The train itself was a nice and interesting experience. For about $100 each, we traveled 1000 miles in about 5 1/2 hours, with a maximum speed of 215 mph, and an average speed maybe 175 mph. It's amazing for a few reasons. 1) You can't feel the speed at all. It's smooth and frictionless. You can barely even feel the acceleration. 2) It's really comfortable and has nice bathrooms. Seats recline further than in an airplane and there's much more legroom. 3) It's so convenient. You just get to the station 10 minutes before it leaves. Security is fast and easy, and there are no restrictions on baggage.
Esther picked us up at the train station in her company car, which is basically just her car. It's a pretty good deal having a local tour guide/driver/awesome girl to show you around.
Hangzhou's main attraction is the famous West Lake. It's big enough where you could walk the whole thing in a day if you really wanted to. It's packed with beautiful gardens, peaceful tree-lined paths, birds, animals, stone bridges that reach across small estuaries, and historic sights like pagodas, temples and turtle-packed ponds. We spent many a comfortable afternoon walking and enjoying.
Our hotel was located right at the lake, so we checked in and went for a walk on the lake the first evening. It had rained hard earlier that day, and although the forecast called for rain everyday (of every city on our two week journey) we actually only encountered rain twice the whole trip. This evening was one of those two times, and we had forgotten our umbrellas. We were strolling, marveling at the beautiful views, enjoying the calm breeze, and snapping pictures.
We were blissfully unaware that the looming premature darkness foretold another major thunderstorm. I mean, we could see it coming, but looking around at all the locals, unconcerned and equally un-umbrella'd, we figured they knew what they were doing. Turns out they did know, and when it started pouring, they produced umbrellas by using magic. We sought cover at the entrance of a nearby temple with the 20-some other umbrella-less unfortunate.
Out of boredom, or possibly elation, esther suggested we go out into the rain and play. To her surprise, i accepted her invitation. Moments later we were standing on the threshold, pockets emptied of valuables, hand in hand, waiting for the other to back down. Neither did, and we ran out into the torrential downpour, soaking us within moments. The damage done, we walked all the way out to the lake, sloshing through inches of accumulated water. We danced, we kissed, we stared off into the lightning filled darkness, with the falling rain creating our sensory-deprived solitude. Mom snapped a sweet picture with my camera.
Esther took us to a number of sights throughout our three days. We hiked 310 steps to the base of the 9th century Baochu Pagoda, passing bamboo groves and rock outcroppings along the way. The destination itself wasn't so spectacular, but the journey was nice, and the Rents became pretty popular with the local kids at the top.
We also explored Leifeng Pagoda, one of the most striking sights on the West Lake. This one actually has an elevator, so unlike Baochu, you can ascend to the top for views of all Hangzhou. At the top, i practiced my nature photography on thousands of dragonflies.
Otherwise, we spent our time wandering around and joking. It was a really easy and fun visit. We ate well too. We went to Grandma's Kitchen twice for dinner and had probably the best chicken ever. We learned how to eat lotus seeds. It's also worth noting at this point that, while in Beijing, i challenged Dad to a beard-off, and he accepted. For the first time in his life, he is unshaven of his own willpower. Updates on that alone should be enough to keep you checking back!
After three wonderful days, we left Hangzhou and esther for Kunming, our gateway to exploring the mountainous western province of Yunnan for the next 10 days.