Hangzhou day three: Buddhists, buses and the bane of the Buchdahls

7 Jan

A good place to come after Christmas and New Year

Monday’s glorious sunshine had been fleeting. My breakfast porridge matched the Scottish weather, what with the mists and dour grey skies. But I had planned my day to the hour. I would cram as many temples as physically possible into the morning, then at 14.30 hours arrive back at my snack street for a final binge that would get me through the inedible aeroplane food.

After popping into the Jingci Temple on the basis that it was right next door to my hostel. It took less than three quarters of an hour to ogle the incense and take some snaps of Buddha statues. Then I took a bus to the Lingyin Temple.

The main temple site is reached via an odd shopping street featuring a negligee shop, a couple of KFCs and a snazzy-looking fruit market. No sooner was I past the ticket barriers than I found myself on yet another flight of stone steps into hills. Just as I was thinking that 40RMB was a bit steep for more traipsing through the mountains, I suddenly came across the Buddhist carvings. Lingyin became a whole lot more interesting.

Buddha has a good chortle

I had assumed that “Peak Flying from Afar” was a bit of a Chingrish translation of the cable car that you can take right up to the top of the peak (I decided against this based on the weather). However, it turned out to be a series of 10th to 14th century Buddhas carved into the rocks around Lingyin. My favourite was the rotund laughing Buddha, who, according to the helpful sign in front of him, had a belly large enough to swallow up all the discomfort in the world and always laughed at misfortune.

Beneath the caves were a network of carvings. Most were pretty packed with tourists, but (as with every Site of Interest in China) a short walk away from the path and up a bit of a slope led me to more that were completely deserted.A noise like voices through the trees and the tunnels and holes in the cave roofs grumbled and whistled, each gust preceded by a whump sound like a drum or traffic speeding past.

I looped back round and paid another 30 RMB to go into the main part of the temple, which includes the Hall of the Heavenly Kings. It was certainly impressive. The Great Hall in particular was crammed with bronze statues of people on their way to enlightenment ranging from a wizened old man who looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, to a monk holding a mini temple model, to another cheering with both hands as if celebrating a goal, and even one who was having a good itch with a back-scratcher.

Monks like a spot of basketball too, it seems

But the best bit was yet to come. Free of charge, but quite a walk away from the main tourist area, was a beautiful series of Buddhist cloisters wrapped around the woods and streams in the mountains. Other than one or two irksomely noisy students, it was empty.

I took a bus back – finding the stop again took some effort – and arrived at West Lake at about 2pm, much later than I had expected.

From then on, everything got a bit stressful. Like it or not, I am a Buchdahl. Buchdahls do not like to be late. There is nothing that stresses me out more than the thought that I might miss a plane. Nothing, that is, apart from when I realise I am stressing out and consider I might be turning into my mother/father. Paradoxically it is often trying to prove to myself that I’m “chilled” about catching a train or a plane (yes, a plane, once) that causes me to miss them.

West Lake out of season

I forced myself to look around the Quyuan Gardens, but the fact that all that all the fragrant lotus blossoms were dead, January not being lotus season, made me all the more hysterical. I started towards the famous Snack Street. The walk there took a lot longer than I wanted it to.

It was coming up to 3pm. I had been walking since 9.15. I had eaten nothing since breakfast and my hypoglycaemic  mind started creating more and more disasters – traffic, inability to find a bus, not being able to get on board the bus, a faulty plane ticket. I mentally turned back my departure deadline from “sometime around 5 or 5.30ish” to “4.30 at the ABSOLUTE LATEST, and that means being on the BUS at 4.30”. My flight, I should mention, was not until 8.15.

I eventually made it to the snack street, my hands trembling on the map. In record time I bought a bag of souveniers and four items of street food, but eating them on the go proved more difficult than expected. I downed my spring roll in one gulp like a sword-swallower, and gave up entirely on chopsticking my fried-rice-in-a-pineapple into my mouth, instead taking bites out of it as if it were a sticky sandwich. Rice, peas and pineapple juice poured across the street.

I arrived at the hostel not at 6pm as I had feared, but at 4.15. My relief was only fleeting. The hostel staff told me that the bus I had arrived by on Sunday did not in fact go in the other direction. I would have to take a different bus to catch the airport shuttle coach from a different stop. “Even then,” said one guy lazily, “the airport bus won’t stop to let more people on if it’s too full already.”

I panicked. I rushed out onto the street clutching directions on a note that the hostel staff had just written out for me, and an empty taxi pottered towards me. I had been told that it was utterly impossible to ever get a taxi in Hangzhou, particularly between the peak hours of 4 and 6pm. I took this as a sign and dived in. Thankfully we got to the airport before the meter hit 120 RMB – that was all the cash I had left after my street food binge.

And the time? 4.55. Those bloody Buchdahl genes.

Still, that left me with a good three and a half hours to dedicate to my street food.

Takeaway challenge no. 1

All I can say is, eating a crab from a polystyrene box without any of the requisite claw-cracking tools or meat poker-outers is not an easy task, even less so if you are sitting on an airport waiting-room chair. Praying that no one around was too offended by the seafoody smell, I slurped as much spicy meat out of the legs as I could and prodded a bit more from the body with a chopstick. Then I gave up and moved onto the main course.

So much more than a clay potato...

Take a whole tiny chicken, feathers still on. Wrap it in lotus leaves and coat these in clay. Bake it for hours and hours. Then sell it for 30RMB as Jiaohua tongji, or “beggar’s chicken”.

If getting into a crab without utensils had seemed tricky, it was nothing compared with the task of cracking open my jiahoua tongji without a knife. Black clay crumbled all over my lap and the airport floor as I tore at the solid potato-shaped mass. Eventually, from the wreckage of leaves and dirt, I managed to salvage a pile of beautifully cooked chicken onto a tissue. Of course, the feet were still on, and I avoided the spot where I thought I might find the head,  but thankfully all the feathers had dissolved during the cooking process.

Success is a tissue full of chicken

Aside from the fact that I ingested a fair amount of clay along with the meat, it was ideal – the perfect end to three days of sheer, unadulterated me-time. Beijing may still be the Chicken Feet’s King, but like that little Jiaohua tongji, Hangzhou certainly wins the title of Prince.

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