Compared to the timid week I’ve had so far, catching a Real Life Chinese Bus feels like the height of adventure. With no way of verifying that the 81 route does definitely take us to the lake, I try and plot our journey on the tiny little map from the official city guidebook. Our fellow bus travellers don’t bat an eyelid at the unusual sight of two tallish Westerners on the north-west edge of town, opting to share their transport rather than zoom around in taxis.
Westerners are rare creatures in this city – I’ve walked past no more than one or two others all week – and yet I have been pleasantly surprised by my general lack of Curiosity Value. Almost nobody stares, and – aside from one elderly woman near The Shamrock, working the same short strip with her begging bowl every night – nobody hassles us either. It’s like we’re invisible. Or perhaps people are just too polite to gawp.
After the bus has traced most of the lake’s north shore, we alight on the east side, near the main downtown area, and soon find ourselves wandering along a loose network of winding paths: sympathetically restored, neatly maintained and pleasantly landscaped. Visibility out over the water is poor – we can’t see the far side at all – but it’s good to get a glimpse of Hangzhou’s major tourist attraction at last.
We stop at one of the more reasonably priced tea shops, where rambunctious family groups are playing Mah-Jongg at the tables. Who would have thought that such a dainty parlour game could inspire so much laughter and noise? Our tea is so leaf-heavy that it takes an age to settle, and even then we’re forever extracting chunks of half-digested cud from our mouths. Hell of a kick to it, mind – an hour later, and I’m still buzzing.
J and I fall into animated conversation. We’re different in many ways – but it’s an invigorating difference, and we share a similarly skewed take on the world. This is is going to go well. J speaks a little conversational Mandarin, and starts to teach me a few basic words. But not, alas, the word for “toilet” – my “washy hands” mime causes the tea shop cleaner to convulse in hysterics the moment my back is turned.
“Tsi zwor”. OK, got that. Shan’t be forgetting in a hurry, either.
In the taxi back to the flat, our driver is yakking ten to the dozen to J, who is making all sorts of authentic sounding noises in response. Wow, impressed.
“Mike, can you start talking to me quick. This guy won’t shut up. I think he’s trying to get me a woman.”
A quick shower later, and we’re in another taxi, speeding back across town to The Shamrock. Trouble with this city: everything’s a 20 to 30 minute drive away. Nothing much to do near the flat, unless shopping malls, smart furniture shops and plush but miserable lounge-bar cafés are your bag.
We alight at The Shamrock and head for the strip of restaurants round the corner. I opt for the large place that R from The Shamrock took me to on Thursday. Like everywhere else, it has been Christmassed up to the max, with the obligatory, ubiquitous Santa hats on the heads of all the staff. This would be OK, were it not for the loud Chinese disco-pop version of “Jingle Bells” that plays on a loop, all the way through the meal. And I do mean ALL the way through the meal. Chinese water torture had nothing on this.
We’re in The Shamrock by 9pm, “just for a drink or two” as J has barely slept all weekend. However, company tradition dictates that I bring him down here, in order to “drink through” his jetlag. Just one or two, then. We pull up stools at the corner of the bar, next to R’s base of social operations. Hostess with the mostest. She’s a character and a half, that one. Love her to bits.
I’ve remembered to bring the Double Decker bar which I promised R over our introductory dinner on Thursday, “as a token of my esteem”. (I think it was at that precise moment that she decided she liked me.) She’s ecstatic; they’re her favourites, and she hasn’t had one in months. We discuss how best to savour it; R decides to eat half now, and half on Christmas Day. Spread the pleasure. Tonight’s half is consumed slowly, ceremoniously, and amidst general celebration from the increasingly lubricated throng at the bar.
The Shamrock isn’t one of those sorts of ex-pat bar. You know: the ones where jumped up petty officers of the New Asian Economy strut round like they own the place, dissing the shifty locals and their strange ways. R says that if anyone like that comes in here, she chucks them out on their f***ing ears. Instead, there’s a healthy mix of East and West, with tables of Chinese merry-makers rattling yellow plastic dice buckets all over the shop.
I keep checking back on J’s progress. Not wishing my lonely first few days in Hangzhou on anyone, I see it as my personal mission to ensure that his first few hours here are memorable ones. Yay, he’s loving it, chatting to all and sundry as The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York” blasts through the sound system for the umpteenth time. Tune of the trip – along with U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, which nearly had me in tears on two occasions during the week.
Bloody hell, it’s 2 o’clock in the frigging morning. How the hell did that happen? God knows how many litre jars of Carlsberg I’ve knocked back, but I’m still just the right side of legless. Farewells all round – see you all back here tomorrow for Christmas dinner, OK? – and it’s taxi, crash in front of fifty-channels-of-crap Chinese telly, bed, oblivion.
Best day yet. The Hangzhou experience starts here, folks.
(The latter part of this post was bashed out under the influence of the trippy Korean twigs from the restaurant near the office, about an hour and a half ago. Well, how were we supposed to know that they were trippy? Or indeed twigs? They looked harmless enough on the laminated picture menu. You can end up with anything in this place. It’s part of its charm.)