When I hopped on a Hangzhou bound train with my dad and a friend one balmy May evening last year, I thought I would spend the next two days discovering the mist shrouded beauty of West Lake, where poets and scholars of centuries past gazed from its banks and murmured a few words of prose as they raised a cup of tea to their lips. Little did I know that the city would extend to me a welcome of the most unearthly kind.
It was late evening when we arrived at the Hangzhou station, weary and disoriented. Unfamiliar with the area, we followed the hordes of people, most of them also tourists, into a narrow hallway that led to a lower level waiting area to catch a taxi. Picture over 200 people crammed into a hallway with maybe one taxi passing every five minutes. The air was still and thick and I distinctly remember feeling my senses becoming clouded and my alertness wane. All the while, hustlers mingled among us offering private car transport at exhorbitant rates and warning us that the wait would be long. “No, going upstairs won’t help. The taxis won’t pick you up from up there and your hotel is so far.”
It was my dad’s mixture of exhaustion and impatience with the privateers that finally led us to push our way upstream out of the hallway and back to the arrivals hall to try our luck elsewhere. From there, we exited the station and found ourselves in the midst of a bustling city, nothing like the quaint, historic town I had imagined Hangzhou to be. Oh and there were taxis galore with their bright lights eclipsing the rays of the full moon overhead. The humidity made my eyes go in and out of focus and the lights from the cars distracted me from getting my bearings. We hailed a cab and at first he refused to take us saying that he didn’t know where the hotel was. When pressed, he grudgingly drove us a few blocks away to our hotel. Damn if this town isn’t more hustle than bustle.
If the Holiday Inn Express and a cheap motel hooked up, the hotel I stayed at would be their offspring. It was a chain used by Chinese travelers — cheap and efficient, with sheets for walls that barely muffled the sounds outside our door. We were given rooms on the first floor. My dad had a room to himself and I shared one with my friend. The window in our room was open when we entered and normally I would have closed them but since they were barred, we felt comfortable leaving it open and only drew the curtains in, leaving just a crack to let in the moonlight.
There were other late arrivals and they announced their presence noisily throughout the hallway outside. But I was tired and began to drift off as the echoes in the hallway continued on and on. I was on the edge of a dream when I was jolted awake by a loud ring from the phone at my bedside. Groggy and bewildered, I picked up.
“Hello? Wei?” My greetings met eerie silence. My heart began to pound. Who’s calling at that hour? Was it robbers checking to see if someone was in the room? I warily closed my eyes and tried not to think of people breaking down our flimsy door in the middle of the night.
Sleep was uneasy and fitful. Something was discomforting, nothing felt right. The trickery at the train station and the phone call already had me on edge. Then, I was alerted to the disconcerting sound of shuffling feet inside the room. It was my friend walking to the bureau in front of her bed. By this time, the planes of time were blurred and I couldn’t tell if this was real or if I was caught in a dream and so I remained mute as she stood there like a zombie for what seemed like an eternity before turning around and getting back to bed.
I tossed and turned. The room was humid but occasionally, a cold breeze would push through the window even though it was summer and the air had been perfectly still when we arrived. The curtains were heavy, I remembered. The air too, was heavy and pressed me into the mattress. The noises in the hallway turned into leaded footsteps…pacing. Or maybe it was from outside our window. Conversations, so faint like a distant gathering floated about. More footsteps to and fro. The smell of cigarette smoke wafted into our room. Was it the people who placed that phone call waiting and plotting outside our window or denizens returning home after a late night? Seriously do people ever sleep in this town?! I drew the covers over my head, curled up into fetal position and willed myself to sleep.
Morning came and brought with it relief and a more rested psyche. I got up thinking that maybe the odd occurrences of the night before was due my own exhaustion and unease from the train station the night before. After getting dressed, I went to the window, drew open the shades, and looked out expecting to see the early stirrings of a busy metropolis coming to life. Instead of a busy side street with shops or residences, I stared straight into the decrepit facades of a wall of houses that must have been a hundred years old or more. Empty windows and doorways stared right back at me, running the length of the alley. These doorways led to nothing but dusty debris and piles of wood, clearly untouched and uninhabited for years. The facades ran down the length of a deserted alley with no sign of other hospitable dwellings. I was taken aback by the sight. Maybe it was just a dream. I shook it off.
At breakfast, I told my dad about the middle of the night phone call and found out he received one as well except his caller was gracious enough to inquire if he wanted some massage “services”. Apparently, such late night hospitality calls are common in China but the thoughtfulness extends only to male guests of the hotel. If they hear a female voice, they hang up. Upon hearing that, I felt more at ease, chiding myself that it was sheer unfamiliarity that made for such a fitful state of mind and imagination.
Then my friend asked if I had slept well because she too had a restless night. First she dreamt that we were walking about town and discovered that all the cash she was carrying to pay for lodging had been stolen. She woke up from that dream feeling disconcerted and felt compelled to get up and check her wallet to confirm the cash was still there. The night’s events were starting to make sense to me now. And before I could tell her about the footsteps, the cold breeze, and cigarette smoke, and before I could laugh about how silly everything seems in the light of day, she continued on…
“And I went back to sleep feeling relieved and yet, later I awoke to something strange, like there was a presence nearby and I felt something cool and light brush by my head. I opened my eyes and looked straight into the face of an old lady who dressed in period clothing from times past. She was kneeling by my bed side, gazing at me with a hollow smile, and gently stroking my hair with her fingers.”