There are two famous sayings that I have encountered numerous times during my stay in Suzhou, each also pertaining to Hangzhou…
“Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou.” (生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州) – Suzhou being renowned for its beautiful, highly civilized and educated citizens, Hangzhou for its natural beauty and scenery, Guangzhuo for its culinary accomplishments and Liuzhuo for its nanmu wooden coffins which supposedly slowed decay.
“Above is Heaven, below are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” (上有天堂，下有苏杭) – Paradise on Earth, my friends.
In my mind I have thusly linked the two cities together and was therefore very excited to learn that our class would be taking a trip to Hangzhou of a sunny June weekend.
Hangzhou…what to say about Hangzhou. Well…it was formally founded during the Qin Dynasty, about 2,200 years ago. It was one of the 8 ancient capitals of China (the others being Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Anyang and Zhenzhou). Like Suzhou, it was notable for being an ancient center of culture in addition to diplomatic interchange between various Asian nations. It was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty from the early 12th century until the Mongol Invasion in the mid-13th century. In modern days it has earned a well-deserved reputation as a tourist mecca…hundreds of thousands of visitors a year flock to Hangzhou to taste regional specialties and take a boat ride on the famous West Lake, not to mention partaking of the famous Hangzhou tea and visiting famous sites like Ling Yin Temple. I was more than happy to be milling about with the throngs of Chinese families and business vacation groups (companies do actually go on vacation together…retired people even go on vacation with the companies they used to work for…)
The first order of business in Hangzhou was to take a boat ride on the 西湖 (West Lake). To paraphrase Wikipedia (no complaints – I love that website!), West Lake “is not only famous for its picturesque landscape, it is also associated with many scholars, national heroes and revolutionary martyrs, thus embracing many aspects of Chinese culture. In addition, many ancient buildings, stone caves and engraved tablets in surrounding areas are among the most cherished national treasures of China, with significant artistic value.” This is certainly apt – I had been reading about West Lake in my various literature and culture courses long before setting eyes on it, feeling as if I had come to know portions of its physical and spiritual geography through the poetics of others.
...Graham on the West Lake…
...John on our boat…
...The West Lake is also pictured on the back of the 1 yuan note (1 RMB)...
The boat ride itself was sweetly uneventful and slow. I had my first experience with frozen sweet red bean paste during the ride – both the signs at the booth and the vendor swore it was ice cream, which was a huge lie. The other students were experimenting themselves with frozen treats – someone else had taro ice cream (taro, for the uninitiated, is a root vegetable) while another was responsible for passing around a wretched stick of green bean ice cream. The lucky ones were those consuming delicacies like peach juice and mango Popsicles. As for me, frozen pureed red beans will always remind me of the hum and sway of a lazy morning on West Lake, and thus hold a special place in my memory.
...Red carp in the pond…
An amazing street snack sold in a tiny woven bamboo basket…八宝饭 (Ba Bao Fan – 8 Treasure Rice Pudding)...
Jillian, in her ever-patient state of modeling things for my lens…
Chinese gardens are strange and interesting places. Since the emphasis seems to be on cultivating nature rather than taming it (as appears to be the case in Western gardens), you may find yourself winding down a stone maze and coming face to face with nature in the most immediate and surprising of ways. For example – I was attempting to take a photo of the West Lake from one of the islands when I came thisclose to tripping over a peacock that was promenading down the walkway. Here’s the photo I accidentally snapped as I was still regaining my balance. The peacock, of course, was completely unaffected by imminent crushing…the fact that I was swaying from foot to foot overtop of it did nothing to hasten it’s departure…
One of the most well-known Chinese poets, Su Shi, has strong ties to Hangzhou….the poem I should put on here is one of his most famous, comparing the beauty of West Lake to the beauty of a famous Chinese courtesan, but my favorite is one he wrote about his wife after her death.
(江城子) – Jiang zhenzi
Ten years living and dead have drawn apart
I do nothing to remember
But I cannot forget
Your lonely grave a thousand miles away …
Nowhere can I talk of my sorrow—
Even if we met, how would you know me
My face full of dust
My hair like snow?
In the dark of night, a dream: suddenly, I am home
You by the window
Doing your hair
I look at you and cannot speak
Your face is streaked by endless tears
Year after year must they break my heart
These moonlit nights?
That low pine grave?
蘇東坡 (Su Dongpo) was one of his pen names…there happens to be a famous dish from Hangzhou called Dongpo Pork attributed to his hands…whether or not that is true is anyone’s guess, but I like the sentiment of that thought…
Longjing Tea, or Dragon Well Tea, is probably the most famous and most popular green tea in China. Like most teas, there are various grades of Longjing ranging in price from well-that’s-pretty-affordable! to am-I-drinking-liquid-gold?!?...it is known for its flat, needle-like shape and is often served to visiting foreign heads of state. Along with Suzhou’s awesome 碧螺春 (Biluochun – Green Snail Spring), this is my favorite green tea. I do admit, though – Biluochun ranks higher in my universe as long as its of higher quality. For everyday drinking, nothing beats Longjing.
One night around midnight in my dorm room, as I was lounging on my floor giving myself a pedicure and contemplating life to a background of CCTV, I happened to catch the end of what must have been either a tourism commercial for Hangzhou or a tea company advertisement that featured groups of frolicking, cavorting “peasants” throwing handfuls of Longjing into the air like confetti while dancing amidst the ensuing green blizzard. Strangely unforgettable.
Anyway. There was no shortage of street vendors selling this fabulous tea anywhere they could set a basket. This photo was taken in an alleyway beside Ling Yin Temple.
After a morning spent nibbling on 8 Treasure Rice Puddings and Red Bean Ices, everyone found themselves in varying states of hunger at lunch. I personally wasn’t up to a 10 dish meal then, but I couldn’t justify going to Hangzhou without trying at least one of their local specialties.
西湖粗鱼 (West Lake Fish in a Sweet and Sour Vinegar Sauce)...
灵隐寺, or Ling Yin Temple (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat), one of the most amazing places I have ever visited.
Everyone agreed on an amount of time to wander at will through the temple grounds and a meeting place for the end of the day, so quickly I found myself splintered off from the others and exploring on my own. I had heard something about rock carvings but didn’t realize the scope or extent of them…or that they were inside the caves themselves, carved into the milky jade of the cave walls…
I found myself walking alone into a cold underground cavern that was completely dark…no artificial lights or illumination…but I could hear people walking in front of me, so I pulled out my camera and used the flash to get my bearings…this is the first photo I took…
And these are some of the rest…
There was just something about being down in the dark, inside the damp chill of the mountain caves, surrounded by these carvings and feeling them pressing against the air that was, in turn, pressing against myself. I’ll never forget it.
And, on a completely random note…a statue we saw driving through Hangzhou (photo taken from the bus window) that is a rendition of one of my favorite literary characters, the Monkey King from the classic epic Journey To The West…
So, yes…Hangzhou. And for those of you wanting a taste of Hangzhou at home…as promised in my previous post, here’s the first recipe of my blogs…
Serves 2 to 4
1 pound fresh shrimp (peeled, deveined, and rinsed) or frozen shrimp (rinsed)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine for marinating, + extra splash for cooking
1 tablespoon cornstarch for marinating, + 1 teaspoon cornstartch dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water
2 cup Longjing tea, leaves strained out
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced ginger
Salt to taste (optional)
Longjing leaves for garnish (optional)
In a medium sized bowl, combine the shrimp, Shaoxing, and cornstarch. Marinate in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes.
(Now is a good time to steep the tea, if you haven’t already done so. You can always brew extra tea to drink with dinner.)
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large skillet. Quickly stir-fry the shrimp until half-done, about 1 to 2 minutes, then remove and set aside.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Stir-fry the garlic and ginger until just fragrant. Return shrimp to the wok, give a quick toss, and then a light splash of Shaoxing. Pour in tea and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cornflour mixture to thicken the sauce. (I personally don’t think this dish needs any salt, but you can add a pinch if you deem necessary.) Transfer to a plate, garnish with optional dry leaves, and serve immediately.
It should be noted that some versions of this recipe add egg white to the shrimp just before frying, lightly coating the mixture before tossing in the hot oil.
I would be very interesting in feedback on your culinary attempts here, ladies and gentlemen.