Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
With our group refreshed from the previous days of traveling and sightseeing, we headed off to a tour of the canal city of Zhouzhuang, the Venice of the East. This present-day city is about a 1.5-hour drive west from Shanghai and is one of the many villages and cities that became prosperous hundreds of years ago by being connected to other villages along the river delta area of Shanghai by a series of man-made canals.
The drive from downtown Shanghai was mostly through the vast suburbs of the metropolis, but slowly the high rise residential buildings gave way to lower structures and then to small rice fields and lotus plants growing in ponds. As we reached the city of Zhouzhuang, we noticed the many roadside vendors selling fresh seafood and locally grown vegetables and fruits. To me, this was not unlike driving through rural south Louisiana; where local fishermen sell their catches and local farmers sell their harvest.
I am not quite sure why, but we had to pay a small fee to enter into the historic village and its canals. However, this nominal fee was well worth it. Built in typical Ming style, the low-rise buildings, cafes, teahouses, and shops line the series of connected canals. The vendors sell very similar local crafts and foods but each has a different sales pitch—“very cheapa”, “antiqua”, “special price for you”, “you my friend”—always accompanied with their broad endearing Chinese smiles and welcomes. We tried to return their welcomes with our sincere attempts but we often mispronounced “Ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you). Our attempts were accepted warmly.
In one of the public courtyards, a Chinese folk opera was being performed. The performers were dressed in elaborate and colorful costumes. We only saw a portion of it, so we were not sure which folk opera was being performed. This public courtyard was also a great place to just sit and people watch.
This day still being part of the autumn holiday, the crowds were dense, but manageable. Zhuling maneuvered us through the sea of people and shops to see two historic homes of former wealthy citizens of the village. These homes were in great shape for being over 400 years old. The houses were arranged in a series of rooms opening onto courtyards, and then opening onto other rooms. These homes were decorated with reproductions of Ming and Qing style furniture. These arrangements of the pieces of furniture also offered Robert and me the opportunity to see how the furniture was used in these homes. We all marveled at the intricate mosaics of the floors and the various types of structural construction. Trish volunteered to operate the flourmill located in one of the kitchens and discovered a new way for keeping her abs in shape.
After visiting the homes, our next adventure was a ride in one of the gondola-type boats. As in Venice, the driver steered the gondola from the large rear rudder and sang to our group, albeit in Chinese. The canals are crisscrossed with steep stone bridges and draped in willow trees, which offered a cool and shady ride. This ride was quiet pleasant and refreshing, and a relief from all of our walking and the crowds.
Upon leaving the historic village center, we were greeted by groups of women performing what seemed to us like folk dances from their areas, including their colorful local folk clothing.
Next stop was lunch in a local hotel restaurant outside of the historic area. Nothing too exotic here, except the small crispy-fried shrimp that we ate, shell and all. The decision to eat in this non-descript hotel restaurant was our tour guide’s. She had informed us that on many occasions she had seen the restaurants and locals in the historic area wash their dishes, pots, and pans in the waters of the canals. In fact, we witnessed the same thing and appreciated her advice.
Returning to Shanghai in late afternoon, we had an evening open for adventure. After a short rest and nap on the bus, we ventured out again in search of an antique shop and vendor Robert and I had met during our last visit to Shanghai in 2006. Not remembering her name, we dubbed her “the nice lady shop.” Following our navigational instincts, we were able to find her and her shop. She immediately recognized us and warmly welcomed our friends and us into her shop. We, and others in our group, made a few purchases and accomplished questions and negotiations via sign language, calculators, and an occasional cell phone call to her friend who speaks English. Not having room to carry all of these newfound treasures, we arranged for her to send the purchases to Beijing to be consolidated in our furniture container.
After shopping, came dinnertime. While walking along the many shops and homes in the hutang (Chinese neighborhood), Marion saw a store sign that provided her inspiration as to how she might finance her trip to China. Further explanation can best be achieved by looking at the photo log-since one photo is worth a thousand words and maybe even a thousand Yuan.
Robert and I again said we could find our way to our desired restaurant destination; however, this time our navigational instincts failed us, as we found ourselves walking around in circles. Recognizing defeat and facing our hungry mob, we all agreed to take taxis back to the hotel for a simple dinner. Our two taxis went their separate ways and ended up at two different hotels. Joe, Trish, Ellen, and Gerald knew they were delivered to the wrong hotel and directed the taxi to the correct hotel across the street and then enjoyed a nice Chinese dinner. The Judy, Marion, Donald and Robert group succumbed to the lure of a western hamburger and wine dinner. The next day would bring an early morning flight to Beijing.
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