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Thursday, September 06, 2007


Drifting to heaven

Alex is an Italian student who is spending three months in Hangzhou researching fungus in peanuts. He is keen to experience white-water rafting. The closest thing to that in this area is 'Drifting in Shuangxi River', 30 km out of Hangzhou. Not exactly white-water rafting but perhaps a pleasant way to see some of rural China.

We had agreed to go together last Sunday but on the day it was raining and it looked like it had set in for the day. (It had.) We looked at some other options and agreed on 'Chuiyun River to Heaven' which was a boat ride into a cave. At least I figured we'd be out of the rain. Unfortunately the free guide book that is readily available in Hangzhou gives only scant information and locals are rarely able to fill the gaps.

I have a map of Hangzhou that is in Chinese but it does have the bus routes marked in Arabic numerals. There is a bus route not far from the university that takes you to the West Bus Terminal, from the information we had this looked promising. At the terminal we found a staff member who could speak English and was very helpful. She helped us buy our tickets and put us on the right bus.

'How do we know when to get off?' I asked.

'Stop at bus terminal.'

It was a pleasant drive through the rural areas with very green views not unlike those I'd seen before through bus and train windows. (See my flickr pages.) Eventually we stopped in a town, not at a bus terminal but a T intersection. The bus conductor called us and beckoned to us to get off. She pointed down the side street which ended at the foot of a mountain, maybe 500 metres away. Obviously the terminal staff member had asked her to let us off.

After we'd gone a couple of blocks we found a restaurant and decided to have some lunch before we took our boat ride. They had no English menu and spoke no English. Both of us had learned our Chinese in the same university restaurant and we ordered 'dan chau fan' (egg fried rice) which seems to be a staple that is available everywhere.

When we came out the rain was heavier. I had an umbrella but Alex had no protection. As we passed a store on the roadside the vendor called out and waved an umbrella. Alex decided he needed one so nodded. The vendor wrote '50' down on a piece of paper. After I bought mine in Vietnam a local friend told me it was cheap and nasty and I had paid too much. While Alex is reaching for his money, I'm doing some sums in my head and figured he should offer ten in hope of getting it for about 20. By time I'd figured this out he'd already parted with his 50 so I decided to stay silent.

Along the road to the boat-ride entrance were many stalls selling souvenirs, snacks and umbrellas. There was plenty of competition. I'm sure he could have got a better price. But he bought from the first vendor without knowing how plentiful the supply was.

The entrance to the boat trip was quite grand. China sure makes the most of its tourist attractions. We bought our tickets. When we went through the gates we were told that we could not use umbrellas but needed to buy a raincoat, 5 yuan please. These raincoats were really cheap and nasty, designed to last for this trip and not much more. Even 5 yuan was too much for them but we had little choice.

There is a walkway to the river bank and then it's into the boat. The ride to the cave lasts about 50 metres and then we were under cover for the rest of the journey, except for the occasional drip from the ceiling. The umbrellas might have damaged the cave formations - but only if we left them up.

The cave was attractive but not spectacular. The ride was pleasant. There was also the opportunity to disembark here and there, explore and take a few photos. In contrast to much of China, there was non-slip flooring in these areas for which I was grateful. The river is on two levels and at one point the boat is taken up to the next level on an 'escalator'.

The ride ended somewhere in the middle of the mountain. There was a long flight of stairs that took us to the exit. When we came out into daylight there were two options to get back to the starting point. We could walk or take a toboggan ride.

The pitch we were given to encourage us to take the ride was that the walk took 45 minutes and the ride 5 minutes. To walk was free and the ride was another 40 yuan. Alex was keen to take the toboggan ride just for the fun of it. I was indifferent to it however I was not excited by the idea of walking through the bush and pushing past wet bushes for 45 minutes so I agreed to take the toboggan.

The sales pitch was a gross exaggeration. The toboggan ride was over almost as soon as it started, closer to one minute rather than five. For 40 yuan I feel we should have had unlimited access to it for an hour. As for the walk, I estimate it would have taken about five minutes. There was a well-made concrete path and it would not have been the least challenging even in the rain.

I took a few photos of the mist covered mountain and town and then we walked back to the highway. There was no bus station but it looked like there were a few people waiting for a bus opposite where we'd been dropped off. We pointed to an approaching bus and asked 'Hangzhou?'. We were given hand signals to indicate 'no'. After a few buses we were ushered onto one. There wasn't much space left. Alex sat with a few others on a hard bench seat at the back while I got to sit on a wooden box.

The trip out had cost us 46 yuan for the two of us. I gave the conductor 50 yuan. He gave no change and issued no tickets. When we were about three quarters of the way back to Hangzhou the bus pulled into a service station for a toilet stop. (Without going inside I could smell it.) There was another bus pulled up there, one that we had previously been told to not take. The conductor gestured for us to change to that bus. We did.

Eventually we were dropped alongside a river at a bus stop. Neither of us knew where we were. Opposite, on a hill was a tall pagoda. A nearby sign, in English as well as Chinese, told us it was the Pagoda of Six Harmonies. I was ready to get out my map with the bus routes and figure out which bus would take us back home. Alex was less adventurous. He hailed the first taxi to pass and it took us the rest of the way home.

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