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Monday, November 11, 2013

Our first Chinese overnighter

Veterans Day, an American public holiday, a three-day weekend and, finally, an opportunity to spend the night somewhere in China other than our house in Shàng​hǎi 上海. Leaving the choice of where to go up to my wife, Pamela decided on the three of us visiting Zhōu​zhuāng 周庄, a "water town" in nearby Jiāng​sū Province 江苏省. Zhouzhuang, in fact, is only 90 minutes by car from Shanghai and is actually an easy day trip. My 太太, however, had her reasons for choosing such a close destination for our first overnighter, though in true Pamela fashion, she didn't divulge them until at the last possible moment. 

Her plan was to get to Zhouzhuang on Sunday afternoon in order to beat the weekend crowds. It was a good idea, but the weather proved to be uncooperative. Saturday, the day we decided to stay home, was beautiful, sunny and warm. Sunday and Monday, the days we decided on going out, turned out to be rainy (yesterday) and cold (yesterday and today). 

In days of yore in olde China, goods were transported around the country by means of an extensive network of canals. The greater Shanghai area has a number of towns that developed around them (including one in the city itself), and which have found a new lease on life thanks to modern-day tourism. Zhouzhuang has become one of a number of Chinese historical theme parks, offering urbanites a chance to experience an idealized version of a once-desperately (and not too-long ago) poor past, as well as providing an opportunity to make some money to the town denizens who reside within. 

In Zhouzhuang's case, visitors pay an entrance fee of 100 RMB ($16.40) to enter a world of narrow alleys, rich merchants' mansions, languid canals...and numerous souvenir shops and restaurants. It's all rather sanitized (though still chaotic in the Chinese way of going about most things) and the drive there was often a more authentic experience - getting to Zhouzhang from Shanghai meant driving through countryside scenes that I'd often seen in pictures and on TV, but until this weekend not in real life. Narrow roads lined on both sides by trees; three-wheeled motorized carts ridden by old men in blue Maoist caps; and gray or yellowish-brown skies overhead. 

Zhouzhuang does have character, however, and we had a good time there. Arriving just after four on Sunday afternoon, we plunged into the maze of narrow streets and alleys as light was beginning to dim. Above is the classic view of the town, taken from one of the Twin Bridges 双桥, a pair of Míng-dynasty 明朝 (1368-1644) stone bridges that attract photographers and watercolor artists alike.

In the deepening gloom of the afternoon, we made our way to Zhouzhuang's most popular sightseeing attraction, Shen's House  沈厅. And popular it most certainly was, for although the house is huge and it was getting late in the day on a Sunday, we found ourselves frequently engulfed by a nearly-continuous surge of tour groups marching through the various courtyards and into and out of the many rooms. 

Still, the Shen House was an impressive structure. Like many homes belonging to the oppressive landowning class (yes, I remember the days when Marxism was taken seriously on college campuses), the house is huge, with room after room and courtyard after courtyard running back from the comparatively narrow facade facing the street. The period furnishings and coherent English captions provided a good representation of how good life was back then for people such as the Shens (the house was built in 1742). 

A statue of the patriarch Shen himself. I'm pretty sure his descendants didn't fare too well following the coming to power of the Chinese Communists at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Amber takes a break in one of the courtyards between tour group invasions. It was during these brief moments of solitude that the sheer scope of the residence could be truly appreciated.

My daughter at the entrance to another large merchant's home, Zhang's House 张厅, which was built during Ming times and thus predates the nearby Shen residence.

Though not as large as its more well-known neighbor, the Zhang house was still pretty impressive. Plus, it had the added benefit of not being so popular with the tour groups, meaning we could better appreciate the various chambers within.

Pamela was especially taken with the large open-air courtyard in the back of the house. The Zhangs had their own private canal access, handy in times of conflict when the family needed to make a hasty flight for their lives. 

This long, narrow corridor in which my daughter is standing was used by the servants - the staff weren't allowed to access the main halls of the house from the street. Shades of the American South...

The night view from the Twin Bridges

Dinner was had in a restaurant by one of the canals. Our set meal included a bowl of pig's thigh (far right), one of Zhouzhuang's local specialties (and for sale everywhere throughout the town).

When I learned that among the beers on offer at the restaurant was the local Zhōuzhuāng Beer 周莊啤酒, I had to try a bottle. It was disappointingly on the light side, however.

After dinner, Amber and Pamela stopped to pose on (you guessed it) the Twin Bridges.

The girls also decided they needed to buy a pair of hand warmers. It was chilly, but I didn't think it was that cold. Still, they seemed happy with their purchases, and are now better prepared for the onset of winter.

The real reason we had to spend the night in a town so close to Shanghai was not to experience the charm of an old canal town after dark, but to see a show. Zhouzhang in All Seasons  四季周庄 was an hour-long Vegas-style spectacular, featuring acrobatics, dancing and special effects, all set to thumping techno-pop music, which offered an extremely fanciful view of traditional life in all four seasons of a traditional water town. Even live cormorants and water buffalo were part of the show.

And it was all very entertaining. The acrobats were very accomplished, and the production values were much better than I'd expected. I was also impressed with how local townspeople were incorporated into the show along with the professional performers.

Show over, it was time to head back to our hotel, a short drive from the tourist zone. But not before picking up another souvenir, a depiction of the canals that included (surprise, surprise!) the Twin Bridges, the two spans on the far right of the painting.

The view the next morning from our room at the institutional Shuǐzhīyùn Hotel 水之韵酒店. Drab and focused on tour groups it may have been, but seeing as it offered a package deal of a twin room, breakfast, two entry tickets to Zhouzhuang and two tickets for Zhouzhuang in All Seasons for only 298 RMB ($48.90), I wasn't about to nitpick. It also drove home the advantages of having a native Mandarin-speaker for a spouse when you've been posted to China!

Following breakfast and check-out, we returned to Zhouzhuang (buying admission tickets at regular price this time), and spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon further exploring the town. Pictured above is Quán​fù Temple 全副寺, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命 and only rebuilt in 1995.

This elderly couple working on their small craft was probably the only authentic scene we encountered at Zhouzhuang. They were actually outside the gates of the tourist town, which probably explains it. Notice the ducks on board.

My daughter goofing off at an old kiln

Old folks could be seen plying traditional crafts, like this man doing some spinning and weaving.

Yours truly enjoying a latte break, while my significant other decides that 10:30 in the morning isn't too early to kick back with the first Tsingtao Beer 青岛啤酒 of the day.

Appropriately enough, we next visited a distillery, where Pamela conducted a business transaction involving the purchase of something that tasted remarkably like sherry.

At this museum, I managed to resist the urge to dress up like a Red Guard and pose next to a wax representation of Chairman Mao. Apparently, judging from the pictures on the wall inside, many other Westerners had no problem being photographed next to the man responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese during the Great Leap Forward 大跃进 and the Cultural Revolution.

Scenes of a long-gone past did much to put aside the anger generated by foreign idiots ignorant of times not so long ago.

For only 100 RMB, this man not only wrote a poem incorporating the characters of my daughter's Chinese name, he then copied it onto a scroll suitable for hanging up at home.

The highlight of this day for me was taking a leisurely ride in a boat along some of Zhouzhuang's canals. We were even serenaded with a few songs while being poled along.

A couple of random images from walking about town

The last thing we checked out before leaving Zhouzhuang was a brief snippet of a traditional opera performance. My wife is inexplicably a big fan of this. 

And there you have it - our first overnight excursion from Shanghai. We hope to do many more in the months ahead. China, you have been warned...

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