An Innocent Abroad – Ups and Downs in China

I think I used to be smarter or at least more careful. Here in Shanghai I feel like a baby. Yesterday, to make a day trip to Hangzhou, another really big city (aren’t they all) I first took the wrong train (slow) to the wrong station (Hangzou South) and then took the wrong bus to get to the right station before I finally made it in a taxi.

If you’ve never been in a large Chinese city train terminal, it might be hard to imagine the crowds, the din, and the confusion, especially if, like me, you can’t read or speak Chinese. Before exploring the city, I wanted to assure my return to Shanghai. This meant learning the fast-train schedule and buying a ticket. I was dismayed to see that in the ticket office at least 100 people were lined up at every window. Nowhere were there signs in a language other than Chinese, passing strange in a city that is home to one of China’s greatest attractions. I hoped there might be a tourist office somewhere on the vast premises, and as I was belaboring an uncomprehending store clerk, a miracle occurred.

His English name was James, and he looked to be in his mid-twenties. He spoke passable English and asked if He could help me. Guardedly, I said I was looking for the tourist office, which I wasn’t even sure existed. James didn’t know of one, but when he learned what I really wanted to know, he led me out of the ticket hall to another part of the station containing a rank of neat self-service machines that sold tickets for fast trains only. Eureka! Exactly what I wanted. They even had an English-language feature. In no time I had my neatly printed ticket with time, train number, car, and seat number.

I had been suspicious of James at first. There are scams aplenty here, as in any big city, and I guess I’m not so innocent after all. But this guy just really just wanted to help me, an expression of human nature at its best. Travel miracles do happen sometimes. Kay and I have been thankful for them in the past.

With my travel worries behind me, I was free to see what I came for. Hangzhou is a city of six million, and it is, if anything, even more congested than Shanghai, a scramble of honking buses, automobiles, motor scooters, and bicycles with pedestrians dodging among them. And then, after many minutes of this, you cross a street and suddenly are in a different world entirely.

West Lake
West Lake

West Lake was a lagoon until, in the 8th century, the local governor dredged it and created a good-sized lake boarded by hills and greenery. Today, the hills are still there and now surmounted here and there by pagodas, and there is a serene walkway that may surround the entire lake. I walked a good part of it during the three hours of my visit, admiring the flowering trees, the floating willow boughs, and the tasteful architecture of the lake shore pavilions.


Here, were middle-aged couples engaged in the kind of ballroom dancing we only see in movies these days. There, a woman was singing what must have been a love song. Everywhere, there were strolling couples, families with young children, and the elderly keeping their measured pace.


Young singles in groups were there, too. At one place they were lining up to get glasses of green tea from a huge simulated tea pot.

On the water, wooden boats powered by a single man with a single steering oar glided silently by, giving rides to couples and small groups.

For those who didn’t want to walk there were electric carts that moved along the perimeter.


Over all, a weak sun shone through a cloudy sky and the air was heavy with haze and mist. It was easy to see why this spot have been celebrated for centuries in song and story, beautiful West Lake.

The day ended much differently than it began. My fast train started, and I arrived in Shanghai an hour later, a distance of 200 kilometers.

I’ll have more to report about China, but this is it for now. Thank you to all who responded to my last mailing. When traveling alone. It’s good to feel in touch with friends and loved ones.