I heard it first in Kansas, quoted by folks who once taught in China, “There is heaven, then there is Hangzhou.” Then a California artist raved about dragon boats on West Lake. After three years of Asian crowds, pollution, and street smells, I expected Hangzhou to be yet another Chinese City with a proud list of firsts/biggest/oldest sights. Another English teacher, my roommate Tracy, voiced her expectations. “I hear they have a Starbuck’s!” My plane landed just before midnight. I bought a 20-yuan ticket ($3, inside the airport) for a 45-minute bus ride. We passed a few moonlit fields and many new three-story dwellings with distinctive Muslim architecture. I counted six onion-domed rooftops before city lights came into view. I practiced echoing “Hangzhou tai hao (Hahng JOE tie HOW, ‘Hangzhou’s very good’)” with my smiling cab driver a few-kilometer ride to my hotel. Ten-yuan minimum ($1.40US), with or without a Chinese lesson, brought me to Rest-JiaLi hotel near Grand Canal. Drinking a Good Hotel Roast We slept in luxury until breakfast: vegetables, egg rolls, breads, porridge, meats, and sweets, buffet style. Tracy drank green tea.I added real cream and sugar to flavorful coffee, savouring each sip. We eagerly asked to extend two more 249-yuan nights. “Dui!” The manager agreed and wrote 378 x 2, politely firm on his increased Labor Day price. Tracy called the Hangzhou businessman she’d met on the airport bus. Mr. Zhou drove us to Han Ting Express, where we got the last available room for 249 yuan, holiday price that fit our wallets. Thanks to Mr. Zhou, it took only an hour, some kind of record for transacting business in China. We saw a bus stop across the hotel street. Many buses ended up at West Lake, so we stayed aboard past city center’s steel-towers to circle the waterway. It was barely visible. People walked–three-deep–on Bai (White) Causeway’s walks, Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge, and waited for Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake boats. The bus spit us out at a restaurant with horned rooflines in time for chicken, mushrooms, green vegetables, rice and a flavorful, delicious tea. No coffee, but I learned why sipping Dragon Well Tea is among Hangzhou’s divine experiences. Substituting Dragon Well Tea From a window table, we looked past leafy trees to steel-gray West Lake rimmed in walkways and water lilies. I imagined concubines centuries back, demurely sipping the same tea here, waiting for emporers and high officials’ footsteps outside their lakeside villas. A perfect place for lovers. A non-romantic, short walk and 20-yuan ticket took us and countless Chinese families to Peak Flying From Afar. This grotto has 340 Buddhist statues, carved in stone during five dynasties. Before starting the climb to Lingyin Temple and its largest woodcarving of sitting Buddha in China, we sat beneath a pavillion and shared a peeled pineapple, bought earlier from a street vendor. Nectar for Americans and reason to laugh like the fat Buddha we’d just seen! It was slow going, what with crowds on the stone walks and stopping to take pictures; everywhere I looked, there was a symmetrical photo op.In/out of three temples on the way up Tianzhu Hill, the crowd thinned. Water and bird sounds filled the air. Fragrances lured us toward flowering trees. Bamboo shafts lifted our sights ever upward. Near the top, we followed paths into nature and left the hoards to kowtow in the “temple of soul’s retreat,” China’s oldest Buddhist restoration south of the Yantzee. Energy restored by a hotel nap, we ate Hangzhou Noodles with Pork and Bamboo Shoots and dipped cucumbers in a dark sauce. We strolled along 1500-year-old, hand-dug Grand Canal among subtle lighting, wu tung trees, and surprisingly few people. Finding Familiar Starbucks At the architectural center of the city, knife-sharp rooflines, graceful curvilinear skyscrapers, and metal sculptures of water caught the moonlight. We topped the city’s high point, learning WuLin Plaza and Starbucks were just across one of the canal’s 48 bridges. Instead, we continued along the bank. It was the greenest, cleanest urban walk I’ve had in China. I suspected Hangzhou’s being “backdoor” to Shanghai’s 2010 Exhibition visitors has spruced up gardens, streets, waterways, and businesses to lure tourists. Morning brought cloudy sprinkles, so we opted for Starbucks via Bus 8. Half an hour later, we suspected we’d taken it the wrong direction. Near a northern mountain, the line ended. A friendly student practiced English and helped us retrace kilometers (another 2 yuan, holiday bus prices) to WuLin Plaza for a latte. With Dragon Boat Festival a month away, Starbucks had added traditional temple food, zongzi, to their menu–45 mg of mango or red bean, 11yuan in a trendy box. We chose Western traditions–raisin scone and chocolate chip muffin.. Tracy pronounced it her Hangzhou highlight, “Comfort food!” Three busy turns, and we started snapped photos on three narrow streets lined with doorways from past eras. Children played with battery cars, folks cooked in open air, and a store-front salon offered massages. We bartered for an hour’s foot massage, 30 yuan, a pause that refreshed. No Beggar’s Chicken or West Lake Carp on menus, so we ate a nothing-special late lunch. A shopowner happily sold us traditional black paper-and-sandalwood fans. We found Qing He Fang Lu, our street name, but were gun shy about which way to take Bus 38 home. A travel agency worker sent us east after saying “Mei you” (have nothing) to a request for opera tickets. Walking under umbrella, my inner compass screamed “Wrong way!” We got hopelessly lost, unable to retrace our steps to the Plaza. When we gave up, cab fare cost only 10 yuan and ten minutes in rush hour. I had big hopes for the evening–vintage Peking opera in playright Hong Sheng’s home (although Zhou said tickets ran 500 yuan–$75). Instead, we peeled a mango and shared dark Swiss chocolate while Tracy surfed the internet. Biking After French Breakfast Awake early to lifting clouds, we carried a robust French Cafe blend and croissant on Bus 78. No crowds yet at West Lake, so we rented bikes–10 yuan plus hefty deposit for three hours. A left turn up and over bridges, stops to peek into art galleries and snap photos. I spent a half-hour at the pagoda where legendary Lady Snakewhite met scholar Xu Xian. They endured hardships depicted by seven floors of art. A bird’s-eye-view of West Lake from the top made me wish to explore each mountain path on my way down. Orioles sang in the willows, clouds scurried over Jade Emperor Hill. We rode past tea houses and 126 meters of dancing fountain sprays’ hourly show. Men and women alike stood under colorful silk-and-bamboo West Lake parasols against the sun.Voila! Two Starbuck’s visits shared rare Western toilets. Bikes surrendered after three hours, we wandered all the way to Silk Street. Fluttering silk flags beckoned us toward more silk garments and fabrics than we’d imagined. Bargaining was expected and, unusual fun. Carrying heavy bags of silk, we exited to eat Muslim beef and noodles, crossed a Golden Canal tributary to catch a bus to the hotel. Lucky Tracy had two more days. Aboard the airport bus, I thought to myself, “If I’d have found Hangzhou the first year I taught in China, I might never have left!” My “Must do” List for a Return Trip Japanese cherry trees in Taiziwan free park in March Six Harmonies Pagoda near West Lake. Paradise Park’s extreme sports like a 33 m bungee jump Polar Sea World’s underwater passage, polar bears, whales, and dolphins Xixi Wetlands urban ecological park with water chestnuts (spring), lotus (summer), athicanthus (fall), plum blossoms (winter) Wang Xing Ji Fans Shanghai Opera Money-saving Tips Have someone write “Bus to Airport” in Chinese. Show it to Bus 8 driver, and pay 20 yuan inside China Southern office for 45-minute King Long bus to/from airport to save costly cab fare. Hangzhou Tourism Commission travel guide gives you priority sites and a handy fold-out map. Walk for free, ride buses for 1 yuan (2 on national holidays, only a US quarter), hail cabs (10-yuan minimum), or rent a bike (3 hours–10 yuan plus refundable deposit). Check internet rates: Rest JaiLi ****Hotel’s 378-yuan rate was 249 (with breakfast) except for holidays.tel: 0571-8833-4888. Less-plush Han Ting Express was 200 (247 without breakfast on holidays) www.htinns.com tel: 4008.121.121. Remember to carry a hotel card to show cab/bus drivers. Walk! Walk! Along canals. On side streets. In parks. To markets. You’ll meet unexpected bargains, photo ops, friendly people, and glimpse Hangzhou’s past while keeping fit.