Monday, 15 September 2008

Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival has come and gone for another year. I fulfilled both of the requirements of the holiday by seeing the full moon and eating a moon cake (well, part of one because it weighed as much as a brick and I wasn't very hungry at the time). Fortunately that wasn't the highlight of the holiday because Kimi and I actually managed to go travelling somewhere for a couple of days. The places in question were Wuzhen and Xitang.

It was an early start for us on Saturday morning as the bus was leaving at 6.30 am. We awoke at 5:30 and took a taxi to the meeting place, ready to leave ASAP. Forty-five minutes later and the bus arrived. It was packed full of people from a neighbouring town so we ended up getting the seats at the back. This wouldn't usually be a bad thing, but the suspension on this particular bus was terrible and we were right above one of the back wheels. Every bump in the road felt like taking a dive on a roller-coaster. Because we had prepaid for the whole trip -- including return journey, hotel, food and entrance tickets -- this group on the bus would be the people we'd be spending a lot of time with. The young woman appointed to look after our group continually shouted down the microphone at the front of the bus at incredible volumes which have probably left some with permanent ear damage. She also tried to play group-bonding games which was not ideal when I wanted to go back to sleep. I was quickly labelled their "foreign friend", and at one point she was persistent that I come to the front and sing an English song for everyone. I politely declined saying I was too embarrassed and didn't like it (that's as far as my Chinese could take me). Shortly after the games were over, a Chinese war movie came on the TV which meant I could finally close my eyes for a second.

After six hours of travelling -- some of which was over one of the longest bridges in the world -- we finally arrived at Wuzhen. The weather wasn't very good considering that for almost the whole journey we had sun and blue skies. Here, it was grey, raining, and we didn't have an umbrella. First of all we were lead into a restaurant where lunch was quickly served. Our group was in a frenzy to get to the table and dig into the food, so much so that one of my "safe" dishes on the table was almost gone by the time we sat down. One rule to remember in China is that it's 'every man for himself'. Whether it is waiting to get into a lift (they usually don't wait for you to get out first) or getting onto a bus (the old ladies will break your ribs with their elbows), people will do anything to get there first, the concept of the queue doesn't exist.

We left the restaurant -- after what seemed like ten minutes -- and made our way to the main tourist spot. We got our tickets and walked through the entrance of the small protected town. I can only describe this place as "real-China". I'm sure that if most people were asked to close their eyes and imagine a Chinese town, it would be like this. It is of no surprise that the producers of Mission Impossible 3 decided to use the two places we visited as scenes in the film.

We walked around the first corner only to see a man hanging off the end of a tree with the Chinese flag pinned to the top. He did some admirable acrobatics on it for a few minutes and then slid off. According to a sign, local villagers used to do such a thing to thank the river for fish (or something like that).

By this point of the trip we had completely lost the rest of our group. I couldn't stand to be around them with a guide screaming down a microphone for the whole day. It was much more pleasurable to do things the way we wanted. I noticed as we walked down the narrow street that people really did live in these old houses. My first thought was that this whole area was void of life, the buildings only remaining here for the tourists, but I was wrong. Sure, the place thrives and most probably survives off tourism, but it was nice to see genuine residents living here still. I don't know if the locals are told to keep their doors open, but we could see every day life occurring in each home: old women playing Majiang, a man in his underwear hanging up his washing, and a puppy coming out to play.

After walking a little further we found a small cafe where green bean soup and nothing more was on the menu. However disgusting it may sound, it is actually very nice, usually served cold and quite sweet.

Me thinking about the green been soup I'd just eaten

We had a good few hours in Wuzhen which were very pleasurable, but time was up. We all got back onto the bus and headed off to Xitang. 30 minutes later we arrived at restaurant number two, and a re-run of lunch was played out. Of course my favourites, the "tu dou si" (sliced stir-fried potato) was gone within a minute.

Dinner was over and we were guided to our included-in-the-price-of-the-ticket two star hotel. I was a little scared after my previous experiences of very cheap accommodation in China, but was pleasantly surprised to see a clean room with a good tv -- no windows mind you. We quickly dropped off our belongings and made our way to the next traditional scenic area. The modern part of Xitang is just like any other Chinese city, and not a very good one either. The stares from the locals at the 'lao wai' walking around did not make me feel any more comfortable. We were starting to give up our hunt for the old area and go back to the hotel when we finally stumbled down a dark alley. It was like something from Harry Potter, we kept on walking and the walls seemed to be ageing, and then all of a sudden we arrived in a living breathing traditional China. Such a contrast of environment was incredible to see, this was the Xitang I'd been hoping for.

There were lanterns hanging everywhere giving the town a calming red glow through the pitch dark. I felt a real buzz in the air because of all of the tourists and people walking around looking at the many gift and food shops dotted around the tiny streets. This part of Xitang was quite like Wuzhen, but just more of everything.

A girl lighting some "wishing" candles that float on the water

We walked around, bought some strange but tasty alcoholic rice, and headed back to the hotel. I didn't have the best sleep that night; after uncovering the bed sheets and seeing a couple of small bugs crawling around, I had recurring dreams that things were crawling all over me.

At 7:15 the phone rang to tell us breakfast would be at 8. We missed breakfast by fifteen minutes which of course meant that it was over, so the guide handed us our tickets and we walked back to the ancient town. It was completely different seeing the place in daylight, and I was quite surprised by the actual size of it. I could even make out the area where Tom Cruise ran in the film Mission Impossible 3. They had put up some pictures of him near to each filming location for help identifying them. Again, there are residents living in these homes (some of them will even let you stay over for a price) which is brilliant to see. I think most of them make their living from home because there is shop after shop for the tourist where you can buy food, fans, art and clothes.

This is where Tom Cruise was filmed in Mission Impossible 3

Apparently the roofs of each house used to represent how rich the residents were

Only after looking at this picture later did I notice that unfortunately these birds are tied to the boat (another ploy for the tourists)

Sleeping on the job

The canal that runs through the town

Hours after walking around the town and into the many ancient houses of Xitang, we were finally called to come back to last night's restaurant for lunch. We arrived five minutes early only to see the whole group sitting there waiting for the food to arrive. Lunch was eaten rapidly, we piled back onto the bus, and began our journey back to Wenzhou -- another bumpy six hours. I had a few more minutes sleep on the way back thanks to a minimum of shouting down the microphone and team-building games.

Apart from the minor setbacks I really think the holiday was an absolute bargain for 450 RMB (about £35). Although next time I'm going for three stars....


大眼睛熊 said...

Hey,im glad we finally went to Wuzhen and Xitang,they were incredibly beautiful! I was so excited when i saw the birds until we found out they were tied to the boat which was horrible!!

mand said...

the photos are great the cormorants are used for fishing poor things but they will get their share of the catch. We are at Sally's she has fed us as we have no kitchen she says hi. Night night mind the bed bugs don't bite.