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 Nanxun, 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

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