By Beaton Galafa
Hangzhou was my first city to visit since I arrived in Zhejiang in mid-September, spending all my days within Jinhua. I had missed a trip to Yiwu earlier out of paranoia. They had mentioned big companies and industries, and I abhor feeding egos of governments that want to parade civilization in front of us. I also simply did not find trolling around industrial zones exciting. With common narratives touting Yiwu as the largest wholesale market of small commodities in the world, we all knew the routine of any trip there.
At first, I was skeptical I would love Hangzhou. A friend had already told me everything about the city. I had endured nights of long calls about it, Yiwu, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. I understood the euphoria, though I would not do the same if people asked me about places – some of which I had never been to. Sometimes after the calls, he would turn to me and spurt his narratives out again detail by detail, explaining how some of the buildings were just so overbearing, towering above as you swaggered your way up holding a phone to take a selfie with Chinese locals crowding the streets in the background.
Just months into my time in China and I felt like I had already seen everything except snow. Soon there would be nothing left. This had made me a little nostalgic about the first two weeks within my arrival. Classmates had hiked Jian Feng Mountain,and I had missed out simply because I did not want to be up by 6 on a Saturday morning.
When the engine roared, I became as excited as I had been a few months back when the Kenyan Airways plane I had boarded a few hours after midnight took off back in Lilongwe. This time, I had the chance to be in a window seat. I could enjoy the view of skyscrapers and rocky hills lining the road from Jinhua until we reached our destination.
Arriving at the 2016 G2O Summit Complex – our team made sure we kept this in our heads: the red carpet we were walking on had once been stepped on by the world’s twenty economic powers of 2016. But the place was cold and sterile: the red carpets, security, and some foreign officials (probably politicians) in dark suits and contemptuous faces wandering about in groups from one hall to another, each with their own guide. I found the idea of bringing us here startling. I hung around a Laotian and a Malagasy friend taking photos.
The night brought a different feeling. Our bus dropped us at a junction near Gongchen Bridge – end point of the Grand Canal and a relic from the Ming Dynasty. From a distance, we could hear some loud music. Getting closer, we found dancers – both men and women – at a plaza just before the bridge. A friend suggested we join them, before a photo shoot craze at the bridge. Somehow I felt the locals didn’t want this. We were a crowd of strangers far from home with no connection to the dance, so I wasn’t sure how they were going to take that.
Still, though, we invaded the plaza, throwing our limbs and arms into every direction. We filled spots in between the dancers, our movements often trailing theirs as we imitated them. Some men and women who had surrounded the plaza to watch us and their friends dance burst into laughter as lights from their cameras flashed through the night. But we did not have the whole night.
We returned to our hotel a happy and tired lot. That was all I needed because we were not staying long. It would also be our first and last night in Hangzhou for 2017, but not my last for my stay in the city – I returned to Hangzhou in April 2018 for a Laos’ New Year party and later in August with the Jinhua Homestay Project team for a boat ride on West Lake.
Following morning, it was drizzling and cold. The previous night had ended on a high note, but the 14thof December looked even more promising and the places we were about to visit never sounded as cold. There was the Grand Jinghang Canal Museum with its ancient swords and furnaces. There was also the Zhejiang Museum where we would feast on the beauty of boats floating on foggy, rainy West Lake as we headed to and from Xiling Seal Art Society. Here, we witnessed a blend of ancient art and philosophy, pottery and the Buddha, that we could not resist the urge of falling into one final ploy of madness with phones and cameras switching hands again. The idea was to capture the moments and be able to relive them time and again later. As we walked around the place, we were introduced to ancient writings and little paintings of the Buddha on stones in a cave. Although we could not make much sense out of the paintings, I still felt like the ancient Chinese civilization I had read and heard about was right in front of me.
At dusk, we headed back to where the bus had dropped us earlier. This time, we would have to walk a little farther to some place where we would wait for a few more minutes. I was with a fellow Malawian and the Laotian I had spent the afternoon with at the Xiling Seal Art Society. To the right of the pavement were ancient-styled Chinese houses – the infrastructure in Jackie Chan and Jet Lee movies that had flooded the film industry in the mid-90s back home. My friend said it was the China we had all wanted to see – the China that made the Middle Kingdom what it was. The people and their traditions mattered more. He said the tall buildings and flyovers we had been exposed to ever since our arrival would be seen everywhere else around the world. It was not a peculiar sight enough to stimulate our love for this new place far from home, as were these houses whose curved roofs resembled artichoke leaves.
We found a group of our friends who had taken the lead standing at the waiting place: a covered front gate of an ancient Buddhist temple that appeared to be another tourist magnet. From a few meters, I saw some friends hustling past the gate, without success. I went closer. Then, I saw the gold and bronze giant shining from inside the temple. He was seated, calmly, with the right hand raised and stretched outwards with a mild inward twist at the crook. The left hand rested on the lap with an open palm. I felt the urge for one more photo for the day. I imagined myself sitting in front of the Buddha, my palms imitating him in every way as light from the gold bounced off my skin straight into the camera. I walked towards the entrance, but was stopped. I had to pay. ¥25 per head. Roughly 4 US dollars. With my phone off – I had no WeChat pay – I approached my country mate. He too had no cash. I looked for Daosavanh – fruitless. At last, a Kenyan lady overheard me complaining, and produced a ¥50 note.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
I was excited. I needed someone to hold the camera as I basked in the shining glory of the Buddha towering over me. I turned to Dao – as we always called the Laotian. We rushed towards the guardroom and queued behind three Chinese men and a lady. As we reached the counter, Dao turned back and tapped me on the shoulder. The bus had arrived. He grinned, and shook his head, not sure what to say. I rolled my eyes to the left, straight to the temple where the Buddha sat still, shining through the faint light from lamps that hung on the walls in the room. ‘Let’s go’, he said, tapping me on the shoulder again. We laughed as I turned around and started walking to the bus.
Beaton Galafa is a Malawian writer. His works have appeared in Fourth & Sycamore, Stuck in the Library, Love Like Salt Anthology, 300K Anthology, Casa/Home, Literary Shanghai, Mistake House Magazine,Eunoia Review, Transcending the Flame, Every Writer’s Resource, Betrayal, The Seasons, Empowerment,The Elements, BNAP 2017 Anthology, BNAP 2018 Anthology, Better Than Starbucks,Africa, UK, and Ireland: Writing Politics and Knowledge Production, The Wagon Magazine, First Writer Magazine, The Bombay Review, Writing Grandmothers, Kalahari Review, The Maynard, Birds Piled Loosely, Atlas and Alice, South 85 Journal, Nthanda Reviewand elsewhere.