One day in China's chaos

GLEN SCANLON
Last updated 10:32 08/08/2012
Hangzhou
LAKESIDE MEDITATION: One of Hangzhou's most popular sights is the West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Our Shanghai taxi driver winds down his window and scours the depths of his lungs before hoicking into the congested traffic. Things are about to get very serious.

My travel companion, Simon, and I raise a sweaty and nervous eyebrow at each other as we clutch the hand grips above the windows. There are no seatbelts, it's 33 degrees Celsius, the humidity 95 per cent, the pollution thick and the aircon non- existent. Worse, we have 12 kilometres of motorway to negotiate before we reach Shanghai Hongqiao train station and our driver appears to be listening to Chinese talkback radio - some things are the same everywhere.

From the station we're planning to catch a train to Hangzhou and its famous pagoda-fringed West Lake - a Unesco World Heritage site. We're on an eight-hour mission armed only with a 7-year-old Lonely Planet and our man-sense of direction.

We're also running late and it's rush hour. Who would have thought crossing a city of 22 million in under 45 minutes would be so hard?

The taxi driver, lungs cleared, one arm on the wheel and the other nonchalantly resting nearby, is now fully focused.

Traffic here doesn't do polite. If you want to get somewhere you drive for that spot, tooting all the way and never giving ground. Cyclists, motorcyclists and other cars just need to get out of the way.

After a few kilometres of lane-weaving our driver decides to take the more direct approach, driving between two lanes of traffic - one merging from an on-ramp. It's like dodgems without the safety equipment.

The cars around and behind us toot vigorously as we risk being caught in the merging zip. I grip the handhold tighter. Our driver doesn't bat an eyelid as he continues his dash forward, swerving and accelerating past a large truck.

The signs promise we are getting closer and after 44 minutes the enormous station, and airport next door, hove into view. We've got a minute to reach the train, which is, we realise, futile: we've got security and about 300 metres of floor to cross.

The station doesn't feature in our ageing Lonely Planet. It was opened two years ago and is a monster, more than four rugby fields long.

Thankfully, after the chaos of the motorway, it is a relative sea of calm. The staff are helpful and we're quickly booked on the next fast train, departing in 30 minutes.

The train leaves three minutes early, and the air-conditioned splendour is interrupted by the constant beeps and buzzes of cellphones and quick-fire conversations. The televisions onboard feature a Hollywood gossip show.

As we glide out the landscape is quite extraordinary - it's flat as far as the eye can penetrate the haze and gives the appearance of being filled up at great speed.

There is the odd rice paddy but new housing, factories, an incredible number of power pylons, motorways, billboards (advertising everything from Walmart to rangehoods) and railway lines fight for space. Then, seemingly from nowhere, huge tower blocks loom in the distance.

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Much of the railway line and some of the motorway is built well above the ground, carrried 30-40 metres high on the shoulders of immense slabs of concrete; China is in one hell of a hurry.

Hangzhou, long one of China's most popular and prosperous holiday spots, appears a bit more relaxed - despite being home to more than six million people.

It's got its towering buildings and new roads but once we breeze past the touts offering lake tours we eventually find streets bordered by trees, canals and a laidback shopping area split into a series of lanes.

We come to a park which includes the taxation and finance museum. Resisting its not-so-obvious charms, we head for the nearby wooded Wu Hill on which a magnificent seven- storey high temple proudly sits. Mainly, this is in the hope that we will be able to see the lake.

It's higher than it looks and we stop for an icecream halfway up as the sweat starts to overwhelm us.

Locals and Chinese tourists are enjoying the hill's community areas; there are restaurants nestled into the bush, people having picnics and others playing cards and mah jong.

At the top, from a platform among the trees, the lake appears below us, some distance off, like an apparition.

A Chinese couple are taking in the view with their toddler. The friendly dad attempts to talk to us but the language divide is too great.

Still, emboldened, we skip back down the mountain and decide on some lunch before continuing our lake quest. We find a simple, small restaurant where the locals eye us a little suspiciously. Thankfully, on a wall, there are pictures of the dishes we can point to.

A beer and a hearty fish and noodle soup later, we settle on a taxi to the lake. Unfortunately, no amount of flailing on a street corner attracts a driver. We spot a parked cab and I jump in the back while Simon pokes his head in through the front passenger's door and tries to explain by pointing at the Lonely Planet's map. After a bit of confusion, I also point at the map. It's too much for the driver whose tone of voice suggests it's best we move on.

Unbowed, we press forward. Simon suggests renting one of the many bikes for hire - it's just like the Paris velib scheme - but I demur after a flashback to our earlier taxi ride. Hangzhou, however, does have some good cycle lanes.

After another wrong turn - into a dead end - and with doubts welling, we finally come to an intersection that offers hope.

We cross and wander into a park, the path slopes slowly down. We're tooted out of the way by a little run- about wagon carrying tourists, and moments later we can see the lake.

Majestic temples, many of which have been rebuilt or restored, watch over the happy holidaymakers paddling around in dozens of boats.

We whoop and shake hands. We have triumphed. We may only have 20 minutes before we have to find a taxi back to the station, but that seems a trifling matter. It has been a good day.

Glen Scanlon flew courtesy of Cathay Pacific and stayed at the Peninsula Shanghai.

FLIGHTS:

Cathay Pacific flies daily to Hong Kong, with connecting flights on both Cathay Pacific and sister airline, Dragonair, to Shanghai. Return economy fares to Shanghai start from $1850 plus airport taxes/charges of $79 and business class fares start at $6000 plus charges of $79. If Cathay Pacific does not have a same-day connecting flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, the airline will provide complimentary hotel accommodation. For full details of fares and schedules, visit, cathaypacific.co.nz
peninsula.com

To learn more about Hangzhou visit Travel Guide China

Been there yourself? What are your recommendations? Comment below

- © Fairfax NZ News

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