Revel in the celebrity status westerners often experience while travelling in China. Take a trip to beautiful Hangzhou in Zhejiang and enjoy fake superstar fame
I was famous last year.
Fifteen days straight. Perhaps it was my catwalk strut or dazzling white teeth or a combination of my vintage boots and Saint Tropez fake tan. Rather, I was spending the summer in Hangzhou and my western looks amongst 3.9million Chinese residents was clearly novel. Oh, how the hoards stared. Approaching for numerous photographs, action shots with grandma and constant hugs with the grandchildren. I have never felt so adored.
Visit China and leave all pre-conceived ideas behind. Forget the stories of countless Starbucks and relentless westernization swamping the nation's cultural heritage. In China you are the stranger in a very foreign land. As soon as you set foot on Chinese soil you will be stared at, followed with cameras, probed, poked and gawped at for the duration of your stay. You are no longer the known, but an oddity observing the poignant and fascinating history of a rapidly developing land. One with a charismatic charm that will engulf you the minute you leave the comfort of your western airline.
Hangzhou is the capital of the Zhejiang province, two hours south of Shanghai. Famous for its stunning West Lake steeped in history and wildly embellished tales of emperors, serpents and heroic prostitutes.
What to do
Spend a day strolling the 15 kilometre circumference of the West Lake, or for those in a hurry rent a bike for free. A deposit of 300 RMB is required but sensibly, there are numerous drop off points along the lakeside. Bear in mind passers by will be more inclined to stare at you rather than the beauty of the West Lake and expect lengthy delays while mounting and dismounting for photographs with Chinese families.
Visit the Leifeng Pagoda on the hill for breathtaking views across the West Lake with Hangzhou downtown acting as a pleasant backdrop. An added bonus, outdoor escalators have been provided to take you up the rather steep hillside but entry will set you back a cool 40 RMB.
See the West Lake at night. Particularly impressive is the evening water display. Every half hour fountains shoot fifty foot jets flamboyantly, dancing and skimming across the lake, cascading rainbows of neon colours across the night's sky.
Buy a silk parasol. There are countless souvenir stalls dotted around the lake selling glamorous handmade silk parasols. Do not be fooled by the exquisite beauty, such an item will set you back a mere £2 and look truly enchanting.
Have a Starbucks, if you really must; they do exist but are comparatively expensive and lack charm. Instead, try a traditional Chinese tea house. In Hangzhou, the local speciality is the Lotus Plant and you might quietly sip a Lotus tea while watching Chinese pensioners play chess. They're far less interested in waiguo ren (foreigners) than the youngsters and you will need the peace and quite to recuperate.
Where to stay
I personally stayed in Hangzhou downtown but I would recommend visitors choose a hotel closer to the West Lake. Search www.asiahotels.com for simple and clear hotel advice. Be thorough when looking, I once stayed in a Chinese hotel that had no windows. If in doubt stick with hotel chains such as Ibis, Best Western and Holiday Inn. They may not be luxurious but they are relatively risk free.
Do not leave without
Drifting down a side street and trying traditional Chinese cuisine from a family run establishment. As a general rule, the more downtrodden the exterior, the more your taste buds will thank you for it. Look for places where six generations are all sat inside playing cards. On entering they will jump up; half will scamper to the kitchen and you will be fussed over mercilessly. In addition, you will experience some incredible local ingredients. Hangzhou is famous for Beggars' Chicken but simple dishes like green beans and garlic will awaken the senses of your tongue you did not know existed. And for 70p per dish the only downside is how rotten your mouth will be the morning after.
Buying large quantities of silk on Xinhua Road. The quality and standard of silk is impeccable. Try on a traditional Chinese dress called a Qipao and imagine yourself as a beautiful and wealthy empress for half an hour.
The Chinese people find westerners fascinating and enjoy practicing their English on unsuspecting tourists; indulge them by acting the diva at least once a day. The Chinese are particularly friendly and accommodating. Embrace the photo opportunity, strike a pose and smile because they are likely to be slyly camcording you from afar anyway.
There are countless other activities to experience in Hangzhou, never mind the exhaustive haggling for illegitimate Chanel bags. Look online for official tourist websites and suggestions for things to do at www.TravelChinaGuide.com.
And keep in mind the word for photograph, zhaopian, you will be sure to hear it throughout your stay.