By Nanki Chawla
Hangzhou (pronounced Hang- jo), in the Zhejiang province of China, is one of the most overlooked cities when planning a great backpacking trip around Asia. Although the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors (Xi’an) and the famous skyline of Shanghai are stunning, the absolute contrasts of the city of Hangzhou can’t be matched anywhere else.
The city is 200km south of Shanghai, but less than 2 hours whizzing by at 350km/hr on the bullet train. The rate of development in China means that you’re scarcely in the countryside en route, but seem to go though town after town until you get to Hangzhou. The city is a mesh of skyscrapers, traditionally styled pagodas, huge metropolitan streets, shopping centres, and its most famous attraction: the beautiful and historic West Lake.
Hangzhou is bigger, uglier in parts and far more beautiful in others, than is expected. It has a population of 8.7 million (and is still considered a fairly small city.) Much of it is built up with gargantuan, indistinguishable apartment buildings and offices; however, the area around the West Lake retains its famed beauty. The splendor of the West Lake alone should be enough of a draw to come to Hangzhou. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains and the last borders the city centre. The area is absolutely stunning, almost indescribable. It has a wild beauty to it; something that matches romantic notions of what China might be like. Pictures, unfortunately, don’t do it justice. It retains vistas of beauty in every type of weather imaginable, the sun, the rain, at sunset. Surprisingly, it was most striking when the blues and greens of the lake area are juxtaposed with a grey and often rainy sky.
The historic beauty of the city in the day, however, is not the only reason to bullet-train over to Hangzhou; it is matched by a modern, frenetic energy at night that must be experienced. Having heard about the legendary nightlife in China, I was expecting amazing nights in Shanghai and Beijing, not in this lesser-known city whose claim-to-fame comes from natural beauty rather than wild nights out. The nightlife however was nothing like I expected. It’s surprisingly expensive by Western standards and so, hugely expensive in Chinese yuan. Only the elite can really afford to go out. Oddly, foreigners still seem like much of an anomaly in this city, and anyone from abroad is showered with free beer, sometimes whole bottles of vodka and the attention of far too many strangers!
The first club we went to (and I’d recommend it every time) was called Phebe-bar. Walking in, you’re immediately hit with not only the overwhelming smell of smoke, but also what literally feels like a wave of heat. Since the smoking ban in most bars, I’m completely unused to the smell of smoke, which seems to sink into your pores and smell for days after. The eccentricities of the club are many: it has one massive central stage and several smaller ones dotted around it. Phebe-bar is decorated with chandeliers, giant teddy bears and strange, old-school propeller fans, not to mention the massive massage chairs that are sat just outside the main room. They seem to be as big of a draw as anything else! There’s live music in the form of a bleach-blonde Chinese singer, surprisingly good but if you listen closely, her accent always gives her away. If you’re lucky enough to meet some international students like we did, you may get access to a special “foreign guests” card which allows every foreigner three free beers every time they go there. Even so, it’s more of a local’s bar: full of masses of people bumping and grinding to the music, listening to the group of people on stage dressed like clowns, who shortly jumped off to dance around the room in a massive all-inclusive conga line. (We went back: the conga line is a nightly staple.)
Coco Club is the most like a “normal club” in Hangzhou. The décor is somewhat minimalistic – white sofas, white dance floor, angular square bar, all of which is flooded with red light. The drinks are expensive, but the atmosphere is worth it. The music is a banging mix of the latest chart hits and old-school hip-hop – the place is always busy, but the real entertainment starts if you meet the club’s manager, a Nigerian guy called “Jeff”. He likes to hold dance competitions playing people off for a free bottle of vodka – everything from dance-off’s to holding sex positions on stage. ‘Nuff said. This combo is apparently a massive success and the place is always packed full of expats, international students and sometimes tourists. The party goes on till late.
Hangzhou also has what seems to now be a staple in every city around the world, a Reggae Bar. It has the classic red-green-yellow décor, a massive wall of bottles behind the bar, excellent cocktails and usually live music. The music features Bob Marley of course, but it does branch out from the standards. The food’s good (burgers, fries etc) and it’s where to go if you just want a chilled out evening. The crowd’s usually a mix of college students, internationals and tourists. It’s definitely worth checking out for a slightly alternative night out in Hangzhou.
For a more earthy experience, I’d recommend West Lake Forest Bar, which as the name suggests is set right next to the West Lake. You enter through a fronded cave, into a large dark and smoky room with tables adorned with poles, a distinct lack of a bar and instead, waiters who bring you whole bottles instead of single drinks, and oddly, a large variety of Karaoke rooms. You can have some fun attempting to navigate the Mandarin menus and singing along to terrible cheesy-pop (the only music there is), and then go through to the dance floor to discover… it bounces! A real live bouncy dance floor, with springs in the base, which adds a whole new dimension to dancing (read: bouncing) – you should probably skip the heels that night. The actual music was a pretty standard mixture of chart hits and the odd bit of electro, but the place is always thrumming with Chinese students and the bouncy dance floor is in a word: epic!
This is only a small selection of the myriad of clubs and bars that Hangzhou is host to – the city is beautiful by day, but far more exciting by night. The locals are up for anything, the internationals desperate to meet new people and everyone’s hugely friendly. You have to stay out all night to really get to know the city, the enthusiasm of its people and the real pulse of the Hangzhou experience, one you don’t want to miss out on.
Good to know:
– All taxi’s have a receipt that you can request – hold onto these and if you leave something in a cab, it’s easy to track it down.
– Alcohol bar in mandarin is ‘jiu-bar’.
– Track down deals for foreigners if you can – there’s always something.
– Karaoke is cool.
– If you’re blonde, so many pictures will be taken of you, you may lose more than a modicum of your eye-sight.
– Squat toilets are the norm, even in bars, when you’re drunk. Toilet paper is not. Be prepared.
About the Author
Nanki Chawla is a writer and travel junkie living in New Delhi. She blogs about travel and human rights (only sometimes together). Currently working and saving to go somewhere new – will take any and all travel opportunities! Check out her blog here: www.nankichawla.wordpress.com.