Touring in Hangzhou

Red lanterns in the street in Hangzhou

Touring the first full day in China

Buddah

The food got better and worse……

I will preface this by saying I am an adventurous eater with a fairly wide pallet by American standards.  The food is a big cultural difference between our countries because it is drastically different than anything in most western Chinese restaurants. I would be put to the test many times during my visit. 

In the morning, I was thankful for the international café food in Shanghai at the hotel. I was hungry after dismissing most of my airplane food from the night before and I ate breakfast to my heart’s content. I learned quickly that food at a Chinese breakfast is similar to Chinese lunch and dinner food. There are not a lot of differences.  For example I could have had fish and chicken with noodles. I decided to try some things from each culture for breakfast. 

My Chinese teammates/guides arrived at the hotel and took us on a 3 hour car ride to Hangzhou (Hong Jo). On the way we stopped to try a “very famous” treat for lunch.  It was sticky rice with Virginia ham but it was not like any Virginia ham I had ever tasted.  The meat was wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. My teammates planned this stop carefully.  It was about ½ way to our destination and it was a meal featuring an American product.  I was appreciative of their thoughtfulness.  After lunch we proceeded on the journey to an old temple area. We walked uphill to temple after temple.  There were all kinds of people, lighting incense and praying to Buddha. Each temple was separate and designed around each different Buddha; Master Buddha, Medicine Buddha and Wisdom Buddha. They were incredibly beautiful with unbelievable craftsmanship, architecture, carvings, ancient scrolls and art, all housed in each temple. We walked up to the fist temple to the sound of chanting and to the smell of incense burning in big black caldrons.  I have not seen devotion like this ever. The strangest part of the whole experience was that I was the only Caucasian in the entire place.  People were staring at me all day long.  I mean really staring. I thought I would fit in with dark hair and a long black coat. In reality I was white, about a foot taller than most people and I had brown hair not black.   When I talked to my Chinese teammate about everyone watching me, they let me know “I was the focus.”  I honestly cannot describe how it felt to be so different.  I knew it was an enormous measure of trust to be taken to a place that was visited mostly by Chinese people who had come for blessings and to pray. I was in full recognition it was a great honor to visit such a sacred place.  I was humbled beyond belief.  

After the temple visit we went to dinner  I was the guest of honor given and the head of the table.  How can a round table have a head position? Trust me, there was no doubt.  All the dishes were placed in front of me, honoring my presence.  WOW!   Of course I was expected to try everything. This was a bigger responsibility than I anticipated.  I ate the entire dinner eating using chopsticks. My hosts had ordered me a fork and were impressed at my skill with chopsticks.  I didn’t tell them I ate with them at home when I went to Asian restaurants.  Dinner included: A whole chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and baked. It was good. The local Fish was served with some incredibly delicious sauce. The Lotus root was very sweet. The steamed spinach was just like American spinach. The river shrimp had a similar taste as shrimp at home. The mushrooms are totally different and weird but very tasty.  We had papaya baked with some strange clear white liquid, I managed one bite. There was some green vegetable with pine nuts which was pretty good but the crab soup was truly awful.  After my first two bites I asked what the oil on the top was – “Oh that is egg yolk (of what animal I do not know) and it is a delicacy.   Then I was offered some strange dish.  They described the dish to me and told not to ask what part of the body of the frog it came from and that It was very good for your skin.  I managed one minuscule bite only! It was watery and gelatinous.  I just could not do it. The last part of the meal everyone is waiting and offered me the eye and cheeks of the fish. The most delicate part … How many times can I politely say “no thank you” before I actually feel sick at the table. It was just all too new for me.  I managed to escape and I am quickly learning that if they tell you it is a “delicacy or it is verrrry special” RUN!  At that point, I just wanted to go back to the hotel and eat every bit of the chocolate I brought to share.

 After dinner we went downtown into the city of Hangzhou. The street vendors were cooking something that smelled dreadful. I had to keep walking.  When I inquired about what was cooking my teammate laughed and told me it was called stinky tofu. There was no doubt how it got that name. It was gross. I was grateful to pass a vendor roasting chestnuts and I stopped a moment to take in the sites and savor the smell. 

The streets were strung with red lanterns for Chinese New Year. It was festive and beautiful and everything you could imagine. Tea shops really do exist and some look like movie sets, complete with servers in silk robes and small beanie hats.  Hangzhou is famous for Dragon Well green tea so we stopped to buy some. Let the negotiating begin.  Every price is negotiated extensively here. I was fascinated by the process and watched in amazement. In the US we just pay the set price. No wonder the Chinese love western visitors. We are naïve beyond belief to the art of negotiation. 

Ok now for a touchy subject; The Toilets are another cultural difference.  They are large rectangular porcelain basins on the floor.  You squat and bring your own paper. Needless to say, all the toilet seat covers I brought were useless. I am looking for every available plastic bag in my hotel so I can pack my shoes separately.  I will have very strong quads when I return.  I need not say more.

Then it hits me square in the face “I am really in CHINA.”

Praying at the temple
Praying at the Temple
Virginia ham steaming in bamboo leaves
Virginia ham out of bamboo leaves with a simple broth soup.

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