A mix of the ordinary and the exotic in these ancient Chinese towns.
Zhejiang’s reputation, as a province of scenic beauty, arises largely from the attention given to its picturesque capital city, Hangzhou. But if you journey beyond Hangzhou, you’ll be handsomely rewarded. The ancient towns that dot the Zhejiang province reflect a desire to keep age-old traditions alive.
My guide is a man on a mission. Effusive and enthusiastic with the secrets he’s about to reveal, he drives us determinedly in the opposite direction of the herd, towards Shaoxing — 67 km south east of Hangzhou. Twenty km west of Shaoxing, Anchang Town is where the adventure begins.
With its winding canals, arched stone bridges, low-roofed boats, ancient market stalls, Ming-and Qing-styled houses walking through Anchang is like stepping back in time into an ancient postcard. But despite the historic setting, Anchang is a living, breathing museum.
The two main streets by the canal remain the centre of life. Wandering into the line of workshops that sit cheek-by jowl along the waterfront, the minutiae of this mini-universe are public and on-display. Every structure lies open and you can peek right in, at the cogs and wheels that make the ancient village tick. Meals are being rustled up, operas being written, masks being prepared. On a makeshift stage, a singer croons. Depending on how successful the sale of the yarn being spun by the elderly women is, varying degrees of smiling wrinkles fan out from under their eyes.
I’m keen to spend the day thus: riding on oil-cloth covered boats down the canal, photographing Qing-style furnishing draped around furniture in the old courtyards, savouring the slow pace of life that characterises the place. But the guide pushes on, ever eager to demonstrate the triumphs of these dynamic pockets of ancient culture that stand like upright sentinels against the forces of globalisation. He derides my desire to linger in Anchang with this rather popular sentiment, “The word ‘travel’ has its roots in the French word “travail” which means “to work”. What you get out of a journey correlates with what you put into it.”
And truth be told, the hour-long drive from here to the ancient town Cicheng, close to Ningbo, is well worth it. My imagination is dazzled, as if by a thousand fireworks, by the sheer variety of crafts on display in the ancient village. Look too long at anything here and you’ll find it changing form, growing into something else. String is being twisted into a Chinese knot. Teapots are being fashioned out of clay. Blue and white porcelain jars are showcased. Cloth is being cut, dyed, knitted, and embroidered. It is most enthusing to watch the way the ancient arts and crafts are being harnessed and developed with contemporary flair.
Everywhere I turn is a hopeful pocket of life and activity. Chinese women needlecraft groups rub shoulders with indigo printing collectives, paper-cutting exhibits sit alongside cotton-weaving units. The common denominator to all these activities is their openness to an exchange of ideas, the desire to build upon research and the willingness to engage in academic discussion. And I’m as warmed by the tea in the ritual tea-drinking ceremony, as I am by the thread of camaraderie that binds us together.
The next morning we drive two-and-a-half hours away from Ningbo to Xitang. This ancient water town is a rambling maze of canals and stone bridges, poetically described as “lying dragons over ripples, and rainbows across rivers.” Red lanterns glowing over the water illuminate the streets and corridors beside the river. Folk music wafts by, along with the fragrance of food being cooked.
This may look at first like an exotic spectacle created solely for the experience-hungry traveller, but through deeper engagement one realises that this is not entirely cosmetic enhancement but is deeply entrenched in the way people live.
The food is a perfect case in point. A grandfather with white whiskers waving around his iPhone tells me, “We continue to keep the old-ways alive. If you try the pork meat on lotus leaf, odiferous bean curd, smoked green soya bean, you’ll realise that the emphasis is still on the nutritious and the fresh. Steaming, grilling and stewing are common ways of cooking. There’s no question of neglecting either colour or aroma in the preparation of a meal here. We don’t dish out standardised fare, but retain our customary flavours and textures, continuing to combine delicacy with panache.” The braised pork cube with algae and stir-fried fish before me is testament to this spirit.
The grandfather insists that I visit his home, in which his private collection of moth-eaten books and rare editions are housed. Along the way I pass a button museum — where traditional buttons are being fashioned and tai chi’s playing out at a health-care centre. My new friend is willing to accompany me into these diversions, eager to contextualise them within the cultural framework. There’s distinct pleasure to be had in sharing aspects of a culture with people who know so much more about it than you.
And that’s another thing about this place — people have time for you. This is life removed from convenience stores and diners, fast-food and speed. This is a lesson in how to live with grace, with joy, with slowness and hospitality.