There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 18 November 2016

Hangzhou (2) Nanxun Water Town and Statues in the Street: Part 7 of South East China

C and her driver, L (only the second female professional driver we have encountered in China) arrived after breakfast to take us to Wuzhen water town.

‘I am sorry, but the government has taken over Wuzhen for an event,’ she told us. ‘We will go to Nanxun water town instead, it is very similar.’ When planning the itinerary with our travel agent we had discussed these towns and Wang had been adamant that Wuzhen was better, but there was little we could do now.
Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province
Both towns are north of Hangzhou, almost back in Jiangsu Province. Nanxun is the further but of the 90 minutes we took to cover the 100km almost half was spent extracting ourselves from Hangzhou; the high-rise blocks, many of them destined to remain empty, are marching ever deeper into what little remains of the countryside in this extraordinarily densely populated area. At the outer edge farmers' cottages were being demolished ready for yet more urban sprawl.
A forest of tower blocks on the road out of Hangzhou
Chinese internal tourism is a boom market and Nanxun is very much a tourist town. L parked among dozens of tour buses and we made our way to the town entrance – unless you live there you have to pay to get in.
The entrance to Nanxun water town
Nanxun was founded in the 9th century or earlier and by the 13th had become a well-established distribution centre mainly for silk. In the heart of the land of rice and fish (the oriental version 'milk and honey') it grew around the intersection of the Shihe River and the Grand Canal which runs for 1800km from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north. More and more smaller canals were added so that goods could be moved to the main waterways and eventually Nanxun had more canals than streets. There are 9 ‘water towns’ in northern Zhejiang – and more elsewhere - all frozen in time (the late 19th/early 20th century in Nanxun) and operated as tourist attractions.

Once through the gate we, inevitably, found ourselves walking beside a canal…,

Crossing one of Nanxun's many canals
…but the main attractions are the houses of the wealthy merchants, the Elephants, Bulls and Golden Dogs as they were known. The first stop for nearly everyone is the Lotus Villa, the former home of Liu Yong, a government official and merchant – a combination which allowed him to become not just one of the four elephants but the richest man in Nanxun. Building started in 1885 and took 40 years so Liu Long never saw his house completed.

It is called the Lotus Villa for obvious reasons, but in November all you can do is imagine what it must have looked like in the summer.

Lotus Villa Garden, Nanxun
The interior is similar to most other Qing (1644-1912) houses...

Lotus Villa, Nanxun
...always looking elegant, but never comfortable; perhaps there are rooms we do not see.

Unusually for China, though not for Naxun, the exterior has some western features, including a couple of towers.

Lotus Villa, Nanxun
Facing the Lotus Villa is the Jiaye library, built in 1922 by Liu Chenggan the grandson of Liu Long. One of the youngest buildings in Nanxun, its architecture also shows western influence.

The Jiaye Library, Nanxun
Liu Chenggan had an impressive collection of 600,000 books and documents, including scrolls dating from the Song (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasties (1271-1368). Most of the books seem to be still here, gawped at be people like me but otherwise unloved.

Inside the Jiaye Library, Nanxun
Leaving the library, we strolled beside the water and across several bridges admiring the old houses before being rowed gently down the canal to our next stop.

Along a Nanxun canal
The former residence of Zhang Shiming is a large elegant house which mixes Chinese and French styles. Zhang Sonxian, Shiming’s grandfather, made his fortune from silk and became one of the four elephants.

The former residence of Zhang Shiming, Nanxun

Zhang Siming’s father died when he was young and he was brought up by his mother who also assumed the household roles traditionally assigned to men. The main hall is called Yi De Tang (the Hall of the Virtuous Woman) in her honour.
Yi De Tang Hall, former residence of Zhang Shiming, Nanxun

I have found out little else about Zhang Shimming other than he built this house at the start of the 20th century. Whether he picked up his French influences from European travels or in China I do not know. The house also contained various exhibitions including a display of foreign banknotes.
French influence in the former residence of Zhang Shiming, Nanxun

Many of these posts, though not this one, start with a slogan seen on a tee-shirt or other clothing. This fashion has been durable, but as the wearers can neither read not understand the slogans, the writers – the tee-shirt designers for the sweat-shops of Guangdong - have no incentive to write anything that makes sense, even if they had the ability. My favourite I spotted on a tee-shirt in the old city of Pingyao in 2013. "London Bruins UCLA that and" compresses more nonsense into five words than I would have thought possible. Such slogans are about fashion and their pretentiousness is ripe for mockery. I am, though, reluctant to mock English translations on signs and menus; however unintentionally hilarious they may sometimes be, the writer’s intention was to help and inform – and their English is better than my Chinese. On the other hand, there are some signs which are so good they have to be shared.
Sign beside a litter bin, former residence of Zhang Shiming, Nanxun

It was now lunchtime and as Nanxun was cheaper than our intended destination, C said she – or rather the company – would buy us lunch. The canal side restaurant was rough and ready, the sort of place that in England might offer a microwaved pizza or sausage roll.

A brief wait for a canal side lunch, Nanxun
The owner was delighted to have foreign visitors – I think ours were the only western faces in Nanxun’s tourist invasion - and made a fuss of clearing us a table. We did not have long to wait, only in China can well cooked food arrive so quickly and in such variety. We had noodles, pork, wanton, tofu, pak choi and chicken. All excellent and far more than we could eat even with the assistance of C and L.
C bought us lunch, Nanxun
But C had not yet spent her budge so she bought us some beer. I have drunk many poor beers in China, but they were local beers and, (almost) taking Friends of the Earth’s advice, I try to think global, drink local. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the beer she bought was not a good beer, nor was it local. Lynne’s picture blows whatever beer drinking credibility I had clean out of the water.
Oh, the shame of it

I try not to be a grumpy old man or make disparaging remarks about ‘The Youth of Today’ but…… eight lads surrounded the table behind us, dressed in identical track suits, presumably on a school trip. They sat in silence, each staring at his phone, or the phone of his neighbour. The only time any of them looked up or made any non-electronic communication was to show something on their screen to one of their companions. This was happening in China, but it could have been anywhere.
Young people and their phones, Nanxun

Lunch over, we expected to see more houses, though they are a bit samey, but soon realised C and L were shepherding us towards the exit. And it was not just us, as if by some unspoken agreement almost every visitor was doing exactly the same, Nanxun was emptying. My research suggest that Nunxun is one of the least visited and most unspoilt of the area’s water towns, but if this is what a quiet town looks like on a normal Wednesday in November, then I am glad we did not visit a busy town at holiday time. Overnight stays are possible, I have read, and at 5 o’clock, when all the day trippers have gone, the town takes a deep breath and gets on with its life - unlike some of the water towns Nanxun does have residents and is not just an ‘Old China theme park’.
We retraced our steps to Hangzhou, arriving just in time to beat the evening rush hour, though the streets of Hangzhou are never quiet.
We took a walk before the light faded. Hangzhou is a huge and modern and sometimes feels like it is hastily discarding its soul in case it hinders its dash for modernity. In two full days C showed us many sights outside the city but none within the urban area. But perhaps it is redeemed by its street sculptures…
Street art, Hangzhou
…but do they look back wistfully to the China they have lost, or are they merely mocking an earlier way of life?
Street art, Hangzhou
We were unsure if we wanted dinner, but scouting along a different street from yesterday we found a few possibilities though none with picture menus. After some dithering Lynne took the initiative and pushed open a door. We were met with a friendly smile and noticed a group of lads with a chicken dish that looked attractive. We pointed at it and nodded and were soon enjoying chicken with onions, garlic, ginger and celery - a smallish meal, one dish between two, but exactly what we wanted.


In the morning C and L took us back to Hangzhou station (‘the busiest station in Asia’) in time for the 09:02 to Wuyishan. Chinese stations are organised like airports and we waited at our gate for our train to be called. Announcements are in Chinese, but the constantly up-dated display boards alternate between Chinese characters and Latin script.

Hangzhou Station
Huge, bright and shiny, Hangzhou station is rather like the city, efficient but soulless.

Hangzhou Station
Our high-speed train arrived on time to whisk us the 450km to Wuyishan in time for lunch.
Our high-speed train to Wuyishan arrives

Hangzhou (1) West Lake, Lingyin Temple and Longjing Tea: Part 6 of South East China

Never Mind
Koetic Spirit
(slogan seen on shirt, Lingyin Temple)
Another of the endless supply of meaningless slogans that adorn Chinese tee-shirts and other garments
(Koetic Friday is a Hong Kong clothing company. What, if anything, 'koetic' means I do not know)

17th of November 2016

We arrived in Hangzhou after dark to be met by an enthusiastic young man who was responsible for our transfer. ‘Welcome to the busiest railway station in Asia,’ he said.

We arrived on the high speed train from Suzhou
It was a long ride to our hotel, not in terms of distance but getting anywhere during the Hangzhou rush hour requires patience.

He suggested we eat in the hotel as it was reasonably priced and there was little choice locally. We generally avoid hotel restaurants, but we were tired so we took him at his word.

During the drive he had told us, at length, that Hangzhou is a digital city, the home of Alibaba, the world's largest online retailer and Alipay, a third party on-line payment platform much used locally for payment by smart phone. The hotel restaurant lived up to his digital claim. The menu was on a tablet, an appropriate poke communicated our choices to the kitchen next door. We found the system problematic, searching and sending were not intuitive and the instructions were in Chinese only, as was the list of food categories. And we were not always sure what we were looking at, on a printed picture menu you can scan everything at once but here the pictures popped up devoid of context. The waitress had a device into which she typed the Chinese characters and a metallic voice provided an English translation, but it was cumbersome and the translation quality variable. The technology somehow interfered with the human interaction - smiles and gestures work better for us - but we eventually ordered some pork, vegetables, rice and beer. It was good enough and inexpensive but it had been hard work getting it.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and Alipay
A Hangzhou born Hangzhou resident, he is reputedly worth US$30.9billion
18th of November 2016

A different guide, C, picked us up in the morning and she arrived with a woman driver, only the second female professional driver we have encountered in China (the first was a taxi driver in Kunming). She drove us to West Lake. Hangzhou is another huge city with 7.5 million people, but at its western edge the urban sprawl is halted by a lake.
Su Dong Po, West Lake, Hangzhou
We parked by a statue of Su Dong Po (or Su Shi), a Song Dynasty (960-1279) writer, poet, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome, and statesman. Born in Sichuan Province in 1037 he passed the highest level civil service examinations at the age of 19. There followed a long career as an administrator included 18 years (1060-78) in Hangzhou.

Being an able administrator and the most important cultural figure of his century, did not make him immune from government infighting. He endured several periods of exile including 7 years in Huizhou (1093-1100).  Our daughter taught English in Huizhou, 60km north east of Hong Kong, in 2004/5 and we met Su Dongpo on our first Chinese trip in 2004 beside Huizhou’s West Lake (he seems attracted to ‘West Lakes’). For a man who has been dead 1000 years, it is surprising how similar he looks in the two statues!

Su Dong Po, West Lake, Huizhou, July 2004
Odd how they are remarkably similar though nobody can have the least idea what Su Dong Po looked like
On such a damp misty morning we thought we might have the lake to ourselves, but we had reckoned without the indefatigable Chinese tourist. There they were in their thousands being marshalled by tour guides waving flags like regimental banners.

We had plenty of company as we marched along the Su Causeway (built by Su Dong Po) to the dock and were perhaps lucky to grab the last two spaces on a boat leaving immediately.

Heading off into West Lake, Hangzhou
We did grab the last places - but there were plenty of seats once everybody had moved to the observation areas at either end
West Lake was as smooth as rippling silk, but the morning mist meant poor visibility.

Yesterday’s guide had asked how I knew of Hangzhou as so few westerners visit. I was unsure; it is a vast city so I assumed I knew anyway, but I remember its charms being advertised on CNN during a previous visit and then the G20 Summit had been held here in September, though that was after we booked. I could not mention Jun Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Chairman Mao - a character assassination as much as a biography - and unavailable in China, but in it I had learned that Mao had a favourite house by West Lake. I asked about it now. His house, C informed us, had become a hotel and was on the opposite headland below the Leifeng Pagoda. It was the hotel used for the G20 summit so Theresa May had been here before me. I felt truly ambivalent.
The headland opposite with the Leifeng Pagoda lurking in the mist
The boat found its way among the lake’s several islands, some natural some man made, and beside causeways dividing it into different areas. We saw this unusual vessel pottering across on a parallel path....
Unusual looking vessel, West Lake, Hangzhou
 ...and there were rather more basic craft, too.

Traditionally powered craft, West Lake, Hangzhou
After 20 minutes we bumped gently into the other side or perhaps an island (the mist made it impossible to say). The large Chinese tour part departed and were replaced by a smaller group; we set off on the return journey.
On the return journey, West Lake, Hanghou
Our route passed Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, one of those wonderful Chinese names which tell you what you can enjoy and how to enjoy it. The three pools sit inside a circular causeway, like tropical lagoons – though Hangzhou felt far from tropical this morning. Between the pools and the headland, three stone pillars - C described them as pagodas - protrude from the water.

The three 'pagodas' in the misty distance, West Lake, Hangzhou
I am not sure what they are,…

A closer view of two of the 'pagodas', West Lake, Hangzhou
…. but they must be important as they feature on the 1 yuan banknote.
Reverse of  the One Yuan banknote with the three West Lake 'pagodas'
We docked beside the interesting craft we had seen earlier. Through the round window we could see a business meeting taking place.

And through the round window....., West Lake, Hangzhou
After what would, in better weather, have been a pleasant stroll along the shore, we re-met our driver and she took us westwards into the countryside - a relief after a week in uncompromisingly urban surroundings.

The Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area is much visited and a settlement has grown up around the entrance containing, among others, a Starbucks, a KFC and a Pizza Hut (though remarkably no Macd's). Why does China, with its vibrant food tradition, insist on importing the worst of western food? Beats me.

According to tradition, Lingyin Monastery was founded in 328AD by an Indian monk given the Chinese name of Huili. His ashes are said to be entombed in the small and weathered Elder Li’s Pagoda. I have found no suggestion as to its age; it is clearly ancient though I doubt it was built very soon after Huili’s death.

Elder Li's Pagoda, Feilai Feng
Behind the pagoda is Feilai Feng (lit: The Peak that Flew Here). It is limestone which is unusual in this area, so obviously it arrived from elsewhere, probably India, whisked through the air by the power of Buddhist philosophy.

Feilai Feng is covered with carvings of the Buddha and his disciples….

Carvings, Feilai Feng
 ….many of them sculpted in the 10th century when Lingyin housed over 3,000 monks.
More Carvings, Feilai Feng
Beyond Felai Feng we entered the main courtyard of the Lingyin Monastery...

Main courtyard, Lingyin Monastery
 ... and, like all visitors, were presented with a bunch of incense sticks. The appropriate procedure is to light them in the brazier...

Lighting the incense stick, Lingyin Monastery
 …bow in the four cardinal directions and then plant the incense sticks in the burner.
Bowing to the north, Lingyin Monastery
Despite the monastery's antiquity most of the current buildings date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). During the Cultural Revolution the monastery was threatened by the Red Guards but it is said to have been saved from destruction, like so many other antiquities, by the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai. Others, notably Chang and Haliday in their biography of Mao, find nothing heroic about Zhou.

To the south is the Guardian Hall, where four scary guardians ensure evil spirits are too frightened to enter.

Guardian, Lingyin Monastery
From there we made our way to the main hall and the main Buddha image.

Main Buddha image, Lingyin Monastery
Behind is a wall encrusted with arhats and others.

Arhats and others, Lingyin Monastery
Which I found strangely reminiscent of part of the north façade of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!

North façade, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
It was now time for lunch. We went to none of the previously mentioned junk food outlets but to a large and well-presented Chinese restaurant where we joined a larger number of China's growing middle class.

The picture menu had English as well as Chinese descriptions and advised by C we chose two local specialties. Dong Po pork named after the poet, is a slab of braised pork in a rich brown sauce with slices of steamed dough, described as bread, folded into a fan shape. Agreeably inexpensive it is a starter of sorts, though the Chinese have no concept of courses. I do not rate the ‘bread, but the pork was absolutely delicious, though it does not photograph well.

Delicious if not very photogenic Dong Po Pork, Lingyin
More photogenic, and expensive, though equally delicious were the shrimps cooked in the local longjing tea - a delicate flavour, but one worth savouring.

Prawns cooked in Longjing Tea, Lingyin
Lunch over, we drove on to one of the tea producing villages further into the country where we enjoyed a tasting and were then subjected to a hard sell of tea in tablet form. The woman started by asked what supplements we take. There was a momentary pause when we answered 'none,' her script did not mention that answer.

The home of Longjing tea
Undaunted she set about convincing us that swallowing tea in tablet form was vital to our well-being. Green tea, she told us, is full of anti-oxidants which are essential to counter dangerous free radicals.
To ‘prove’ it she poured some rice into a beaker of water and added a few drops off iodine, colouring everything purple. She gave the beaker a shake and held it up for us to admire the purple stained rice. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘it has been oxidised’. She stirred in a ground up tea tablet and the colour disappeared. ‘Look’ she said again, ‘the rice is no longer oxidised’. There was much more in this vein as she talked about de-detoxing (itself a doubtful concept), her script carefully aligning the 'ox' in toxin with the unrelated 'ox' in oxidation.

I was a bad audience; I have a little scientific knowledge and a healthy degree of scepticism. I am a sceptic, not a cynic – it is those who wrote her script who are the cynics.

The rice had, of course, not been oxidised it had been stained, a physical not a chemical change.  The iodine reacted with the molecules in the tea tablet (oxidised them) and producing a colourless iodate. This has no relevance to human nutrition.

Free radicals are dangerous but they have been around for ever and all animals long ago evolved ways of dealing with them. Free radicals need an extra electron or two, if they take that electron from molecules in your cells (i.e. ‘oxidise’ them – which need not have anything to do with oxygen) they can cause damage, the trick is to have enough molecules floating round which can be harmlessly oxidised and thus mop up the free radicals – such molecules are the so-called ‘anti-oxidants’. Our bodies manufacture these from vitamins A, C and E. A normal balanced diet will provide all the anti-oxidants we need.

But if some are good, would more be better? Do we need to take supplement? ‘Randomized, placebo-controlled trials…offer little support that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, or other single antioxidants provides substantial protection against heart disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions.’ (from Anti-Oxidants Beyond the Hype – Harvard School of Public Health).
Sorry about the science lesson/rant, but the woman annoyed me. We did, however, buy some tea, because we liked it.

Our Longjing Tea
The ride back to Hangzhou started well but became slower as we got into the confines of the city.

In late afternoon we walked south, crossing one of the city’s many canals….

Crossing one of Hangzhou's many canals
….to the nearest supermarket.

The view from the supermarket steps, Hangzhou
(an unusual caption!)
The three storey building was a treasure trove of the mundane and exotic. Chinese snacks include unfamiliar varieties like shredded squid (the strips have a pleasing texture though a mild ketchup flavour drowns out the even milder squid), pork floss (as regrettable as it sounds) and, among the more recognisable peanuts and wasabi peas, ‘strange flavoured horsebeans’ (Guaiwei, lit: strange flavour, seasoning originates from Sichuan and is pleasantly unusual rather than truly strange.)

We bought some Bai Jiu (lit: white alcohol), which can be distilled from a variety of grains, but ours came from sorghum. At 50% abv it was fiery stuff with a lingering sweet taste (and smell) reminiscent of the odour of decay that settles over afternoon fruit markets in the tropics. As a nightcap it was not unpleasant - and at 10 Yuan (£1.20) for a litre very cheap - but the smell lingered in the room, being particularly noticeable when we returned after breakfast.

Bai Jiu - Sorghum based firewater
Lynne thought dinner unnecessary after our excellent lunch, but I persuaded her into a cheap Chinese fast food restaurant. A set meal of meat, rice and a non-descript sauce came with a thin soup, so Lynne had the soup, I ate the meat and we both watched our youthful fellow diners. The signature dish, served on a sizzler plate, was surrounded by a paper collar so we never saw it, but forks were supplied rather than chopsticks. It was the first time we had seen Chinese people eating with forks in the Han heartland.