Written by Lorna Flanagan
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)
China enchants. The moment we arrive in the country we find ourselves caught up in a land of fantasy, where places have romantic-sounding names like the ‘Fragrant Hills’ near Beijing.
The Chinese love to invite us to picture the convoluted shapes of stony dragons and sea monsters in these and other porous-looking rocky formations. They tell us stories of the adventures of these mythical creatures. Our minds begin to adopt the way they look at things, and we start to imagine that anything is possible. When we’re in China we’re no longer living in reality.
We’re swept up into a timeless universe where even a simple task like making a cup of tea becomes a fascinating ceremony. There’s the mysterious use of hot water to wash tea-leaves and rinse teapot and tiny cups, both inside and out. Then we take time to savour the delicate differences between Oolong and ‘hong cha’, meaning ‘red tea’ which is what we call ‘black tea’. ‘Black’ refers to the colour of the leaves. ‘Red’ refers to the colour of the liquid when the tea is ready to drink.
It all depends on how you look at things. Words and meanings and concepts begin to mingle. Even a heaving throng of tourists can be poetically named a ‘people mountain, people sea’.
So when we visit two Chinese friends who live in Shanghai and they suggest taking us to one or two water towns, our imaginations are open to various possibilities of what a water town could be.
Is it a town with many fountains and other water features? Is it an island town? Is it a town that straddles both sides of a river? Is it a town built on a huge pier jutting out into the sea? Is it a town consisting of houses built on stilts in a river or a lake? Is it a town resting on the surface of the water, like the solar-powered, bubble-like floating pavilion in Rotterdam, built in an effort to adapt to rising sea levels? Anything is possible.
With our friends we travel by car 60 kilometers from the centre of Shanghai to Zhuijiajiao in Qingpu, a district to the west of the city. Zhuijiajiao, the first water town, is near Dianshan Lake, the source of the Huangpu River, which flows through Shanghai. The lake covers an area of 62 square kilometers and offers facilities for all kinds of aquatic sports – swimming, rowing, fishing, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, and Chinese boat racing.
Due to language difficulties and cultural differences, our minds have been playing tricks with words and concepts. So it isn’t until we arrive in Zhuijiajiao, that we realize that the notion of a ‘water town’ for the Chinese is something similar to our idea of a town or city like Amsterdam or Venice, built around a network of canals.
Zhuijiajiao is centred on a large main canal lined with attractive wood-panelled buildings. This canal is crossed by the town’s longest bridge, Fangsheng Bridge. On both sides there are many shallow steps leading up to the top of the bridge, and a whole vertical army of shoeshine ladies, one or two sitting on each step, waiting for tourists. One after another, they get up as we approach, and smile and greet us offering to clean and polish our shoes. They seem most surprised and insistent when we decline. We manage to escape, and then wander along the other narrower canals in the town and across shorter bridges.
Then we drive further west to Zhouzhuang, one of China’s oldest water towns. It was built in 1086. There is an entrance fee during the day, but it’s free to visit at night. It is dark by the time we get there. The main streets are well lit. The town is crisscrossed with narrow canals, and the canals are bridged by a dozen or so humpbacked pedestrian bridges built from stone.
Along the canals are many buildings dating from the Qing and Ming dynasties, and in places further away from the main streets these very old buildings seem eerily quiet in the dark. Thinking about all the events witnessed by these residences through the centuries, we feel as though we’re stepping back into history. We might meet spirits from the past. Anything is possible. It all depends on how you look at things.
POSTED 12th April 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of LORNA FLANAGAN. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.