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Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Hang Zhou, China: Sofitels, Shopping, and Magic

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Suzy Beijing closeupDear Peter,

While you look at the postmark from this postcard you must be thinking Hang Zhou is easy to say and easy to identify—a very famous getaway city in Southern China, home of the Song Dynasty and the epicenter of the ancient silk industry.

The only problem is that Chinese is a language of intonations and so it’s pretty dicey to even tell someone where you are bound for the weekend. Most people thought I was saying Hong Qiao, which is the Shanghai domestic airport.

They look different in print, but sound surprisingly alike. So from now on we hang ten and call it HZ, as it is written in official Chinese documents, license plates and Web sites.

BONJOUR CHINA

There is little more startling than arriving at a very Chinese city where there are even fewer Westerners than in Beijing and Shanghai and having the doorman, an adorable Chinese young man of maybe 20, say to you “Bonjour, Madame.”

We had booked a Sofitel package that included some nights in the Sofitel Hyland in Shanghai (totally redone and right on top of Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s downtown pedestrian shopping street) and a weekend at the Sofitel Westlake in HZ, the best hotel in town.

Hang Zhou Tea and Nut StreetThere are two Sofitels in Shanghai; the one downtown is a secret find that was booking at $140 a night online—the best deal in China. The hotel is all Frenchy modern with the best croissants in town. On Saturday morning, they put us in a car and sent us to the newly built Shanghai South Station, an architectural feat so unusual that special cranes had to be created to complete construction.

A very fast train is expected to connect Shanghai and HZ in a few years; now we have the moderately fast train which goes about 100mph and gets you station to station in 70 minutes. Although little in the HZ station was in English, we followed the crowds and found the welcome area where our hostess had a sign with our names written out boldly. We sped through the New China with our mouths agape.

Although HZ is a historic center, most of it must have been razed and rebuilt, maybe yesterday. Now it’s new, clean, tall, modern and welcoming—there’s even blue sky and clean air. The Sofitel Westlake is located a few miles from the train station at the end of the main thoroughfare and at the lip of West Lake. Yes, it’s just a few hundred yards from the Starbucks Westlake.

The hotel is, thankfully, not a high rise which makes it very intimate and cozy. Each venue at the far end of the six-story hotel, be it suites, restaurants or the breakfast lounge, overlooks the lake. We arrived just in time for lunch at the hotel—a feast chosen to represent local products and flavors. Because this part of China is known for its tea plantations, some of the dishes were cooked in tea.

TIME TO SHOP

Hang Zhou Silk StreetWe actually came to HZ to shop, as I’ve been hearing about the night market for many years.  I had high expectations of wonderful shopping and many silken bargains. Before nightfall, we had other stops to make.

There’s a famous silk street—since this is the heart of the silk-making region—and, of course, a tea market. Silk Street was clean and attractive, but very touristy and not very up to date in terms of fashion merchandise. At any market in Shanghai or Beijing you will find styles influenced by the work of Shanghai Tang. Not here!

We got an Hermes-inspired silk scarf (hand-rolled hem) for $15 (much bargaining and posturing) and later regretted not buying more. The truth is, by the time we got to this market we had already been in China about 10 days and had seen more sophisticated merchandise elsewhere.

Next we drove to the Tea Market which in fact is the Tea & Nut Market. (Who knew?) The market seems like just a series of storefronts in an arcade at first but is an entire village and very deep.

Tea & Nut Market, Hang Zhou ChinaI had no idea how popular nuts were in this area or how different familiar species could taste. The pecans (untreated) tasted like butter pecan ice cream while the walnuts, which I normally do not like, were tiny and sweet and addictive. Sometimes you feel like a nut.

Finally, it was 6 p.m. and we could seek out the Night Market. Many said it would only start at 7 p.m. but go until midnight. Others said 6-10 p.m. Even within our hotel, there were varying thoughts. We headed out on reconno and found everything set up and blissfully uncrowded at 6 p.m.; by 7 p.m. it was a zoo. (As in Hang Zoo.)

And now I sing the chorus of “Is that all there is?”

This market I had dreamed about over a period of years was OK but not big, not special and not even that good. There were many fakes in terms of wallets and handbags, but they weren’t good fakes. There were DVDs and the asking price was 5 yuan, half the price in Beijing.

Night Market Hang ZhouThere were some stalls of antiques, fake makeup brands and my favorite—one gal selling “Hello Pig” merchandise. Who needs Kitty when you can have Wilbur? I did buy a few things for Jay Leno, including a DVD named Little Goat and the Big Big Woolf.

THE MAGICAL PART

We had to leave the night market by 7:15 in order to be at the lakeside outdoor theater to see Impression Westlake, which the team at Sofitel insisted we see. I would have preferred to shop all night until I learned that this show was directed by Zhang Yimou, who did the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

When I saw that show on NBC I had tears in my eyes and goose bumps on my arms … I wondered what kind of creative mind could come up with the imagination to produce such a show. While in HZ I learned that the Opening Ceremonies was but the crowning glory to a style of show this team has made for many of China’s most famous venues.

Impression West LakeIn 2008 we saw a man walk on a sphere. Last night I saw a man, and then a troupe, walk on water.

Much like the Cirque du Soleil, the presentation has no words and is international in its language of story and humanity. If you’ve seen Le Reve at The Wynn in Las Vegas, this is a similar show without air tanks and with much colder water. Under the cover of night, actors fly neon puppets and balance candles, dance into koi, become drums of light and float on wooden pagodas. A man and woman meet, marry and separate, and the feathers truly fly across the sea.  Check it out at www.hzyxxh.com

SUNDAY ON THE ROAD

We chose to drive back from HZ to Shanghai, about three hours … if you just drive. Instead, we stopped in the city of Hai Ning with its enormous fur and leather center, went to the FoxTown factory outlet mall (www.foxtown.com) and eventually got to Pudong for our final days of shopping in Shanghai.

As we drove the European-style freeway we agreed on one thing—HZ is the place for us to retire.
Koi Kisses,
SuzyKG

By Suzy Gershman for PeterGreenberg.com.

Go on a shopping spree with Suzy! Join her this fall traveling through Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro with Suzy Gershman’s Born to Shop & Spa tour with InterContinental Hotels. The tour runs from October 13-21, 2009, including a “luxury scavenger hunt” in Recoleta, tango lessons, wine tasting, scouring the Copacabana night market, Amazonian spa treatments, and much, much more. Rates start at $3,600 per person, not including airfare. Contact Sarah Lahey at srlahey @ gmail.com for more information.

And don’t forget to check out Suzy’s blog at www.borntoshoplady.blogpsot.com.

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