Where the Lightning Trees End

I resisted it for over four years: the silent death of churning wheels cascading over sidewalks. I said I would just as soon ride a bike and take it slow. I said I detested those machines and how they owned the roads, sidewalks, and exhales between cars. But when I saw my friend post an ad for his secondhand electric bike and when I saw the price, I resisted no longer. I gave in to all that my friends said, that those wheels would radically change how I viewed Hangzhou, and would in turn radically change my life.

I took to the roads on my clanky ebike, on a nighttime mission to find lightning trees.

On the whole, I’m pretty resistant to new technology. I remember how long I waited to actually ride a bicycle, how I hesitated before getting a slider cell phone in college, how I debated over getting a smart phone my second year in China, and how I didn’t want to use Alipay, the online payment system that is quickly making cash obsolete in China. I wanted to keep the hum of technology at a low volume, to feel the sensation of money disappearing from my fingers. I wanted to be able to disappear and be unreachable for long stretches of time. I wanted slow, silent days to accompany my thoughts.

Well, life in a city is different. Just trying to get to those lightning trees takes about 45 minutes of biking through congested downtown traffic. Buses are even slower, and when buses get trapped in turn-lanes, it’s hard not to watch those ebikes weaving in and out traffic with envy.

So I listened to my friend explain his old bike to me — how to charge it, how to lock it, how he had added extra power to it and had obtained all of the legal license plates and registration. And I plotted where I would take it for a test ride on my own.

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When the time came, I flicked on the headlights. My roommate helped me put on a reflector armband, and I checked the brakes, letting myself glide to a gradual halt when I saw other pedestrians. Then, I left our apartment complex to enter a Hangzhou that I already knew quite well.

I turned back the handle — oh god! Walkers! Glide, honk, brake, glide, my feet skimming the surface of the asphalt. Up ahead, a stoplight. Oh god. Glide, brake, plant feet. The night was not so much an evening jaunt as it was a blur of headlights, stoplights, illuminated cell phone lights, and dark shapes passing along sidewalks as I glided, braked, stopped, glided along the bike lane. A red light, my heart pounding as I rehearsed how I would get started again. Along Beishan Road along West Lake, turning into bright-light cityscape as I entered the Nanshan Road area.

I already knew the route, and was used to it taking perhaps 40 minutes. In about 20, however, I was already close. Not only that, but roads that I knew felt somehow less congested. I could honk at pedestrians walking in the bike lane. I could glide past silently, too, if there was enough space and I wanted to hear the patter of passing feet.

Then, I turned the corner onto Nanshan Road and Hangzhou was like I’d never seen before. I saw where the lightning trees ended.

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As sudden as rain, the canopy of well-lit trees draped over the sidewalk, strings of white Christmas lights wrapped around the boughs. The streaks of white against black were like negative images of trees, as if by cracking across the sky they became exclamation points in Hangzhou. I scooted forward, enjoying the silence of the motor, and the smoothness of asphalt. I followed the tunnel of lightning trees, underneath the signs that had been made for the G2o saying “Welcome to Hangzhou!” and processed my way toward the other side of the area, where one tree branch flickered, as if being erased and drawn over and over again. Light rain flecked my jacket, but none of it mattered. I had a full battery. I could go beyond the lightning trees and into the dark street beyond it. I could get lost and find my way back, and I could do it on creeping wheels.

I only went along the tunnel and then back, relishing the feel of the “Welcome to Hangzhou” sign as I passed it again.

Indeed, where the lightning trees end, it was as though I was entering a new Hangzhou, where distance was only a concept, and I could connect scattered scenes together and re-map a home I have come to know so well.

It’s never too late to rediscover home.

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Walking on Old Roads

Recently, I’ve been reading through old blog entries and am surprised at the sheer volume of it. It’s like stepping into old skin. Whether or not it fits, I guess I don’t get to decide that.

For many people reading this blog, it would not mean much if I were to say that I used to live in a district of Hangzhou, whereas now I live right smack downtown. Oh, yes, things have changed for me. I can now hear buses and horns and enjoy the thrills of being caught in a bus for half an hour to go four blocks. I am caught in a bustle of many things happening, and the simultaneous joy of meeting other people like me, who like to dabble and poke at life with a stick. (Just this past week, I met up with a new Vietnamese friend who told me about a podcast she wants to start, to name just one). It’s a swarm of ideas and people who, if not verbal about their ideas, are whirring with motion nonetheless.

And yet, I do still go back to the district, Xiasha, where I once lived.

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself there to visit my friend Charlotte. She’d invited me to see a jazz erhu performance (not a typo) and then to grab dinner afterward. I hopped on a bus, then the subway, and made the trek there.

It’s a funny thing, because, apart from the immediate shock of not seeing as many cars or people, and of being able to go an impressive six blocks in less than 10 minutes, I’m always caught by something else when I step foot in Xiasha.

It’s there, standing at the crossroads to WuMart and Casa Miel (a coffee shop I haunted quite frequently) that I feel a sort of duplicity come over me. I’ve stood there before, I’ve waited for this very light to change before, and I did it as so very many variations of myself. On some days, I was the confident teacher who had slam-bang classes and managed to bike to class successfully in a pencil skirt (a feat I am still proud of, to this day). On some days, the shuffling ragamuffin with disheveled hair and a too-heavy backpack avoiding eye contact on her way home.

I’ve mentioned this before to family and friends, but there are times when I feel like I’m more than one person. I am Hangzhou Hannah, the street-savvy girl who simply holds her hand out as a taxi rounds the bend and hops in with a destination already pulled up on her phone. I am Hitchhiking Hannah, the vagabond with no destination in mind and dust in her hair. I am Band Hannah (no alliteration, alas) who hangs out with musicians and poets and saws out tunes on a beaten-up violin. It’s standing in the old crosswalks where I feel the tug of these people, and wonder how they can all be be and which one will call out the loudest.

More than that, coming back to the old roads is a constant gauge of all that has changed. Will I wait patiently for the light? Do I cower when I’m approached? Do I ignore all I see? Do I flinch when cars roar along the sidewalks (not a typo; cars actually drive on the sidewalks!)  How I interact with an old life speaks volumes about the current one I am living.

Sometimes places feel like living journals where I can visit the old pages and see how I can interact with them, and how they have changed in their own ways. Sure, new restaurants have come, but it’s more than that. There’s both a sense of intimacy with every road, and also a vague nostalgia. Certainly, as I spend more and more time in front of a computer researching for my thesis (and when a classmate asked me how it was going, I just roared with laughter), I think back with fondness to the long, meandering walks I did on these roads, and the slow, quiet life of Xiasha.

It’s true, downtown life is hectic and at times, cluttered. But I guess it’s just another version of myself. Who knows? Maybe this Hannah will combine all of the above.

My China Travel Hacks: Part 2

The Impossible Situation: Lodging

Last post I talked about how to trim the fat for transportation when traveling in China. However, there are other expenses other than the road that can add up, such as lodging.

Why it’s impossible

No matter what you tell yourself, after a long day of traveling, you do actually need a bed to crash into.

When I calculated travel costs, lodging came up as the second-highest spending culprit (right after Transportation, which I already covered). I anticipated the cost and made arrangements to volunteer in a village for a while (among other reasons, too). That being said, this one is unavoidable.

Why it’s not impossible

Let’s go through some of the options here. You can and should use the extensive hostel network in China (check out this website), as it’s a great place to meet travelers and get travel advice. I have done trips before where I’ve done as little as configure transportation, book a hostel, and arrive. Most hostels have information about places to go, and are great places to get travel buddies.

They are not as cheap as you can get in China, though.

Aside from doing home-stays or walking about and comparing hotel prices, you can almost always go to the nice hotel in the middle of town and ask for a room without windows or a computer. It’s usually not advertised, and few customers opt for it, but most nice hotels have them, and if you are with a travel partner, can be as cheap as 50 RMB/person, which is about what you might pay for a hostel bed.

There are other options, such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing. I have not tried AirBnB myself, but have done couchsurfing and have had (mostly) good experiences. (And as a single female traveler, I’m just saying that it’s very doable, so long as you use good judgment by reading references). If you are going to do CS, be sure that you bring gifts for your hosts and are willing to be chatty. Although it’s free to stay with the hosts, you should never treat it like a hotel (though this is more a polite gesture and is not a hard rule). If you are not feeling social or talkative, consider just paying for a hotel room.

You can also consider volunteering, if you are in no hurry and also want to give back to the community. There is a WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms) China program, which I did while in Shanxi. I will say this: it is not the same as WWOOFing outside of China, in that I ended up not working on an organic farm at all (surprise!), but teaching English classes for kids (but mostly lying around a house full of weird baby pictures). I also found a volunteering opportunity through Couchsurfing, which gave me the chance to work in a hostel in Sanya, a beach town in Southern China, for several weeks. As you might expect, knowing Chinese helps, though if you don’t know Chinese, don’t let that stop you!

But what if you’re truly truly I-might-sleep-in-the-curb-broke?

The absolute bare-bottom tactic you can do is to just bring your own tent and supplies when you travel and be prepared to camp out on the road. There are campsites in China, though not all places welcome tents. I did meet a traveler who got lost and just slept on a bench for the night — do me a favor, dear reader, and find yourself anywhere other than a random bench! I think tents are good, though of course, having one means having to buy one along with the supplies before heading out. Think of it as a long-term investment.

The two biggest spending culprits have been tackled, but there are so many other ways to whittle down expenses in China. Stay tuned for Scenic Spots and Food. And, if you read this and have other suggestions, please comment and let me know! I’m always happy to learn more.

My China Travel Hacks: Part 1

I’ve done a lot of traveling in China. No, really. I’ve been to every province, save four. Each time, I’ve tried different things. My past trip to Shanxi and beyond, I challenged myself to spend as little as possible. In the end, I spent just about 2000 rmb for the whole month, which is about 300 USD. Despite trying to be closer to 150 USD, I found that there were some expenses that you just can’t get around.

…or can you?

I got to thinking about all of the travel hacks I know about China. Some are common sense, some are things you only learn from traveling a lot in China. I’ll be thinking of what I’ve learned. If you want to know more about it, read on. If not, then don’t!

Let’s have a look, shall we?

The Impossible Situation: Transportation

Why it’s impossible

Obvious. You want to go somewhere. Wheels aren’t free.

When I added up the numbers for my trip to the Central Plains of China, I found that transportation ate up the biggest chunk. I could have gone cheaper, but in some cases, I opted for comfort rather than frugality. That being said, is it impossible to have cheap transportation?

Why it’s actually not

I have done all forms of transportation in China, and though it can quickly suck all of your money away, there are ways to trim the fat. I’ll run through some transportation options.

Let’s start with flights. Sometimes, they’re unavoidable, which is fine. However, if you’re not in a time crunch, don’t do flights. There’s a significant price gap between train and plane tickets, and the train system is pretty extensive in China.

The next cheapest on the list (in general) is buses. For more remote locations, you may have no choice but to take a bus (and if this is the case, try to make friends with anyone who brought a lot of snacks hehe).

If you have time and want to save money, though, trains are your best bet. (Cue the sparkles and heavenly light around the map of trains routes in China). There are two main train categories: high speed trains (高铁 gao tie, and 动车 dong che), and regular trains (usually with a K, a T, an L or just a string of numbers in them). Most websites will just tell you about the high-speed trains in general and not point out the two different kinds. Is there a difference? In price, yes! The dong che is cheaper than the gao tie, because it is ever-so-slightly slower, perhaps by a scant half an hour arrival time. If that doesn’t matter to you, you can save money here. (Be warned, though, they sell out quickly!)

As for the regular trains, there are different ways to ride them: 软卧 ruan wo (soft sleeper), 卧铺 wo pu (hard sleeper), 硬座 ying zuo (hard seat), 无座 wu zuo (no seat). (I have listed those from order of most expensive to cheapest and consequently from most comfortable to least.)

The main advantage of the soft sleeper is that there are only four people in a private compartment, meaning you have a better chance of privacy. The hard sleeper has doorless compartments with six beds in each one. I personally think that the hard sleeper is the best value, because soft sleepers aren’t that radically different from hard sleepers, but have a pretty noticeable price difference.

The last two options are the more strenuous ones. I have done 7-hour hard seats, I have done 30-hour hard seats, I have even done 19-hour no seats. Once you exceed 7 hours, it starts to ache. Once you’re past 15 hours, it’s about the same ache, 16 hours or even 30. Hard seats are great places to meet a wide range of people on the rails, but be warned: you will probably not sleep well if you do an overnight, if you sleep at all (though I met a traveler who swore by hard-seats, refusing to ride trains any other way). As for no seat, you will be jostled around quite a bit for how much money you’re saving. I recommend bringing an engrossing book to distract from the pain, bringing a blanket to unfurl under the seats, and making generous friends. Most no-seaters resort to leapfrogging from open seat to open seat to rest their legs. If crowded and overnight, this can be very miserable (such as a man I saw sleeping on a sink while I came back from Guilin). Choose this only as a last resort.

But what if you are truly truly, considering-busking-in-the-train-station-broke?

Well, there is yet another way: hitchhiking. I’ve done both solo hitchhiking and hitchhiking with a partner. I’m also a young single woman, so if you’re thinking that’s impossible, just stop. In China in the country, people are very friendly and willing to help travelers (though of course, you ought to use common sense and proper judgment when accepting rides). Be sure to have a sign of some kind in Chinese, or a good map. (My friend and I had a picture of a good map and then a picture of this picture when the battery started to die. We’re winners.) The thumb is not always recognized as a signal for hitchhiking, so wave cars down like you would a taxi. Also beware of actual taxis, which could be an unpleasant surprise when a bill comes at the end.

Trying out some new transportation methods or even tweaking how you ride already-existing ones will save a bundle. But, what about lodging and sight-seeing and other things? Stay tuned for more hacks.

**EDIT: You can also bike around China, which is an exciting, though physically-demanding way to see the country. I’ve met travelers who have done this, though I’ve only tried this once (read here) and it was a grueling experience for me, given that I had not trained for it and was at a pretty high altitude. When I did it, there was a deal between hostels at opposite ends of the route that let you switch out/leave bikes. I’d be interested to try more, but if you’re into biking, god speed, dear friend!