China 2009-a: Hanging Out in Hang Zhou

We spent a weekend in Hang Zhou, a city famous for its beautiful lake - and rightly so. Even almost hidden in mist the thing was more scenic than any three sun-dappled glades you care to mention. Walking over the obviously misnamed Broken Bridge, you could take a photo in any direction and pass it off as an asian painting: mist-hidden waters, a one-man boat visible in the distance, fog-shrouded pagodas on layers of forested hillsides looking so damn asian you expect a martial artist to fly out of them on invisible wires and kick you in the face.

We visited Ling Yin temple, and I have to tell you - that is one hell of a lot of temple. I was almost templed out. Climbing through the various buildings, full of amazing statues (and in one case, an actual art gallery) it began to feel like a video game - after clearing each stage of temple, there was only a large staircase and the clear threat of even more temple. By the end I was expecting an epic final boss: my first glimpse through the ultimate doors was of vast arms, metal piping and swastikas. "Awesome!", I thought, and started compiling strategies to defeat a CyberNazi Buddha (I was strongly counting on some kind of glowing red weak point on his ample belly). Alas, the metalwork was scaffolding for the workmen maintaining the vast statues, and the symbol was of course the poor, misappropriated and mirrored Wan symbol of Buddhism.

Descending the stairs again took a shockingly short time - it seems that the climb had not actually been long, simply so full of artistic and cultural input that it seemed to take much longer. It's one of the best things about visiting an entirely different place, where your brain opens up the intakes and time seems to stretch like when you were a kid.

The other side of the lake is a much more Western view, a stretch of waterfront taken up with every expensive brand you've ever heard of, and many your tax bracket means you haven't. We're not just talking TAG Heuer, we're talking Vacheron Constantine. Who frankly make TAG look like novelty watches won by knocking over coconuts. The Vacheron store was smaller than its own banner but that hardly matters - at US$300,000 a watch it could have stocked enough in there to match Jordan's gross domestic product. When a store can outstock a country, that is one exclusive store.

There was a Rolls Royce showroom. I don't know how many people pop out to admire the view and declare "Dash it all, I'll treat myself to another Rolls while I'm here, don't you know", but the answer is obviously non-zero. Even though such customers obviously have a lot of zeroes, often with a tasteful "one" placed artfully in front of six or seven of them, to spend.

If I was to pick up the King of Cars, it wouldn't be in a downtown Hang Zhou store unless the sales staff could prove to me they had a working teleporter. One that could transport my new possession at least out of the city and preferable out of the country. The Chinese view roads as merely treated surfaces for cars to drive on, and if you're thinking "but that's what roads are" it's because you're assuming all kinds of rules that simply don't apply here. Every major Hang Zhou intersection has a forest of traffic lights to attempt to direct the traffic, and at least one police officer to attempt to get people to listen. Think Mad Max without the weapons, but with the extra aggression channelled into the driving instead - nowhere else will you see a taxi try to bully a coach out of its lane. From inside the taxi, if you're unlucky.

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