Shanghai…and Hongcun part 1

A study in opposites. 한국어로 보고 싶으면 한번도 우리 네이버블로그으로 봐 주세요!

We left Zhangjiagang on a Saturday morning and arrived in Shanghai an hour and a half later. As I was talking to Gei the whole time, I have nothing to remark on the scenery, other than Chinese suburbs are unlike any I have know before. Buildings proclaim “Shanghai” on them long before we even get close. Channels of water still sit murkily behind the large industrial complexes. It is not unpleasant, but neither is it remarkable. Back at the train station we first arrived at, we get on the subway for the short ride to Koreatown. We dropped our bags at the hotel that Hyeongjae and Gei chose and put us up in…and then we were right back on the subway. Our first stop was in the fringes of the old French Concession and it is now ship area full of boutiques and cafes, but there was another reason we were there. The house that became the outpost of the Korean government after Japan colonized Korea is now a museum. We visited to see this little slice of history and apparently one of Hyeongjae’s relatives appears in one of the photos on display!
Back outside, we stopped for some coffee and then proceeded to start walking into central Shanghai. We passed through a lovely green park where the flowers were starting to bloom…the park is arranged around a man made lake, and I was happy to start to see some eccentric fashions walking past. Next, we accidentally stumbled into a famous antiques street market, where we spotted some real treasures. Sangbyeong pointed out several clocks which have kittens chasing fish around the hours. I fell in love with several Art Deco inspired posters from Shanghai’s glamorous past as the exotic outpost of Europe in the 20s. We also found abused looking steamer trunks and a chess set dated to the 1890s. By then everyone was famished, so we stopped for an evening meal in the quietest corner of a bustling food street. Thus refortified, we kept on until we found the BIG commercial pedestrian street. The only vehicles allowed are the lit up tourist trams! As we came out the end, we turned a couple bends and the gigantic, iconic, spectacular Pearl of Asia TV tower sprang into view, glittering with its purple lights. Coming up that street, more and more of the skyline appeared until we reached the river’s edge. Being crowded by other tourists did nothing to diminish the shine of the skyscrapers reflected in the water as ships drifted by. Sated with the views, we caught the subway back to our hotel for an early night (serenaded by the noraebang located under our rooms!).
The next morning we struck out for another famous shopping spot (you can tell something about the interests of our hosts). A labyrinth of narrow walkways wind through artsy little shops, cute cafes, and romantic dinner spots. And it turned out that there was a vegan restaurant located just a block away…inside an underground food court connected to the subway. We treated our wonderful host to a last feast, which was a first for them. Hyeongjae proceeded to try to dissect the Kung Pao chicken because it tasted so good (and real)! Finally, we had to say goodbye to them…may e next time we see them will be their wedding!!!
We struck out heading generally north, passing through several quiet backstreets and a few pop up markets…birds!…and eventually ran into the freeway, which we followed to Nanjing Road. From there, we rode the subway to the central Shanghai train station. After arriving, we spent no less than 45 minutes hunting for the ticket office…without Chinese IDs, we cannot use the automated ticket machines. Eventually we figured out that it was across the road, in a building with zero helpful signs pointing it out. However, we got our tickets lickety split once inside.
I have a new love in my life, and it is sleeper trains. Shanghai to Huangshan has several faster ways of going…but it was oh so lovely to get onboard and into my third tier bunk high off the ground (Sangbyeong) had a first level and there was some stranger on the middle bunk. We stretched out, read, and by the 11 o’clock lights out , we were ready to sleep.
We awoke the next morning with green, mountainous countryside rolling past the window. Disembarking at the chaotic Huangshan station at 9 am, we strutted past all the touts for the mountain and found the local bus stop, which conveniently had a bus bound to the long distance bus station. Once there, we no sooner entered the front door when a ticket seller asked us if we were there for the 9:30 bus to Hongcun…like magic. First, this bus wove through the edge of the city, and then we started to see the villages. Huizhou architecture is stunning in that it is so stark. Whitewashed walls and black tile roofs that have different animals carved into the peaks, these buildings are the sole building style seen for miles and miles. Round doorways give us peeks into garden-like courtyards, Maleah’s embellished with red signs and lanterns. As we continue, the scenery turns to jutting granite outcrops, cloaked in dark green pines, soft yellow green bamboo, and the occasional burst of pink from a blooming cherry or plum tree. Below them, the river is turned a surreal teal color, reflecting the sky. At Xidi, we switch buses and 20 minutes later, we are in Hongcun. Well, in the little strip of shops and street stalls that feed on the crowds that head to the real village.
Two minutes later, we part with our 104yuan entrance fee and we are in the main square. We are here for ten days, to volunteer at a hostel within the village, itself. But we had no idea where to go. We showed the Chinese address to several shopkeepers, but they seemed to have less idea of where it was than we did. After some confusion and a couple phone calls, Xiaoliang came to retrieve us. He is the handyman and assistant manager (sort of) at the hostel…but as the two bosses are on a 2 month vacation, he is in charge. A lot of responsibility, considering he is 25! And his English is limited. Very limited. Nevertheless, he fed us lunch and then sent us out to explore and take photos.
Hongcun is gorgeous. A UNESCO Heritage site since 2000, it is the old fashioned heart of Yi County. While there are many tour groups passing through and a smattering of shops selling standard tourist junk…one need only walk 10 seconds away from the three main areas to be right back in rural village life. Many scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were filmed here, and those spots tend to be tourist hubs. Painters Bridge on South Lake is from the opening scene of the movie, and the younger woman runs across Moon Fen during one of the fight scenes. Other spots we loved were Chengzhi Hall, built by the wealthiest of salt merchants. Most of the building is built with two story ceilings and light wells that are open to the sky. Second floor rooms have little peepholes carved into the stone, so that the women of the house could spy on the doings below. I also managed to stumble into the concubine’s alcove, which was hidden behind the main sitting room. The whole place was guarded by a friendly brown dog and a rose bush starting to bloom.
Life at the hostel quickly assumed a rhythm and pattern. Wake up around 7:10, when the birds really start to go nuts. Breakfast was invariably rice porridge, with sides of pickled vegetables and roasted peanuts. Which I grew to crave by the end. Then, we washed the dishes, swept the patio, cleaned up the bar, and headed to our computer posts. Mainly, we were supposed to find ways to give the hostel more visibility online. Some days we helped with laundry and one day we did an epic weeding of the garden and bamboo patch. Of course, we had many breaks for petting Hainu, the very pregnant chocolate lab, and the other two dogs, Kaka and Paopao. The cats we mainly saw at mealtimes…both indiscriminately called Mimi. After lunch and before dinner, we walked and walked the I truncate web of alleyways, most edged with a gushing canal. These canals and the fen and lake are all still used for washing clothes and vegetables for the locals. These waterways also provide for the gardens hidden in every spare meter of space, growing vegetables like leeks, rapeseed, and radishes. Deep in the back alleys, old women and men lean out their front door to sell the salty vegetable filled biscuits that everyone snacks on. Everyone also takes their lunch out to the front step, to keep an eye on the passersby. Puppies and cats perched in every entry and a few songbirds or mimic birds were hung out in their cages on the alley trees for the day until dinner time. Locals largely ignored the tourists and simply watched the spectacle while sipping their tea. Within the hostel, we saw Xiaoliang, the cleaning ayis, the cooking ayi and her granddaughter, the animals, and all the guests who wandered through. After dinner, we would walk one minute down the canal alley to the little cafe that served the only decent coffee in the village. By the end, the very young staff looked for us each evening! We were usually back in bed and reading while sipping village grown chrysanthemum tea by 8 pm. These are the rewards of slowed down travel…being recognized in the village, following the local rhythm rather than a timetable, and digging deep into the secret life of a place.
Next update, I will talk about our excursions from Hongcun more…including climbing Huangshan. Have you seen those ink drawing from China depicting sharp granite peaks dotted with pines, sticking up out of the clouds? Chances are, it was a picture of Huangshan, arguably China’s most famous mountain.
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