From our Diary: ZhouZhuang 2001

Friday, September 7th 2001 / Nanjing- via Suzhou to ZhouZhuang (Zhejiang Province)

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As planned, we take a taxi straight to the Bank of China- with our luggage. The driver is a bit worried as he can’t seem to understand where we’re going. In the end, it turns out to be a matter of a different tone …… The Bank is air-con, modern and efficient, the clerk speaks English – it’s straight in and out! Another taxi to the train station with a nice chatty driver, who spent a mere 16 years (!) in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution and thinks some of the changes in China these days are too fast.

However, as we pass a small park where people are practising ballroom dancing in the open air, it is clear that some things haven’t changed at all... Across from the train station there is an enormous lake where you can take out different kinds of boats, including mini-mushroom lookalikes and fake submarines. There is a terrific view of the modern Nanjing skyline. On the traditional side again, breakfast of lots of cold veggies and rice in a Chinese style self-service by the station. There, our luggage is X-rayed as usual, we’re lined up between the gates and marched row after row to the train. Our seats are padded with blue cushions, there are small tables in between and it’s air-con and strictly non-smoking.

Adam immediately strikes up a conversation with two nice ladies from Wuhan ( and their travelling companion). One of them turns out to be a party cadre in a department related to Chinese commerce. They ask him a lot of questions about life in Europe, including the inevitable ‘how much do you earn?’ and a lot about our non-existing haizi’ (or children).

Two and a half hours take us to Suzhou, we only walk from the train station to the bus station, where we are immediately whisked off on the 14.15 bus. There are computers, waiting rooms and gates here too, but the bus is a piece of shit, with those foldable plastic seats in the middle of the aisle. Fortunately only one puking lady who already had her bag prepared.

It takes another hour and a half to cover the 40 kms to Zhouzhuang. Getting out of Suzhou takes ages; what we can see is all modernised, no charm left (NOTE: we actually revisited Suzhou again in 2005 and managed to find a few nice areas still holding out). Once we’re out in the country there’s more life on the lakes and canals and everything is very green. According to Adam, it looks like Holland, but without the cows.

The bus station in Zhouzhuang is not where it is supposed to be and we are assaulted by a barrage of hotel women and cycle rickshaws. One obnoxious one keeps following us until I turn on him and send him packing. I’m quite proud of that, Adam, using his Chinese, is obviously too polite.

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In the old town, a woman who wants us to stay at her family house leeches on to us, but I’m still determined to find ‘my hotel’. She keeps tagging along, confusing us and making us lose our way. We seem trapped in a maze of tourist shops and can only vaguely appreciate that the place must be pretty.

At last we locate the strangely named Fountainblean Double Bridge Holiday Inn. By no stretch of the imagination can those rooms be called ‘shabby’ as our guide book described them. We’ve got a nice standard double (carpet, little table & chairs, TV, soaps and toiletries in the bathroom) which is huge as well and overlooks the lake and arched bridge at the far end of town. There’s a bamboo structure with a pavilion going out over the water.

After a quick brush-up we amble into town. Without a backpack things are definitely more relaxed. There are still a lot of tourists, we see ‘gweilos’ (other foreigners) in boats, as well as lots of art-students, diligently painting and drawing away. The light is ridiculously pretty: on the canals, shaded by trees, on the stone bridges, on the white houses with brown shutters, etc., etc., so we start clicking away.

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After 5 o’clock things slow down, the tour buses depart, there’s only the people staying the night. Adam strikes up a conversation with two (of the many) boat women who row tourists around in wooden boats with only one rudder on a rope which they move with their wrists. All is centralised, you buy a standard ticket (60 yuan for 30 mins) and get assigned a boat; apparently there are about 130 of them. Though the women complain it’s the low season, they seem a pretty cheerful lot, many of them actually sing while they row.

We buy some beers (from a shop which we’d persuaded earlier to put them in the fridge for us) and drink them on a stone balustrade, off a side-canal, overlooking a bridge. The trees are lit up green at night and the restaurants have red balloon lanterns. It’s very pretty and romantic. The only thing to look out for are the ‘singing towels’, as we have called the old biddies with towels on their heads who ‘sing songs’ for money. There’s also a very snooty young girl with lipstick doing the same.

After sitting with our beers for a long time- watching a boat with a female singer and male musician with real candle lanterns –we choose a small table right by the canal to eat. We get some shrimps, snails and the big shell animals (probably related to the river pearls). Food and ambience are pretty good. Lights reflected in the water of the canal, mellowing out ……..

Got a little tipsy – ate a dragon fruit for the first time

Saturday, September 8, Zhouzhuang

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Waking and getting up is bliss. Coffee and rambutans (hongmaodan in Chinese) (never as juicy as in Thailand) and apples on our bamboo structure. Sun shining, peace all around. One step onto the main drag changes all that: there are crowds of Chinese tour groups with red, yellow and green flags, all jostling each other to get into the sights … so we’ll have to devise an alternative strategy.

We first go to the furthest one, the Quan Fu Si temple and adjoining Nan Hu Yuan garden. Though this is a kind of ‘shopping mall’, there are views over the working canals from here as well. The residence of Yechucang Zhu and the Taoist temple of Chengxu Daoyuan are also pretty peaceful, so obviously of minor importance. We have another moment’s peace eating boiled prawns from a big plate (for a ridiculously low 10 Yuan) on the steps of the canal. After that, we head slightly out of the old town to see some minor sights and perhaps find something to eat.

We find it in a kind of Chinese fast-food outlet (Adam reckons it’s very similar to the ones in Taiwan) where the shaved ice with syrup (or ‘baobing’, one of his Taiwan crazes) comes at the same time as the – excellent – dumplings. We discover a new profession as well: the fly-swatter!

From here it’s on to the Quanfu Ta pagoda, new but good for the views – and the nearby Memorial Arch. Next is the Zhouzhuang Museum (got to get those stamps on our expensive tickets). I liked the pointed – official hat-box.

Short rest at the Mi Lou – the house of a writer and early revolutionary with life size dolls put in for the ambience. Then we strike it lucky and find the Shen Ting mansion momentarily without tour groups, so we can explore its halls for receiving guests, bedrooms, kitchens, courtyards etc., in peace.

Almost as interesting are the new hotel we discover in the vicinity, all done up in exactly the same style, with dark wooden four- poster beds and so on, and the ancient Chinese medicine pharmacy.

At last we get the Zhang Ting residence practically tour group free and take advantage. This one has a small river / canal running through the courtyards. Inside there is a teahouse where all the old women who knit and embroider for a living are working away. A paper-thin walled alley leads out past little workshops where people are doing carpentry, painting, etc.

Finally, the Zhen Gu Tang doesn’t seem to exist as a Hall any more, it has been turned into another traditional hotel. Its resigned owner allows us and a whole load of Chinese to just march in anyway.

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That’s enough sightseeing for us – we don’t need to get all the sights on our multy-entry ticket punched and stamped. Time for some beers and watching the sunrise from our hotel’s bamboo structure. The people who live around the lake come down to wash themselves, do laundry or washing up. Amazing that they don’t seem to have running water in their houses….

That night we choose one of the more modest looking restaurants on the canal but near the modern part of town. Adam orders what he thinks are ‘drunken shrimps’ cooked in wine. As a matter of fact, they are live shrimps that are supposed to die in the spicy, highly alcoholic, sauce that gets poured over them….. unfortunately they don’t, they are too big, so they have to be taken away and cooked in a different way. The female ‘laoban’ (boss) gives us a small plate of raw ones to try. The final bill seems a bit of a rip off, compared to last night’s, but it’s too hard to complain about it.

Though we had a tree and a lantern, it was a bit less romantic than yesterday… a case of commercialism strikes again..

Back home and early to bed…..

Sunday, September 9, 2001

Zhouzhuang – and especially our hotel area – is tranquil and very pretty in the morning light. The tour groups are just beginning to arrive. Unfortunately there are ‘meiyou’ (no) buses to Hangzhou, so its back to Suzhou first……….

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