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China Deep Dive: Chongwu


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Sunday morning we cruised along Meishi Jie for a couple of blocks before we encountered a busy buffet style place that was full of customers. It was so fast-paced that even Mei Ling had to use all her concentration to keep moving along the line. I wouldn't have had a chance in there on my own. With a complete breakfast in our stomachs we returned to the car to begin our morning drive to the ancient town of Chongwu to the east.
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Quanzhou is bordered to the east by the estuary of the Luoyang River. Not far downstream from where the river widens to form the estuary is the Luoyang Bridge. The first bridge in this location was built a thousand years ago and it has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. In the 1970's a modern highway bridge was built slightly upstream and the old Luoyang bridge was rebuilt as a heritage site and a pedestrian bridge. While the bridge has been built to resemble its predecessors the associated statues and relics are not authentic antiques. Visiting the bridge required only a slight detour from the direct route to Chongwu. We walked all the way across the span enjoying the sights of the long fishing boats and some swimmers who were making use of one of the stone pilings. At the far side there was a towering statue of the building's architect Cai Xiang and a quiet neighborhood with a few restaurants placed to take advantage of whatever tourists might advance that far.
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After another hour of driving we arrived at Chongwu. The modern town is an expansion of a walled city that was built in the fourteenth century. The wall has been mostly rebuilt in recent times and does not appear particularly ancient. A shuttle bus whisked us uphill from the entrance to the farthest point of the citadel where we were able to clamber up one of the guard towers and look out over the Taiwan Strait.
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Between the citadel and the ocean is a narrow strip of land which contains a beach and a sculpture park that contains over five hundred contemporary stone statues by local artists. The sand was smooth and inviting but the shoreline was very rocky except for a small stretch at the far end where the few beachgoers had congregated. A few commercial boats and an odd platform with rigging were motionless offshore.
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Most of the sculptures seemed to address Chinese cultural and religious figures although there were a fair number of whimsical pop culture icons such as Disney characters. There was a smattering of domestic tourists around but for the most part we were alone, which felt rather odd for a pleasant Sunday afternoon in July. I wondered if this place ever became busy at all.
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There was only one entrance to the old town within the otherwise unbroken wall that extended along its southern side. On the other side was a staircase that led up to a short stretch of ramparts of the wall, from which we could see the ornate roof of the Buddhist temple that welcomed visitors to the town.
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The old town was a maze of narrow pedestrian alleys between stone houses that may have been quite old but seemed to be very well-maintained. Many of them had likely been renovated or reconstructed in the recent past under a strict protocol of maintaining the original stone design. We saw only a few of the residents who were mostly quite elderly and ignored us to glanced at us disinterestedly. Once we had seen enough I wanted to look for an exit on the opposite side but we just kept getting lost so we made our way back to the original entrance.
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There was no resource to research food in Chongwu on the English language internet so I scrolled through Apple Maps looking for any clusters of restaurants. I came across one promising location but most of the restaurants there were closed when we arrived. We found one empty and bland place that was open and had a rather undistinguished meal there. The owners' little daughter was quite fascinated by our kids and hung out with us for most of the meal.
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Instead of driving directly back to Quanzhou we decided to take a look at an old village called Zhangjiao that Mei Ling had heard about on a Chinese website. Before we reached the village we saw it from the twisting mountain road above and pulled over for a better look. We could see some old style homes with stone walls and clay roof tiles as well as more modern multistory homes on the neighboring hillsides.
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We descended into the valley and found a place to park nearby since there were no roads going into the village itself. The ground was very marshy and filled with straight plants that I assume were rice. I imagined what we were seeing didn't look much different from the way it had five hundred years ago. It looked more like photographs I had seen of Vietnam than anything I typically associate with China.
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Unlike the tulou villages there were no tourists and no tourism industry in Zhangjiao whatsoever. The stone houses seemed much older and more authentic than the ones we had just seen in Chongwu. In some buildings there seemed to be barely any mortar holding the stones together. We could see the modern buildings at the outskirts looking quite incongruous but we were already becoming accustomed to the jarring apposition of ancient and contemporary styles. There were chickens, geese and goats enjoying varying degrees of freedom and a few odd humans conducting their daily activities.
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Back in Quanzhou we decided to look for dinner in the neighborhood of Xunpu on the Jinjiang River south of the center. Xunpu was once a separate fishing village specializing in the harvesting of oysters but was long ago incorporated into the expanding metropolis of Quanzhou. We got lost in a residential neighborhood of narrow streets and were directed down a narrow alley that seemed like it should be impassable for the minivan. I think I would have ended up stuck in the middle, unable to advance or reverse, but Qiu was fearless. We passed between outcroppings of masonry with less than an inch to spare and occasionally had to hop out of the van to remove mobile obstructions. Finally we arrived at a place we could park that was close enough to the central neighborhood that we could walk there. The neighborhood had mostly gone quiet for the night so we just wandered the alleys for a little while checking out the traditional houses of the villages with exterior walls constructed of oyster shells. At one point we came across some villagers sorting some muddy little crabs they had collected from the river.
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The focal point of Xunpu is the temple were the villagers seek the blessing of Mazu, the goddess of fishermen. Mazu worship is almost a thousand years old and is very popular in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese communities in the Phillipines. There were several young women at the temple, most likely domestic tourists, dressed in traditional local costumes and taking photos in front of the ornate and brightly illuminated building. The temple was atop a low hill and a staircase led downward to a small restaurant with an outdoor table that looked like it had been set out for us. A neon sign on the outside wall of the restaurant proclaimed "As long as you love life, you will definitely fall in love in Quanzhou".
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We returned to the car and began our drive back to the hotel, expecting that our day had come to an end, but we almost immediately came across a small park filled with tables and tents. Mei Ling and Qiu advised me it was some kind of a night market and we decided we had a little energy left in us for something so worthwhile. Inside some young people were singing karaoke and there were some snack and craft vendors. We got some dessert for the kids and listened to the amateur singers for a while. It was a pleasant local experience that we probably never would have known about if we hadn't stumbled across it.
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In the morning we had a couple of extra hours before we had to be at the airport and we couldn't think of anything to do during that time except head back to West Street. We parked in an underground lot at a mall whose most distinguishing characteristic was a neon mural promoting the city that featured the West Street bell tower and the Lao Zi statue we had failed to locate.
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Qiu was directing us using his Chinese app but I realized pretty quickly we were going the wrong direction. However in his usual style Qiu insisted on following his app until it became clear he was taking us to a different section of West Street in the opposite direction from the Kaiyuan Temple. By the time we reached West Street we were a half mile from the temple but fortunately it was an interesting area in its own right. It was a busy commercial area and there were several quirky shops that wouldn't have been out of place in a hipster neighborhood in the United States or Europe.
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As is almost inevitable in any major Chinese city we stumbled onto a produce market that was larger and more appealing than the one we had seen the previous day. One thing I've discovered about China is that quite often the wrong turns are more rewarding than the direct path to one's destination. Shortly after the market we arrived at the temple but the street was much less active on a Monday morning than it had been on Saturday afternoon. We had a couple of snacks and decided we'd already seen everything on West Street that we needed to.
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We had to drive an hour and a half back to Xiamen for our flight to Xi'An. We waited for our flight to board in a pretty decent noodle restaurant where the kids demanded I tell them jokes and ghost stories. I searched for ghost stories on my phone and strangely enough found one from China. Apparently in the outskirts of Beijing a bus was completing its last route of the night in the pouring rain. There were only two passengers, an older man and a teenaged boy. Up ahead there were three shadowy figures at a bus shelter. The bus pulled over and the three men got on. They were wearing the outfits of warriors of a long extinct dynasty. The bus driver asked them if they were actors going home from a drama but they didn't answer. One of them seemed like he was injured and the other two supported him as they moved to the back of the bus. The bus launched itself back down the road but after a few minutes the older man jumped up and began shouting that the teenager had stolen his wallet. The bus was passing a police station and the man demanded that the bus stop and let him take the boy into the station. The bus pulled over and the older man dragged the confused and frightened teenager off the bus into the rain and pushed him into the station. Once they got inside the older man apologized to the boy and told him he had to think of a reason to get them off the bus. Why was that, the boy and the policemen asked. The older man said he had been looking down when the three men in strange costumes passed and saw that their feet never touched the floor. The policemen laughed uproariously at this and declined to take his statement. The man and boy had to find their own ways back home. The next day the police called the older man back wanting a full report. The bus had never returned to the depot. Neither the bus nor its driver were ever found.
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I demanded the window seat since the kids always bury themselves in their iPads as soon as we get on the plane. For once it paid off as I had a great view of Xiamen as we departed. It was truly a beautiful island city surrounded by spectacular bridges. Fujian had been a great choice for our first stop in mainland China and now it was time to explore a completely new and different Chinese city.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:32 Archived in China Tagged road_trip family fujian quanzhou chongwu family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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