Zhujiajiao - Tranquillity Base

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September 29th 2019
Published: October 3rd 2019
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How many men ?How many men ?How many men ?

Does it take to inspect a newly laid road?
Days 61 to 63 of 80

We 'left' Shanghai by metro to reach Zhujiajiao for 3 nights /2 days.

Zhujiajiao is famed as one of Shanghai's 'water towns', of which there are several dotted around the Shanghai suburbs. Water Towns, so called because, surprise, surprise, they are based around numerous rivers and/or canals.

Zhujiajiao is regarded as one of the best mostly because of the extent of its preserved layout and buildings which surpass any other in the region.

Established about 1700 years ago, it now has a population of 60,000 though by far most of these must be in the modern surroundings not the central old town. Numerous rivers and 35 stone bridges, and 1 wooden. Not surprisingly it is known as ..... wait for it ...... China's Venice.

We have found it hard to establish whether the waterways are original course or cut canals, but a 'at the confluence of several rivers' description and the fact that few of the channels are in strict straight lines leads us to believe that they are original course. Highly restructured, of course, all of them are lined with stone walls.

The main centrepiece bridge, the Fangsheng Bridge, is a 5 span structure dating originally from 1571, rebuilt 1812, and reckoned to be a small masterpiece of 16th C bridge building.

The main streets, following either side of each of the main channels, are lined with original houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties ie dating back to the 1600s. Though very few of the main streets' dwellings are now not a retail outlet.

Cooked meats - who knows how long some of these are reheated day-by and day-to day? And as to what some of the bits are! ? Some were reasonably identifiable eg pork knuckle or pork belly, but some on sticks...? We are sure some - male - animals are missing their reproductive organs! And sheets of jerky-style meat too.

Silk by the mile.

Rice cakes being fired out of machines before packing, harking back to the original origins of the town in rice trading.

Sweetmeats, that looked like fudge, but weren't.

Jewellery, and including some stunning silverware, though the small teapot that caught our fancy, listed with around 250g of silver, was too much of an indulgence at £450.

Various handicrafts eg paper cutting, paper silhouettes, snuff bottle painting from the inside, items made from horn eg combs.

And the occasional stinky tofu stall that made us dash past without delay, gripping our noses!

And, of course, restaurants galore with a frightening array of 'interesting' dishes. Lots of these had live fare on display at their entrance, particularly fish and crabs. A few though, despite no outward appearance, would try to entice you in with 'English menu'.

However, all these delights didn't stop one young, female, preppy American declare, loudly, whilst we were walking over the Fangsheng Bridge 'Oh my God. They even have a STARBUCKS. I LOVE this place'.

Zhujiajiao, especially since a new metro line / station was opened less than 2 years ago, is for most visitors a day trip from Shanghai. And this showed, both in the difference between Thursday/Friday and Saturday, and between day time and evening. This was one of the reasons we made it a 2 day stay rather than a, rushed, in and out.

It wasn't too busy when we arrived on Thursday and settled in. Just pottered about, ate, and sat at a bar for a drink. As a result we found ourselves as extras in the midst of what appeared to be a fairly professional film production. Couldn't see anything to identify what was being filmed but, as there was no dialogue, and as the principal actors seemed to be being filmed repeating scenes but with slight variations, our money was on either a music video or an advert.

Friday we got into one of the tourist highlights within the town, the Kezhi Garden, early before the hordes descended. Opened in 1912, Ma Wenqina had spent over 15 years and 14 tonnes of silver (~ £7m at today's prices) developing it. It combines traditional Chinese architectural art with Western architectural culture of the time, making it a nationally rare garden. One feature is to big up the link between gardening and farming 'as being good for the soul'. Kezhi means 'farming carried out together with teaching and learning and housekeeping of Chinese people'. And the garden has an orchard, herbs and veg and even a rice paddy field.

Very few flowers but quite serene and peaceful. We also managed to buy inside a hand stitched silk picture of pandas, giving us a panda souvenir which we had failed to source in Chengdu.

Coffee..... retail, Pip found some jade and pearl lily-of-the-valley earrings that she just HAD to have 😊 ... tea room overlooking one of the rivers, where we had milkshakes and osmanthus cake. More of a sweetmeat than a cake, made with glutinous rice flour, honey, sweet-scented osmanthus and rock sugar. Tasted rather like Turkish delight.

Visited City God Temple, very similar to the one in Shanghai, a Taoist temple moved here in 1763 from its original location south of the town. Nothing extra special except its rather large and revered Gingko Tree.

As we were leaving there appeared to be rather a large police presence outside, but several photographers too. As we watched, there was a kerfuffle at the entrance, a man throwing leaflets and being bundled out of the temple whereupon he was pounced on by 1/2 dozen heavies. As he was dragged away a bag was left behind next to which was a bundle of 'tubes' with wiring. It was at about this stage, when we noticed this fake 'bomb', that we concluded it was some kind of emergency exercise.

As we walked away a large plume of orange - flare - smoke erupted from the roof and two fire boats came haring up the channel and proceeded to jet water over the building.

Saturday the town was noticeably busier. Just some gentle strolling, drink/sit/read by the water. A bit of window shopping but too much hassle from the shopkeepers. Uninterrupted casual browsing doesn't exist here.

In the evening we ate at a restaurant where a lady had been trying to entice us in whenever we had passed by. And very nice it was too. The equal of the best we have eaten around China.

For that evening we had also managed to get tickets for a performance of a Kunqu Opera, 'The Peony Pavilion', written by Tang Xianzu in 1598. So a, by time, contemporary of William Shakespeare, though no reason to believe they knew of each other. In fact they both died the same year, 1616.

Kunqu Opera is regarded as the 'Mother of Chinese Operas', and is a 600 year old theatre style that "blends poetic eloquence, musical refinement, and dramatics and deeply influences all other forms of Chinese drama." In 2001 UNESCO proclaimed it as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

'The Peony Pavilion' is about love, and death, and resurrection - or, rather, zombie-ish - and has been compared to Romeo and Juliet. The full work has over 50 scenes and runs to 22 hours if performed in its entirety. This performance, a more common presentation, is just 5 scenes and 80 minutes. Our viewing pleasure was enhanced by there being an on-screen display of English 'subtitles'.

Set in 12th C, the shortened version was:
- beautiful young lady has a passionate (! oh yes, based on the sub-titles) dream about a mysterious stranger.
- afterwards, haunted by her memories, and unable to find her lover, she pines to death.
- after death, her persistent spirit, searching for her lover, wins over the Judge of the Netherworld, and she is reincarnated.
- 3 years later, a young scholar, dead ringer for her lover, arrives where the beauty was buried, sees her portrait and calls out for her, as he had seen her in a dream of his own.
- she comes out of the picture as a ghost, and they fall in love.
- the next day the scholar digs up the beauty's grave, she comes back to life, they marry and..... live happily ever after!

Though the full version has a somewhat more complicated ending, and many sub-plots, with over 150 acting parts!

To call it 'Opera' in a western sense was not strictly accurate, though around 50% was 'sung', if you can describe, to western ears, a mixture of teletubbies combined with The Clangers meets Julian Clary as 'singing'.

That said we both thoroughly enjoyed it, and especially as it was performed in the open in the Kezhi Gardens, a perfect setting.

By the time we walked back to our accommodation - a delightful courtyard-side room, with deep bath, separate shower, and resident cat - almost everywhere was now closed.

Today, Sunday, we are braving travel by train from Shanghai Hongqiao station, to Hangzhou, a short hop by China standards of barely an hour by High Speed Train. Today is the Sunday of the start of Golden Week. It is reckoned that around half of all Chinese travel out and back at the beginning and end of Golden Week. The general TripAdvisor advice regarding travel at this time is usually either "stay put", or "leave the country beforehand, eg to Taiwan, and return afterwards". So far today has been fine, not too busy at all. Hopefully our planning is just ahead of the curve.

Hongqiao, opened in 2010, is Asia's largest rail station, and the whole complex combines rail station, large domestic airport, long distance bus station, and metro terminus in a single combined transport hub. The place, especially the departure hall, is enormous - Kings Cross, eat your heart out - and so efficiently organised.

As we boarded the train a couple of things
- Paul went back to platform to get a couple of photos, of our train and also the more streamlined one alongside. As he got towards the end of the platform for the first, he set off a verbal, repeating, alarm presumably, telling him he was approaching or in a prohibited area. To get a better photo of the other train the best shot was from even closer to the end of the platform. This set off a police style, siren alarm! No one came rushing to either though.

- The platform surface, of polished stone or granite, was spotless. No sticky chewing gum here.

Turned out we were in 1st class, with the journey taking less than an hour, even at speeds of up to 300 kph.

We are now in Hangzhou for 4 nights/3 days, a buzzing place that is one of China's premiere, and most busy, domestic holiday destinations. It will be interesting to see how busy it gets as we get to and beyond the October 1st national holiday especially given that there will probably be local celebrations for the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

But, we'd like to say a few words about paying for things in China.

Tonight, after a relatively expensive meal, for China (about £25), we paid by credit card. The waiter had to scrat about under the counter to find an, obviously little used, credit card machine. And then had great problems in working out how to use it, despite the on screen instructions.

China is rapidly becoming a cashless, or minimum cash at least, society. Everywhere you go the most preferred method of payment is by exchange of data using QR codes, the rectangular 'bar codes' that we see around on some products in the UK.

These require minimal infrastructure amongst merchant and customer, and are most visible by the sight of a customer either presenting their personal QR code on a mobile phone, or the customer's phone reading the merchant's QR code. This means a number of things:
- the merchant can operate with no technology at all, just a printed copy of their QR code. The best example we saw of this was an itinerant umbrella street seller in Shanghai who whipped out their QR code card on the street to complete payment transaction with a customer they had just sold to.
- the main protagonists in this method are Alipay, owned by Alibaba (China's Amazon equivalent) and WeChatPay, owned by WeSay (China's Facebook equivalent ). They, between them, have around 80+% of the market. It means the banks, who in Western systems take a noticeable cut of payment transactions, don't get a step in the process that they get money from.

Given the ongoing problems that China has with fake currency, particularly its two highest denomination notes at 100 Yuan and 50 Yuan the move towards cashless is growing at a tremendous rate year on year.

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