Biking is by far the best way to explore Hangzhou. In fact, a bike is needed to see everything in the tourist town. There is a trail around the perimeter of Xi Hu (West Lake) as well as on both of its causeways. The government-subsidized red bikes are the most popular and cheapest to rent.
Hangzhou has several bike stations scattered around Xi Hu. Rachel, my fellow tourist from Hong Kong, taught me the ins and outs of the Hangzhou bike system. First, a $300 Yuan (44 USD) deposit needs to be placed at a bike station booth in order to get a card. By scanning the card on a bike stand, you unlock a bike and are free to take it wherever you like. The trick to the system is that the first hour is free. After that, the price goes up incrementally. Rachel timed our bike rides so that when we had been out for almost an hour, I would quickly find a nearby bike station on the map. We’d then scan our card on an empty bike stand to lock the bike, wait a minute, unlock it, and continue biking. All the bikes seemed to be the same and after a while the only characteristics I had to look for were a high seat and working bell. Aside from those inconsistent qualities, the bikes were pretty good and exceptionally stable, which is a blessing when you have to navigate around crowds of pedestrians and brake to save yourself from turning taxis.
In some locations, bicycles were forbidden from lakeside parks. Biking around the lake was still enjoyable, but I was always eager to get near the water again, so I finally pretended to not read the Chinese signs and entered the park. I was promptly yelled at by a Chinese cop, biked away, and got a picture of the cop strolling where I had just been. There is something Soviet about the appearance of security guards and policeman here, who always seem dwarfed by their fur-lined black winter coats two sizes too large for them. What especially struck me about the Hangzhou cops was how peacefully they’d stroll around the beautiful lake shore while being attentive enough to yell in a split second at an American girl biking into the park.
After having fun being thrown out from three gates by three different guards, I decided to stop messing with Chinese law enforcement. However, there was one clearing next to the lake that was three meters from the bike path with a beautiful bridge and Lefang Pagoda in the background. Desperate to get the perfect picture, I carried my bike this time, placed it on its kickstand, and proceeded to take a picture. No sooner had I turned on the camera, than a guard started yelling at me about the parked bike. I communicated as best as I could with hand motions that I wasn’t biking, but just stopping to take a picture. He wasn’t pleased with my attempted explanation and started lifting the bike, so I carried it three meters back to safety.
By this time, a green guard was approaching and they seemed to be conversing about my nerve to carry a bicycle in to take a picture. Perhaps the cop wasn’t as worried about the bike being stolen as I was. I then figured that maybe if I got the same cop to take a picture, I could keep an eye on the bike and a thief would have to be a little more gutsy to steal right next to a cop.
The cop was actually quite glad to take pictures. After finding a place to put down his tea thermos, he even motioned for me to pose a few times to take photos from multiple perspectives.
A few hours before catching the train from Hangzhou back to Shanghai, I visited a bike station booth to get my deposit back. After returning my card, the woman at the booth put one finger up. I couldn’t imagine what she was referring to, since the rental fees I had accumulated couldn’t have possibly been more than the deposit. I finally asked, “yi quai?” She nodded, I handed her a one yuan coin, and she paid me back the full 300 yuan deposit. I basically paid 15 cents to rent bikes for two days. The price was completely out of proportion with how much biking enhanced my trip to Hangzhou.