaller city, not too far away from either Hangzhou or Shanghai. It's famous for its canals and its gardens. Suzhou seems to have a coherent "historical building style preservation code" kind of thing, where new buildings are required to fit in with the traditional feel and aesthetic of the town. This, and the tree-lined streets, gives the central area of Suzhou a really nice feel. In Suzhou, I learned that ordinary motorbikes have actually been banned. Suzhou also has by far the nicest bus stops I've seen anywhere. They are little wooden pavilions, adorned with traditional woodcarvings and large scrolls of calligraphy.
We drove on a large, modern highway from Suzhou to the Pudong airport at Shanghai, were we boarded a flight to Zhangjiajie, in Hunan province. ZJJ is a small town with a small airport - we walked down stairs to the tarmac, and walked up stairs from the tarmac to the terminal. While small, it's an increasingly famous tourist destination thanks to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Our hotel was not in the main town area, but rather in a new town built closer to the park entrances.
The park had a rather interesting system to limit entry and prevent congestion on its winding roads. All private cars were prohibited from the park roads. Visitors were gathered in a central gateway, and then boarded buses which carried them to various spots in the park. The whole park area was criss-crossed with bus lines, to take visitors between the different scenic areas. All the buses were natural-gas powered as well, to preserve air quality in the park.
The park is incredibly popular, moreso since the movie Avatar based its alien scenery on its natural rock formations. To help accommodate the massive numbers of domestic and foreign (mostly Korean) tourists, there were three cable car lines, and one elevator that brought tourists from the valley floor to various mesa-tops, from which the scenery could be best appreciated.
Our next stop was Fenghuang, or Phoenix Town, deep within Western Hunan province. We drove for over 4 hours on a local road to get here. This was an interesting drive, because I can say, without exaggeration, that every building I saw was either under construction, about to undergo renovation, or had just finished being renovated. This area seems to have gotten its first flush of money from the new Chinese economy, and everyone's first priority is rebuilding everything with modern technology. We did see several water buffalo on the road, though, and at least two donkey carts.
One thing they should spend a bit more time on are the toilets - there was not a single bathroom I visited in Hunan, outside my hotel, that had a dry floor, a clean toilet, or that didn't stink of sewage.
This used to be a troubled, "bandit" region, thanks to the hostile relationships between the local Miao peoples and the central government. The Qing had placed a large military garrison in the area, which manned a series of walls and forts across the region - sometimes called the "Southern Great Wall." The center of this imperial presence was the town of Fenghuang, which has somehow managed to survive almost intact, and has thus become an incredible tourist attraction.
"Ancient Streets," with a scattering of old buildings converted to shops, fleshed out with newer construction in traditional styles, are popular features of most Chinese towns. The Phoenix Town is an "ancient town", and it's huge, with guesthouses, shops, a restaurant and bar district, several museums, and a primary and middle school. This was simply incredible, and I highly recommend it, especially for people who also enjoy spicy food. Hunan, especially in the mountain areas where the minority peoples live, has China's spiciest food, and it was absolutely incredible.
From there, we drove back to ZJJ and got on a late night flight to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
Chengdu is a huge, modern city, with the horrible air pollution to match. Choking yellow cloud horrible. It clearly wasn't as rich as Hangzhou, but the central area also had a very "finished" feel to it. My traveling companion, a Taiwanese-American co-worker, said it reminded him of his Taiwanese hometown, Taizong. In other ways, Sichuan felt a lot more American than Hangzhou had. It had clearly been built with the automobile in mind - large, wide streets that feed into planned ring roads and highways. There were no bike lanes here, and few bicycles or motor bikes in general. The first subway lines had just opened in Chengdu a year or two earlier.
Chengdu is perhaps most famous as a tourist attraction for the Giant Panda Research and Breeding center, and we visited it for a morning. Then we visited an ancient street, and a local park. In the park, we saw a rather common local pastime - communal dancing. Older people seem to enjoy going to public places and studying Asian music-video style dancing in huge groups. According to our guide, it's a form of exercise, and I suppose it's really not all that different from doing Tai Chi in large groups in the park. Still, it was a surprising sight.
Our next two stops were outside Chengdu - the Lushan Buddha and Mr. Ermei. The Lushan Buddha is just as amazing as its reputation would lead one to believe, but surprisingly enough, I'd never realized that it's right next to a river. 3 rivers, to be precise. We saw it from the boat, though it is apparently possible to climb around and down to the feet of the Buddha as well. Mt. Ermei is one of China's four holy mountains of Buddhism, and the second one I've visited. Now I kind of feel like I should visit the other two as well, just to finish the set.
The hotel we stayed at on Mt. Ermei was a rather fancy resort style of place. Apparently Chiang Kai Shek had built one of the early buildings there, as he had a habit of building private villas on all of China's (and later, Taiwan's) best scenic spots. The Chiang Kai Shek villa is still available for tourists, as is a Deng Zhao Ping villa. I was not staying in either of those villas, though. Our building had just hosted a large, and apparently very expensive wedding. The whole lobby, and some area on the roof, had been devoted to it. When we arrived, they were just starting to break down the stage equipment - and they hadn't finished yet, four hours and two trucks later. Several hundred guests were hanging out in the lobby for the duration. My fellow traveler listened into a few of their conversations, which apparently revolved around where they were going to buy houses. These were two very rich families.
After visiting the temple mid-way up the mountain, we headed back to Chengdu, and then back to Japan.