Zhouzhuang - a Water Town

Trip Start May 26, 2010
Trip End Jul 01, 2010

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Flag of China  , Shanghai,
Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Expo consumed our days on Tuesday and Thursday. Rain came and went but it was not very hot. In our last post we complained about the crowds, so a bit of redress is in order - the Chinese people are not all pushy and many have been very helpful with acts of kindness and friendliness. On the subway, the professor feels a tug on his shirt. A man motions to an empty seat. Nice. We look a bit lost exiting a subway. Someone pauses to help us find our way - even runs into a local shop to get directions for us. We lug our suitcases to the subway and must bring them down two flights of stairs (escalators at the East Nanjing Road stop only go up). Two young men appear and help us carry the suitcases down. Everywhere we go, the Expo, the subway, the various neighborhoods, friendly people smile at us - point us out to their children. Not for a moment have we felt unsafe. In Guilin, Robbie said petty theft was a problem - he had recently lost a new bicycle to replace a motor scooter that had been taken. His brother had warned him to buy an old bike, but he had to have a new one and poof, it was gone. So China isn't perfect by any means, but we are enjoying ourselves immensely.

Ming, the guy who is in charge of all things digital at the USA Expo pavilion, found us a great Shanghainese restaurant Wednesday night. The professor's mother Ruth and Ming's grandfather, Danny were friends from primary school and Ming's grandmother Phoebe was one of Ruth's best friends - a relationship that goes back 90 years. Ming is the son of Danny and Phoebe's son Dee, who married Laiwah, a Chinese-American. He worked for major league baseball and the NBA after college, decided to come to China and worked in digital marketing for Nike. He left Nike for the Expo job, and manages all the digital platforms the USA maintains for the Expo. He met Hillary and showed Herby Hancock around. He has learned Mandarin and speaks fluently. He did not speak it as a child, his mother spoke Cantonese and he did not know that very well. He enjoys living in Shanghai, and has a vibrant social life. The dinner he ordered included "Hearts Too Soft" dates, wrapped around glutinous rice, sweet grilled tofu, duck pancakes (like mushu pork but with duck), Lion's Head meatballs (the house specialty), squirrel fish with fungi, shredded tofu, and sticky buns for dessert. He offered to meet us over the weekend to show us around, but we were suffering from head colds and were tired so we begged off. It was great to spend time with him.

On Friday we met up with colleagues Sabita and Brad, who were staying at a hotel on the Shanghai University campus, and two students, Hu and Pang. They had been asked to help our colleagues find their way to Zhouzhuang (Joe-Joo-ahng), a water town not far from Shanghai that Sabita had heard about. Hu, a guy, and Pang, a young lady are sweet, good natured, in their early 20s, studying Chinese culture and they took us by subway to a bus station near Shanghai Stadium. This was to take a tour bus to Zhouzhuang, and the woman who was tour leader spoke only in Chinese. She spoke for nearly an hour as we drove east through the city - Brad speculated it was a history of the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties, which is when most of the buildings in Zhouzhuan were built.

It is about 50 km from Shanghai to Zhouzhuang, most of it on an expressway. As you leave the congestion of the city, the land, which is flat, becomes marshy. You pass lakes and canals and low-lying villages. You see rice paddies, vegetable patches and tree farms. Zhouzhang has lakes on all four sides, and is made up of more than 1,000 buildings, 100 of which have courtyards and arched gateways. The buildings are often connected by arcades and lanes. But what makes it a water town is, of course, four lanes of water forming a grid, and 14 stone bridges. People have lived along  these small canals since 770 BC. The town was named in the 11th century for a merchant named Zhou Digong, a rich merchant who had donated money to build a Buddhist temple. There are no motorized vehicles in Zhouzhuang, although we did see a motorized boat made of concrete. Gondolas ply the  lanes of water, just as in Venice, but many of the gondoliers are women, and their crafts are used to ferry tourists around - no more than eight tourists to a boat. These gondoliers must have arms and legs of steel - they propel the boats by moving the trailing rudder back and forth. Willlows and poplars line the banks of the canals. It is very quiet - the sound of cars and trucks, the thrum of the city, is completely gone. Very peaceful.  You pass other boats tied up to the bank, evidently used for commerce. There are, however, lots of tourists and lots of shops and a good sampling of restaurants. We ate in an old two-story building. The seating was on the second floor, overlooking a canal. The stairs up were very steep and narrow, not unlike canal houses in Amsterdam. Pang was enlisted to choose a fresh fish swimming in a tank. Hu said the fish was "so-so." He comes from another village with similar houses and close to the sea, so Hu knows his fish.

We wandered into what must have been the homes of merchants from long ago - old buildings. One housed what appeared to be a museum of ancient Chinese medicine - there was a jar of snake wine on a shelf and many other jars containing various herbs and plants. There were shrines in one house, which had long narrow hallways lit by oil lamps. This ancient city was not dissimilar to Lijiang, the old city in Yunnan we visited, but it feels more authentic - Lijiang was built to look like an old city after an earthquake in 1997, but it is nothing but shops and restaurants. Zhouzhuang has people living in it - you see them washing things in the canals, sitting on the lanes that line the banks of the canals, leading traditional lives. Brad, who had only been in Shanghai (lecturing at the university) said he finally felt like he was in China. On the way back we stopped at the inevitable silk store, where after a very short talk on silk worms and how silk is made, you enter a large showroom and sales women try to get you to buy a silk bed spread or dress or shirt.

All in all, it was a very pleasant day, despite the awful traffic we had to drive through in Shanghai during rush hour. Brad and Sabita took us to a southeast Asian restaurant where we shared a very good vegetarian dinner (brocolli in coconut sauce, sweet and sour eggplant, several other dishes, all deliciously prepared by a chef from India Sabita had gotten to know. We parted - Brad and Sabita were off the next day for Hangzhou and then Beijing - and we were very glad that our visits  to Shanghai had coincided.

Saturday was a work day - the college fair at the Shanghai East Asia Exhibition Hall. After work we went to a district Sabita had told us about, lanes of shops selling art work, punctuated with restaurants. Some of the art was excellent, and we ate at what billed itself as a tapas place, sharing barbecued shrimp and scallops and squid on a bed of rice. Then some gelato at a nearby stand. Just about any food you can think of is available in Shanghai - a very cosmopolitan city.

We cut short our stay at the Salvo Hotel, very conveniently located four blocks (two long, two short) from Nanjing Lu, the city's main shopping street with neon and video displays to rival Times Square and the Ginza, and a ten-minute walk from the Bund, which we had revisited the first night we were there. We have an early flight back to Hong Kong Monday morning and had decided to spend the night at a hotel inside Pudong International Airport. We took the subway all the way to the airport. We could have taken the 200 mph Maglev, but been there, done that and it costs 10 times as much as the subway. (Of course, it does in 12 minutes what took us an hour to do). The subway system in Shanghai is marvelous, clean (as is the rest of the city - an army of street cleaners makes that so) and very efficient. Trains come in exactly on time (video screens tell you when they are due), announcements are made for each station in both Chinese and English and, unlike the sound systems in New York subways, are actually intelligible. Maps of the system are easily understood, and each subway car has a list of the stops so you can track your trip. There are 10 different lines, and they intersect often enough so it's not hard to get just about anywhere. Trains take off and stop smoothly, and are very quiet. When you get tired of watching the other riders, you can watch tv commercials, news, highlights of the World Cup. All very civilized.

We return to Hong Kong for three days and we'll try to do some summarizing and post some photos you haven't seen.
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Emily Moxley on

Your travel adventures and pictures are great. We appreciate the sharing of them all. Thanks.

Lisa Stewart on

Hi you two!
We're still enjoying your tales of your travels. Sorry to hear you had head colds. This last stop is really beautiful. Thank you for continuing to share with us all.

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