Wednesday 8th November 2017

Hiking in Hangzhou

This last weekend saw me departing my flat at 06.30 on Saturday morning, travelling for nearly an hour on the Suzhou metro and then for almost an hour and a half on one of China’s impressive bullet trains. My intention was to join up with one of the birding friends I had made a month or so ago through the Shanghai Birding group, and we had agreed to meet at our destination, Hangzhou East railway station. However, by one of those extraordinary coincidences that seem to pepper my life, it turned out that her pre-booked seat on the almost full train was right across the aisle from mine, so we in fact started chatting immediately after she boarded at Jiaxing, where she lives.

As always, my wish was to head away from the crowds, an aim which is not easy to achieve in China. We had been advised that it might be worth visiting some forested hills behind the Liuhe Pagoda, which towers over a hill on the banks of the Qiantang river. The taxi ride through the vast, modern metropolis of Hangzhou hinted at nothing of the ancient history of this former capital, and it was with some relief that we entered the forest on foot, and almost at once the peace of the forest embraced us.

Although the weather has cooled down delightfully over the past few weeks, there has not yet been a frost, and a number of butterflies are still flying. As well as the ubiquitous Chinese Comma, I was pleased to see a couple of Indian Red Admirals and a few of those marvelously delicate fliers, the Common Sailer, Neptis hylas, although none posed in a suitable position for photography.

Indian Red Admiral, Vanessa indica

Searching for birds in Chinese forests seems not be easy, and at first we found very little, although a Crested Goshawk circled high above us, showing its prominent “gular” stripe (a stripe along its throat) very clearly.

A bleeping and speaking effigy of a friendly policeman motioned us towards a flight of steps leading up steeply into the forest, and we powered our way up to the ancient tomb of Gong Zuiyu (1622 – 1685), a prominent official during the Qing Dynasty. The statues of guards and their horses flanking the approach to the circular tomb itself looked genuinely ancient, although it is often hard to tell what is authentically old and what is a recent reconstruction.

The policeman saluted us on our way to the tomb

The steps leading up to the tomb were but a taster of what was to come!

Sometime it is hard to know what is genuinely ancient here

Had we known what lay ahead of us, we might not have made the effort to climb up to that tomb; the flight of steps leading up to it was nothing compared to the stairway to Heaven that we now found ourselves faced with. We struggled up, stopping to catch our breath every now and then, and it was a considerable relief to arrive at the top of the hill, where a chilly wind was whistling across the ridge, and a fine panorama of wooded hills stretched out ahead of us, contrasting with the blue waters of the renowned beauty spot of Xi Hu, or West Lake, with the modern skyline of downtown Hangzhou beyond.

Little did we know that these steps were the first of many

….many many many!

A view back over the river towards a southern part of Hangzhou

Once we reached the top, West Lake and downtown Hangzhou were visible in the distance

Our route now took us down a narrow pathway, on which we had to make way for numerous groups of hikers on their way up. We asked what they were doing, and we were told that they were on an organized hike from the nearby Zhejiang University.

It was not long before we emerged into a beautiful area of tea plantations, the rows of neatly clipped tea bushes stretching up the valleysides. The whole of this range of hills is now protected as the home of the renowned Longjing tea, and we enjoyed the warm sunshine and a few birds on the woodland edges next to the tea plantations. Japanese White-eyes, Black-throated Tits and a small group of Tristram’s Buntings were a pleasant find, and I was pleased to see a spectacular butterfly, the Common Jay (not a bird, but a member of the Swallowtail family), Graphium doson, flitting over the tea bushes, but it did not pose for a photograph.

Walking down through the tea plantations was a delight

The tea grown around Hangzhou is apparently quite renowned throughout China

We finally emerged on a roadway at the bottom of the valley, and it was clear that this a popular weekend destination as there were large numbers of people enjoying the woodland, including an extraordinarily dressed group of girls dressed up in weird costumes. We asked them what they were doing, and apparently they were celebrating their graduation. Their costumes made up for the lack of ornithological interest, and nobody could claim that we had seen nothing of note!

There may not have been many birds to see, but this lot provided considerable interest!

An extraordinary sight

Meeting couples in wedding garb is common in China, wherever beautiful photos can be taken

It certainly is a picturesque area

A beautiful pool in the forest

After a delicious, late lunch at a restaurant, we wandered back towards the main road, where one of the difficulties of travelling in China manifested itself. We needed a taxi to take us to our hotel, which was situated across the wide river, and which it would not have been possible to reach on foot. In the gathering darkness, there was no taxi to be seen at all. There is a mobile phone app here called Didi, which shows all available taxis nearby, but it said “No taxis are available”. Hmmm, what does one do? Luckily, finally an occupied taxi arrived, and we nabbed it quickly.

The following day emphasized these difficulties even more. We had arranged to meet up with a British birder who lives in Hangzhou and his son, and they arrived without trouble, but again when we tried to find a taxi none were to be found. It took perhaps half an hour or more before we finally got one, by the same method….but our troubles were not over: almost all roads and, crucially, the bridges over the Qiantang river were closed to make way for the Hangzhou Marathon, which we had not reckoned with.

After a lot of telephoning to his head office, the taxi driver did eventually manage to understand that we were suggesting that he look for an alternative bridge rather than driving round in circles, and we did finally make it to the Botanic Gardens, where we were intending to do some further birding. Even here we were initially blocked by temporary fences along the marathon route, but a bit of insistence persuaded the officials to let us through.

The gardens were splendid, and we were soon away from the crowds, and surrounded instead by birds. A patch of fruiting trees had attracted numerous White-vented and Black Bulbuls, Chinese Grosbeaks, Red-billed Blue Magpies, Chinese Blackbirds and a lone female Mugimaki Flycatcher (I love that name!).

Hangzhou Botanic Garden is certainly worth a visit

We ventured further into more forested areas, away from people, and were rewarded with sightings of Rufous-capped Babbler, Yellow-bellied Tit, Red-flanked Bluetail and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, as well as a few faded individuals of an attractive species of Tree Brown butterfly, Lethe syrcis, that were floating around in a clearing next to an ancient commemorative stone.

Lethe syrcis was a new butterfly species for me

By this time it was approaching the time when Shelley would need to start making a move towards the station if she wanted to catch her train at 14.20, and we walked out of the gardens towards a major road. However, as before, no taxi was available. Eventually, we decided the only option was to head on foot towards the nearest metro station, which was some considerable distance away, and we started trudging in that direction.

Suddenly we saw a taxi, and flagged it down, and rather than asking the driver to simply take us to the metro station, we asked him to head straight for Hangzhou East railway station…a bad move, as the traffic was soon almost at a standstill, and we eventually reached the station after her train had departed.

Normally missing a train in China is apparently not a problem as it is possible to go to a specific window and request a ticket for a later train, but there was to be no possibility of that on this occasion. All remaining trains that day were fully booked out, and standing is not permitted. Oh dear! It looked as if a night in a Hangzhou hotel was on the cards for Shelley, but eventually we decided to find out how much a taxi ride back to her home in Jiaxing would cost (there were plenty of taxis free here). After some communication difficulties, she received a quote for about 250RMB, which was certainly less than a hotel and a further train ticket would have come to, so off she went.

I still had two hours to kill before my train was due to depart, so I headed upstairs to the restaurant area and had a meal, and then wandered around in awe at the vastness of the station and the hoards of people waiting for their trains. For someone who is far more at home in the countryside, I must say that urban China is a daunting experience for me.

Everything is on such a huge scale here

The vast numbers of people in Hangzhou East station were quite a sight

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