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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Enjoying some Chinese take-away food in Zhouzhuang.

CHINA - Shanghai (Wk.2 of 5 weeks)
Week 2 of World Tour

The Little Water Town

I�d heard much about Zhouzhuang, China�s famous Water Town, just over the Shanghai Municipality border. I had visions of an oriental version of Venice, or at the very least, Amsterdam. So I set off by taxi very early on Saturday morning to the Shanghai Stadium, where all long-distance buses (heading west) depart from. I was at the ticket office before 7 am when I was told the bad news. All buses to Zhouzhuang had been cancelled until further notice due to SARS precautions. Maybe there was another way to get there. No such luck. Even if I could get there, Zhouzhuang had closed its doors to all outsiders, so the trip was off.

I�d been looking forward to this daytrip all week, so I was very disappointed. But as I considered all my other options, there was a new breakthrough. I could go to Zhujiajiao instead.

�But I want to go to the Water Town!� I insisted.

�Yes, Zhujiajiao is a Water Town too. Just a little smaller than Zhouzhuang,� I was assured. It was in the same vicinity, but because it was within the Shanghai Municipality, it still had an operating bus service.

Needless to say, I paid the 70 RMB (AU$13) tour ticket, and was on the next bus bound for the Little Water Town. I had expected to be on the bus for at least a couple of hours, but after an easy one hour trip, I arrived there at 8.20am.

I followed the other passengers into what appeared to be a very ordinary small Chinese town. Nothing much here, I thought. The temptation to stop at the numerous street-side eateries was almost overwhelming, but I had something more important on my mind. I had to get myself a map of Zhujiajiao!

As I turned into the first side street, I noticed a ticket booth halfway down the street. This turned out to be the entrance to the old part of the town. Fortunately my ticket included the entry fee, so a moment later I was in the tourist part of town. But what about my map? I returned to the security guard at the gate and asked where I could get a map from. He leaned over to a nearby shelf and handed it me. �No charge�, he said with a smile.

Well, I was happy now. So where could I get some of that nice smelling food?

Standing on one of the many ancient stone bridges.

According to the map, there were several stone bridges crossing over two interlocking rivers. The first one I came to was the largest. As I took my first step onto it, 3 elderly villagers came up to me holding small plastic bags filled with goldfish. Great! I thought � that�s all I need � to take some goldfish all around the world with me. But I�d misunderstood! This was The Bridge Of Freedom To Animals. So I was being asked to buy these fish so I could release them into the waters below. How ridiculous, I thought. It would be so much easier for these people to throw their fish into the river and it would save a lot of time, money and trouble for everyone, not to mention the fish! Anyway, I�d just caught sight of some more street-side eateries, and I hadn�t had breakfast yet.

I couldn�t make up my mind between the black pork rolled in river plant leaves, or the rice with egg and beef rolled in the same leaves. So I bought both. They were only 2 RMB (AUD$0.37 cents) each, so it wasn�t a hard decision to make. Finding somewhere to sit was quite another matter. The streets in this part of town were very narrow, much like I�d seen on the islands of Greece, so I walked past the numerous tourist stalls and private residences until I came to the river�s edge. Still no seats. You can eat a hotdog or sandwich in the street, but these hot foods were going to be quite awkward to handle on the move.

As I walked along the river, it began to ooze that beauty and serenity that tourists seek. The hustle and bustle was left behind and there were only residences along the concrete riverbanks. A miniature version of Amsterdam perhaps, and the boats amassed halfway down the stream had an eerie resemblance to very large gondolas. Walking past the houses, I could see into their rooms as they left their doors and windows wide open. The rooms were dark and tiny and full of clutter. Women were washing their clothes in the polluted river waters outside. And two young boys sat on the steps of one of these ancient stone bridges and blew soap bubbles at each other from Western designed toys most likely made in China.

And then, there in front of me were some steps leading down to the river�s edge. Perfect place to sit and eat, I thought. And as soon as my backside touched the ground, I gazed in awe of my surroundings. Such a beautiful picture. Something you�d expect to see in one of those paintings by the French Impressionists like Matisse. I had the perfect view and a tranquil setting. And the food completed the perfect Chinese picnic experience.

The boat people (are they drivers? or captains?) had gathered together on one of those �gondolas� and were playing cards. A few fishing boats were moored nearby displaying buckets full of live yabbies, shrimps, crabs, eels, fish and turtles. They also had frogs, but I could tell they weren�t alive because they�d all been skinned. Not beheaded, just skinned. Later on that day I would buy a couple of these little delicacies which were deep-fried (whole) at a cost of only 1 RMB (AUD$0.19 cents) for both.

Once I�d finished eating, I ventured further into the old town. My hands were very sticky after my little feast, and with the help of my map, I was able to locate one of the many public toilets in the area very quickly. This is very unusual in China, and in Shanghai, a city of 16 million people, there are virtually no public toilets at all. Not even in the railway stations! That�s why it�s not unusual to be walking along the street, during the day or night, and notice men watering some plants or washing some walls with their natural liquid waste.

Resting in the Wang Chang Memorial Hall garden with Rachel, my interpreter.

One of the featured tourist attractions was Wang Chang Memory Hall. And its main feature was the large and neatly manicured garden in its grounds. Quiet Chinese music played in the background as a few tourists trickled in from time-to-time. The SARS scare has had that impact on the entire nation, and so it was a pleasant change to experience China at a less hectic pace.

Another featured tourist attraction was the town�s first Post Office. Built in 1903 during the Qing Dynasty (China�s last dynasty), it was presented very well in the same manner as a Post Office Museum, with one of the earliest known posted articles, about 3,500 years old, being a message written on the carapace of a turtle shell. But I was also surprised to read mention made of message couriers who had war plans tattooed on the back of their skulls, and sent off to deliver them. Presumably after some time had passed for enough hair to grow over them, so as to hide these secret messages.

It was lunchtime now, and I didn�t want to go through the same problem of finding somewhere to sit. So I stopped by a small restaurant which already had a couple of tables with customers eating their meals. On the table next to me, 3 young ladies giggled and glanced my way. Being a foreigner, I was used to getting a lot of attention, though in Shanghai I shared the spotlight with many other Westerners.

Once I ordered my noodles, I asked for a cold beer as well. Soon I had a bottle of cool beer in front of and � and a plastic cup! Now, being an Aussie, we don�t get too enthusiastic about drinking beer out of plastic cups, so I asked for a glass. After all, this was a restaurant.

�Will this do?� the owner asked me as she held up a glass jar.

Drinking out of jars is very common in China, as people usually take their tea to work with them in a screw top jar. Well, I thought, this�ll be a first, and I accepted her offer quite willingly.

The food hadn�t arrived yet when one of the girls from the neighbouring table came over and borrowed the soy sauce from in front of me. She was very polite about it and I�m sure she asked if she could take it. But it was accompanied by a giggle as she left. Moments later, the soy sauce was back on my table, accompanied by another giggle. Girls! I thought, and got stuck right into my noodles which had just arrived.

Being a foreigner in China has always been a novelty, but now, because of the SARS scare, we�re also considered to be brave.

Ummm � I can live with that.

Sitting on another ancient stone bridge.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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