Wednesday, December 07, 2005

China, part four...

Tuesday, November 29.
Reigate-brought-up, Croydon-educated Katie Melua seems to have attracted a fair degree of snotty media scorn lately for her hit which gauchely claims there are ‘nine million bicycles in China’. Frankly, I was more irked by her earlier lyric, insisting she was ‘feeling 22 … acting 17’ as if this was some madcap and daring defiance of some vast and inappropriate age gap…
But if she truly has over-estimated the number of bikes it didn’t seem she was far off during our time in Shanghai, where apparently-endless formations of furiously-pedalling cyclists would regularly swing and swerve into each highway. Couple these with even more - and more wayward - cars, and a little excursion into less crowded territory seemed a welcome idea.
So it was that on the Tuesday, a bus and a boat took us to and around Zhouzhuang, one of China’s most famous river towns, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai. Christy, Dan and Uncle Dave remained behind, but the rest of us set off shortly after 11am to visit a place Mum and Dad had seen with Lyndon a year earlier, and found to be more obviously interesting and alluring than the city centre.
Such is the scale of recent building development, it seems, with plenty of residential and office works-in-progress dotted alongside each motorway, Mum and Dad had some suspicions when he arrived that the old village had already been concreted over. Our hired minibus driver dropped us off in the general area, but we were only confronted by very modern-looking and barren squares, convenience stores and car park. Following a few ambiguous signs, and Dad’s vaguely-remembered instincts, we finally found the entrance to the historic district and after paying the entrance fee, found ourselves in much more promising surroundings.
I suppose the most obvious comparison would be Venice, since Zhouzhuang is noted for its 14 stone bridges, ancient houses - many dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, from 1369 onwards - as well as narrow footpaths and waterways and elegant curving gondola-style boats. The gondoliers themselves were at least distinctive - unlike the Italians, these were herded and handled by elderly women in batik jackets and singing ancient Chinese folk songs. When we took a trip later in the afternoon, ours sang in a rather shrill and shaky whine, hardly very easy on the ear but certainly atmospheric as we glided back and forth. Perhaps she was just China’s musical vengeance on me for the previous night’s disharmonious revels.
Instantly upon turning from entrance alleyway to main ‘street’, the market-traders descended. Stalls stood packed alongside every straight, each trader muttering the obligatory ‘Hello, looka-looka?’ or ‘Hello, just looking’ as you passed, optimistically tempting you to at least glance over their silk duvets, robes, painted tiles, ties, postcards or grains of rice upon which you could somehow have your name inscribed. Some traders would seem only half-hearted in their salesmanship techniques, others would call after you if rebuffed, or even follow quickly behind you, but unlike in Shanghai they very rarely actually tugged and became too pesky. Saving the shopping until after lunch, this time us veggies were the clear winners at an upstairs restaurant - again, remembered by Mum and Dad from their previous visit - where we misjudged quite how many different platters of vegetables we ordered, but making a very, very decent go of gobbling them all anyway. Auntie Win amused all by almost drifting into a reverie at the suddenly-recovered memory a ‘wonderful beer’ she enjoyed in China 35 years ago, so was the only one supping - and again enjoying - a bottle this lunchtime as the rest of us went for water and Diet Coke.
As well as the gentle boat ride, we also wandered around some of the expertly-preserved old homes which showcased some of the equally-well-tended paintings, furniture and shrapnel of ancient relics. I was amused by the mid-15th-century Zhang House which has the Ruojing River running through the middle of it. Much as I loved playing Poohsticks in the nearby woods while growing up in Finchley, I’m glad the murky Dollis Brook never actually reached our garden, let alone trickled through living room…
I finally broke into my first Mao-(who else?)-decorated Chinese notes as we all started piling into the patinas (Christmasgiftsforgirls-tastic), albeit with some soon-to-be-rampant haggling - Dad taking the lead, as Mum and myself scampered away embarrassed. I also felt bad struggling to shake off a persistent, poor man, tiny and high-pitched and bones in his face deformed, but who latched onto us after he alighted from our boat and kept emerging at every turn, trying to offer us packs of postcards. He wasn’t at all intimidating - how could he be - but did become a little irritating, guilty though I still felt. Dad later revealed sheepishly he had turned on him a little too harshly, only for the little man to leap back in the air, startled and horror-struck - obviously not what Dad meant for him to feel at all, but it got me thinking about just how physically feeble many people here were. Trudging along the riverside pathways were skeletal old men and women barely bigger than Western world toddlers, in a country where hundreds of millions have starved during the past 100 years yet keep on going, trying to subsist somehow, turn a profit thanks to us complacent tourists, all in a lifestyle, language and manners so eye-openingly different to anything I had experienced.
Not that I entirely approved of all the cuisine, meagre or mouthfuls, on offer here in Zhouzhuang’s streets. Every few paces you could pick up an extremely unappetising scent, savoury yet smoky, and really insidiously sticking around in your nostrils. I never did find out for sure what was the food responsible, though my mind’s eye now associates it with small squares of either flesh or nut textures, speared with thin wooden sticks and sizzling on street corner oven blocks. I don’t quite know why I took against the smell so much, it wasn’t fetid or nauseating, just so strangely acrid.
But still… Zhouzhuang was an entirely enchanting place otherwise, especially as the sun began to set, the long thins streets seemed to crackle with a little more pace and panache, and our weary walkers negotiated their last, sort-of-urgent transactions.
We left for the hotel at about 5.30pm, having slowly stumbled through a very dark and bumpy passageway, though Auntie Win was again resisting invitations to settle back into her wheelchair.
The evening was a little more awkward, as the hotel reception desk recommended us to a restaurant offering a wider selection of Eastern and Western-style food on the Bund, only for our taxi drivers to deposit us somewhere else entirely. On half-walking, half-taxi-ing to the intended destination, we discovered we did not have a reservation after all - despite the hotel insisting they had rung ahead for us. And on our return, the indifference on the desk was a little frustrating, but we enjoyed a succulent enough meal in the hotel’s own restaurant - why they hadn’t recommended their own food to us in the first place was a baffling poser for another day…
Ros and Auntie Win were due to fly home the following day, but were full of enthusiasm for their final full day - as promised by my parents, Zhouzhuang really had provided something different, a well-worthwhile adventure in an area we could easily have missed.
The Bund’s sleek continental restaurants, full of high-spending foreign businessmen, had looked a little soulless and everyplace. Zhouzhuang, in contrast, had felt to us tourists like a more satisfyingly authentic and important China.

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