Saturday, January 24, 2004

China Trip: Touring Wuzhèn

This was our last day of touring in China. Not many people went today, because a lot of people stayed at the hotel to rest and prepare for next week’s teaching, but I’m very glad I got to go! We went to the little town of Wuzhèn, a place evidently not well known to foreign tourists, but famous in China. It is an old, historic town, with an atmosphere that can transport you centuries back.

The town is built along part of the grand canal, the biggest waterway in the world, stretching all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou. We approached it from a delightful covered bridge, watching small boats float slowly past and taking pictures of the long row of buildings crowded together at the waters’ edge.

We passed a little medicine shop and then entered the narrow street.

The first place we came to was a display of hand carved beds. Some of them were extremely ornate and must have been for very rich people. Our guide told us that one of them took over 1000 working days to complete. That is well over 3 years! The carving in China is very distinctive and has many common themes repeated in many places. Geometric designs made of straight lines meeting at right angles are very popular, and most of the carvings symbolize good luck, happiness, or longevity. There are also shapes carved into the beds to symbolize whether the bed would be for a boy or a girl. It was fascinating to see what time and effort and thought they put into something as commonplace as a bed. However, despite all this, their mattress technology was nothing like what we have today. The part to lie on was composed simply of a thin layer of strong woven fabric, tightly stretched.

We continued on down the street after we got out of the bed museum. I noticed that you couldn’t really see much sky from the street. The buildings were 2-3 stories tall and the streets were so narrow that the roofs came very close together above you. It gave you a kind of cozy, tunneled-in feel. I thought of various things I had read about people living in a big city and longing for a really good sight of the sky, and I thought I could understand what they meant a little bit better.

Rule # 3: No Scratching. Really? 
There were other interesting sights we saw down the street. Every so often, there would be a little number and you would walk into a building, show your ticket, and get to see something interesting or important. We saw a display about clothing and how the styles changed in China, a house with depictions of a Chinese wedding and a room to celebrate birthdays in, and a distillery where they made liquor with 40 – 50% alcohol content. They had rows and rows of large bottles on the ground, and the smell was very strong around the distiller where the liquor was being made. They were giving away free samples, but I decided not to take advantage of the fact that I was 21 years old, and I stayed away.

After this came my favorite part of all. The town of Wuzhen was very famous for a certain type of blue cotton cloth, and they had a display where ladies were making it. One lady was running a hand cranked cotton gin that separated the seeds from the cotton fiber. I had always been intrigued about how the cotton gin worked, after trying to get the seeds out by hand and finding how difficult it was. There were two long rollers close together, and she simply fed the cotton bolls into the rollers. The cotton was pulled through, and was pulled away from the seeds, which were too big to fit. Two other ladies were working at two big looms, weaving fine cotton cloth from very thin thread. Our guide told us there were about 1500 threads across the loom! The loom had a great big roll of cloth on it, which had taken a month to make.

After the cloth was finished, it was dyed to make white and blue designs that were very distinctive for this town. The cloth was then hung to dry on very tall racks outside in the sun. The girls in our group gathered and took a picture underneath the big blue strips of cloth waving in the wind. I bought a yard—oh, no, a meter—of the cloth to make pillows with when I got home. It made me get behind the group, so I missed seeing a collection of books, but they would have all been in Chinese anyway, so I didn’t mind too much.

I lost the group again when I went into the town’s old school. I came out and didn’t see any of them, so I wandered up and down a little bit, trying to see if I could see them. Not too much farther down, I came to the end of the old historic town and entered the everyday life of the people. I still didn’t see any of the group, so I figured that the sightseeing was over and everyone must have gone back to the bus. I walked back to the bus, which was a sort of long way, looking for them as I went, but I got all the way to the bus and no one was there. I decided to go back in and hang around the last place I had seen them, which was what I thought I should have done in the first place, and while I was heading there, Jonathan Eddy found me and showed me the restaurant where everyone else was. There were a lot of people out looking for me, so he went to tell them I was found. I felt really bad about getting separated from the group and making everyone worry about me.

After we ate, we had about an hour and a half to go shopping. I had already done all my shopping, except for wanting to buy some yarn, so I didn’t really want anything, but I ended up buying some special sweets that were famous in that area. I got to try them at the store, and they were really good, so I bought half a kilogram of different kinds for 6 RMB. Then we went back to our hotel in Pinghu. I slept for most of the bus ride back, which was a little over an hour.

Marie and I went to dinner at the little corner restaurant down the street. We got a huge pile of food for 8 RMB, which is one dollar. We constantly marvel at the low prices here. However, considering the price of the plane ticket, it’s not exactly like it would be worth it to fly over here for all our shopping. 

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