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Travel Writing: China, Watertown Xitang


29/09/08:  Cruise Day 

These doors are like 1000 years old. But why not stick a Hello Kitty on it?

These doors are like 1000 years old. But why not stick a Hello Kitty on it?

Christian had arranged for us to visit one of the factories he’s working with.

We had a car coming to Shanghai to pick us up. To make it easier for the driver, we agreed to meet at Shanghai airport, which meant we’d be using the Maglev train, the transrapid, again.

It is quite an experience riding on the bullet train. 30km in 7 minutes with top speeds at 415 km/h. And it runs smoothly like on ice cream. No bumps from the track, no noise from the wheels or breaks. Instead of turning left or right, the whole train leans into the curve, like a giant rollercoaster. It’s over quicker than you expect.

After a pleasant ride like that, representing latest high tech development, we took on a less impressive ride on the Chinese expressway.

Here you’re confronted with people who can’t actually drive and have never heard of a highway code. Priority has who owns the more expensive car. They will drive on the fast lane, even if they only make 80 km/h. To make everybody aware of their presence, flashing warning lights or constant blinking ads to the aggravation. Slow cars on the fast lane are usually overtaken on the slow lane, or if that’s full, on the emergency break lane, which conveniently is called ‘parking lane’. As such it is used by mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians. As there are no real rules, everybody warns other drivers that they’re coming by humping the horn. But it’s not a short make-aware beep, it’s a long lasting annoying trumpet blast that only ends after the vehicle in question has been overtaken.

Luckily there are still not many cars around in China and with toll fees not necessarily on the expressway, so most of the time you can enjoy an almost normal drive. The highways are relatively new, too, so it’s an ok smooth ride.

After about 1 1/2 hours we arrived at Jiashan and drove up to the factory. They were producing chairs and tables and had an impressive portfolio of designs. The oriental influence just brings an interesting uniqueness to it. Like chairs that look like they have been woven together from wood panels. Or forms that flow like the dragon’s back.

The factory’s manufacture hall was big and impressive and rather busy considering it was Golden Week, a national holiday in China.

We had lunch with the factory owner in his flat atop of the office building.

After that the driver picked us up to go to Xitang, the ancient water town. Unfortunately, it’s now more famous for Tom Cruise having made one of the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies over there.

It could be a quaint little place with old buildings by the river, terraces and seating adjacent to the water. Even that the shops are filled with touristy souvenirs is understandable. But some shops play loud techno music and you find posters of Tom Cruise plastered around. Ah well, I guess that’s modern life, which doesn’t shy away from World Heritage sites.

We spent about 2 hours walking along the river, over bridges, into small shops, watching birds, craftspeople and candy makers at work, trying different foods and taking in novel smells.

Xitang is like an open air museum with people actually living there, sometimes in the old traditional way, sometimes in a modern and high-tech way. You could walk along the narrow little alleyways to which all shops opened up and suddenly look into someone’s kitchen or living room. You could marvel at the ancient building in traditional Chinese style and then see someone with their laptop in there. Or you could step into a brand new restaurant where all the foods are made by hand. A circle of women would stand around a pot with filling and make spring rolls or dumplings.

At the back of the shops you could only imagine the real life going on behind the scenes. But you could also get an impression on the streets, as Xitang is mainly a Chinese tourist destination. As it was Golden Week a lot of Chinese came for the day it seemed, to have a stroll or some tea by the river.

Such it was a very relaxing atmosphere and nice to just let the ancient town built along the water some thousand years ago leave its impression to get an idea how it must have been like during those ancient times.

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