Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:56 AM CST – China

Essay

The Wheel Deal

It was the kind of scene one might come across in Brussels or Paris – in short, the very last thing I expected to see in Hangzhou.

“What’s Hangzhou like?”

This question kept coming up in Skype calls with friends and relatives from the moment I arrived in China, but I couldn’t seem to put together a description of this iconic city that went any further than rattling off a list of scenic spots and population data that anyone with a solid Internet connection and access to Wikipedia could have discovered in 10 minutes.

After one semester of studying in Hangzhou, it dawned on me that I’d hardly gotten a taste for the city I had been living in for six months, I resolved to make a change. So I bought an e-bike.

An “e-bike” is an electric, chargeable moped. Anyone who has spent time in China will almost certainly be familiar with these beasts, not least because they are the principal source of danger for anyone attempting to navigate China’s chaotic, fast-paced cities on foot. Having so far barely seen anything of Hangzhou beyond my university campus, an e-bike seemed like the perfect way to explore the city’s hidden corners and get a taste of what life for its people was like. So, just under 2,000 yuan (US$304) lighter (I was assured I could sell it for a similar price on departure), I hopped on my e-bike and buzzed off into the wilderness.

Early one evening in my second semester, I was driving to a location somewhere across town, with a friend riding pillion, when, suddenly, I noticed that all the lights to the left of us seemed to have vanished. Where a few seconds before there had been the familiar glow of streetlights, blazing windows and glittering headlamps, there now was an expanse of utter darkness. It was as though we had reached the city limits and left the buzzing metropolis behind, yet to my right I could still see buildings, streets, people and shops stretching ahead. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that what we had stumbled upon was not empty space, but an enormous cluster of identical, disused skyscrapers, looming over an eerie black hole in the middle of the city. Not a single window was illuminated, and nary a soul could be heard or seen. Doubtless built to accommodate an expanding population and meet increased future demand for housing, these would-be homes were made utterly lifeless and somewhat sinister in the absence of human life.

No sooner had we passed through this shadowy forest of concrete, however, than we emerged, startled, onto a bustling riverside boardwalk, lined with boutique shops, dimly lit restaurants and cozy cafés. It was the kind of scene one might come across in Brussels or Paris – in short, the very last thing I expected to see in Hangzhou. Reflections of the fairy lights hung between lampposts alongside the canal shimmered peacefully on the surface of the water while families sauntered leisurely by its edge. Before long, the dark, looming skyscrapers we had passed only minutes before were beginning to feel like a far-off memory, particularly when it became increasingly clear that we had taken a wrong turn.

As we drove on in what we assumed was the right direction, the warm, friendly buzz of the canal quickly fizzled away. The only buildings that could be seen were in the distance, and we began to see fewer and fewer cars, which was especially disconcerting given that roads in China’s city centers (where we should have been) are never quiet in the early evening. Although still far from the city limits, it appeared that we had driven into a gigantic construction site several acres wide that had been flattened, I presumed, in preparation for industrial or commercial development. In the process, the entire neighborhood had been turned into a ghost town. The wind blew a cloud of orange dust across the quiet road. A single man walked along the pavement pushing a cart full of bricks and piping. His unrelenting stare made it clear we were not welcome. With the light fading fast, I checked the map on my phone and we made a hasty retreat.

In just one evening, I had seen more of Hangzhou than I ever expected to. I was (and still am) struck by how much its landscape could change in the space a few miles, and especially by how different it was to the Hangzhou I had experienced behind the comforting walls of my college campus.

What’s Hangzhou like? Having explored much of it on an e-bike, my answer is now to recount tales such as this. Like all Chinese cities, it transforms from block to block.

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