Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Good Old Days

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What a day! We were up before the wake-up call again, at 6:40 this time. Our breakfast tray arrived around 7:00, leaving us more than an hour and a half to get ready for today’s trip. D had e-mailed the tour operator yesterday to verify the pick-up time, but the ship’s internet service was lost until midnight, so he had no way to check for a reply until this morning. We were to be met by Kiana at 9 a.m. on the dock. We called Roxanne to let her know, then relaxed until 8:45 when we went to join them in the Ocean Bar. We proceeded to the gangway and were on our way.

We were early, of course, so started to obsess when our guide wasn’t there. Actually, we saw her and the driver pull into the lot a few minutes past 9, not really late at all. Considering the constant traffic in Shanghai, they did well to get there when they did. There were more than 20 full-size tour buses awaiting passengers this morning, so we had to wait for some of them to leave before we could get to our minivan and depart.

Our destination this morning was Zhouzhaung. It is allegedly South China’s best-known “water town,” about 35 miles outside Shanghai; traffic turned our journey into a 90 minute thrill ride. Zhouzhaung is surrounded by a large lake, rivers and canals. As they say, a river runs through it. The “new” town has become a vacation and resort destination judging from the number of hotels and villas nearby. Restaurants are everywhere. We stopped at a tourist rest area where Kiana bought our entry tickets for the old town itself. Then, we drove a little farther until we were at its entrance. Kiana handed over our tickets and we entered.

It was nothing like we expected. Once again, there were restaurants on both sides of the little river which ran through the town. They reminded us a little of the places in Jimbaran, Bali, where we had had a sunset dinner with the kids last year. Like Jimbaran, each restaurant had fresh seafood on display; swimming in the windows would be a better way to visualize it. There were several types of local fish, crabs, shrimp, oysters or clams and other creatures we didn’t recognize. The store fronts were all similar, too, because the originals dated back centuries, although these were undoubtedly re-creations.

There were stalls where vendors offered clothing, toys and handicrafts. Women sat by the side of the pathway selling prawns and other seafood. One man had live turtles for sale; we assumed they were intended as a source of protein since there were turtles in several restaurant windows. One woman was hand pulling taffy using two sticks the size of pencils; another stall had a real hand-operated taffy pulling machine. There were locals sitting on the concrete river wall fishing. And in the river itself was an endless stream of small boats being steered through the river while passengers relaxes and, in some cases, drank tea.

We had expected gardens similar to the Yu Yuan Gardens we saw in Shanghai two years ago, but in Zhouzhaung, a garden simply indicates a house. Even then, “house” conjures up something different from the reality. Each property was a series of houses which often became increasingly large as one moved further into the compound. There would be a formal entry, a receiving room, a formal living room, a dining room and, of course, a kitchen. Sleeping quarters were upstairs. In the example we saw, the “house” was over 20,000 square feet. It included all of the details above plus side passages for discreet exits and for use by servants who were to be invisible whenever possible. In the particular house we visited, there were also bronze friezes depicting the life and strife of the owner. The furniture was made in the style of the Ming dynasty and was simple but beautiful. It would not have been comfortable since it was all solid wood with no cushioning.

At another stop, we visited a children’s museum. We listened to a local flute player as he performed traditional tunes to an otherwise empty outdoor auditorium. When we went inside, we saw costumes from an earlier era. They represented the way lords and others dressed at the time Zhouzhaung was founded. It was a little like the exhibit of the First Ladies’ gowns at the Smithsonian on a iny scale because there were only about a dozen costumes all together.

We also visited a Buddhist temple which fronted on the lake. As we walked toward the temple, we saw an elderly couple working a fishing boat. She was in the stern using the tiller to propel and steer the boat while her husband was in the front apparently looking for fish. The temple itself was not as richly decorated as others we have seen. It reminded us of the Temple of the Jade Buddha in Shanghai. The Jade Buddha was more elaborate in its interior decorations, but the temple at Zhouzhaung had a more serene exterior since it was in the countryside, not in downtown Shanghai.

We wandered through more of the old town, feeling all the while that we were in the souk in Marrakech. Without Kiana, we might never have found our way out. Eventually, we came back to the main path and returned to the entrance where the driver was awaiting us. Time for lunch!

We drove for about one minute to a local hotel for our meal. The tour company thought this would be safer for us than one of the other local eateries, and, considering the health problems emanating from China, we were grateful. We were the only people in the room. Food began to arrive shortly after we sat down – rice [of course]; a chicken dish reminiscent of moo goo gai pan; beef with bell peppers; scrambled eggs and tomatoes; spinach; potatoes in a strong ginger sauce; fish soup and barbecued hams. We had seen these for sale in the old town. They were little pig shanks, really, which had been marinated and barbecued. They had smelled good in the markets and tasted good at lunch, too.

After lunch, we decided not to return to the old town and headed, instead, back to the Amsterdam. Traffic was not as bad coming home, but it was still 4 o’clock when we boarded the ship. We told Kiana that tomorrow we wanted to see the Bund, Jewish Quarter and Yu Yuan as well as have some time to shop. We also told her that we would take her and the driver, Wong, to lunch tomorrow. We are to meet them at the gangway at 9:30 in the hope that we will have less traffic to fight.

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