Friday, March 30, 2007

Hangzhou (Shanghai and Zhejiang Part V)

Well, after such a delightful stay in Wuzhen (what a wonderful, relaxing, easy, romantic, inspiring stay we had!) we headed for a city which is famous for its beauty (famous in China, that is): Hangzhou. Hangzhou, which has existed for some 1800 hundred years, which was capital of China, and which is one of the main touristic destinations for Chinese, had a tough job ahead, as we had been so thoroughly charmed by Wuzhen. And it actually delivered.

We saw only two things in Hangzhou, the West Lake (Xihu) and the Lingyin Temple. We got to see a bit of the city going back and forth from the hotel and those two places, and we must admit that the tree-lined avenues, the lake and the architecture did make a favourable impression. We visited the lake at sunset, and the views of the surrounding hills, the temples and old buildings around, the gorgeous flowers (white, pink and deep red) all around the lake, all made the promenade really enjoyable.

The second day we got up pretty early (6am) to visit Lingyin Temple. That day we were going to travel back to Shanghai, so we wanted an early start and we also wanted to avoid the noon heat. It was the best decision we could have taken, and I'll tell you why later. Built in the 4th century, and destroyed and rebuilt a great number of times (as so many great buildings of so many countries, LOL), the temple lies on the hill of West Lake. When walking up towards the temple you pass quite a number of Buddhist carvings on the rocky sides of the hills (along a small stream), and then you finally make it there. This is the kind of temple I like: the style and decoration was a bit on the simpler side, lots of green and trees, a nice effect from the successive parts of the temple being on higher ground than the previous ones... There were some tourists, a few pilgrims, and in general a very relaxing contemplative atmosphere... which was about to change...

Remember my saying that getting up at 6am was the best of decisions? Well, on our way down from the temple we saw HORDES of tourist groups coming our way, row after row of coloured caps (useful for identifying all the members of a group, of course), wave upon wave of tour guides' personal loudspeakers hitting your ears... We were so lucky!

My personal opinion: Yes, definitely visit. Maybe two half days is a bit too short, but if that's all the time you've got, even just those two sights are way worth it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Where NOT to go? (Shanghai and Zhejiang Part IV)

Today was a complete surprise for us, and not a fully pleasant one, I'm afraid.

It so happens that Wuzhen, the town, has TWO "scenic zones", Xizha and Dongzha. What you've seen in my previous posts is Xizha, where we've spent two nights already. But we were curious about Dongzha. After all, when we arrived in Wuzhen, we saw most of the tour buses would park there, and not at Xizha, so we figured there'd be more to see...

Well, we took a bus, we arrived at the gate of Dongzha, bought our entrance tickets, and... well, here's some FIRST IMPRESSIONS: crowded, noisy, cheap, filthy, stinky, run-down...

Only a small section of Dongzha requires a ticket for access. There were old buildings alright, similar to the ones we had in Xizha, but just old, non-renovated, and in plain neglect. The canals, well, we tried having a cup of tea in a tea house on a third floor: the stench reached us quite well even up there. And the streets and alleys, the same kind that romanced us in Xizha, were strewn with chicken bones, chips, plastic bags, cans... And then, of course, the hordes of tourists, which would be all fine if they were not the ones colour-blind to the garbage bins. All in all, we were ready to flee the "scenic area" into our Xizha retreat.

OK, now, I know, Xizha is some sort of a resort, and the only way to enter is by buying a ticket. Dongzha, on the other hand, is a living part of Wuzhen, with just a tiny area with "ticket only" access. And, yes, living towns experience wear and tear. And life implies noise, too. BUT does that mean that the buildings have to look ugly and dirty, that the canals have to STINK, that food and rubbish be strewn all over, that shops sell tacky souvenirs and sadly few real handicrafts, and that locals have to loudly empty their nostrils ON the canal? (yes, we saw this, and almost filmed it by accident) Please.

And yet, there was something really nice about this small expedition: we caught a small performance of shadow theatre. It was SO crowded that we couldn't find a seat, which meant we actually got to see the play from the back-stage! A very interesting, and unexpected, experience. And once the play was over, we moved to the front for the second performance of the day, so we got to see the play twice, from the back and the front! Not bad at all, and it changed our mood completely.

Still, going back to Xizha was just as good, and renting a boat for a measly 180RMB (less than 25USD) for a whole hour night tour of the canals of Xizha was a wonderful way to end our day.

Just a warning word: Xizha is too big to survive without hordes of people. We were really lucky in finding this place just as it's opening, when shops are extremely few and tourists even less. Hopefully, they'll manage tourism in a way that won't spoil the charm this part of town has, but be warned that, if you visit, you might have a different experience than we did.

Here's a a bit of the performance, from the point of view of the performers. ;-)

And here's for you to appreciate the charm of Xizha by night, on a boat...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Wuzhen Xizha by night (Shanghai and Zhejiang Part III)

After a rainy night, we spent the whole (sunny) day exploring the rest of this wonderful part of Wuzhen: XIZHA.

You have to be here to believe it. Or you could also see the pics and vids we took, of course. The place is very nicely restored, really, very well done. And it provides ample of opportunities to just walk, enjoy the views, and do nothing else. I'll let the pictures and videos do the talking. It's so PEACEFUL here... The place is quite big, tourists are surprisingly few, and you have the place all for yourself.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wuzhen Xizha (Shanghai and Zhejiang Part II)

After spending a really nice weekend in Shanghai with our friends (and fantastic hosts), we decided to go for a few, very relaxed days at a Water Town. These are ancient, Chinese towns in Zhejiang Province and Shanghai Municipality (and probably in other, similar regions), with rivers running through, old bridges, traditional wooden houses... We chose Wuzhen, a town in Zhejiang Province, two hours from Shanghai by bus.

We were quite unsure of what we'd find. The road was dotted by factories, ugly towns, and we had had the experience of visiting "restored" old towns in other places in China, "restorations" which were awfully artificial and quite uninteresting (read BORING). When we finally arrived, the entrance to the town (that is, to the "scenic town", which is walled off from the rest of Wuzhen) looked nice enough. We booked a room, and took a boat to the historical side of Wuzhen (actually, there are two sites, ours being the Wuzhen Xizha Scenic Zone).

We took a room in an old house, a room with views of the river and other old buildings. It was quite OK, and it had broadband! We rested for a while, and were quite glad we decided to come. After all, we needed a break, and we wanted a place where we'd need to do NOTHING but relax, and this was the right place: a river, old houses, quiet... and apparently that was it, we had NO IDEA of what kind of place we were in...

We left for lunch, at 2:15pm, at a very modest restaurant not far from our building. Well, we came back at 6pm after exploring just one side of town! It's HUGE! You can't imagine what a wonderful place this is, there's a couple of temples, some small squares, a museum about bound feet, a pagoda, a covered bridge, small alleys, canals, beautiful views of graceful tiled rooftops, and not a soul in sight! We had the whole town mostly to ourselves! We later realised that it's opened just recently, so most businesses haven't opened up shop yet, and tourism is quite weak. For us, it was just too good to be true.

It was a rainy day, but in a way it just gave the town a more interesting atmosphere! Can't wait until tomorrow to explore the rest of town! (will write about Shanghai later)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Shanghai (Shanghai and Zhejiang Part I)

We decided to take 10 days off to visit Shanghai and some nearby places. Here are some impressions:

- I can't believe how many foreigners live in Shanghai, about a million! and making a lot more than the ones in Beijing (less students, I guess), as their buying power is reflected in what you can buy in supermarkets, where the choice in imported food-stuff far surpasses what you can find in even the best places in Beijing (chocolate SHERBET! hurray!!!)

- And you can't believe either the amount of classy night-clubs and bars with a cool ambiance. Tons. In great locations. All packed. Very cosmopolitan.

- And the French concession! They've turned part of it into a very upmarket entertainment district, with high-end shops and restaurants, including one of our favourites: TMSK. Everything in that place incorporates Chinese crystal art in one way or another: the glasses, the dishes, the chairs, colourful crystal sculptures here and there, even the ceiling! GORGEOUS.

- Of course, the Bund, that part of Shanghai which would easily belong in a well to do Western European city, lit up at night, facing the sleek and modern Pudong area, a high-technology and skyscpraper zone which barely boasted a few high-rises 10 years ago.

- Taikang: traditional hutongs taken over by artists, designers, cafés... very enjoyable, very walkable.

- GREEN, PUBLIC spaces. We simply don't have those in Beijing. Well, I mean, Beijing has some huge parks where thousands go on the weekend - hardly a relaxing experience. Shanghai, fortunately, has a number of green areas here and there, small public spaces where you can just sit down and watch life go by... it's just a normal city, a human-sized city, whereas Beijing is so... spread, impersonal, gray... Granted, Beijing can boast of some of the best historical sites in China, but Shanghai's quality of life regarding space is much better.

- Our hosts: we stayed with two good friends who made our stay as comfortable and pleasant as they could. And who knew about a number of places we would've never found without them.

- Only serious BUT's: the taxi drivers are MAD. They drive so fast, so recklessly! Except when there's snail-pace traffic, which is not that rare. Not a nice combination.

THE VERDICT: Fantastic city. Fantastic for eating, shopping, partying, and even living.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A bit of a rant...

Just so you know what kind of a country we live in right now, let me tell you that for the last few days I've been able to can edit this blog, post new things, change it's settings, etc., but NOT VIEW IT. China has blocked access to all blogspot addresses within China. This means that only those of you outside the Great FIREWALL of China can read my posts (unless you know a trick I'll tell you about later). Livejournal and Xanga have been blocked too, and in the past Typepad has been blocked too (although it seems to be working now), so there aren't many places to run to (except buying your own domain).

So, enjoy my posts here while you can, hopefully the Chinese net nanny won't keep me from posting, even if I can't view my own blog directly!

By the way, when I say China has blocked those sites, I refer to all access, by any computer within China, to ANY BLOGS belonging to those sites. It doesn't matter if you talk about chick-peas or three-legged chairs, you're screwed all the same. Wonderful.

BUT, fortunately (although I don't know how long this will last), if you are in China (and that includes me, LOL), you can go to and access my blog from there. Of course, this advice won't reach those who most need it, as they'd have to access my blog first in order to learn this trick! Lovely circular problem...