To get back to Hangzhou from the islands of Matsu, we took the overland route, along some winding mountain roads (sometimes just paths) of northern Fujian and southern Zhejiang. Along the way we crossed some of the many “corridor bridges” (廊桥) in these parts, most hundreds of years old and all built with an incredible “woven-timber” method that uses no nails for the underlying structure. For a couple of Vermonters who appreciate a good old-fashioned covered bridge when they see one, it was cool to see the Chinese version. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Zhejiang 浙
Out on “Fu-chien” Province’s Horse Ancestor Islands, Where the Strait is Narrow, Plans are Big, and Travellers find Rescue
Fujian Province is kinda like Kansas City: it exists across two separate, higher-level jurisdictions. Except unlike the governments of Missouri and Kansas, with their peacefully state-spanning city, the governments of mainland China and Taiwan don’t officially recognize that any part of their shared province belongs to the other. They don’t even agree on how to alphabetically write the name: to the PRC it’s “Fujian,” while the Republic of China on Taiwan insists on the old “Fu-chien.” Even after the Nationalists lost control of dozens of their remaining island strongholds off Zhejiang and Fujian in the 1950’s, a few pieces of ye olde Fu-chien have remained. The most famous of these is Kinmen, a large island of flat farmland and sleepy villages sitting just a couple swimmable miles away from the giant (mainland) city of Xiamen. Lesser known are the Matsu (马祖) Islands to the north, which are part not only of a divided province but of a divided county, written/spelled 连江 Lianjiang in the PRC and 連江 Lien-chiang in Taiwan. Continue reading
The next day, about citied-out, we finally set off on our real journey: to the islands. An early-morning bus ride took us out, one last time, across the bizarro world of Outer Shanghai to edge of the Asian mainland. Then we bought tickets for another bus, this one to take us over the 20-mile bridge to Little Ocean Mountain Island 小洋山岛, where cargo is on- and off-loaded from massive container ships that never have to bother entering a cramped port on the Chinese mainland. From Little Ocean Mountain Island we then hopped a high-speed ferry to Si Reef Island, with “Si” （泗）really just a name, but a name that can also be translated as “nasal mucus.” A beautiful place, the locals on Nasal Mucus Reef Island took one look at us and said, shaking their heads, “You’re a month early for tourist season.” It was the sweetest put-down of our travel sensibilities that we’d ever heard. Continue reading
This is the story of our final family trip in China. It all started one fine April day when, as Nick was putting the final touches (okay, tossing down the final unedited sentences) on his thesis, he had a remarkable vision. Huddled over his little laptop in the drafty guest bedroom, where he’d spent the vast majority of his uninspired life over the last six dreary weeks, he saw the peeling wallpaper before him suddenly peel away some more. The drab and yellowed paper lifted up and away, revealing not the inch-thick wall beneath, the medium through which the sounds of a neighbor coughing and hacking and possibly choking up blood often came to fill the many long, uncertain pauses between Nick’s tapping of his keyboard. Instead, the peeling wallpaper peeled all the way away to reveal a glittering azure sea, specked with emerald-colored islands and traversible via passenger ferry from Shanghai. It was a vision of freedom, of warm sun and salty breezes and Chinese seafood that was just-maybe somewhat safe to eat. It was a vision of the 嵊泗 Shengsi and 舟山 Zhoushan archipelagos, where the first rays of sun shine down on the Middle Kingdom each morning, and where in 1841 one of those sunrises was accompanied by tall-masted British warships, which shelled the coast and seized Ningbo’s tax barges until the Qing agreed to allow the unlimited import of opium. It would be out there, along the narrow, windy beaches of those small rocky islands, at the watery limits of China’s vast continental empire, and where continuing east means going back to the West, that the Hu Family would leave their final footprints in China. It was a glorious, coffee-addled vision. Continue reading
Ten months ago, when we moved to China, we stayed at the illustrious Dragon Hotel while we searched for an apartment. Upon check-in, we were presented with flutes of champagne and tiny cheesecake bites. Our room was stocked with a bowl of fresh fruits. “That’s a nice touch,” I said to Nick.
Today, as we made the 12-hour journey home (via bus, ferry, taxi, bus, taxi) from some Nanxi River valley villages outside Wenzhou, I glanced up at the handles running along the ceiling of the bus. There hung clusters of small black plastic bags, perfect for grabbing if you needed to spit out a chicken bone or melon seed. I turned to Nick and said, “That’s a nice touch.”
Hikes are one of the best ways to see China. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. We’ve always liked hiking, and apparently so too have the Chinese. In fact, when the very first (and very brutal) emperor, Qin Shihuang, decided to proclaim the unity of Chinese civilization, he did so by hiking up the tallest mountain in Shandong Province. Of course, whether he actually enjoyed the hike or just did it for a Putin-style photo-op is unclear. If he was anything like today’s Chinese hikers, he brought along a miniature boombox slung around his neck to play relaxing songs at maximum volume, a big camera (or cell phone) for taking pictures of all the leaves and oddly-shaped rocks along the way, and of course plenty of snacks. He also would have stayed on the peak to watch the sunrise, and later told all his friends that their hikes didn’t count unless they, too, caught the sunrise from the mountaintop. And thus it has ever been.
The Chinese really do love their mountains, and around here, just about every county has its own self-proclaimed “fame-winning” peak – a picaresque local crag that, at some point in the last 2,500 years, once played host to one or another much-talked episode of myth, legend, history or folklore. With the arrival of a couple autumnal months of cool, dry weather, we recently made two more weekend trips to nearby mountains. Being a couple of Chinese folklore Luddites, we chose one peak based on a second-hand recommendation and the other based on its interesting recent history. As usual in China, their names provided some good foreshadowing: Armed Barbarian Mountain (武夷山) and Do-Nothing Mountain (莫干山).
The first, pronounced Wuyishan, in northern Fujian Province, actually could not be considered ‘nearby.’ But one of the guidebooks (we’re glaring at you, Lonely Planet China, 2011 edition) promised that if we went in November or December, we’d have “one of the most underrated national parks in southern China” all to ourselves. These days we spring for adjectives like these as quickly as the rat in our kitchen springs for Owen’s leftover oatmeal on the counter (but that is another blog entry…or not). So, imagining ourselves as some kind of modern-day, living-in-China version of John Muir, delving into the backcountry upon hearing a few prospectors’ tales and stumbling upon the grandeur of Yosemite, we happily made the long, complicated train journey that lasted late into the night. (Note that our imaginary resemblance to John Muir had little or no historical basis.) Lo and behold, at our destination, we were practically the only ones getting off the train. Confident smiles all around – we’d have this place to ourselves.
We had a gorgeous long weekend to spend at the park, and we checked into place called the Holiday Hotel, waking up the guy behind the counter to negotiate a room and falling asleep in our hard bed around 1AM. We woke to find that the hotel was a massive, sprawling, industrial-feeling edifice with hallways and a cafeteria that brought me back to my days at high school in the former Soviet Union. It was cold, dim and concrete. We headed to breakfast. Turns out, we were just in time to join a massive tour group of chatty Shandong-ers. So much for having the place to ourselves, we thought for billionth time since coming to China.
The tour group members were friendly enough but apparently pretty annoyed with the low-quality hotel breakfast. We thought the breakfast was actually pretty good by hotel standards—buns, rice, noodles, repeat!—and from prior experience we knew it was good (and plentiful) by the much lower standards of Chinese tour groups. But Chinese travellers often willingly throw away their money and their freedom by joining tour groups that treat them like burdensome animals. They do this because they then get to travel with plenty of company and get lots to complain about. The result is an enthusiastic, cheerful marathon of competitive complaining, which is more of a national pastime in China than baseball in the US. (We witnessed this exchange on a Chinese tour group to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: Young guy: “There is no Mongolian culture here. It’s all fake.” Old guy: “Oh yeah? Look around. There isn’t even grass here. They call this the grasslands and there isn’t even any grass. This is not what I call grasslands.” Young guy: “Yeah. And these aren’t real yurts.” Old guy: “The rice at dinner was really bad.”) In China, it’s not so much that misery loves company, but that company loves misery. It just makes for such great conversation. We finished our melanin-leaching food, bid adieu to our still-cheerfully complaining breakfast companions, and struck out alone for the national park. We figured we’d put some distance between us and the Shandongren, and have the place relatively to ourselves.
Our hike up began on pleasant, wide paving stones that wound through an impeccably-manicured (almost golf-course-like) lawn strewn with carefully-placed flowers. Tour groups surged ahead and behind us, their megaphone-toting leaders smashing what stillness remained in the crisp morning. Still, for China, it was pretty nice. Then we began the ascent. The wide path turned very narrow (just one American, or 1.5 Chinese, wide), and soon we were stuck at a standstill in a bottleneck that continued as far as the eye could see, which is to say: all the way up the damn mountain. We cursed. Owen yelled. The people around us waited patiently, smoked cigarettes, spat on the ground, took unsolicited pictures of Owen yelling, and in the case of one brave soul, jumped the barrier and tried to cut in line ten feet ahead, only to be shoved back to his original spot but unable to jump back over the fence. So peaceful!
The scenery, I should mention, was actually incredibly lovely if we put our blinders on and turned away from the teeming masses on the mountain. (A lot of people were trying to do this simultaneously.) After a solid half hour of human traffic jam, we broke free at the top, where we found a shady spot under an umbrella (c’mon, as if mountaintops in the U.S. don’t also have umbrellas, benches, hot-dog vendors and giant teddy bears for sale?) to feed a now-howling Owen, and decided to take the long way down. On the other side of the mountain, we were blissfully, finally, alone. We stepped slowly through cool, lush forest, savoring every quiet moment (though, to be honest, we could still hear the din of thousands of tourists issuing from the other side of the hill). We descended to what we hoped was an unpopular site, a Daoist temple, and continued to enjoy our solitude for a while until we happened upon a T in the trail, where we met a family of four: mom and dad, daughter and son-in-law. Both women wore 3-inch heels and everyone carried an umbrella. We all said hello in that hiking-trail way, and then we banged a right (to go in the opposite direction of them). The older woman called out, warning us reedily, “Don’t go that way! There’s nothing to see there! This [pointing in her walking direction] is the way to go!” Thank you, thank you, we said, it’s okay, we just want to go over here and look out at the river. “No, don’t go! There is nothing in that direction!” she protested as they picked their way down the trail. In China, even sightseeing is regimented.
We were officially off the beaten path now, and we high-fived, then descended the riverbank, forded the deceptively-high river (it looked knee-deep at most, but was in reality waist-deep…oops), and emerged at our own private, sandy beach on the other side. If we’d brought a picnic, we would’ve stayed all day. Instead, we took turns dunking our sweaty selves in the glacial water, then dipped Owen’s toes in and took a moment to say: this may never happen again in our remaining two years in China. Reader, spontaneous swimming in seemingly-clean water is not an everyday occurrence here. Most of the Chinese seemed amazed that we didn’t immediately die upon making contact with the water. Then, figuring hypothermia and death might take a minute or two, they snapped hundreds of pictures of what they were sure were our last moments.
It was lunchtime by now, so we crossed back and found ourselves some overpriced grub (including yummy, fiery fish-ball soup and roasted sweet potatoes) and sat down at a lovely pavilion overlooking the river. We were immediately approached by a waitress wielding a menu of expensive tea. Turns out the tea shop had arbitrarily claimed the pavilion in this free-for-all dining area, and the waitress was tasked with selling us tea. The least expensive option was $25 for some fancy thing we didn’t want, so we pretended not to understand. Nick even whipped out a terribly-mangled “Ting bu…dong? Is that right?” I just shrugged and attended to Owen, who was trying desperately to get his hands in the bowl of soup. The waitress stuck around for a long time, repeatedly showing us the menu and pantomiming, “Buy something or get out of here,” but we played dumb. (There were 10 tables in the area, and all were empty but ours.) Eventually, she sighed and left, but not before saying, “You’re going to leave a mess on the table, and we don’t want to clean it up.” Fair enough. After eating and wiping up—assiduously Leaving No Trace—we traipsed down the mountain, hopped on a park bus, and went back to our concrete hotel. The hard bed was a welcome comfort, and the solitude of our room was delicious. We didn’t venture out again until breakfast (buns, noodles, rice, repeat!).
The next day we decided to do the other most popular activity at Wuyishan: raft down the Nine Twists River on a bamboo boat. It looked pretty awful from our vantage point the previous day up on the mountain: hundreds of boats, all filled with people, following on each other’s tails. In actuality, it was extremely pleasant and, dare I say, peaceful. For over an hour, we sat comfortably in bamboo chairs with happy tourists as two men with poles guided the boat down the nine twists of the river. Some twists had small rapids. It was fantastic, and Owen didn’t even fall in. Afterwards, we drank milk tea while we waited for our driver-for-the-day to pick us up and take us to the train station, from where we took a 7-hour, hard seat, night train home. We arrived in Hangzhou at 2am, bleary but thankful for many things: one, that our train was full of college students who wanted to sleep (and not middle-aged men who wanted to eat, as is often the case with trains), two, that Owen is a seasoned pro now and was able to catch 5 hours of zzz’s facedown in the polyester train seat while terrible Chinese pop music blared and the food cart rocketed by every 3 minutes, and three, that our bed at home is relatively soft compared to a hotel bed. Success.
The following weekend, we made another getaway, this time much closer to home. We took a 45-minute bus to Moganshan, once the getaway of the likes of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. Tucked away in the hills, this resort town is the closest we’ve come to feeling like we were back in Vermont. It just required a little squinting to pretend the forest was oak and sugar maple, not bamboo and Japanese maple. We stayed at a small, inexpensive bed and breakfast (called a “farmer’s house,” and very common in smaller towns; we love these no-frills, comfortable, personality-filled inns where you are served delicious food and the only bummer is no private bathrooms).
It was lunchtime when we arrived, and the proprietor asked if we’d like to eat something. We said sure, and as we waited we watched a group of expats from Shanghai wrangle their fancy bikes: they were in town for a weekend of cycling through the verdant hills. Soon, lunch arrived: plate after steaming plate of vegetables, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meatballs and of course white rice. Awesome. Who needs to order food when you can just eat what’s offered? Happy and full, we hired a driver to take us around to the sights for the afternoon and evening. And we saw: empty pavilions overlooking cold, foliage-covered hills in pink late-afternoon mist; a forest of stelae where we crunched through piles of leaves without running into another soul; a stone walkway around a mountain that, for 45 minutes, allowed us to walk in silence and idle chatter, with only our cold breath to keep us company; clusters of gorgeous old (some reconstructed, some not) buildings where the rich/famous/politically-connected stayed. We saw maybe 12 people total at all these sights. It was spooky. And magic.
At one point, wandering through the main village area, we saw a sign that promised coffee. No way, we thought. It was serendipitous: long night sharing a bed with the baby, cold day trudging around outside…coffee was a gift from above. We ducked into a freezing cold coffeeshop, doubtful that it was even open, given the total lack of tourists. We were surprised to see a guy behind the counter, bundled up in a down jacket and scarf and looking miserable. We ordered regular coffee with milk, only to be told: No milk. No regular coffee. Only Americano, for 45 kuai (around $7) each. We bit our lips and said okay, then sat down and waited while the barista cranked the frozen espresso machine into action. Our Americanos arrived in the world’s smallest cups, probably 1.5 ounces each of the bitterest, sourest coffee imaginable. We gulped it, and reminded ourselves, again, that ordering coffee here is the pinnacle of foolish: China is definitively not a coffee country, and it won’t be any time soon. Lesson learned? Honestly, probably not.
Slightly caffeinated, we continued our expat ways by eating dinner at an American-owned hotel-restaurant at the top of the hill. (We couldn’t afford to stay there, but dinner was reasonable.) We had hamburgers, spaghetti, salad, and hot chocolate, but surmised that we would have eaten better, and much more cheaply, at our farmer’s house B&B. Again, it’s best to go with what China does best. Lesson learned this time? Probably.
Post-dinner, driving back in the dark along leaf-strewn, winding roads down the mountain, we passed a broken-down tour bus. Nick asked our driver if we should stop and offer help, and he responded, “The bus is broken” without slowing.
The next morning, after a glorious slumber under the heaviest down comforter this side of the Yangtze River, we set out again, this time with no destination at all but a desire to see a bit of the village. We ended up climbing a bamboo-forested mountain on service roads and harvest paths, coming upon bamboo harvesters along the way: men and women walking under very heavy bamboo-bundle burdens, giving us big smiles and the occasional thumbs-up for Owen. (Minus ten points for using “bamboo” three times in one sentence, but honestly there was so much bamboo.) We broke through the forest at the summit into prickly brambles and a stunning view of the chilly valley below. Then we walked down and came home.
The following weekend we rested, which is to say: ate real Thanksgiving dinner two nights in a row, in excellent company. More adventures soon. Stick with us.
11:10AM – We arrive in Shaoxing, a once-upon-a-time water town along the Hangzhou Bay estuary, former capital of the State of Yue, and in 2010, the world’s capital of malware. The area around Hangzhou and the southern terminus of the Grand Canal still has a half dozen or so examples left of these little canal-side market towns, each one billing itself as the true “Venice of the East.” Shaoxing is actually a pretty big city along the Hangzhou–Ningbo urban belt, with little pockets of water town-charm scattered within. This makes it less of a favorite among the tour bus crowd, and therefore our first choice.
Okay, there’s another reason we came here: in addition to our general rule of avoiding China’s disastrously-managed UNESCO sites, we wanted to try some Shaoxing rice wine, China’s home-grown alternative to baijiu.
12:37PM – After strolling along some quiet canals, dodging honking death at a few intersections, and taking the two obligatory “contrast evidence of China’s past with its current blistering development” pictures seen at far left and above, we duck into the 600-year-old home of a Ming Dynasty poet to feed Owen. So far he’s having a great day, dispensing friendly hoots to all from his high backpack perch.
2:18PM – Now all three of us have had lunch (twice for Owen), with two bowls of shrimp and fish noodles and one bowl of Shaoxing wine served up for the 家长 (jiazhang – parents, lit. “family chiefs”). The chiefs think the wine is a little sweet for their taste. After lunch, it’s time for a boat ride along one of the canals. It’s been a while since his morning nap, but Owen dismisses his fatigue, refusing to miss a thing.
2:47PM – The boat ride begins with much fanfare. Our pilot sings as he paddles, and Owen smiles cheerfully to his adoring fans lining the canal sides. But the gentle rocking of the boat and the rhythmic splishhhh, splishhhh of the paddle are hypnotic and irresistible; after so much bravado, Owen is unconscious before he knows it.
3:25PM – Quickly back awake and annoyed at what just happened to him, a still-weary-eyed Owen is once again greeting one and all as he swoops through their neighborhood. He’s determined to put on his best face and not let anybody’s first encounter with a baby foreigner be anything less than a thrilling experience. But along these canals, an endless string of elderly women—washing clothes, boiling water, or simply standing in their doorways—make for a non-stop performance schedule. But as fatigue sets in, adrenaline seems to take over. The little guy is a comically animated ball of pure energy. Kicks and hoots and smiles for all – the show must go on!
3:58PM – The backpack carrier can no longer contain him. He is too powerful. No detail escapes him, no stimulus is too small for his enthusiastic reaction. The lanterns hung along the street, bright red and floating just above arms-reach, are a particularly powerful source of energy. But here and there, between the hoots, we detect a small whimper.
5:25-6:54PM – After an anxious half-hour delay, we board our train home. Finally, a chance for the little guy to sleep. The compartment is brightly lit and bustling, with plenty of friendly passengers—Owen cannot keep up with the commotion, and he finds this to be nothing short of completely infuriating. For the next hour, he rages against physiology, but with each passing moment victory slips farther from his little grasp. We can’t be happier to be getting off at the first stop and be on our way home.
7:28PM – Pre-bed oatmeal dinner. The picture says it all.