Suitcase and World: Zhouzhuang. Going to Venice in China.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Zhouzhuang. Going to Venice in China.

My first day in Shanghai started with me waking up at 7am. I hadn’t slept well partly because of the 12 hour time zone difference, partly because the room was too hot and partly because the bed was very firm. The air conditioner had been turned off all day so it took time for the room to cool down after I turned on the aircon. I would have opened up the window to let cool air in but there was no cool air to be had. The temperature when we landed in Shanghai was close to 90 degrees 1:20am, and I swear the humidity level matched. As for the bed, let’s say, it would have been a softer surface sleeping on the floor. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but I definitely have a firm hotel bed.

Tired or not tired, I was too excited to linger in bed. I dressed and got cleaned up. First order of the day was to get some breakfast. Usually my first morning in a new town, I’m too lazy to eat out – I’ll just go to the hotel restaurant so that’s exactly what I did. It was breakfast buffet of Western and Chinese food items- enough to fill the belly.

By the time I finished eating, I had about 40 minutes to kill before I had to meet up with my guide so I headed out in search of a market to buy bottled water. I figured I would be needing it!

After getting the water, I retreated to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel lobby and waited for Andrew, the guide, to show up. Andrew arrived a few minutes early and we walked over to the small van that would shuttle me and two other passengers, a married couple from Finland, around for the day.

First destination of the day – Zhouzhuang ("Joe-jew-whahng")which is a well known, historic water town. Like Venice, it is lined with canals and it is that comparison that gives this little gem of a town its nickname of “Venice of the East”. I was looking forward to seeing the place.

As we headed out of Shanghai, I got my first glimpse of this very modern city. Though there are 20 million inhabitants in Shanghai and there are crowds, I didn’t feel *smothered* by the masses like I did in other equally populous cities like Delhi or Cairo. Skyscrapers and other tall buildings occupy the skyline though not with the same density as you would see in a large US city like New York or Chicago. Stores selling western style goods are common as are fast food places like KFC and McDonalds. Of course, there is no escaping Starbucks….not even in Shanghai where the Chinese beverage of choice has always traditionally been tea.

Roads are filled with what Americans would consider to be mid-sized cars – none of the small or compact vehicles you would typically see, say, on a European road. Traffic runs smoothly and orderly – people abide by the traffic lanes and signals.

Shanghai occupies a fairly large geographical area – it took nearly 45 minutes before we even hit what would look like “countryside”. The countryside was a reminder that at least this part of China is still very much an agricultural area. Lotus ponds (Chinese eat the roots and use the leaves as food wrappers) and rice paddies dotted the landscape. it was a bit odd though to see muddy rice paddies sitting immediately adjacent to a modern row house or even a high rise building. It’s as if cultivating rice is to Chinese homeowners as growing tomatoes is to American homeowners!

There were also plenty of ponds and waterways to be seen – wooden boats docked alongside modern homes were not an uncommon sight.

It would be an hour and half ride to get to Zhouzhuang during which time we all peppered Andrew with questions about life in China including what it’s like to be a single guy – Andrew is all of 25 years old and very charming. Chinese are very reserved by nature so I was quite surprised at how open Andrew was to answering some of the questions asked of him. His answers reflect that his is definitely a new generation of Chinese living in a very modern Chinese society.

Zhouzhuang is both a tourist hotspot and a historic site. After we passed the entry gate, the van headed towards the location of the ticket office. We all got off to stretch our legs for a few minutes and that’s when it hit me – the oppressive heat and humidity. With the sun blazing above, I knew I was going to be in for a challenging walk – this Chinese girl does NOT like heat and hates humidty…..unless I am somewhere near water that can jump into.

After Andrew got our tickets, we piled back into the van for the short ride to where we would enter Zhouzhuang. It was a short few minute drive to our destination. We got out and started walking. Retail establishments, aimed at selling to the tourists, lined the wide promenade leading to the entrance gate. Oddly enough, several of the places displayed oversized replicas of a Chinese rice bowl holding a large chunk of meat which had a bone sticking out at one end. I asked Andrew why the bowls and he explained that Zhouzhuang was famous for its style of cooking pigs’ feet. As I walked along, I saw the real feet displayed in windows. They looked tasty but I was leery about eating anything that had been sitting out in this heat.

We followed Andrew past the entrance gate and were immediately stopped by masses of tourists. The place was p-a-c-k-e-d. I think every tourist in Shanghai was here. So many people that it’s difficult to stop and spend time at any one location because the crowds herd you along and you are forced to go with the flow. This is why I usually avoid travelling during high season – I hate tourists :-)

The heat and humidity were becoming formidable foes – I was dripping in sweat after just a few minutes of walking.

Andrew took us by all the key sites that I had read about. The old buildings, bridges and tree lined canals were full of ancient Chinese character - as quaint and interesting to see in real life as they were on my computer screen. As I admired the charm of this little town, I tried position myself to take photos to capture memorable images but it was nearly impossible to do without being bumped into by someone or waiting for another group of photogs to move on. Very frustrating to not be able to enjoy a view as you would want to see it.

We toured the inside of a typical home of the era when Zhouzhuang was in its heyday. The courtyard style house, typical Chinese architecture, reputedly belonged to a wealthy gentleman.

The narrow streets of this little, historic town, were as I expected, lined with street vendors selling every type of Chinese souvenir known to mankind. Restaurants served typical Shanghainese fare and given the fare they were touting, including some really, really big snails, I was surprised to see anyone actually eating! The heat and the crowds took away my mood to buy anything though so I walked by each and every vendor. Surprisingly, I was pretty much left alone by the vendors….I think because they think I’m a local. There’s an advantage to looking Chinese in China :-)

Every now and again, I would peek down an even narrower side street and catch a glimpse of someone going about their daily business – a reminder that this is place is not just for the tourists.

Apparently, no tourist trip to Zhouzhuang is without a gondola ride down the canals so of course, we had to do just that.

As we waited for Andrew to get our tickets, I snapped this photo of one of the gondoliers. It’s not unusual to see women in this role.

With tickets in hand, we boarded one of the gondoliers for our cruise along the canals. There were no crowds on the water - relative peace and quiet. I could finally see the little town from a different vantage point.

The ride was much too short – I enjoyed it more than I thought I would so I was a bit sad to have to climb out of the gondolier when our ride came to an end.

Our next destination – Suzhou.