My colleague and I have returned from our weekend in Hangzhou. We had a great time — leisurely boat rides on West Lake, reading on sunny park benches, fried noodles, foot massages, and breakfast buffets! What's not to like about all that? Our trip got off to a great start in that we had a soft-sleeper compartment on the train all to ourselves, a very rare occurrence. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that airline tickets are currently a bit lower than the train tickets. Our plane ticket back to Beijing was cheaper than our train ticket down. Go figure.
It's hard to travel in China without some bit of adventure and this trip was no different. Before leaving we'd heard about a town 50 miles from Hangzhou called Wuzhen. It's one of China's ancient "water towns" — villages and towns built along the canals that criss-cross the area. The city of Suzhou is China's most famous 'water town' and is sometimes referred to as the 'Venice of China.' Most of these towns have long since been destroyed, but for some reason Wuzhen has survived, and in keeping with the spirit of modern China, has reinvented itself as a tourist destination. Now the buses and the cash are rolling in!
When we arrived in Hangzhou Friday morning, we started asking around regarding the best way to get to Wuzhen. Our thought had been to hire a cab for the day, but it turned out to be too expensive. Instead, we took the radical step of signing up with a Chinese tour group. It was only 120 kuai per person for the bus ride out and back plus the entrance fee. We figured we could just ditch the tour once we were inside. I actually made that clear to the tour guide when we signed up and she didn't have a problem with it. So, early on Saturday morning we found ourselves as the only white girls on a bus with 30 or so Chinese tourists bouncing across the Zhejiang countryside.
Chinese group tours are a unique cultural phenomenon in their own right so we knew this was going to be an interesting day. The first order of business was to make sure that we all had big blue buttons to pin on our coats. These buttons had the name of the tour company and our guide's cell phone number. We were thrilled to get the button, because it identified us as being part of the group–real insiders! As soon as the bus pulled away, the tour guide assumed the role of school marm, drill sergeant and Soup Nazi, laying down the law on all the do's and don'ts of the day and delving into every single minutiae of what we could expect to see and do in Wuzhen.
She also had the interesting linguistic habit of referring to herself in the third person, as Tour Guide, and she talked into the mic very LOUDLY. IN EXACTLY 33 MINUTES WE WILL STOP AT A REST AREA SO YOU CAN GO TO THE TOILET AND DRINK TEA. WHEN TOUR GUIDE SAYS GET ON THE BUS, GET ON THE BUS. AT WUZHEN, TOUR GUIDE WILL BUY YOUR TICKETS WHILE YOU WAIT IN LINE. ONCE INSIDE TOUR GUIDE WILL TAKE YOU TO VISIT…(this temple and that home of a famous Chinese writer)…Then she launched into a detailed explanation of what souveniers they could buy. TOUR GUIDE SUGGESTS THAT YOU BY A SILK QUILT AND DRAGON BEARD CANDY. I will say that our fellow tourists were only paying Tour Guide perfunctory attention, but when she got to her detailed description of all the wonderful food available in Wuzhen, the bus got quieter and people seemed a bit more interested. TOUR GUIDE SUGGESTS THAT YOU EAT HONG SHAO MUTTON. Then she mentioned the fish–TOUR GUIDE IS TELLING YOU THAT THE FISH IN WUZHEN IS DELICIOUS–whereupon the bus came alive with excitement, and heads popped up like a "whack-a-mole game! Fish? Did she say fish? There are few things in the world that bring Chinese tourists more joy than eating fish in new and exotic places, and as we neared Wuzhen everyone around us was buzzing about the fish while we were busily plotting our escape.
We arrived in Wuzhen at 10:30AM, and Tour Guide gave us our tickets. I reminded her that we were going to walk around on our own and she responded TOUR GUIDE WILL NOT WORRY ABOUT YOU. JUST BE BACK HERE AT THIS SPOT AT 1:30. We hopped on a boat to tour the town by way of the canals, and Tour Guide disappeared into the village with thousands of other tour groups, all with their own personal Tour Guides talking at them through bull horns. We did not take Tour Guide's advice and eat mutton or fish, nor did we buy a silk quilt (it sure was tempting, though!). Instead we found a quiet teahouse overlooking the canal and sat in the sun reading for a couple of hours. At 1:30, we joined Tour Guide and the others with blue bottons pinned to their jackets and boarded the bus back to Hangzhou. A good time was had by all.