Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival in Guilin

Each year on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese calendar – which this year fell on 15th September… yes, I know it’s confusing! – the whole of mainland China celebrates the Mid-Autumn festival (‘Jhongqiu Jie’ in Mandarin). During this holiday, it’s tradition to supply your close friends and family with a mountain of mooncakes – little circular pies with a  golden-brown crust and indulgent filling which can be sweet (e.g., sweet bean or lotus seed paste) or savoury (e.g., pork and salted egg yolk).

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A yolk-filled mooncake

Mooncakes suddenly appeared on sale everywhere we turned and there were stories on social media of people queuing for over 2 hours to buy traditional ones from stores on East Nanjing Road. Matt compared this to queuing for 2 hours outside Greggs for a sausage roll, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing!

Starbucks and Hagan Daas, exploiting the Chinese love of popular brands, marketed their somewhat less-traditional and significantly more expensive chocolate and ice-cream filled mooncakes on every billboard in every metro station in Shanghai. Unable to escape, Matt and I promptly changed into stretchy trousers and resigned ourselves to piling on a few pounds as we sampled one calorific pastry after another!

Guilin Lantern Festival

Another -less fattening – tradition of Mid-Autumn festival is to hang brightly coloured lanterns and we had heard that there would be a lantern festival that evening along the banks of RongHu (Banyan Lake), a short walk from our hotel in Guilin.

Banyan is one of four lakes which make up Guilin’s “Two Rivers and Four Lakes Scenic Area”; a continuous waterway that flows through the centre of downtown Guilin. The two rivers are the Li and the Taohua (peach blossom). Of the four lakes, three are named after trees that grow along their banks; the Rong (Banyan tree), Shan (Chinese fir),  and Gui (Osmanthus tree). The fourth – Mulong (wooden dragon) – is named after the cave which overlooks it.

We wandered into town after dark to find the banks of Banyan lake lit up in bright primary-colour floodlights; the two pagodas were also floodlit and looked like something straight out of Disney.

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Predictably every man, woman and child in the vicinity of Guilin that evening was heading in the same direction that we were, which made the the main entrance looked more daunting than Liujazui metro station at rush hour. Not keen on elbowing our way through the mob, Matt and I found a table outside a cool lakeside cafe and ordered a pizza and bottle of white wine and set about some people-watching.

The two girls below joined us on the patio, dressed up for the occasion in beautiful pastel coloured traditional dresses, photographers flocking to them like flies to a flame (myself included).

An hour or so later, bolstered by carbs and wine, we headed into the festival and joined the hundreds of people taking photos of hundreds of lanterns. The lanterns themselves came in every colour of the rainbow and looked to have been decorated by children; they were an incredible sight strung up and floating in the night sky.

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Some of my favourite lanterns:

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I love this next photo; Matt surrounded by the ‘people mountain, people sea’ – a phrase used here in China when you find yourself swamped with many, many, many other people, which actually happens to us quite a lot!

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The atmosphere was bustling and friendly; everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Families spanning three or four generations were enjoying themselves together; teenagers helping their grandparents or great-grandparents to amble around. No gangs or binge drinking like you would undoubtedly find in the UK.

One thing I’ve noticed since we moved to China is how safe I feel, even amongst huge crowds of people all speaking a language that I don’t understand. You still have to be careful – and being a blonde girl in a sea of brunettes I get stared at on a near continuous basis, which can be unnerving – but the feeling of safety is one of the things about our new home that has been a pleasant surprise.

Matt and I concluded that we would love to go back to Guilin, especially the Yangshuo region as it was a truly beautiful place; although our long bucket-list of places to visit in the next 2 and a half years might make return trips unlikely!

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Visiting Yangshuo (and the back of the 20rmb note)

During the recent Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, Matt and I decided to spend a few days in Guilin, which is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China (not too far from Yunnan province where we visited back in July). The relentless Shanghai summer heatwave of July and August had left us both pretty exhausted, so we were looking forward to leaving the city for a bit of fresh countryside air.

We booked our trip fairly last minute and at the same time had booked a daytrip to Yangshuo to see the Li River and some other local sights. This meant an early start, as we met our guide – Lila – and our driver – Mr Wang – at 8.30am the next morning

Cuiping Hill

To reach Cuiping Hill we drove down dusty streets, past boggy rice fields and through tiny villages

Circles of local men sat in the shade of dilapidated houses, smoking and taking some down-time before the rice harvest begins. Through the car window we saw a couple of women washing laundry in the shallow river that ran past the village. Lila explained that most families in the village didn’t own a washing machine, so the women still wash their clothes in the same way they would have done hundreds of years ago. We felt the stark contrast to the garish opulence we live alongside in Shanghai; the nouveau riche kids in their shiny Lamborghinis, million-dollar luxury apartments, four-storeys of Prada.

By the time we reached the base of Cuiping hill at 10.30am the temperature had already soared to 30 degrees, so our climb was a sweaty endeavour! The ascent revealed a mystical mountainous landscape that stretched for miles into the hazy blue distance.

In a country where you are constantly surrounded by other people – there are 27 million of them living alongside us in Shanghai –  it’s a relief when the noise drops away. And what a view!

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Shitouchang Stone Village

Next on our itinerary was a village built in the mid 19th Century, using a ‘dry stone wall’ technique. Our car crunched up a gravelly track lined with trees bearing tiny kumquats, heavy pomelo fruit and Chinese chestnuts.

I was amazed to find some of these houses are still inhabited, existing side-by side with those long since abandoned; the latter slowly crumbling back into the earth from which they were built.

These men were busy building a new house in amongst the stone ones. It looked like they were literally building everything by hand. Don’t be fooled by the picture showing them hard at work though; when we got there they were all sat around and as soon as they spotted us, they jumped up and started working. Presumably to show off for the photo; or maybe they thought Matt was the site foreman.

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Xianggong Hill

Our second climb of the day (proud dad??!) was up Xianggong Hill. A little more ‘touristy’ than Cuiping, we met a few fellow hikers on the way up and at the top we found a gaggle of Australian backpackers debating the possible implications of being kicked by a kangaroo. Yes, we really did!

The view from the top was, without a doubt, one of the most magical I have ever been lucky enough to witness – the type of landscape that I imagine Hollywood directors would drop jaw and salivate over. That is the Li river below, which connects Guilin and Yangshuo.

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Cormorant Fishing

As we made our way back down to the river, we stopped to watch a Cormorant fishing demonstration. Fishermen have been using domesticated Cormorant birds to catch fish on the Li River for the past 1300 years, but these days the technique is largely practised as a show for tourists, unable to complete with more modern approaches.

Mr Wong, pictured above, paddled over to us on his bamboo raft on which sat three large Cormorants. He tied a string around the throat of one of his birds to prevent it from swallowing large fish, then picked up a net hemmed with small stones and hit it rhythmically against the bamboo of his raft to create a drum-beat – a signal to the bird.

Mr Wong threw a fish into the water infront of us, and we watched as the Cormorant dived below the surface to retrieve it. He then used a long stick to usher the bird back to his raft and held it by the neck until it coughed up the fish into the waiting basket.

I thought the process looked a bit on the violent side, but apparently the fisherman have good relationships with the birds. It takes about a year to train a cormorant to fish for you and they live for about 18 years, plus the bird gets to keep 1 in every 6 fish they catch. The cormorants seemed very efficient and apparently one cormorant can catch enough fish in one trip to feed a family. Hopefully the birds don’t mind having to forcibly regurgitate 83% of all the fish they catch!

Cruising the Li River

Next we got to experience a bamboo raft for ourselves, cruising down the Li river.

The water was clear and shallow – only knee high in places – and we weaved through the Karst limestone mountains before dropping anchor at ‘Nine Horse Hill’. Apparently if you can spot the nine horse shapes in the side of the mountain then you are a very intelligent person. I could see three of them… I challenge you to see nine!

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The mountain behind me is the same one on the reverse of the 20rmb bank note – cue the obligatory tourist photo!

After climbing mountains and sailing down rivers we stopped for some dinner and tried the local delicacy: ‘beer fish’ (funnily enough, this is fish cooked in beer). It was delicious, especially washed down with a cold one.

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Impression Sanjie Liu

The final line item on our itinerary was an ‘Impression Show’. We hadn’t done any research in advance and so had no idea what to expect

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We found out that the director of this show was the same person who directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The show was based on a traditional love story of boy meets girl, girl like boy, boy offers to marry girl, girl dies, girl turns into the moon etc. In all honesty – it was spectacular! The whole think took place on and around a natural lake,with the action taking place on boats or large floating stages, while we couldn’t follow the story (it was in Chinese), the visual impact was beyond impressive.

I couldn’t get any shots that did the show justice, but the picture above amused me. At the start of the show, there was an announcement ‘Please do not take any photos’. You can see how almost every single audience member is taking a photo or video. The illuminated group in the middle are being lit up by camera flashes.

All in all a great day – and special thanks to Lila who was the perfect host!

 

Yunnan Part II: Dali

When arranging this holiday, I nodded absentmindedly when Matt told me we would be travelling from Kunming to Dali on an overnight sleeper train and then didn’t give it much thought until we were stood on the platform at 10pm. It was safe to say the prospect of spending the next 10 hours without being able to shower was making me a little grumpy. The situation called for a peaty single malt, but we had to make do with a bad, bad coffee.

We had booked the most expensive carriage, a ‘soft sleeper’ (150rmb, about £15), essentially a small compartment containing two bunk-beds separated by a small table. A young Korean couple occupied the opposite bunk; they spoke good English and appeared to be nice… thank heavens for small mercies. I won’t go into detail about the bedding and toilets as you may be reading this over breakfast, but my close friends will be giggling right now at the thought of my reaction to this state of affairs.

We arrived at Dali in the hazy light of 6am; tired, dirty and hungry, and pushed past the cacophony of touting taxi-drivers to our waiting car. It was too early to check-in to our hotel, so we dropped off our bags and freshened up as best we could before heading out to look for food.

At this point I started to cheer up because Dali Old Town, before most people wake, is incredibly beautiful and calm; just us, the market-goers and the street-food sellers in the early morning light (notice it’s the women doing the heavy lifting!!).

Given there was no-one around to judge, we decided to have three breakfasts;

  1. a light pizzary dough mixed with herbs and baked in a charred oven at the side of the street – delicious!
  2. a bean-curd soup with spices and fresh herbs – which tasted much better than it looked – served by the lady in the photo below
  3. a grilled rice pancake stuffed with  some kind of fluffy pastry and a red spicy sauce

If only coffee was as easy to come by as high-calorie street food (in the end we made do with the Golden Arches). Stomachs full, we began our tourist checklist…

 

The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Monastery

Three Pagodas sit at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains, a short car ride from Dali Old Town. The three elegant towers – made from brick and covered with mud – stand salient against a backdrop of green mountains and white ‘Jade Belt’ cloud. Dating from the 9th Century, the pagodas have withstood many large earthquakes which devastated the surrounding buildings of Dali; their resilience makes the middle pagoda (the tallest, at 16 stories) one of China’s best preserved buildings from the Tang dynasty.

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The Three Pagodas

We learned that the pagodas were built to provide refuge to the presiding King should the village be flooded; also that when a King died, his ears would be cut off  (Why? because the nearby lake was shaped like an ear) , sealed in a jar and preserved in the depths of the central pagoda – however, I’ve not found anything on Google to back this up so maybe take it with a pinch of salt?!

By this point the sun was scorching so we hitched a ride in a (surprisingly fast) buggy up to the Chongsheng monastery, one of the largest Buddhist centers in SE Asia.

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In my last blog I mentioned that during our time in Yunnan we met some of the different Chinese ethnic minorities that live in the area. Dali is home to 80% of the 190k Bai people, the rest of whom are scattered in neighboring provinces.

Sarina, our tour guide, explained that the Bai are Buddhists and very spiritual people. As we walked round the temples she told us stories about the different Buddhas; Buddahsattva with a tower of faces (one real face and ten faces of suffering)… Fat Buddah with his big forehead (intelligence), big feet (strength) and big belly (kindness)… Buddhas for the past… Buddhas for the present… other Buddhas who stood on evil spirits!

At one point, Sarina asked me – in all seriousness – if I believed in ghosts and I almost wanted to say that I did! But instead I spent the morning captivated by her wonderful stories while we walked around the monastery buildings with their burnt gold roof tiles, brightly painted eaves and carved wooden interiors.

Dali Old Town

After the monastery, we headed back to Dali Old Town for lunch and a wander. The streets we had stood in a few hours earlier were transformed by lively bustling locals selling handcrafts and delicious looking grilled foods… This guy was making a type of sweet, using a somewhat unorthodox methodology…

In Chinese language ‘Bai’ means ‘white’, and walking around the town I fell in love with the Bai houses: each one painted bright white with beautiful hand-painted patterns below the tiled rooftops..

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Bai architecture

Every 5th shop we walked past sold silver and we stood watching the men who sit outside in the heat, hammering patterns into solid silver bracelets (it would have been rude not to buy one, right?!)

Sarina told us about a tradition in Dali, for a couple to exchange silver bracelets one month before their wedding day. It was originally believed that silver was a tell-tale sign of whether you were in good or poor health and so if, at the end of the month, your prospective partner’s bracelet was tarnished then you may choose not to marry!

Cruel as that might be, the Dali boys do seem to have an easier job when it comes to finding a girl… For Shanghainese lads a good job, stack of cash and flash car are non-negotiable pre-requisites, but in Dali all you need is a chicken, a bottle of wine, and the skills to turn them into a delicious meal for your fiance’s parents: Brilliant!

Xizhou Market

Our second day in Dali started with a trip to the food market, where Bai women in the distinctive traditional ethnic dress bent over baskets of fresh vegetables and herbs. I’ve been to some impressive food markets in the UK and Europe, but never seen anything like this; it was so authentic and unpretentious. The market itself was constructed of a blue plastic canopy over long lines of trestle tables, but it seemed equally acceptable to pitch up on the floor and get on with it!

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It goes that in Shanghai: “time is money”; in Beijing: “time is business opportunity”, and in Dali: “time is life!”. However, looking at these photos I can’t help but notice that it’s the women grafting grafting away while the men sit back with a cig and count their profits!

Lunch, Erhai Lake & Jinsuo Island

After some locals had taken some photos of me (I’m like a minor celebrity in rural China!), we ate lunch which included fish soup, tree bark, and some green leafy vegetables mixed with soft tofu. Matt was in his element as you can see.

We then hopped on a river-taxi for a 45minute ride across Erhai Lake to Jinsuo Island. The crossing was choppy and we got drenched more than once, but were assured that the little boats had survived worse weather (not that we had many options by that point!).

On Jinsuo island we saw where Matt’s fish soup had started the day… and had a breezy walk round the docks.

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Catch of the day on Jinsuo Island

Next stop – Lijiang (to which we travelled by car, so no moany travel anecdotes, I promise)

Yunnan Part I – Kunming

So 8 weeks in to our new life in China, we decided to take a week’s break from work and explore a bit farther afield. Unquestionably one of the main advantages of living here is that we have lots of places on our doorstep that would typically be ‘once in a lifetime’ trips from the UK. For this first trip though, rather than head off to Australia, Cambodia or Japan, we thought that it would be great to see some more of China. After a 3.5 hour flight we arrived in  Kunming, the first of four cities we would visit within Yunnan province.

Yunnan is the most southwest province of China, boarded externally by Vietnam, Laos and Burma. The region is almost totally mountainous, save for 18 relatively flat fault basins upon upon which Yunnan’s towns and cities have grown. Of China’s 55 ethnic minorities Yunnan province is home to 51 of them, each with their own distinctive clothing, dialect, and architecture. During the week, we were privileged enough to meet and learn about the Yi, Bai, Naxi and Tibetan people.

Western Hills Forest Park & Dragon Gate Grottoes

Straight from the plane we drove to the banks of Lake Dian, then hopped onto a cable car which climbed around 2400m to the Western Hills. I love how all noise drops away when you are riding a cable-car; especially after traipsing through chaotic airports.

On the ride up, the panoramic, birds-eye views of the freshwater lake – the eighth largest in China – were stunning. Although you wouldn’t want to swim in there… for the decades prior to 1990,  untreated waste water was dumped into the lake leaving it horribly degraded – in spite of the billions of dollars that have been ploughed, in vain, into the clean-up effort.

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Apparently there is a saying – “If you do not visit Western Hills, you haven’t visited Kunming; if you do not visit Dragon Gate, you haven’t been to Western Hills”. Evidently our Royal Family subscribe to this philosophy…

Checking out a funny little photo gallery en-route to the Dragon Gate, we discovered that in 1986 (while I was busy making my entrance into the world) Queen Elizabeth embarked on a six day visit to China; the first British sovereign to set foot in the Kingdom. Below is a photo of Matt standing next to a photo of Her Majesty; both wearing a remarkably similar shade of teal!

The Dragon Gate Grottoes were hand-carved into the steep mountainside by Taoist monks during the Qing Dynasty, over 200 years ago. We hiked up and down stone steps, through stone tunnels, and past beautiful carved and brightly painted stone pavilions. How the monks managed to create something so complex and beautiful in such an inhospitable and precipitous environment is beyond me!

Buddhism and Taoism co-exist peacefully in the Western Hills, and the temples are still used for worship today by students and their parents who pray for good grades at school. The kneeling girl – pictured below – after her prayer lit an incense stick as an offering.

The vivid spiritual figures, including the ornate background from which they emerge, are exquisitely carved from a single piece of rock; my photos seriously don’t do it justice.

We were told a story about one of the men who was responsible for carving the grotto that housed the golden figure above. Apparently after many years of painstaking carving and chiseling, the grotto was all but finished. His last task was to complete the writing brush that the golden figure holds in his right hand. For some reason (perhaps excited that he was about to complete his life’s work) he suffered a momentary lack of competence and broke the tip of the brush. This being the days before Pritt-stick, the rock carving was irreparable. Beset by shame, frustration and anger, the man apparently put down his chisel, turn around and jumped off the rock face to his death. And I thought I was a perfectionist…

The statue of the tortoise and snake below is admittedly less aesthetically impressive, but the story behind it is brilliant. Kunming sits at the base of a long mountain range believed to resemble a snake, with the mouth of the snake opening towards the city – very bad luck, as everyone knows. To regain balance and harmony, the recommendation was to build the city in the shape of a tortoise – known for it’s longevity. The city has since expanded and the tortoise shape is no longer clear, but I love that this actually happened!

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Yunnan Stone Forest

You don’t get far without hearing another old saying. The next one we heard was: “If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.”. Not being in the business of wasting time, on our second day in Kunming, we headed over.

The Stone Forest – classified as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 2007 – is a spectacular labyrinth of imposing carbonate rock pillars (known as ‘Karst’ formations) which resemble petrified trees. 270 million years ago this area was covered by a shallow sea; as the carbonate rock was compressed over time, horizontal cracks formed, which were then eroded by running water and wind. As the land uplifted and the joints became deeper and wider, the stone pillars were formed*.

*Disclaimer – I haven’t studied geography since the age of 14. Please assume that this version of events is simplified to a considerable degree (dad, that goes for you!).

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The photo above was taken on the main viewing pavilion. Save for this, we largely kept off-the-beaten-track, thanks to our tour guide, Vivian, who ensured we could escape the crowds without getting lost! If you do visit Kunming then I would recommend hiring a local guide to show you round; we got a lot from the experience.

The stone ‘trees’ were interspersed with real ones, a beautiful juxtaposition.

Out of the many ‘lookie-likey’ stones, these two were my favourites; the elephant and “two birds feeding each other”.

I mentioned earlier that we were lucky enough to get to know some local ethnic minorities; the three elegant ladies below are members of the Yi minority in their traditional dress. They were taking a break after practicing their dancing for an upcoming cultural festival and were kind enough to let me snap a photo.

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Kunming Flower & Bird Market

Next stop was at the flower & bird market; which does what it says on the tin. Opportunity for some pretentious artistic photos…

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Pu’er Tea Ceremony

Another old saying in Kunming – “If you haven’t experienced a tea ceremony when visiting Kunming, you might feel a mild form of regret”. Not really, but I wonder if it might catch on…

On a serious note, this tea ceremony was one of the real highlights of the trip for me. Back in Warwick we had a whole kitchen cupboard dedicated to about 30 different types of tea, but I had never tried pu’er.

There is a special method of preparing the tea which involves, rinsing the clay teapot, cups and tea leaves with boiling mineral water, before brewing the tea for either 30 or 60 seconds. Unlike tea-bag tea that we’re used to at home, you can re-brew good quality pu’er around ten times. The lovely lady who instructed us kept telling me that pu’er has been proven to help with weight loss, although I’m not going to take that personally!

Se said it would be an acquired taste, but I liked it straight away. Needless to say, we shipped a considerable amount back to Shanghai!

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That evening, we packed up our things and headed to the train station to catch a sleeper train to our next destination: Dali. It was late at night, but the area around the station was buzzing with activity, with people selling and buying stuff and revving motorbikes and beeping horns and milling on the kerb.

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Next stop – Dali (to be continued!)

Wet Wet Water Town

After spending the first couple of weeks in Shanghai getting ourselves up-and-running, last Saturday was our first opportunity to leave the city and explore ‘Zhouzhuang’ (周庄水乡); one of China’s ancient water towns.

We and two friends from work had been invited to visit Zhouzhuang by Emily, a Chinese colleague whose father had been born in the town. The weather was delightfully ironic for a watertown visit – relentless torrential downpour – but we gratefully accepted the blue plastic macs that Emily had brought for us and carried on 🙂

Entering the town through a wooden gateway, stone-cobbled streets weave you past small open-fronted shops which sell hand-made souvenirs made from traditional methods such as bamboo-weaving and silk-spinning. These ladies making small silk shoes were my favourite, and put a less commercial lens on ‘Made in China’

Canals and waterways divide the old buildings and are criss-crossed by stone bridges. Arriving at lunchtime, we dripped and sloshed our way into one of the restaurants and let Emily order for us. One of the traditional foods in this area is slow-cooked pork knuckle in a sweet sauce, which we all devoured. Apparently this is typically served as a wedding food in the area (there were at least a dozen stalls selling these, so you could often pick up the pungency of braising pork while walking through the town) Less popular were the river snails… but Matt and Austin gave it a good go; washed down with some local beers of course!

Zhouzhuang has about 1,000 households living in old dwellings that were built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and the early Republic of China. Emily had kindly arranged a guide to show us around some of the old houses and explain the cultural significance of the architecture. Stepping over a wooden doorframe about 10 inches high told us that the house was owned by a rich person, or an important government figure (less rich or important people had lower doorframes). The rooms led one to another, with stone floors and wooden walls, and were furnished with beautifully carved angular hardwood furniture from the respective dynasties. In the ‘women’s room’ (there were separate spaces for men and women, with marble screens to divide them), some of the chairs had backs and others were backless; our guide explained that the backless chairs were for unmarried women, as the husband represented the backbone! Despite the throngs of tourists with brightly coloured macs and brollys, the houses were themselves tranquil and calm, with beautiful courtyards which backed onto the waterway system.

 

My favourite part of the day was the boat ride, again arranged in advance by Emily. We climbed aboard and were steered through the canals, under bridges and past beautiful old crumbling buildings.

 

Matt and I had the obligatory “we were here” photo in our attractive macs beside the twin Shide and Yong’an stone bridges (‘The Twin Bridges’), which were built between 1573 and 1619 in the Ming dynasty. Each bridge has one square and one round opening that look like ancient keys, so they are also known as the Key Bridges.

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Glossy blue tourist uniforms.

Then we headed back to the car. And the rain stopped!