Exploring the canals: Mr. Gustavson

Saturday morning, Lu Zhang, Frank’s father, accompanied by Helen, our guide, came to pick us up at 9:00.  They had already had a cup of coffee with Andrew at our favorite Starbucks.  We immediately hit traffic on the way out of Shanghai, and it took close to three hours to reach Wuzhen, some 75 miles to the west (and 40 or so miles from Hangzhou).  At the beginning of the day, we knew only that we were headed for a canal town but knew nothing about the specific site, so we had no clear sense of what we were going to see and really had no expectations.  After driving through a gate into the relatively small town of Wuzhen, we soon arrived at a large parking area and from there advanced to the ticket window.  We still had no clear idea of what we were going to see, but, after passing the gate, we saw that we had entered a well-preserved traditional canal town something along the lines of a Williamsburg but with active commerce still going on inside the village.  Wuzhen is part of an immense system of canals that stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou.  It has been actively used since the end of the thirteenth century, although much less so today than in days long gone by.  

Wuzhen has a few channels branching off from the main canal, but mostly we visited one side of the canal and followed a narrow street that stretches for over a mile to a towering pagoda.  Along this street are innumerable shops selling mostly tourist items, as well as many restaurants and small hotels.  In the canal, boats, propelled by a single oarsman, transfer visitors from one end of the town to the other.  Frequently, bridges arch over the canal to connect the two sides to each other.  We soon sat down for a simple but ample and nourishing meal with pork, lamb, mushrooms, and a wide variety of vegetables.  Madame tried a chicken’s foot, but, for once, the rest of us passed on this dish.  The centerpiece of the meal was a spicy fish head’s soup.  Although this dish might not sound appetizing to most Americans, it actually contained not just the head, but the top half of a large fish, which was delicious, even the meat of the cheeks and the top of the head.  Its freshness made this meal especially tasty.  Afterwards, we wandered for a long time along the canal, and the walk was charming because there are many attractive areas down side alleys or in courtyards just behind the shops that line the street, so we could wander on and off the main street at will.  Along the way, we visited a marriage museum and watched young women (and a couple of men) put on traditional red wedding costumes and magnificent headpieces to take pictures.  The museum consists essentially of the rooms of a traditional home set up for a wedding and is quite extensive.  This museum is charming, but another small museum, dedicated to the “golden lotus,” the long-time practice, now outlawed, of the binding and deforming of women’s feet, is painful to examine, and we rushed through it.  One exhibit links this brutal practice to the smoking of opium and a past which modern China condemns.  Finally, after a long walk, we rented a boat for the return to our point of departure.  The oar is at the back of a flat-bottomed boat, and the oarsman moves the boat by using first his left hand to push a rope attached to the oar, with the right hand following by pushing the oar.  Then the oarsman pulls first the rope and next the oar.  If the length of these two strokes is even, then the boat will move straight through the water.  Much of the force of this stroke is created by the backward and forward movement of the body and the adroit use of the feet to generate power.  This fluid movement gives the action its singular grace, and the feeling of gliding on the canal is restful and relaxing.  Wuzhen is a town for tourists, almost all Chinese, and at times it feels like a movie set (it is no surprise that many Chinese movies have been filmed there), but it is also charming with a special kind of beauty.  It would be fun to spend a weekend in one of the rest houses that line the banks of the canal.

On our way back to Shanghai, we again hit heavy traffic as we neared the city.  We felt sorry for Lu as we inched along, and we were overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of this city as we moved by one skyscraper after another.  These buildings often have striking lighting effects, sometimes garish and sometimes attractive.  Finally, after another three-hour trip, we reached Xintiandi with Lu hoping that the restaurant where he had made a reservation was holding our table.  Yes, it was, so we were able to enjoy an unforgettable meal in a private dining room that made us all feel that we were at home.  The meal was remarkable, and afterwards we were unable to calculate how many courses we had eaten, but it must have been in the neighborhood of 15 or 16, including the biggest giant prawn any of us had ever seen and some slices of beef that were perhaps the most tender I have ever eaten.  There was also a fish dish in a sea of rice cakes that delighted Andrew.  This food was more Cantonese than Shanghainese, so it was a change from what we had eaten to this point.  This food had not only the freshness of our luncheon but also the refinement of sophisticated preparation and top-of-the line ingredients.  And yet, what will make this meal memorable to all of us was our long conversation with Lu.  We sat down a little after 7:00 and didn’t get up again until close to 10:00.  We talked about our visit to China and what we have seen and how we have understood it.  We have learned so much, but we also know that we have only looked at the surface of things, and Lu gave us some sense of the complexities we can’t yet see.  We also discussed the States and Peddie, and we talked about our experiences at EFZ.  Some of this discussion was philosophical and meditative, and some of it was personal.  At the end we all felt that we had connected in a special way in a special moment.  For me, what made this whole day even more memorable is that it came on my birthday.  When I told him this, Mr. Lu ordered some special rice-based sweets that arrived in billows of smoke, produced by dry ice, which rippled across the table when the sweets were placed on it.  The large “peach” in the center, symbol of long life, was given to me.  The waitress then brought in a small, delicious western-style cake.  I won’t tell you what I wished before blowing out the candles, but my hope was in the spirit of this wonderful day.

This morning, Sunday, Jason, the head of the international school, came to pick us up for an excursion to Zhujiajiao, another canal town, which is quite close to Shanghai.  Under overcast skies, we were able to make much better time than yesterday and so arrived in under an hour.  Zhujiajiao is a small town with lots of pedestrians, motor scooters, and bicycles.  The hustle and bustle of the town makes it attractive in a different way from Wuzhen.  Everything here is more crowded, rushed, and down-to-earth.  Once again, there were many tourists, almost all of them Chinese, enjoying the many shops selling all kinds of food and souvenirs:  fabric, sculptures, scrolls, swords, jade, traditional clothing and many other popular crafts.  The canal is narrower than at Wuzhen and has many branches and high-humped bridges to let the boats pass underneath.  We wandered up and down the streets and back and forth across the canal for quite a while before finally going for a boat trip.  After having observed the oarsman for a while, Andrew felt ready to take over, but the oarsman said that if he did, he would end up in the water.  Andrew had not noticed that the oar is not anchored to the back of the boat by some kind of oarlock but rather rotates freely around a large nail with a round head.  Undeterred, Andrew was able to manage a couple of strokes before running us into the embankment, and he was able to keep his footing!  For lunch, we ate upstairs in a small restaurant along the canal with, again, many vegetables, including some very good bamboo, several varieties of tofu, some fish, and one new dish:  a heap of small snails.  The freshness of the food once again made it tasty.  Zhujiajiao is a town of the people, so it makes for an interesting contrast with Wuzhen. We are very happy to have seen both.  Tomorrow we will see the most famous canal town, Suzhou.

After our return to EFZ, we all headed off in opposite directions to buy souvenirs and necessaries for the upcoming trip to Beijing.  All of a sudden, we are starting, with some sadness, to feel the imminence of our departure from Shanghai.  At the same time, we are eager to see Beijing.