I learned that night that Chinese love to sleep on really hard beds (at least they say they love it, but I suspect it is related directly to their budget because I've noticed that the wealthy Chinese seem to mysteriously opt for very comfortable Sealy's and the like). Most hotels, except for the very top end 5 Stars, have beds that are just too hard for us spoiled Westerners, and this hotel, perhaps a consequence of its Red Army ownership, had a bed that was like concrete covered by a single cotton sheet . So I awoke early, unsure if I had actually slept at all, showered, and began a lengthy quest for coffee, which I normally can not begin my day without.
My "Chinese Date" was to last 4 days, and my beautiful Chinese lady companion was coming to Hangzhou by train to meet me that afternoon, so having been driven out of bed by discomfort at about 6 AM, at least 3 hours earlier than my intended wakeup time, I had some serious time to kill.
Starting with the breakfast buffet that was included in my room charge and was being served in what could have passed for an army mess hall (or should I say a Red Army mess hall), I scoured the joint but found no sign of coffee whatsoever. I also found little evidence of palatable food. The Chinese vision of breakfast disappointed me then and it disappoints me still. They generally seem to not differentiate between breakfast and other meals when it comes to most dishes, with the exception of a sort of rice porridge called Congee. More and more the hotel buffets include a variety of Western food for breakfast, but that hotel, 5 years ago made no such effort whatsoever.
Congee, as it turns out, is not that bad if you do it right, but even now I can not handle it for breakfast. Bare congee has the look, feel and taste of lumpy Elmer's Glue, which I recall from my childhood being equally disappointing as a culinary item. However it turns out that all those various piles of dried and strange looking things piled next to the congee pot are actually ingredients to be added to give it flavour, and some of them are actually very good and turn the congee into something not half bad. However, those things tend to be spices and pickles and other items that I will never be able to associate with the word "breakfast", so breakfast in China continues to disappoint.
Luckily that morning I discovered two items that apparently both I and the Chinese like for breakfast; grilled tomatoes and bacon. In fact as it turned out the bacon was as good as any I'd ever had. So 56 slices later (perhaps I exaggerate but I got my money's worth in bacon) I ventured out into Hangzhou to track down some coffee. This turned out to be no small quest with a surprising (to me anyway) ending.
Hangzhou is advertised both within China and in international travel guides, such as "The Rough Guide", as one of, if not the, most beautiful cities in China, and that is exactly why I was there for my first look at China. The highlight of Hangzhou is what the Chinese refer to as "the famous West Lake" so I decided that I would go check it out as I was as likely to find coffee there as anywhere else. It was still only about 8 AM, and I anticipated a relaxing stroll around West Lake. By coincidence I am now in a committed relationship with a beautiful Chinese Woman who is from Hanhzhou, so I have come to know it as truly being one of the most beautiful cities not only in China but perhaps in the world, but my experiences that day , on one of the busiest tourist travel days in China, did nothing to endear Hangzhou to my heart.
First, I stepped out of the hotel into an incredible schmozzle of street traffic, mostly pedestrian, which immediately shattered my dreams of tranquility. Next I took a taxi ride to West Lake that bested any chase scene from any movie I have every seen. I've now come to realize that every taxi ride in China is an adventure of sorts, but this one was wild even by Chinese standards. I stepped out of the taxi into a sea of people. It was still just 8:20 AM.
West Lake in Hangzhou, on most days of the year it turns out, is indeed very tranquil and beautiful, but on the first day of May it is like fighting your way through the departing crowd at the Superbowl, only you are the only one in the crowd with no real combat experience embroiled in a battle you must fight every step for miles. West Lake park is a big place and every square foot was being coveted by at least 2 people. I saw no grass except by looking straight down between my feet, I saw no lake except a little shimmer through a sea of heads, and if I had not been taller than 98% of the Chinese people I doubt I would have seen the trees .
After 4 hours of pushing and shoving my way though this mass of people, all of whom seemed as unconcerned as I was agitated, I, with my right elbow up and my left hand firmly gripping my wallet pocket, emerged from the crowd at another exit point of the park and stumbled along the street leading from the park into a commercial area. This area was far more crowded than major cities I have lived in, such as Los Angeles or Vancouver, but compared to West Lake park it was vacant.
Every second building housed a Tea House, and every Tea House was packed with customers, and not one Tea House seemed to even recognize the word "coffee", let alone serve it. I went on like this for a long, long time. It was early afternoon now and I knew I had to make my way back to the hotel shortly for my much anticipated meeting with my new Chinese Ladyfriend (who I was now starting to envision as my saviour), and I was already looking around for a taxi when I saw IT.
I had no expectations by now of finding a coffeeshop, thinking that at best I might find a western style restaurant that would serve something at least pretending to be coffee. So it was with no small surprise that I spotted what has become one of the most familiar logos in the west. Up ahead was a Starbucks. I will not bother you with my thoughts on Starbucks prior to coming to China, except to say that my previous boycott of that purveyor of coffee came to an abrupt end at that exact moment. It was with great joy in my heart that Starbucks instantly became my new best friend.
Not only was it a surprise to find a Starbucks in Hangzhou, but this was the biggest Starbucks I had ever seen. It seemed massive, and it was full of customers, all Chinese. Boy, those guys at Starbucks know how to market. I headed back to my hotel with not one, but two, mucho largo super grande coffees of the day. And they had that exact same over roasted almost burned taste that Starbucks serves the world over and which until that moment I hated so much but now I loved. Boy, those guys really know how to market. "Make bad coffee but keep it consistent and they will come (even in a world that drinks only tea)." Who knew?
I arrived at my hotel just moments before I was due to learn lesson # 1 of web dating, which you are about to learn as well if you did not already know (I can not be the only guy in the world this naive) , so I went and freshened up and drank my two litres of coffee. I had barely started to feel the caffeine surge when the phone rang and Chinese Date # 1 announced her arrival. Suddenly nervous, I made my way down to the lobby.
Lesson # 1: Do not assume they will look like their picture.
I should not have been overly surprised. After all, I had used a picture that did not reveal my 4th month pregnancy (slight beer belly), and also did not pronounce the grey in my hair, but at least mine had been taken in the last two months. Hers may have been taken in the last decade, but I doubt it. Before you fly all the way to China to meet someone talk to them openly and honestly about the presentation they are making to you. Tell them you're sorry but you've had bad experiences before and you just want to be sure that you both will be meeting the person you expect to meet. If she waffles trouble is on the horizon and you might as well cut it off early. Postpone your trip and find someone else, or if you really like her, ask her to come clean and send you the pictures that show the current her. Maybe it can still work.
In truth, this was still quite an attractive Chinese lady, much more fetching than my most recent dates back home, but in her pictures she was stunning and at least 10 years younger and 10 pounds lighter than on our meeting. If she'd been honest from the beginning I probably would still have wanted to meet her, but now we were off to a bad start. When she shyly asked if she was what I was expecting, being ever polite, I falsely said yes, she was very pretty. After I translated the word pretty to "beautiful" she was ecstatic. Through good manners and fear of conflict I instantly turned a bad start into a 4 day date in hell. If I'd just been honest maybe we could have saved something of a relationship, friendship at least, but with my own innocent little well intentioned lie I drastically compounded an already bad situation.
Lesson # 2: Be honest no matter what. I do not mean brutally honest, I mean kindly, gently honest. It will save you both a world of grief.
Off we headed to my room. (Next issue, details of the date in Hell!)