Fields of rice paddies alongside a dirt road; elderly locals cooking and selling unique food on streets; the smell of tea plants during their peak season; cloudy mountains hovering in the landscape, preserved forests and waterways; tiny boats paddling down a canal lined with close-knit homes; traditional art being protected and displayed; public dancing and martial arts; the Beijing opera, folk stories and pipa musicians; buildings topped with red gabled roofs.
Most likely formed due to my decent knowledge of Chinese history, these are the images that immediately flip through my mind when I hear the word “China”. Idealized? Almost suredly. However, they embody the China that I’m making sure I experience within these four months. That being said, I was very excited that Alliance took our Rollins group to Shaoxing (绍兴) and Hangzhou (杭州) for three days!! These cities are about three hours south of Shanghai by car and are both known for their beauty and cultural preservation. The drive was definitely worth it! However, I would suggest visiting them back-to-back because Shaoxing and Hangzhou both capitalize on different aspects of Chinese culture.
From what I experienced, the historical district of Shaoxing highlights some unique culture regarding literature, food and architecture. For example, Shaoxing is the hometown of Lu Xun, a very renowned, influential and controversial writer in 20th century Communist China. We visited his well-preserved family home where we saw glimpses of traditional middle-class lifestyle. It was interesting see what I’ve been studying in person!
However, the stinky tofu (臭豆腐 chòudòufu) was without a doubt the most surprising and…unrelenting aspect of our Shaoxing visit.
I fear going into too much detail for fear of scarring whoever is reading this post, but the smell must be addressed; it’s in the name, after all. But that is a difficult task because there are no words to describe just how rancid, peculiar and just plain bad it smells, especially when it is cooking and wafting into the air. In some ways, it will deceive and tempt you to smell it just so you can figure out the odor; only for you to set a personal speed-walking record to be outside of its 40 foot radius. What’s more, they were ever-present in the traditional district; we would be strolling down the traditional walking streets, window-shopping and taking in the atmosphere when BAM!-you’ve entered one of many stinky tofu radii. We didn’t want to be rude and cover our noses or express too much…discomfort on our faces so when it repeatedly came in waves without warning we ended up just chuckling to hide our grimaces 😀 Then, when we thought it was over, our tour guide decided to order stinky tofu for our lunch table! I can proudly and gladly say that I have tasted stinky tofu, but it was an experience that I categorize as “one and done,” seeing as its taste was not that different than its odor. It was certainly a great way to bond, though!
Even more memorable than the stinky tofu was the 20 minute black-awning boat (乌篷船 wūpéngchuáng) ride down a very beautiful,
rustic house-lined canal (see cover photo). It makes me smile just thinking about it! The boat was powered by a kind local man who was paddling with both his foot and his hands! There was a rotating lever by one of his feet he would use to row a large paddle and propel the boat. Halfway through he skillfully turned the boat around in a canal just three times the width of the boat. We applauded him for that (literally). It was all very interesting to watch! The homes were very unique and interesting as well with steps leading into the water (see cover photo). The pictures can speak for themselves more than I ever could. I can tell it will be a highlight of my semester!
So that was my Shaoxing visit. On the way to Hangzhou we hiked from a tea village through Jiuxi Valley (see photo above). The hike consisted primarily of forest paths, streams, huge fields of tea plants, mountain views, and a few lakes. There were a noticeable amount of families and children hiking, many of whom had fans or were playing with large water guns! （We almost bought one…but thought better of it） Even though it wasn’t peak tea season the air still smelled fresh, clean and like tea. It was certainly a nice break from Shanghai’s polluted air.
Now in Hangzhou with free time, we decided to watch the Impression West Lake night show. The audience watches from the bank while a music, dance and light show is performed on the lake. Like any traditional Chinese folk tale, there was no narration or dialogue throughout the performance. It was difficult but also very fun to try and follow along with the story. My general thought process during the show (edited):
“White bird flying? So it’s a bird thought it was snake…..woman and man fall in love. Got that part…temple just lit up so marriage?…I see an umbrella……woman leaves to heaven? Is she a snake? bird? but she’s in pink. pink snake? She’s dead?… …man/snake?/crane died I’m sure of it. but wouldn’t that be the end?…umbrella’s back….WAIT he’s back I’m confused…..FISH?? Why are there fish?….umbrella’s back….I have no clue how fishermen-swordsmen relate to anything…. what?! of course she’s back….crying…..fighting…. umbrella….dramatic music…drum beats? footsteps? they’re sure hiking a long time…..a dragon?! Oh is that the snake? But it’s not white. WAIT is it a snake or a crane?!…..did he just die (again)?…umbrella……they’re running away? True love…oh nope they’re dead now…Wait guess not…umbrella.. …heaven?…anyways, I’m sure it was a sad ending”.
At one point we listened behind us while a mother explained the story to her daughter, which gave us a few details. That’s another good reason to learn Chinese! It ended up being the Legend of the White Snake, which is one of the four top folktales and happens to be based in Hangzhou. It was an extremely interesting show, though, and a great spectacle to watch. They were very creative with technology and usage of the lake. When we bought the tickets we didn’t know what type of show it was, but I’m really happy we got to see it!
We went back to the lake in the morning to walk around the beautiful island full of traditional architecture and culture. It was very calm, clear and refreshing, which I really appreciated.
All in all, it was an interesting, authentic side trip and a pleasant break from the big city. We did a lot of walking but everything was so beautiful and…so…CHINA (my ideals of it) that I did not mind one bit! I’m definately looking forward to our upcoming trips!
Chinese Word of the Week: 喝茶 hē chá to drink tea
民间故事 mínjiãn gùshi folktale