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China Deep Dive: Rural Zhejiang and trip conclusion

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The whole day Wednesday would be dedicated to an excursion planned by Mei Ling and her family. They had rented a tour bus and a driver to drive us west to the countryside hometown of Mei Ling's brother's wife. I'm not a fan of long drives and I've been burned a number of times in China so I mapped out the distance from Hangzhou to Lin'An and found it was a quite acceptable one hour. We set off just after daybreak and had a fairly easy drive out of the city onto a scenic rural highway. We only made one stop to stretch our legs and take photos of a scenic bridge. There was a Communist slogan featured prominently on the wall at the rest stop, something I couldn't remember having seen in any of the major cities.

I had thought by this point we should be at our destination but in fact we drove onward for another hour. It turned out that Lin'An was the name of a city but also the surrounding prefecture and the town we were visiting was at the very western edge of Zhejiang, close to the border of Anhui province.

Once we finally arrived we walked down a slope into a village that was unlikely anything I had seen before in China. A wide road led into the town center that was paved with high quality flagstones that fit together closely. We proceeded directly to a group of modern apartment buildings at the rear of the village which seemed to be where most of the residents were living. They appeared to have been built very recently and were rather sparse on the interior. The kids naturally plopped themselves down and began to watch TV while the adults chatted in Chinese and assisted with the food preparation that was in progress.

After about an hour of this I was told that Mei Ling's brother's wife (my sister-in-law?) was going to take all the visitors on a walk. We took a wooden staircase up the hillside which led to a wide wooden platform that overlooked curved rows of older buildings. Apparently this was the old village where most of the people who now lived in the apartments had grown up. Fairly recently they had pooled their resources and commissioned the new buildings in order to upgrade their standard of living. All around us the hillside buzzed with the sound of cicadas which was almost deafening in some places. When I looked at the surfaces around me more carefully it wasn't difficult to spot the noisy insects which apparently had no fear of humans at all. I had never had the opportunity to examine a buzzing cicada closely before and it was quite fascinating to witness how they created such a loud noise by vibrating their thorax against the base of their wings.

We descended another staircase that brought us into the middle of the village. From above the rows of houses had looked quaint and charming but at ground level it was clear how low the standard of living had been here. The walls were decrepit and crumbling, there was no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. My sister-in-law took us to the house she had grown up in and I found it hard to imagine what it would have been like to live there. The living quarters were accessed via a ladder from the ground level and the bed wasn't much more than a wooden board. Bodily functions had to be consummated in an outdoor latrine and there would have been no light except for candles and lamps. There wasn't even enough light to take photographs during the day time. It was easy to see why the entire population of the village had quickly abandoned their ancestral homes as soon as the opportunity had presented itself.

As small and remote as the village was, there was still a small hotel that accommodated visiting merchants. This was a very idyllic spot that stood out compared to the decrepit houses on the hillside and the rather sterile modern apartments.

By now it was time for the main event. Our group had hired a Mongolian caterer just to roast a sheep for the party and this while time he had been tending to it as it cooked on the spit. The perfectly roasted carcass was now wheeled into a dining hall and I was abruptly informed that I and Mei Ling's uncle were the guests of honor. The caterer was dressed in a ceremonial outfit and gave a few speeches of which I understood not a word. We were then given a large carving knife but between the fact that I had to hold it in my left hand and Mei Ling's uncle was gripping my wrist with both his hands, I wasn't able to even scratch the meat. Eventually the professional took over and delicious servings of roasted mutton were passed out to the assembled guests.

During the time that we had been exploring the old village the residents had been cooking up a storm and now two large tables were laden with savory meat and vegetable dishes. After lunch we were assembled at the entryway of one of the apartment buildings for a group photo.

Once the festivities were completed Mei Ling took me past the far end of the village to the local creek. On the path down to the water we passed through some backyard gardens and plenty of lush greenery. There were still some people living in the antiquated homes here and they gave us friendly smiles as we passed. The creek was rather alarming shade of lime green.

It had been such an interesting day that I didn't mind the two hour bus ride back to Hangzhou. I played some games with the kids and watched the mountainous Zhejiang countryside through the window.

Most years we're already back from our summer trip before Spenser's birthday rolls around but this time we had to come up with something on the fly. Fortunately we had a bus full of hungry family members so a few phone calls were made and we pulled up to a banquet restaurant right around dinner time. A thunderous downpour had just begun but the restaurant had one umbrella and we entered in groups of two or three passing off the umbrella to each subsequent group. Dinner included several family favorites such as braised turtle and stewed fish. I finally got to have my drunken shrimp but it seemed the wine was too strong for them and they barely moved, even when I popped them into my mouth.

The birthday boy was quite pleased to have such a large group of people celebrating the beginning of his ninth year of existence and even more so when the birthday cake arrived. We all sang Happy Birthday in English followed by Chinese and then everyone was hustled outdoors for a very mild fireworks display.

On our final full day in Hangzhou I didn't have any ideas that were both practical and inspiring. One natural phenomenon I had hoped to see was the Qiantang River tidal bore which seemed like it might be very exciting. It was very hard to figure out the optimal days on which to see the tidal bore and Mei Ling's brother was of the opinion that July was not an ideal month for the display. I probably would have gone anyway just in case but Mei Ling didn't find the idea very appealing. Instead we decided to visit an interesting residential neighborhood. Cleo wanted to stay home and play with her baby cousin and Spenser was in a lazy mood as well so only Ian joined us on this walk.

It was early for lunch but the walking had made us a little hungry so we decided to seek out a place that had better drunken shrimp than the banquet restaurant from the previous night. On our previous visit to Hangzhou the shrimp had actually been jumping out of the bowl and I was hoping to have a similar experience. Our search took us past a walled compound that had been decorated with beautiful traditional murals. Eventually we found a promising restaurant but the door was locked. Mei Ling peered inside but couldn't see any movement so we decided to move on to the next item on our agenda.

I had marked Hupao Spring as a "maybe" but it was the only place I still wanted to see within the city limits so we commandeered a taxi to take us back to the forested area southwest of West Lake. Hupao translates roughly to "Dreaming of Tigers", a name derived from a rather improbable legend about the origin of the spring. A mossy stone sculpture of the namesake tigers stands at the beginning of the trail that leads towards the spring.

From here there was a fairly long brick path into the forest that was notable for its slickness. I hadn't paid much attention to my sandals but once I began sliding on the bricks I noticed that whatever treads had once existed on the soles had completely worn away. There was a coating of fine moss on the damp bricks that made me feel like I was on skates. Even though I held on to Mei Ling, who was wearing newer sneakers, my foot shot from under me at one point and I went down hard on one hip. Fortunately I'm still at least ten years from a guaranteed hip fracture when that happens. Eventually we arrived at a fairly large complex of buildings and gardens inside the wilderness area. I couldn't divine the purpose of every structure but there was a restaurant, a temple, and several small exhibition halls. It reminded me a little of the Imperial Tea Garden we had visited in Longjing a few days earlier but a bit more antiquated and tranquil.

After an hour or so of meandering around the complex we still had not reached the spring. We followed some signs that directed us to paths and short staircases that led us uphill. We began to spot some enormous millipedes on the paths with orange and black stripes. Their markings were so glossy and perfect that if I hadn't seen them move I would have thought they were plastic toys. We finally arrived at a pool which was notable for a statue of a sleeping monk that seemed to have been carved from the stone around it. Two menacing tigers appeared to be about to pounce on the somnolent man. From the style of the carving and apparent weathering I would have guessed the sculpture was hundreds of years old but a sign nearby reported that it had been created in 1983.

Mei Ling called a taxi to take us back to the seafood restaurant that had been closed earlier. It was now open and the proprietor recognized Mei Ling from when she had looked through the window. Apparently he had been napping inside the darkened restaurant but hadn't felt like coming to the door when she knocked. They had the drunken shrimp so we ordered that along with a couple of other seafood dishes. The shrimp were fairly lively when they arrived but slowed down very quickly as they absorbed the wine in the bowl. It was a great experience to share this delicacy with Ian who hadn't even existed when I first tried it in Hangzhou.

We spent the afternoon back at the apartment relaxing before all of Mei Ling's relatives came over for one last dinner party. I come from a small family and never had much contact with relatives growing up so it's been somewhat bemusing to find myself a part of this rapidly growing clan that stretches around the world. Life can take us in surprising directions if we approach it with an open mind.

After six long weeks the final day of our trip had arrived. Our flight from Shanghai wouldn't depart until the evening and we had decided to have a driver take us directly from Hangzhou to the airport. We wouldn't be setting foot in Shanghai on this trip but we had discovered many amazing new Chinese cities, with Chongqing and Xiamen being particular standouts. We still had a few hours to kill in Hangzhou so we finally tried the food court we always passed in the mall that adjoined the metro station. It was much larger than I had realized and contained an impressive variety of restaurants. I focused on the place where I could build my own seafood bowl from bins of raw ingredients but I complemented it with selections from the raw fruit bar and the Uighur skewers.

We wandered around the mall for a couple of hours browsing in various shops and letting the kids play in the video arcade. Even in familiar settings such as a mall there's always something different in China and here it was a craft station for kids to fill vases with brightly colored water beads. Eventually we returned to the house to meet our driver and enjoyed the atmosphere of our ancient alley one last time.

During this last week I'd been pushing thoughts of our brutal return to Miami out of my mind. The outward journey had been broken into two eleven hour legs with a two week break in Türkiye. Now we had to make the two flights back to back with a nine hour layover in Istanbul. I knew we needed to find somewhere to rest at the airport but the only hotel on the premises was ridiculously expensive. Fortunately some research turned up a solution in the form of the IGA Lounge which was quite reasonably priced and had long lounge chairs which served fairly well as beds. The kids had slept a lot on the first flight and spent most of the break on their iPads but I was able to get several hours of much needed sleep. The lounge had nice views over the busy airport hall from the mezzanine level and an all-you-can-eat buffet that was more than adequate for our dining needs.

Thanks to the lounge at the Istanbul Airport the trip home wasn't as brutal as I had anticipated. Touring China is no small task from a financial and logistical perspective but once again it had been completely worth it. It's been an amazing opportunity to return to China every two years and see the country evolving and progressing at an astonishing rate in front of our eyes. We are already looking forward to our return in 2025 when we plan to explore Hunan, Yunnan, and Guangzhou provinces before returning to Hangzhou for another family reunion.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:36 Archived in China Tagged family hangzhou family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog zheijiang lin'an hupao_spring

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"China Deep Dive: Rural Zhejiang" offers a unique glimpse into the lesser-explored countryside of Zhejiang province, showcasing its picturesque villages, ancient traditions, and serene landscapes. Concluding the trip on this note provides travelers with a deeper understanding of China's diverse cultural and geographical tapestry beyond its bustling cities, making for a truly enriching experience.

by Uma

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